The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics)

Here is another collection of short stories from the Golden Age of Murder edited by Martin Edwards: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories.

Christmas Card Crime

Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library|1 October 2019|Print length 240 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*

There are eleven stories all set during the Christmas season in this collection and an introduction by Martin Edwards. In it he points out the differences between a short story and a novel. It’s not just the length, but it is also the fact that in a short story there is little space to develop the characters in depth or for lengthy descriptions, so ‘every word must be made to earn its keep‘. He has also prefaced each story with a biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me.

The mysteries range in date of publication from 1909 up to 1965. I’ve read stories by some of the authors before, such as Baroness Orczy, John Dixon Carr, Ronald Knox, E C R Lorac, John Bude and Julian Symons, but others were new to me. The ones I enjoyed the most are:

The Motive  Ronald Knox. This story first appeared in The London Illustrated News in November 1937 and is about an attempted murder in a smart hotel on the English Riviera, by a character named ‘Westmacott’ (a pen name used by Agatha Christie).. On Christmas Day after a party the guests decided to play a version of ‘blind man’s buff’ in the swimming pool, which didn’t go as planned.

Another version of ‘blind man’s buff‘, this time called ‘blind man’s bluff‘, is played in the next story also with disastrous consequences.

Blind Man’s Hood by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson. This first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Sketch in 1937 and is a story inspired by the unsolved Peasonhall murder case of 1902. It is a strange tale about a young couple arriving to spend Christmas with friends, only to find the house empty – except that is for a young woman carrying a white bag, who tells them about a game of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ that went very wrong, years ago. It’s a variation on a locked room mystery, with a touch of the supernatural.

Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham – this first appeared in the 1954 Christmas Number of The London Illustrated News. Bingham was the 7th Earl of Clanmorris, a journalist who was recruited into MI5, where he worked with David Cornwell, who later wrote spy novels under the name of John Le Carré. This story and the next are my two favourites in the book. It is the story of an escaped convict and an isolated country cottage occupied by a young woman and her little daughter one snowy Christmas. Very atmospheric and tense with an unexpected ending. I’d like to read more of John Bingham’s work.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – this first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in January 1965). Longer than the other stories in this collection it is the tale of Mr Rossiter Payne, a meticulous bookseller who plans a perfect robbery – to steal the jewels, that had once belonged to the Russian royal family, on display in a London department store at Christmas. But Mr Payne had made an uncharacteristic error …

Overall, I enjoyed reading this collection, with a mix of excellent short stories and some that I thought  were too short and had disappointing or predictable endings.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

A Beautiful Corpse by Christi Daugherty

a beautiful corpse

Harper Collins|March 2019|384 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|5*

I saw A Beautiful Corpse by Christi Daugherty on NetGalley and thought I would like it from the description, but not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. I didn’t realise that it’s the 2nd in the Harper McClain series but I think it works very well as a standalone.

I liked a lot about it – it is well written, has a fast-paced plot, but not at the expense of the characters, and it’s set in Savannah, with its historic buildings, parks and ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss.

Harper McLain is a crime reporter with the Savannah Daily News. The book begins late one evening as she is playing pool in the Library Bar with her friend and bartender, Bonnie. The crime photographer rings her, telling her about a murder on downtown River Street, a narrow cobblestoned lane between the old wharves and warehouses and the Savannah River. And she is shocked to discover that the young woman sprawled on the uneven cobbles is Naomi, a law student, who had worked with Bonnie at the Library Bar. She had been shot dead.

There are three men who are all suspects, but her current boyfriend Wilson Shepherd is the prime suspect. The Library Bar owner, Fitz, is also a suspect especially as no one has seen him after the shooting. And then there is her ex-boyfriend Peyton Anderson, the powerful DA’s son. The police are convinced that Wilson is the killer, but after Harper talked to him, she just can’t believe that it was him. There were no witnesses to the shooting and when Harper talks to Jerrod, Naomi’s father, she realises that Peyton’s alibi may not be as solid as the police maintain it to be. 

This a story of obsession and jealousy and the tension rises as the killer’s focus shifts on to Harper herself. She is a strong determined character, determined to find out the truth. But as well as the murder investigation Harper has her own personal problems to contend with. Her job as a reporter is under threat, someone is breaking into her apartment and her personal relationship with Detective Luke Walker seems about to be revived, but she is wary where it will end. On top of all that she is desperate to find out who had killed her mother twelve years earlier. 

I loved it and it has made me eager to read the first book, The Echo Killing, to find out more about Harper and her background and also to read the next book in the series – Revolver Road due to be published in March next year – to find out what happens next.

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird

Furious hours

Cornerstone|May 2019|311 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|4*

In the first half of the book Casey Cep tells the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who murdered members of his own family in the 1970s and held his rural community in Alabama, in fear and dread as they believed he was practising voodoo. He was shot dead at the funeral of his step-daughter by a relative, Robert Burns. Maxwell’s lawyer, Tom Radney, who had successfully defended Maxwell for years, then defended Burns, who confessed to the shooting, on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The second half is about the author, Harper Lee, who decided to write a book about all three men. In doing so Cep has written a remarkable biography of Harper Lee, her friendship with Truman Capote, her part in writing his book, In Cold Blood and her attempts to follow up the success of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

My favourite part of the book is without doubt the part about Harper Lee. All I knew about her before is that she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, thought to be her only book until Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. Cep explains that Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, that Lee hadn’t edited or revised, and although it appears to be a sequel it isn’t  – it is the story she wrote first.

The section on Lee’s work in helping Capote  research his ‘nonfiction novel’ set in Kansas, In Cold Blood is equally as fascinating. They had lived next door to each other in Monroeville and as Cep phrased it ‘before Nelle was out of toddlerhood, she and Truman had become partners in crime and just about everything else.‘ (‘Nelle’ is her first name, the name she was known by for the first thirty-four years of her life, pronounced Nell, not Nellie.) Once they ran out of stories to read they started writing them. Cep goes into detail about the development of crime writing, and how Capote applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction. Not everyone was happy with this novelisation of crime, not did they believe that Capote’s book was strictly factual, accusing him of  producing a sensational novel. Harper Lee minded very much about his fabrications, although she never objected publicly and this caused a rift between them.

So, this presented her with a challenge when it came to writing her book about Maxwell and his crimes, determined it would be based strictly on facts and she spent many years researching and writing her book, provisionally called The Reverend, but never finished it.

The sheer detail of Furious Hours made it quite a difficult book to read in some parts, digressing from the bare bones of the story into details such as the history of insurance, for example. But I was impressed by that detail and by Cep’s meticulous research. The book has an extensive Acknowledgements section, Notes and Bibliography, citing numerous books, journal articles and documentary films. And it has made me keen to read Go Set a Watchman, which although I bought a copy I have not read yet fearing it would spoil my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I also must get round to reading Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I bought earlier this year, without knowing of Harper Lee’s involvement in the book.

My thanks to Cornerstone for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

The Marches by Rory Stewart

Marches

Vintage|September 2017|368 pages|Paperback|4*

I enjoyed reading The Marches: Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart. He’s been in the news here recently, having stood for leadership of the Conservative Party, and has now formally stood down from Parliament to run as an independent candidate for Mayor of London.

But none of that has anything to do with why I wanted to read his book. It’s because of the subject – walking in the borderlands between England and Scotland, in the place where I live. And it’s not just about walking – he also muses on history, memory and landscape, all topics that interest me immensely.

Blurb:

His father Brian taught Rory Stewart how to walk, and walked with him on journeys from Iran to Malaysia. Now they have chosen to do their final walk together along ‘the Marches’ – the frontier that divides their two countries, Scotland and England.

On their six-hundred-mile, thirty-day journey – with Rory on foot, and his father ‘ambushing’ him by car – the pair relive Scottish dances, reflect on Burmese honey-bears, and on the loss of human presence in the British landscape.
Travelling across mountain ridges and through housing estates they uncover a forgotten country crushed between England and Scotland: the Middleland. They discover unsettling modern lives, lodged in an ancient place, as their odyssey develops into a history of the British nationhood, a chronicle of contemporary Britain and an exuberant encounter between a father and a son.

And as the journey deepens, and the end approaches, Brian and Rory fight to match, step by step, modern voices, nationalisms and contemporary settlements to the natural beauty of the Marches, and a fierce absorption in tradition in their own unconventional lives.

My thoughts:

This is a book of three parts – Book One: The Wall about Rory Stewart’s walk along Hadrian’s Wall in 2011, with his father, then aged 89 – his father walking for the first hour or so each day. They had intended to walk the full length of the Wall, from east to west, but after they reached the fort at Bewcastle they decided to abandon their plan (his father having reached his limits) and drive back to his father’s house, Broich, near Crieff in Perthshire. He writes about the Wall, the Roman occupation of the area, his father’s career, about nationality and clans, and reminisces about his childhood and his time in Afghanistan.

Book Two: Middleland, in which he describes his walk from coast to coast, a distance of about 400 miles, taking him 26 days, walking alone from his cottage in Cumbria to the Solway Firth, then crossing and re-crossing the modern border (established in the 13th century) to Berwick-upon-Tweed and then back to Broich.

I got a bit lost in his descriptions of the route, not knowing some the places along the way. But there are maps of his route that helped me follow where he went. He describes the landscape, the geology, sheep farming and land use, the people he met, their history  and language and much, much more.

Book Three: The General Danced on the Lawn about his father, who died at the age of 93, before this book was finished. The whole book is permeated with his love and respect for his father, but this last section is all about Brian Stewart.

At the end of the Marches is a Chronology which I found very interesting, defining The Middleland before AD100 up to the present days. The Middleland is a term invented by Brian Stewart:

The geographical centre of the island of Britain. An upland landscape, whose core is the Lake District, the Peninnes, the Cheviots and the Scottish Borders, but whose fringes extend to the Humber in the south and the firths of Forth and Clyde in the north. A land naturally unified by geography and culture for two thousand years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers. (page 339)

Concerto by Hannah Fielding

Concerto

London Wall Publishing|6 June 2019|560 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|2*

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London

Gollanz|January 2011|396 pages|e-book |5*

Blurb:

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit – we do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to – and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden … and there’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying.

My thoughts:

I wish I had read Rivers of London when was first published in 2011, or in 2016 when I bought it because, when I finally began reading it I found I just didn’t want to put it down. 

I really didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but I was completely engrossed in this book right from the beginning. It is a magical reading experience, and a fast-paced police procedural of a very different kind. It’s fantastical in the literal meaning of the word; an urban fantasy set in the real world of London. It’s a mix of reality and the supernatural, as Peter explains ‘Police work is all about systems and procedures and planning – even when you’re hunting a supernatural entity.

When a headless corpse is found in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Convent Garden, Peter interviews a witness, Nicholas Wallpenny, who tells him he has been dead for at least a hundred and twenty years – he is a ghost. From that point on nothing is straight forward as Peter is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale (who is the last wizard in England) as part of a special and secret branch of the Met, dealing with all things magical and supernatural. And there are more murders

But interwoven with the murders is the feud between the Rivers of London, or rather between Mother Thames, whose territory is downstream and Father Thames who owns upstream. They both believe they rule the Thames and its tributaries. The dividing line is at Teddington Lock, two miles downstream from Eel Pie Island. Nicholas wants Peter to speak to Mother Thames to find out what the problem is and to find an amicable solution. And so he meets Beverley Brook and the other river goddesses.

Ben Aaronovitch knows London like he back of his hand and it shows in this book. It’s complex, the characters are great, the London setting is wonderfully detailed, and the writing is humorous and very entertaining. I loved it! It’s the first book in the Rivers of London series. The 8th book, False Value, will be published next year. So I have lots more Peter Grant novels to read, beginning with the next one, Moon Over Soho.

About the author:

Born and raised in London, Ben worked as a scriptwriter for Doctor Who and Casualty before the inspiration for his own series of books struck him whilst working as a bookseller in Waterstones Covent Garden. His unique novels are the culmination of his experience of writing about the emergency services and the supernatural.

See more about him and his work on his website.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again Yes

Penguin Michael Joseph|3 October 2019|384 pages|e-book |Review copy|2*