Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Forest of the Night by David Stuart Davies

A fan of the PBS series, Foyle's War, I grabbed my copy of David Stuart Davies' Forest of the Night, the first installment in a new series set in WWII London, featuring private detective Johnny Hawke, with high hopes. Were my expectations met? Yes, and no -- and I'm not being purposefully coy here. The mystery subplot made for a very absorbing and intriguing; however, the history bits -- period detail, atmosphere, etc. were a bit paper thin, and the language seemed a bit heavy and clunky at times. All in all, though, I was happy with Forests of the Night.

When a jammed rifle causes ex-police constable Johnny Hawke to loose an eye and ends his grandiose plans of performing feats of glory for King and country, Johnny decides to use his detecting skills and become a private detective instead. Things start off slowly at first, that is until a rather dreary middle class couple, Mr. and Mrs. Palfrey hire Johnny to find their missing daughter. Plain and frumpish Pamela, who seemed to spend a lot of time daydreaming about film stars, had left home to move in with a girl friend, but now, Pamela seems to have disappeared. No one at her place of work seems to know where she has vanished to, and the girl that Pamela claimed she would be rooming with seems not to exist at all. Johnny starts his investigation immediately, and one of the first things he discovers is that Pamela was leading quite the double life -- remaining quiet and plain and frumpish for her parents, while blossoming into quite the glamour girl while at work. It is little wonder that Pamela decided to move out and leave no trace for her parents to track her down. Johnny thinks he knows what this case is all about, that is until this missing persons case suddenly becomes a case of murder and the list of suspects includes a well known film star. And even though the police have made a quick arrest, Johnny is quite sure that they have arrested the wrong person, and is determined to use all his detecting skills and ingenuity to nab the real killer...

Forests of the Night was a fairly quick and easy read. The plot wasn't too complicated and there were really very few plot twists, even though there were quite a few red herring suspects. Personally, I had anticipated a more complex plot and so was a little discombobulated by the straightforwardness of the novel. What I really missed though was the period details and atmosphere. Perhaps this was because I had Foyle's War at the back of my mind. This, of course, was not fair to David Stuart Davies and the book. However, while some of my expectations were unfairly laid on, I have to own that I did find the author's prose style to be heavy and clunky and jarring at times; and this really did not lend itself to very smooth reading. Not a bad read, though, when all is said and done.

The Three Kings of Cologne by Kate Sedley

There are truly very few mystery series where the author is able to delver a solid, well crafted, and absorbing read with every single installment; Kate Sedley is one of those authors. Whenever I settle down with the latest Roger the Chapman installment, I know that I'm about to enjoy a compelling and riveting read, and this was definitely true of The Three Kings of Cologne.

Alderman John Foster (soon to be Mayor of Bristol) has purchased a piece of land from the Magdalen Nunnery with plans to build a new almshouse and chapel dedicated to the Three Kings of Cologne. However the alderman's charitable plans take a setback when a body is unearthed on that very piece of land. It turns out that the remains are those of Isabella Linkinhorne, a beautiful if somewhat wild young lady who mysteriously disappeared about 20 years ago. At the time of her disappearance, everyone, her parents included, believed that Isabella had runaway with one of her suitors. But now it is beginning to look as if she may have been murdered by one of her suitors. Determined that his gift not be tarnished, the alderman hires Roger the Chapman (who is well known for his abilities to solve mysteries and ferret out the truth), to discover who murdered Isabella and to bring the murderer to justice. Always willing to embark on an investigation, Roger takes to his latest task with alacrity. But will he be able to solve a murder so old? All Roger has to go on are rumours and the faded memories of those who knew Isabella. But Roger is determined to do his utmost to solve the murder nevertheless...

The Three Kings of Cologne was a well crafted and engagingly written mystery novel that was intelligent and full of wonderful period colour and details. On top of it all, The Three Kings of Cologne was a real puzzler as well -- the suspense and the mystery were so capably layered on that I had to stay up till the early morning hours in order to finish the book. It was that riveting. Suspenseful and full of intriguing plot twists and turns, The Three Kings of Cologne is one mystery novel that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looming for a good, absorbing read.

The Memory Game by Nicci French

I'll preface this review by noting that I have enjoyed Nicci French's other novels immensely, and have always considered French's books as auto buys (or auto-borrows) as the case may be. French's novels have always been, in my opinion anyway, well written and quite gripping and suspenseful. Which was why I was dismayed to find myself growing quite bored with The Memory Game very quickly. What was going on here?

While working on an extension to her ex-husband's family home, architect Jane Martello is shocked when the workers unearth human remains in the garden. But her shock soon turns to grief when the realisation hits home that the remains are of her best friend, Natalie Martello, who went missing 25 years ago, and that Natalie was pregnant at the time of her murder. Grief-stricken, Jane decides to channel her energy into discovering who murdered Natalie and why, even going so far as to seek psychiatric help to unlock some long suppressed memories of the fateful day that Natalie went missing...

The main trouble with The Memory Game was that it lacked energy and continuity. This is especially fatal when the storyline is a very familiar and oft used one. The book was simply all over the place -- there were too many subplots and the subplot involving Natalie and her mysterious disappearance sometimes got lost as it jostled for attention with these other subplots. As a result that atmosphere of suspense and tension you would expect of a really good mystery novel was quite absent, in my opinion. Another factor that detracted was that there were (literally) too may characters, and not all of them were really necessary to this novel at all. Obviously, this was French's first novel, and equally obviously, French has gone on to write much, much more exciting and compelling novels. As a fan, I wonder about French's publisher decision to republish this plodding and not very exciting novel

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fatal Cut by Christine Green

This is a very well written mystery novel and makes for very engrossing reading. Christine Greem does a very good job at depicting the various characters and their lives and miseries.

Denise Parks is a throughly unpleasant woman. She doesn't like men much and she definitely doesn't approve of her sister's latest boyfriend, Mike. In fact she seems bent on putting an end to that relationship and airs her disapproval at any given opportunity much to Janine and Mike's frustration and anger. Denise's one joy seem to be going to the salon for a beauty treatment, not only for the care but also because she loves eavesdropping on the gossip. She is then able to drop little barbed statments based on the gossip she has overheard to the person concerned, letting them know that she knows all their little foibles but passing it off as some mysterious power she has, rather than as gossip she overheard. Therefore it is no surprise to many when she is found murdered in the beauty salon. But which one of the staff or clients committed the crime? Definitely everyone has their own little secrets that they are determined to protect much to Chief Inspector Connor O'Neill and Detective Sergeant Fran Wilson's dismay. Connor and Fran find that delving into Denise's life, means stepping into a past that is horrorific and perhaps better left alone. And before this case is over, both Connor and Fran will discover more than they are comfortable with about a woman like Denise Parks...

What really made this novel was all the characters connected with the beauty salon. Christine Green gives us characters that are memorable for their strengths and weaknesses, and actually provides us with some rather nice resolutions for these characters by the novel's end. Quite often minor character/suspects are marginalised in a mystery novel, so it was refreshing to find these characters getting a little more attention than they are usually given.
This was definitely engrossing reading.

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

No one can compare to Georgette Heyer. Many try to emulate her style,but practically no one has mastered it. And in spite of her troublesome tendency to marry off naive young girls barely out of the schoolroom to older sophisticated men of the world; and her frequent portrayal of the middle and merchant classes as uncultured, uncouth and grasping, perpetually trying to curry favour with the upper classes; she is still one of my favourite authours.

In Cousin Kate, Heyer abandons somewhat the comedy of manners that she is so well known for and enters the darker realm of the Gothic novel. The heroine of the piece is Kate Malvern, a penniless orphan, who has just lost her latest job as a governess and her home. An aunt that she knows little of offers her a home at Staplewood Manor. Her aunt, Minerva Broome, wants Kate to act as a companion and friend to her young cousin, Torquil, who happens to be a charming and clever young man but who is troubled by frequent mood swings and bouts of depression. All too soon Kate discovers that all is not well at Staplewood Manor. There is an atmosphere of secrecy and deception. And Kate soon finds that she doesn't know whom to trust or what to do.

In Kate Malvern, Heyer has created a witty, courageous and gallant heroine that engages the reader. The avid Georgette Heyer fan may miss the lively light hearted romps she is most famous for, but I can recommend this book as a wonderful read, especially for its gallant heroine.

Illigally Dead by David Wishart

This fast paced and engrossing Marcus Corvinus installment finds Marcus and his wife, Perilla, visiting the small town of Castrimonenium, in order to figure out whether or not a local lawyer was murdered.

When Marcus and Perilla receive a letter from their adopted daughter, Marilla, intimating that a murder may have been committed in the town she's currently residing in, they immediately make for Castrimoneium in order to get more information. It turns out that the lawyer, Lucius Hostillius has succumbed to a heart seizure and has passed away. But Lucius' doctor, Hyperion, is not satisfied and fears that someone may have tampered with the dosage. The trouble is that in accordance of Roman law, if Hyperion voices his suspicions, Lucius' household slaves would be rounded up and tortured in order to prise information from them. And Hyperion would rather not say anything unless the evidence that Lucius had been "helped" to his death is conclusive. And so he asks Marcus Corvinus to look into the matter. But Marcus will have to work on the quiet so as not to arouse the interest of the authorities. Can our intrepid investigator pull this off?

I've been a fan of this series ever since I read Ovid. But I have to admit that fan though I am, I haven't read every single installment in this series. What I have read I have liked immensely; finding the books to be well written, finely paced, taut and full of wonderful historical detail and ambiance. This is all true of Illegally Dead. David Wishart does a first rate job here of executing and fleshing out this tale and of keeping one guessing as to what exactly is going on and who the guilty parties are. All in all this was a very engrossing and absolutely riveting read -- even as I confess that a couple of thing grated: namely that Marcus seemed to jump to some rather premature assumptions about his suspects based solely on his reactions towards them (and had to be talked around to sense by Perilla); and that I found Marcus' 'tough' street voice to be a little incongruous and a little false. Would a patrician have such a narrative voice? I'm going to have to reread Ovid in order to find out.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Other People's Rules by Julia Hamilton

This is a rich, dark novel, brilliantly written by Julia Hamilton, in a style that is reminiscent of Nancy Mitford and L. P. Hartley. Like Mitford, Julia Hamilton presents us with the insular and enclosed lives of the British upper class; all the while dissecting it with flashes of ironic humour -- coming across Margaret Thatcher describes as "Mad Maggie" is something I shall always personally treasure! And like L.P. Hartley, Julia Hamilton presents us with a sympathetic protagonist, Lucy Diamond, whom we first meet as a unsure sixteen year old, the outsider to the magical world of Gatehouse, who seems to absorb the unpleasantness and the secrets that swirl around without actually registering them until too late.

This is not a mystery novel, it is more of a psychological novel. Almost from the very beginning we are told that the murder of Katie Gresham probably did take place on Gatehouse land, the home of Ivar Gatehouse, the Earl Gatehouse. Ivar Gatehouse is one of the rising stars of Margaret Thatcher's government. He is rich, charming and handsome. Unfortunately for Ivar, his family seems to be completely screwed up. Luca Diamond is introduced to the rich, glamorous world of the Gatehouses through Ivar's youngest daughter, Sarah. And in spite of Lucy's mother's reservations, Lucy is completely seduced by that world. And it isn't too long before Lucy is seduced by Ivar as well. And this is where young Katie Gresham enters the novel. Unlike Lucy, Katie is part of Ivar's upper class world; and unlike Sarah and Lucy, Katie is no insecure teenager. Ivar seems to be completely taken with Katie much to Lucy's and Sarah's chagrin. And then after a party one night, Katie disappears. Her body is never found; and when a sociopath who has been kidnapping and torturing young girls to death is caught, Katie's disappearance is tied to him as well. However years later, on his deathbed, he claims innocence over Katie's death. The police reopen the case and this time around the focus is on Ivar and all the unsavory rumours concerning his penchant for teenage girls and his infamous murderous rages. Lucy Diamond, now a successful divorce lawyer is again drawn to the happenings at Gatehouse. But it takes an almost tragedy before Lucy is able to look objectively at what happened all those years ago and break the wall of silence that the Gatehouses and their kind have constructed to keep the outsiders at bay.

This novel is superb on so many levels: the brilliant manner in which the authour has layered all the characters and all the events; the clean lines along which the plot is written -- no extraneous characters or events here; and most of all the portrayal of the deeply troubled and confused protagonist, Lucy Diamond. Another point I appreciated was that Ivar Gatehouse, even by the end of the novel, remains a question mark -- perhaps monsters should remain that way so that the horrors of what they have perpetrated remain in place. One other thing that struck me all over again while reading this novel was how similar the world of the upper class was to that of the village working class -- both are close-knit, insular, deeply suspicious of outsiders, and both are liberally peopled with eccentric characters.

This is not a novel with a deeply intricate plot. Rather, the story is a sadly simple one of what happens when there is a sociopath in your life. It is a rich and dark tale, liberally peopled with memorable characters. Definitely a novel that is worth reading and rereading.