Foreign Bodies (British Library Crime Classics) edited by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press|6 March  2018 |288 pages|e-book |Review copy|3*

This edition, published in association with the British Library, has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

There are fifteen stories in this collection of vintage crime fiction in translation,  written by authors from Hungary, Japan, Denmark, India, Germany, Mexico, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and France. Some are detective stories in the same tradition of  Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or in the same style as Agatha Christie; there are ‘locked room’ mysteries and stories mixing mystery and horror. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as, unsurprisingly, the authors were all new to me, with the exception of Anton Chekhov (although I haven’t read any of his works).

Edwards presents the stories in approximately the chronological order of their publication from 1883 to 1960 and notes that these authors were writing in the same styles at much the same time as Agatha Christie and other Golden Age crime fiction writers.

When I began reading I was disappointed as I didn’t enjoy the first few stories. Short story collections are often a mixed bag and some stories are better than others, so after putting the book aside for a while I carried on reading. Some are very short and are predictable and really easy to see where they will end, but others are much more satisfying.

The ones that appealed to me the most are (in the order I read them):

The Spider (1930) by Koga Saburo who founded the Mystery Writers of Japan in 1947. His work was very popular in Japan and he wrote in the traditionalist style, favouring the puzzle element of a mystery. Edwards writes that it ‘is a pleasing fusion of macabre fiction and the classic detective puzzle‘, which explains why I like it. It’s set in a bizarre laboratory in a nine metre high round tower in which a professor is carrying out research on spiders. One night another professor visited him and fell to his death from the tower having been bitten by a poisonous spider. The circumstances of his death, however are not at all straightforward and are most ingenious. Probably my favourite story.

Murder a la Carte (1931) by Jean-Toussaint Samat, born in the Camargue, a journalist and writer of crime and adventure novels. This story is about a case of poisoning, but poisoning with a difference. A guest at a dinner party explains how to get away with murder – by using a non-poisonous substance. It’s one of the shorter stories that I did find satisfying.

The Venom of the Tarantula (1933) by Sharadindu Bandyopadhya from Bengal, educated in Calcutta, whose crime writing is similar to that of Arthur Conan Doyle. A writer called Ajit  and detective Byomkesh Bakshi join forces to investigate what is an apparently ‘impossible crime’ featuring an ingenious poisoning.  Nandadulalbabu is a hypochondriac who is writing fiction using black and red ink. He is addicted to venomous ‘spider juice’, extracted from tarantulas. His family have prevented him from getting the juice but somehow he is able to trick them and is still  getting his fix. Although I was able to work out the solution it’s still a satisfying and interesting story.

The Mystery of the Green Room (1936) by Pierre Véry from France. This story is dedicated to the memory of Gaston Leroux, and plays on the events in his story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), which I haven’t readanother ‘locked room’ whodunnit.  I enjoyed this one , particularly where the private investigator points out to the detective the similarities between the yellow room mystery to this one, the green room mystery – this is an ‘open-room’ mystery as opposed to a ‘locked-room’ puzzle.

John Flanders, born in Ghent was one of the pen-names of Jean-Raymond-Marie De Kremer. He wrote imaginative and fantastical stories and Kippers, originally written in Flemish is one of his many short stories. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book and entertained me in a very different way – it is not a puzzle or even really a mystery story, but is focused on one of Flanders’ fictional preoccupations with food and drink and as the title indicates it is a story about

Kippers, delectable, salmony kippers, smoky as a chimney, dripping with fat, one for each of us, of course, the real thing.

Even Bertie the cabin boy got one.

A sinister tale about a shipwrecked crew on a desert island that ends in horror.

My thanks to the publishers, Poisoned Pen Press, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Three Men in a Boat

4*

I’ve wondered about reading Three Men in a Boat: (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome for many years  – I first heard about it when I was at school when one of my friends read it and said she thought it was very good. And since I’ve been blogging I’ve seen that people love this book and think it’s very funny. So, I decided that it was about time that I read it.

three men map

When Jerome began writing this book he intended it to be a serious travel book about the Thames, its scenery and history, but, as he wrote it turned into a funny book.  The Thames remains at the centre of the book but it is also full of anecdotes about the events that happened to him and his friends whilst out on the river, interspersed with passages about the scenery and history. The main characters were real people, Jerome’s friends – ‘George‘ is George Wingrave who was the best man at his wedding, and ‘Harris‘ is Carl Hentschel, a photographer. Only the dog ‘Montmorency‘ is fictional.

This book was first published in 1889, which means that the descriptions of the places they passed through or stayed the night, are like a snapshot in time of what life was like in the Thames Valley, showing the how use of the river had changed with the coming of the railways for transporting goods. Cheap excursion tickets to stations along the river also meant that people could reach places like Henley, Hampton Court and Windsor as the river became the place for picnics, and regattas and hiring skiffs and punts. As time went on the river became more and more popular for fishing, boating and photography as well as a fashionable venue for young ladies to parade their elegant dresses.

It’s a story of a journey, comparing their trip to Stanley’s expedition to Africa searching for Dr Livingstone. It’s satirical, ironic and farcical.The book is composed of amusing mishaps and situations as the three friends decide what to take with them and what not to take, come across the problems of packing and unpacking the boat, where to stop the night, what food to take, and showing how they entertained themselves, for example singing comic songs, accompanied by George’s banjo, and ending in sentiment as they break down in tears singing ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. George’s tale of getting lost in the Hampton Court Maze made me chuckle as time after time whichever route he took he couldn’t find the way out.

I liked the way Jerome breaks up his account of their journey with recording historical events, such as his imaginative description of the signing of Magna Carta when they reach Runnymede and his account of Henry VIII’s wooing of Anne Boleyn at the priory in the grounds of Ankerwyke House, describing him as ‘that foolish boy‘ and imagining that people would have come upon them ‘when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, “Oh! you here!” and Henry would have blushed’, and Anne would have said ‘isn’t it funny? I’ve just met Mr Henry VIII in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.’

It’s  a gentle witty book that kept me entertained all the way through – and I can’t say that for every book I read. It’s been on my Classics Club list from the first time I complied my list in 2013 and it’s also a book I’ve owned for over 11 years.

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes

I decided to read Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson, after reading After the Fire his second book about Frederick Welin.  The events in Italian Shoes take place eight years earlier and explains in more detail Welin’s background and why he lives in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago. The two books can be read as standalones, but I think it would be better to read them in order to make a complete whole. These books are not Kurt Wallender mysteries but are character studies of a man living on his own, trying to come to terms with his past and reflecting on ageing and death. He cuts a hole in the ice every morning and lowers himself into the freezing water to remind himself that he is alive.

If this description makes Welin sound cold that is because he is a loner and finds it difficult to open himself up to others. He is sixty six, lives alone, apart from his cat and his dog, both of them old and dying, and he has no real friends. There is Jansson, a hypochondriac, the  postman who visits daily, but Welin doesn’t like him. He has come to a point in his life when he can’t decide what to do but suspects that his life would continue in the same way and nothing would change.

How wrong he was! That January after a snowstorm he saw a figure standing out on the ice motionless leaning on a Zimmer frame three nautical miles from the mainland. It was Harriet, the woman he had loved and abandoned nearly 40 years earlier, leaving her without any explanation. From that point onwards his life changes dramatically, for Harriet is terminally ill and wants him to take her to a small lake in northern Sweden, hidden deep in the forest; a place Welin’s father took him to once as a boy. But there are more revelations and he is forced to face the mistakes he made in the past.

The book is written in four parts, or Movements – Ice, the winter in which Welin is frozen both in his emotions and feelings, The Forest, the spring as his life and feelings begin to emerge, The Sea as his life begins to change and finally, Winter Solstice as the days start to lengthen and Welin’s new life actually begins.

I was puzzled at first by two things – the title, Italian Shoes, which seemed to be at odds with the book’s description about a man living on his own in the Swedish archipelago. the first clue comes with the quotation at the beginning of the book from Chuang Chou:

When the shoe fits, you don’t think about the feet.

Feet and shoes are mention several times throughout the book – Welin wears cut-off wellington boots most of the time – Harriet used to work in a shoe shop – and an Italian shoemaker who lives in the forest promises to make him a pair of shoes.

The second thing that made me wonder is the presence of a gigantic anthill in Welin’s living room. I do not like ants at all and the thought of an anthill next to a table in the middle of the room, almost as high as the table, swallowing up the cloth hanging down over the edge is horrific. It has been there for eleven years, containing maybe a million or more ants and Welin does not want to part with it – until the end of the book. I decided it symbolised his  inertia during the time it had been growing and he watched the ants at work. Its removal signified the change that takes place in his life.

Although this is a dark and melancholy book, as it progresses Welin begins to come to life again and to interact with others, taking responsibility for his past actions. It’s a beautifully written book, with vivid descriptions of the settings and the weather and I found it absolutely fascinating.

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into the category of a book with a nationality in the title. It’s also one of my TBRs.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 783 KB
  • Print Length: 370 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0099548364
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (2 April 2009)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 4*

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

5*

Random House UK Cornerstone|1 November 2018|384 pages|Review copy

Last year when I read The Word is Murder I thought it was a very clever and different type of murder mystery. It features Daniel Hawthorne, an ex-policeman, now a private investigator, who the police call in to help when they have a case they call a ‘sticker’. What I found particularly interesting was the way that Anthony Horowitz inserted himself into the fiction, recruited by Hawthorne to write a book about him and the cases he investigates.

In The Sentence is Death, Anthony appears again as a character, reluctantly, as he had agreed to a three-book contract with Hawthorne. At the start of the book Anthony, who wrote the script for the TV series of Foyles War, is on the set as the opening scenes in the seventh series were being shot. The rehearsal was disastrous, but it came to an abrupt end when Hawthorne interrupted the scenes by driving straight into the middle of the set to tell Anthony there had been another murder and that the police had asked for his help.

Divorce lawyer Richard Pryce was found dead in his home, having been hit on the head by a wine bottle, a 1982 Chateau Lafite worth £3,000, and then stabbed to death with the broken bottle. There are several clues – there’s the number 182 written in green paint on the wall, the incredibly expensive bottle of wine when Pryce was a teetotaller, a public threat from a well known feminist writer, an unknown visitor the evening he was killed and plenty of other enemies as suspects.  There’s no doubt that Daniel is a brilliant detective, but Anthony finds him trying as he’s uncommunicative, keeping Anthony in the dark most of the time, he swears and he calls him ‘Tony’.

I found it all most entertaining and perplexing, completely foxed by all the red herrings and twists and turns in the plot. But, mainly because I’d read the first book, I loved the interaction between Anthony and Daniel and had no difficulty with the mix of fact and fiction, enjoying the details about Anthony’s life as a scriptwriter as much as the mystery about the murder. I don’t think, however that you need to read The Word is Murder first because as a murder mystery The Sentence is Death works well as a standalone. But to  see how their relationship began and develops it would help to read the books in order.

I loved this book as much or maybe even more than the first one and am delighted that I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Nine years ago I read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading, a book in which she wrote about the books from her own collection she’d read or re-read over the course of a year. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is a similar book in that it follows month by month a year during which she reflects on the books she has read, reread, or returned to the shelves as well as her thoughts on a whole variety of topics.

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading

It’s full of her observations on the weather, on nature – birds, flowers, trees, moles, eels, egrets and so on – on writers and writing, about religion and fairy tales and many more besides as well as on books. She also writes about herself and notes her obsessions with, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set, Marilyn Monroe, wood engravings, medieval monasticism, Elizabeth Bowen, Benjamin Britten and her collection of Ladybird Books. Some of her observations on other topics are short but conjure up vivid pictures, such as in November she recorded: ‘RAINING. Sky like the inside of a saucepan.‘ (page 208) And in October: ‘THIS GOLDEN OCTOBER continues to drift slowly down like a twirling leaf.’  (page 186)

One of the things I like about this book is the passion with which Susan Hill writes and her strong opinions about books, writers, literary prizes, what makes a good reader and so on and so forth, that she has no qualms about expressing (and why should she?) You are left in no doubt about what she does and does not like. For example she likes Robert Louis Stevenson (so do I) and the way he cleverly and cunningly creates a sense of sinister and evil in his creation of Mr Hyde. She thinks he’s the ‘perfect writer’ (page 188) and describes him thus: ‘Next to Dickens, I think RLS was the greatest writer of his time.’ (page 54) She didn’t like fairy tales as a child (I did), describing fairies as

Wispy, wafty, wish-washy things. Nowhere near on a par with sprites and goblins, witches, wizards, trolls. As a child I lapped up stories about any of these. I can understand why I did not, and do not, have any patience with fairies and their stories. They are so colourless (despite Andrew Lang’s best attempts). So dull. Yes. Just dull. (page 21)

And yet as a child she also liked the Flower Fairies books by Cecily Mary Baker (as did I) and pored over their illustrations, but followed that up by describing them as ‘just an excuse for pretty pastel pictures.

She doesn’t like fantasy and science fiction, although as a child she loved fantasy. She likes, amongst others, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, to a certain extent, describing her books as ‘dated, but not dated enough’, but not Jane Austen – oh my, I love Jane Austen’s books:

I read most of the reissued novels [of Pym’s] at the time and never entirely saw the point of the praise, probably because everyone compared them to Jane Austen and that is never a good recommendation to me. (page 200)

She then goes on to change her mind about Pym after reading Shirley Hazzard’s review of Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I haven’t read, but after reading her description I think I would like.

She has no interest left in the First World War, particularly in fiction about it (I have) since she wrote Strange Meeting in 1971, but she admires Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but has ‘not even tried Parade’s End‘. She seems to have more time for the Second World War novels, praising Olivia Manning’s novels, the Balkan and Levant trilogies, which reminds  me I still haven’t read the third book in the Balkan Trilogy.

She is scathing about creative writing courses: ‘I don’t suppose anything is obligatory for these courses, which are as thick as autumn leaves on the ground. Writing is the thing. Ye gods.’ (page 189)

There’s plenty more on the same lines about other authors and books – there are many, many more that I could mention – and I found it all fascinating, rambling and chatty, a bit repetitive in parts, but still fascinating. And there is a list of the books she refers to at the end of the book. It’s probably a book that could stand a second reading.

And as she says:

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next and there is bonus magic if it is another in a series we already love, so we are plunging back into a magic other world but one we already know. We feel a lift of the heart, a lurch of the stomach, when we find ourselves in it again. (pages 55 – 56)

Yes, reading is, indeed, magic!

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (5 Oct. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781781250808
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781250808
  • ASIN: 1781250804
  • Source: a library book
  • My Rating: 5*

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back.

Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her.

But something goes wrong.

Very wrong.

And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.

I featured In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware in this Friday Post on book Beginnings and said that I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it having been disappointed  by the only other book by her that I’ve read, The Woman in Cabin 10.  But as some people commented that they had enjoyed it and as it has good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads I decided to read on. It promises to be a psychological thriller – a scary book – but maybe I’ve read too many psychological thrillers as I didn’t find it thrilling or scary. It’s mystery novel that slowly reveals why Leonora, known either as Lee or Nora or Leo, and Clare haven’t seen  or even spoken to each other since they were 16, ten years ago. That was also when Nora’s heart was broken when her relationship with James came to an abrupt end. She had never come to terms with their break up.

I thought the setting was good – the hen party is held in a glass house in the middle of a wood in Northumberland. The mobile phone signal is practically nonexistent and they are cut off from the outside world and isolated when the snow sets, in cutting off the landline. But the characters are stereotypes – a new mother pining for her baby back home, a gay male actor, a gay female doctor (who is in my opinion the most sensible of the group), the dippy devoted friend of the bride who has organised this terrible hen party, the bride, self-obsessed, selfish and manipulative as well as Nora, who can’t move on from her past. The outcome is predictable when footprints appear in the snow, the backdoor that was supposed to be locked is found open and the hen party keep arguing and antagonising each other. It’s obvious from the start that something terrible had happened when Nora wakes up in a hospital bed and realises that she can’t remember what had happened … or what she had done.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is Ruth Ware’s debut novel and the film rights have been optioned  by New Line Cinema.  I can imagine that a film would be much more terrifying than the book – it should be, the potential is there. I don’t like being critical of a book, but I can’t recommend this book.

 

Absolute Proof by Peter James

3.5*

Pan Macmillan|4 October 2018|570 pages|Review copy

Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn’t answer the phone call that would change his life – and possibly the world – for ever. ‘I’d just like to assure you I’m not a nutcase, Mr Hunter. My name is Dr Harry F. Cook. I know this is going to sound strange, but I’ve recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence – and I’ve been advised there is a writer, a respected journalist called Ross Hunter, who could help me to get taken seriously.’

What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?

This question and its answer lie at the heart of Absolute Proof, an international thriller from bestselling author Peter James.

The false faith of a billionaire evangelist, the life’s work of a famous atheist, and the credibility of each of the world’s major religions are all under threat. If Ross Hunter can survive long enough to present the evidence . . .

Absolute Proof is a long book and at times I struggled to carry on reading as, although for the most part it is fast-paced, it is slow going in parts. And it certainly tested my ability to suspend my disbelief several times. I’ve only read two of Peter James’ books previously, both crime fiction set in Brighton featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Absolute Proof is a standalone thriller and is very different from the Roy Grace books. It has similarities to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as the search is on for proof of  God’s existence.

Ross Hunter is married to Imogen and they are expecting their first child – however he has serious doubts about his marriage and suspects Imogen of cheating on him. The story of their marriage unfolds, underlying the main plotline.  Dr Harry  F Cook, a former RAF officer and  retired history of art professor, contacts Ross and drip feeds him information that Cook claims proves that God exists.

The grid references Cook gives Hunter takes him to various places including Glastonbury, where he visits the Chalice Well in search of the Holy Grail, and Egypt in search of Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. All the time he is in danger of death as he is pursued by those who do not want Cook’s claims to be made public. It’s a dramatic and hair-raising story that made me want to know what happened next at the same time as it made me question its credibility. It is certainly thought provoking and entertaining.

One of the things that intrigued me was that in his Acknowledgements Peter James explains that the book began with a phone call he received in 1989 from someone who did indeed claim that he had been given absolute proof of God’s existence and that he had been given Peter James’s name as an author who would help him to get taken seriously. This started James’s ‘journey of exploration into what might be considered absolute proof – and just what the consequences might be.’ During the intervening years he has talked to many people from different faiths and had discussions with scientists, academics, theologians and clerics. He has certainly done his research and gives a long list of the people who have helped him, plus a list of his sources of reference, giving me yet more details of books I’d like to read.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for provided a review copy of this book.