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.


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. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Wolf Hall: Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell from his youth to his role as an important adviser to King Henry VIII. The main emphasis is on the period when the king wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a solution that the Catholic Church would not agree to.

Hilary Mantel presents an alternative to other characterizations of Thomas Cromwell in fiction. This quote is from the review at the Historical site:
King Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell has long been one of history's villains. Wolf Hall reconsiders the verdict. This densely packed, long and witty novel, portrays him as a man of intellect, daring, practicality, ambition, humor and – here's the surprise – kindness and affection. It works. The portrait is psychologically rich and well supported with historical detail.
I cannot describe the book overall any better than that.


Wolf Hall was the first book I read in 2020. First I must say that I liked this book very, very much and will soon be reading the second book in the trilogy, because some of my comments here may not sound that way.

How this novel is experienced probably depends on how much you know about the life of Thomas Cromwell and historical events centered around Henry VIII and his six wives. I have read books set at this time and watched movies on the subject over the years, but still I don't remember that much about this period in history and Thomas Cromwell specifically. I am well aware of Anne Boleyn's story, but I was hazy on the order of the wives of Henry VIII, their fates, and was not really quite sure how Cromwell fit into this. For my enjoyment of the book, this was mostly a good thing. I could read most of the story without the feeling that I knew the outcome.

There is a huge cast of characters which was necessary but can be quite confusing. There is a list of the "Cast of Characters" and family trees for the Tudors and the Yorkist Claimants, which helped a bit, but having to refer back and forth was distracting. On the other hand, I now have a much better picture of the court at this time and the way people lived, at various levels in society.

This book was not an easy read for me and there were elements of the author's writing style that I did not like. The story is written from Thomas Cromwell's point of view but in third person present tense. Throughout the book, whenever a scene included multiple males, I had problems with understanding who "he" was referring to, and whether it was referring to Thomas Cromwell. I  read multiple reviews commenting on this problem. I thought it was just me. But the author must have been doing something right, because I was pulled into the story from the beginning. A good bit of the writing was beautiful, just breathtaking.

Moira at Clothes in Books has done multiple posts on Wolf Hall and the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. See two of them here and here.


Publisher:   Picador, 2010 (orig. publ. 2009)
Length:       604 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #1
Setting:      England
Genre:       Historical Fiction
Source:      On my TBR pile for five years.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens -- Short Stories

This February I have been reading short stories for Short Story February, as suggested by Rick Robinson at Tip the Wink. I did this once before, and I hope to continue doing it every February. This is the first set of stories I am reporting on. I have also been reading from two other collections, which I will post on next week.

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens are spies, working for a secret government group in the UK called the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee (JSSIC). They are in their fifties and live in a fictional village in Kent. Mr. Behrens lives with his aunt and tends bees. Mr. Calder lives nearby, alone, and has a Persian deerhound named Rasselas. They are called upon when needed to handle special projects and missions. This book is comprised of twelve short stories featuring these characters.

Each story averages about 20 pages in length and follows an incident that one or both of the agents have been asked to address. They don't always work together and the cases are quite varied. Rasselas is often quite useful. Calder and Behrens carry out their tasks with ruthlessness when necessary.

The stories featuring Calder and Behrens were written from 1962 to 1982. Eleven short stories were published in Game Without Rules in 1968, and those stories were first published in Argosy.

The Spy Guys and Gals site has a good summary of the publication history of the Calder and Behrens stories. There is also more detail on that page about the order of publication. The stories in the books are not in the order published.
       The terrific pair of Daniel Calder and Samuel Behrens first appeared to readers in the pages of the U.K. magazine Argosy in early 1962 and would continue to show up there off and on for just over a decade with the last one appearing in 1973. While many of these adventures would get turned into teleplays for BBC Radio, two of the last three from the Argosy period were either up-to-then unpublished stories turned into teleplays or novelizations of the episodes.
       Just over half a decade would go by before they would again show up in print, this time in the U.S. magazine Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Again there were a couple that had been aired on radio before being shown in print.
It has been almost exactly three years ago I purchased my copy of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens and read the first three short stories in the book, after having read all of the stories in Game Without Rules. It took until this February for me to finish up all the stories in the book. I don't know why it took me so long. I love all the stories. However, they are not light reading. They are packed with details and nuances, most of which I am sure I miss. I like the two agents and their matter of fact approach to their work, and other characters in the stories are also interesting, although usually not so well fleshed out.

See also:

Post on Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens at Tip the Wink.

Post on Game Without Rules at Existential Ennui.


Publisher:   House of Stratus, 2011 (orig. pub. 1982)
Length:      245 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK, mostly; also in Germany.
Genre:        Espionage, short stories
Source:      On my TBR pile for three years.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

50 US States Challenge: update

Off and on, since October 2013, I have been working on a challenge to read books set in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. In July 2016, I wrote a post specifying which books I had read (and reviewed). At the time I had covered 17 states. Since then I have only added books for 6 more states. For this update, I also added some books for states I had read (and blogged about) in 2012 and 2013.

As I reviewed my books read on the blog, I found the same as before. The great majority of books are set in the UK. I also read a good number of books set in Canada. Plus a lot of European countries, some Asian countries,and some Central and South American countries. And even when I read books set in the US, a large number are set in California or New York or Texas.

Below is the list of states and the books I have read so far.

ALABAMA:  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

ALASKA: White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones



CALIFORNIA: Jasmine Trade by Denise Hamilton




DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

FLORIDA: Don’t Lose Her by Jonathan King


HAWAII:  The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers


ILLINOIS:  Sleeping Dogs by Ed Gorman


IOWA:   Eleven Days by Donald Harstad

KANSAS:  The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips

KENTUCKY:   Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by C. W. Grafton

LOUISIANA:   The Indigo Necklace by Frances Crane



MASSACHUSETTS:   The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor

MICHIGAN:   Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estelman

MINNESOTA:  Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

MISSISSIPPI:   The Last Clinic by Gary Cusick




NEVADA:  The Case of the Rolling Bones by Erle Stanley Gardner
Also:   Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming


NEW JERSEY:  Black-Headed Pins by Constance and Gwyneth Little

NEW MEXICO: Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Also: Wall of Glass by Walter Satterthwait
         Heartshot by Steven F. Havill

NEW YORK: Death of a Butterfly by Margaret Maron

NORTH CAROLINA: Time’s Witness by Michael Malone

NORTH DAKOTA: See Also Murder by Larry D. Sweazy


OKLAHOMA: A Killing in Quail County by Jameson Cole


PENNSYLVANIA:  Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott


SOUTH CAROLINA:   In the Heat of the Night by John Ball



TEXAS:   Too Late to Die by Bill Crider


VERMONT:  Open Season by Archer Mayor





WYOMING:  The Mountain Cat Murders by Rex Stout


I initially decided to stick with crime fiction novels that are set in the state. If I have trouble getting all the states, I may eventually start adding novels from outside the crime fiction genre.

I am now also adding more than one book for a state if the books are good examples of the setting.

I decided to include To Kill a Mockingbird for Alabama. It is definitely a good read for Alabama, and there are those who consider it to be crime fiction.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Saint Valentine's Day Murders: Ruth Dudley Edwards

This is book 2 in the Robert Amiss series, following on Corridors of Death, which I read and reviewed earlier. The first two books in the series feature office settings, and focus on bureaucracy and office politics. We often complain about bureaucracy in the business world, but I have never experienced anything like these workplaces.

Robert Amiss is a British civil servant and has recently been transferred to the British Conservation Corporation. He had been expecting a secondment to a job in industry, and a position that would lead to a better position in the civil service in the future. What he gets is a job pushing papers and managing men who are more disgruntled than he is.

Based on the title of the book, the reader is expecting murders on Valentine's Day, but it takes quite a while to get to that point. And the characters and the interactions within the office setting are so innocuous that it is surprising when crimes do occur. There are some practical jokers in Robert's department, and the pranks initially seem harmless but gradually escalate. But, when the murders do take place, they are quite horrendous. Not so much in the way of violence, but because so many innocent victims are claimed.

And at that point the pace does pick up. Once Robert has been cleared of any connection to the murders, he again works closely with the police to try to uncover the villain. In the first book in the series, Amiss met Jim Milton, a Scotland Yard detective, and his wife, so they are already friends when this crime takes place. And Ellis Pooley, the young detective who is obsessed with fictional sleuths, makes his debut here.

My thoughts:

Initially I was disappointed with this book, because I had enjoyed the first book in the series tremendously. I rarely have any problem with the crime being delayed until later in the story yet in this case the initial part of the story dragged for me.

The author tells a humorous story with excellent dialog, and the recurring characters are well done, but in this second book I did not enjoy the secondary characters as much.  Nevertheless, I am still enthusiastic about the series, and I will continue reading these books.

Praise for this book:

"The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders is a witty, well-written mystery as well as a keenly observed and cynically funny view of modern bureaucracy and the people who work in it."
  --  Michael Foley, Irish Times

Kirkus Reviews was somewhat disappointed with the plot, as I was, but still said:
"a wry, smart, surprisingly warm-hearted diversion--with one choice vignette after another (even the subsidiary cops are amusingly sketched) and some of the best office-life comedy since Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise."

Also see reviews at Jillysheep and RogerBW's Blog.


Publisher:  Poisoned Pen Press, 2007. (orig. publ. 1984)
Length:  225 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Series:   Robert Amiss #2
Setting:  London, UK
Genre:   Mystery
Source:  On my TBR pile for one year.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Thief: Fuminori Nakamura

Brief description from the back of my paperback edition:
The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections.
But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse.
This is one of those novels that I enjoyed reading but I struggle to define why. The story was fast-paced and the writing pulled me in. The descriptions of how the pickpocket performs his trade and the instinctive planning in advance are fascinating. The story is told in first person by the pickpocket, and although he has a name it is only mentioned once. There were a number of flashbacks, and the brief story that is depicted is very very bleak.

At one point, the thief notices a young boy in a grocery store who is shoplifting for his mother. He tries to get him to stop, then ends up instructing him in ways to do it without being caught. He meets the child's mother, who is a prostitute and addicted to drugs, and reluctantly gets involved with her.

There were definitely points where I was confused. There was one scene that seemed more like a fantasy than reality or maybe like everyone was on drugs.  In this scene, a mob boss threatens the thief with death if he does not carry out a series of thefts for him. The thief's connection to the boy makes him more susceptible to those threats.

There is no resolution at the end. Sometimes I like that, sometimes not. It is like the reader can imagine the ending they want. There is also some musing on how much of life depends on fate, and the presence of a large tower in the background of the thief's descriptions of events, presumably symbolism which I never understood.

Some of the elements I have mentioned sound like criticisms, but they did not mar my enjoyment of the book. For some readers they might. So, even though I found this a very good read, I would be reluctant to recommend it to others. If you are interested in Japanese mysteries, it is definitely worth a try. If you like your mysteries in a more standard format and with a clear resolution, this might not appeal.

The Thief was Fuminori Nakamura's first novel to be translated into English. He had previously written several other novels and won many prizes in Japan. Soho Press has since published six more of his novels with English translations.

Check out reviews at: The Crime Segments and Bibliofreak.


Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2012 (orig. pub. 2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izuma and Stephen Coates 
Length:       211 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Setting:       Tokyo, Japan
Genre:        Crime fiction
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2018.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Death Lives Next Door: Gwendoline Butler

Death Lives Next Door is the sixth novel in the John Coffin series by Gwendoline Butler. The 34 books in the series were published from 1956 to 2002. In this book, published in 1960, Coffin is a Divisional Detective Inspector in South London. So, in a sense, this is a police procedural.

Dr. Marion Manning is a well-known and respected professor at Oxford University. She has a watcher who follows her around and watches her house, yet she is reluctant to complain to the police about it. (Now he would be called a stalker I am sure, although initially people in the neighborhood were afraid that they would all be watched, and the focus was not immediately on Marion.)

The story starts with Ezra Barton, on his way to see Marion, and thinking about whether he likes his life as a perpetual student. Marion has been his mentor since he came to Oxford and is not in any hurry for him to leave. On the other hand, his girlfriend is pushing him to move on and make something of himself. Since Ezra is 35, that seems reasonable, but he likes his life fine as it is. This is an important thread in the plot, but the story really centers around Marion, her neighborhood, her relationships, and her mysterious past.

In this book of about 250 pages, the crime does not take place until page 100 and Inspector Coffin does not show up until even later. He comes to Oxford for an unrelated missing person case. So you can see that not much of this novel is a standard police procedural.

My Thoughts:

Why did I read this book at this time? Partly because I acquired the book nearly 15 years ago. At that time, I had read about the author and I like police procedurals and I wanted to try the series. Then I just let the book sit. But another reason is that I have another book from the same series, set in Malta and published in 1964, and I want to read that one soon too.

This is a strange mystery, with an emphasis on personal relationships, but I enjoyed it and liked the writing style. Because it is unusual, I don't know if I will like later books in the series, but I will read the one I have and look for more.  I am sure the series changes over the years since it was published over four decades.

Readers who like the crime to happen early on in a book may not be pleased with the crime occurring later in the book. I liked the first portion of the book best, leading up to the death of one of the characters. Other reviewers did not like that section of the book and preferred the later portions of the book, as the crime is investigated and Coffin shows up.

In the first four books, Coffin is only a background character, and another detective, William Winter, is the protagonist. This novel was published in the U.S. as Dine and Be Dead. Actually neither title makes much sense to me in the context of the book, but that is not unusual.

Has anyone else had any experience reading this author? She also wrote under the pseudonym Jennie Melville.


Publisher:  Worldwide, 1994 (orig. pub. 1960).
Length:    253 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     John Coffin #6
Setting:    Oxford, England
Genre:     Mystery / Police Procedural
Source:    On my TBR pile since 2005.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

My Reading: January 2020

I read 14 books in January. One book of mystery reference, one nonfiction book, three books in the historical fiction genre, and the rest crime fiction. Of the fiction books, five were published after 2000, four in the 1990s, and three between 1953 and 1977.

And all twelve of the fiction books were from my TBR piles.

Mystery reference

Hatchards Crime Companion: 100 Top Crime Novels of All Time Selected By The Crime Writers' Association (1990)
edited by Susan Moody
I enjoy reading most mystery reference books. This was a reread. The book lists 100 favorite crime novels, as chosen by members of the British Crime Writers Association. Susan Moody provides commentary on each book on the list and there are interesting essays on various crime genres.
Rich Westwood of the Past Offences blog read and reviewed all 100 of the crime novels listed in this book. You can see the list here and links to his reviews.


Life Below Stairs: in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House (2011) by Siân Evans
An entertaining social history of the life of servants in Victorian and Edwardian times, with photographs of rooms used by servants, items of clothing, etc. This was the perfect mix of information and anecdotes about the subject and very readable.

Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel
This story follows Thomas Cromwell from his youth to his role as an important adviser to King Henry VIII. The main emphasis is on the period when the king wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a solution that the Roman Catholic Church would not condone. A wonderful, compelling book, with some problems in writing style, but well worth the read. Even at 600 pages.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles
Another long read, over 450 pages. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel in Moscow because his aristocratic attitudes threaten the ideals of the Russian Revolution. The alternative, if he leaves the hotel, is to be shot to death. He lives the next three decades within the confines of the hotel. This is a very fascinating look at Russia in that time, but sometimes reads more like a fantasy than historical fiction. 

The World at Night (1996) by Alan Furst
Alan Furst has said that he writes "historical spy novels." He is writing more about a time than about the actual espionage. This is the story of Jean Casson, a film producer living in Paris when Germany invades in 1940. He is approached by both the British secret service and the Germans to spy for them. The story continues in Furst's next novel, Red Gold.

Crime Fiction

A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin
The debut novel of the author of The Boys from Brazil, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stepford Wives. My review here.

The Lewis Man (2011) by Peter May
The second book in the Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Fin MacLeod was a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh, but has resigned from that post and returned to the Isle of Lewis to restore his parents' croft and to try to establish relationships with people he left behind when he moved to Edinburgh. This is my favorite of all the Peter May books I have read.

The Thief (2009) by Fuminori Nakamura
This was a short book about a pickpocket in Tokyo. Very intense, very bleak, sometimes confusing, and even so I enjoyed it. My first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

The Last Defector (1991) by Tony Cape
This is the second book in a short series about Derek Smailes, who starts out as a Detective Sergeant in Cambridge, England and in this book is an MI5 agent stationed in New York at the UN. My review here.

Death Lives Next Door (1960) by Gwendoline Butler
This is book #6 in the John Coffin Mystery series of 34 books, published from 1956 to 2002. Dr. Marion Manning is a well-known and respected professor at Oxford University. There is a stranger who follows her around and watches her house, yet she is reluctant to complain to the police about it. It is an unusual story, but I enjoyed it and liked the writing style.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good (2018) by Helene Tursten
This is a book of 5 short stories that are connected. The protagonist is an 88-year-old woman, living in a lovely apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, rent free. Some people try to take advantage of her due to her age and seeming infirmities; she is not easy to fool. This small book is full of dark humor.

Midwinter of the Spirit (1999) by Phil Rickman
This is book #2 in the Merrily Watkins series. The main character is a single mother of a teenage daughter and a Church of England vicar in a small town in Herefordshire. She is also in training to be a Diocesan Exorcist, or Deliverance Consultant. This book had maybe a little too much of the supernatural for me. But I really enjoyed reading about a female vicar in the Church of England and I like the writing.

A Drink of Deadly Wine (1991) by Kate Charles
This is the author's debut novel and the first book in Book of Psalms Mystery series. The vicar of St. Anne's church in London is being blackmailed and asks his old friend, David Middleton-Brown, to come help with the situation. The plot is very complex; I thought I had it figured but was totally surprised at the end.

A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) by Ellis Peters
The first book in the Brother Cadfael mystery series, set in Medieval times. A group of men from Brother Cadfael's religious order have been sent to Gwytherin, a small parish in Wales, to acquire the bones of a saint and bring them back to Shrewsbury Abbey in England.  Cadfael goes along because he is Welsh and can translate for them. The people of Gwytherin must agree to let the bones of the saint be moved, but then a prominent man in the village is killed, which complicates things. This was a very educational read, but also enjoyable. I am ready to move on to the next book soon.