The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

Quercus Books| 1 October 2020| 352 pages| Review copy| 4*

From the sleepy seaside town of Shoreham to the granite streets of Aberdeen, The Postscript Murders is a literary mystery for fans of Anthony Horowitz, Agatha Christie and anyone who’s ever wondered just how authors think up such realistic crimes..

PS: Trust no one.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed Elly Griffiths’ first DS Harbinder Kaur book, The Stranger Diaries, so I was keen to read the second book, The Postscript Murders. It’s very different, in a much lighter style and I think Elly Griffiths was enjoying herself writing this poking fun at crime fiction writers and the book world, with book bloggers and a literary festival. I really enjoyed it. It’s very readable, cleverly plotted, with interesting and well defined characters.

Peggy Smith is ninety, living in a retirement flat at Seaview Court in Shoreham. The book begins as she is ‘lurking’ in a bay window watching the world go by and writing down details of everyone she sees. But when Natalka, Peggy’s Ukranian carer, finds her sitting in her armchair by the window, she knows immediately that she is dead and suspects that something is wrong, especially when she finds a business card – ‘Mrs M Smith, Murder Consultant’. For Peggy is a woman with a past, who helps crime fiction writers with their plots and gory ways for people to die.

But Peggy had a heart condition and DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her about her death and initially she does not feature much in the book. Natalka enlists the help of Peggy’s friends, ex-monk Benedict, the local cafe owner and Edwin, who also lives at Seaview Court to help her investigate. When they find sinister notes with the threatening message We are coming for you, and Natalka and Benedict are threatened by a mysterious gunman who bursts into Peggy‘s flat, both D S Kaur and D S Neil Winston then take on an active role.

Their investigations lead them to Peggy’s author friends and another murder victim. Then Natalka, Benedict and Edwin then travel from Shoreham to Aberdeen to a literary festival to warn another of Peggy’s author friends, J D Monroe, Julie, that she too might be in danger, thinking she is the next victim. From then on the mystery deepens, and the suspects increase. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns, that kept me guessing throughout.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

The Searcher by Tana French

Penguin| 5 November 2020| 400 pages| Review copy| 5*

I enjoyed The Searcher very much. For the most part this standalone mystery novel moves quite slowly, but it held my attention right from the beginning. It certainly isn’t a book to rush through, rather it’s one to savour. The main characters are Cal Hooper and thirteen-year old Trey Reddy living in Ardnakelty, a remote Irish village. After twenty five years in the Chicago police force, Cal has recently moved to the village, wanting to build a new life after his divorce. He is a loner and wants a quiet life in which nothing much happens. But he finds himself getting involved in the search for Brendan, Trey’s older brother who had gone missing from home.

Cal is a methodical man, slowly doing up his run-down cottage and getting to know the locals – his neighbour Marty, Noreen who runs the village shop, her sister Lena and above all, Trey. I liked the slow build up to the mystery, and I loved Tana French’s beautiful descriptions of the Irish rural landscape. It’s the sort of book I find so easy to read and lose myself in, able to visualise the landscape and feel as if I’m actually there with the characters, watching what is happening.

But this is no ‘cosy’ crime fiction novel. Trey is like a dog with a bone and won’t let Cal give up when it looks as though they will never discover why Brendan left and what had happened to him. I realised after a while what could have happened to Brendan, but I hadn’t foreseen the twists and turns in this book, one of which really surprised me. The ending is terrific. The tension builds and builds as Cal and Trey find themselves in danger. Above all, it is about family relationships, responsibility and friendship. It is atmospheric, spellbinding, and compelling reading. Tana French is a great storyteller.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton was first published in 1930. Miles Burton is a pseudonym. His real name was Cecil John Charles Street (1884 – 1964) and he also wrote under the names of John Rhode and Cecil Way. I like these names – variations on the word ‘street’. This edition was published by the British Library in 2016 and is one of my TBRs.

It’s not an easy book to write about. There is a murder – that of the landlord of the Rose and Crown Inn in the village of High Eldersham. He was found dead slumped in a chair, having been stabbed in the neck. The local police don’t feel able to deal with the murder so call in help from Scotland Yard.

But when Detective Inspector Young arrives he discovers that there is something very strange about the village and its inhabitants. Like a lot of small and remote villages the local people keep themselves to themselves and are very wary of strangers – they’re not made welcome and they don’t stay very long. But it’s more than that. Strange things are happening, and Young’s theory to account for the queerness of the place seemed to him (and to me) ‘so impossible, so utterly fanciful, that to entertain it was to doubt his own sanity.’ It concerns ancient legends and customs with a supernatural element. And this is what makes it difficult to write about because to say anything more about this ‘queerness‘ would be to give away a major part of the plot.

Young decides he can’t deal with this on his own and he contacts his friend, Desmond Merrion, a brilliant individual from the intelligence branch of the Admiralty, he had met during the war. He writes to Merrion inviting him to the inquest into the Inn’s landlord death, where he meets a war-time acquaintance, Laurence Hollesley.

From that point on the novel branches into two stories – the murder mystery and a thriller full of danger, drama and pace, plus a damsel in distress and spot of smuggling thrown into the mix. I enjoyed it. It’s easy to read, even if I find it difficult to write about, with clearly identifiable characters and a good sense of location. There’s suspense and the tension rises as the mystery reaches its climax.

Merrion also appears in the one other book I have by Miles Burton – Death in the Tunnel, which I hope to read soon.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Somebody at the Door is one of the British Library Crime Classics, originally published in 1943. It’s set in 1942 and it gives a vivid picture of what life was like in wartime England. There is an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards.

In January 1942, Henry Grayling is on the 6.12 train from Euston, travelling home to Croxburn from work in London. There’s a fuel shortage so there are less trains than usual and the carriages are crowded – Grayling views all his fellow passengers with dislike and suspicion as he clutches his attache case, containing £120 pounds close to his chest.

He sits next to a young man, Evetts, who works for the same company and is smoking a foul smelling pipe, and on his other side is the Vicar of Croxburn, both of whom he knows. He also recognises Ransom, a corporal in the Home Guard platoon in which he, Grayling is a second lieutenant. The other occupants of the carriage are a fair young man with a club foot, a refugee doctor, a fat middle aged woman and her teenage daughter, and two young working men in overalls. Most of the passengers are suffering from colds, coughing and sneezing and Grayling has to hold his handkerchief in front of his nose. He is relieved to leave the train when it eventually pulls into the station at Croxburn. However, when Grayling arrived home he is seriously ill and dies later that evening.

An autopsy reveals that he had died of mustard gas poisoning and Inspector Holly finds that there are too many suspects; Grayling was an extremely unlikable person. The rest of the book reads like a collection of short stories as Holly investigates Grayling’s fellow passengers. Their stories are detailed and at times I felt they were too long and slowed the book down too much, but they are interesting in themselves. I particularly like the German refugee’s story, casting light on what life was like in Germany just before and at the onset of the war.

I did enjoy the book, the characters stand out as real people and also reflect Postgate’s own likes and dislikes. Martin Edwards’ introduction gives the background to Postgate’s writing – he was an atheist and a one-time Communist. His stories reveal the corruption in local government at that period, and the attitudes of the British government in the lead up to the war. The murder mystery is really secondary to the suspects’ stories, which makes the book more a reflection of the period, which Postgate does really well, than crime fiction. However, the murder mystery is well plotted, giving me plenty to unravel and it was only in the final section that I guessed who had killed Grayling.

  • Kindle Edition
  • File Size : 3089 KB
  • Print Length : 239 pages
  • Publisher : British Library Publishing (10 Oct. 2017)
  • Source: Prime Reading Library

The Search Party by Simon Lelic

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Viking| 20 August 2020| 35 pages print length| Hardback| Review Copy

Three years ago I read The House by Simon Lelic and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading The Search Party. I’m delighted to say that I think it is even better.

16-year-old Sadie Saunders is missing and five of her friends set out into the woods to find her. At the same time the police’s investigation, led by Detective Robin Fleet and Detective Sergeant Nicola Collins, is underway. The narrative alternates between the two groups. Sadie is a clever girl, popular with her school friends and loved by her parents, who favour her over her twin brother Luke and their younger brother, Dylan.

The opening lines propelled me straight into the story as one of Sadie’s friends, lost in the woods her makes an incoherent phone call to the emergency services. The caller doesn’t know their location other than it is ‘somewhere in the woods‘ near an abandoned building. And from that point on I was gripped, compelled to follow this complex novel, full of red herrings and multiple twists and turns. It is tense from start to finish, ending in an exhausting and terrifying chase that had me on the edge of my seat!

I really like Fleet, and the way he stands up to his boss, Superintendent Burton, whose main concern is the cost of the investigation. Burton puts pressure on him to arrest Mason, assuming he has killed Sadie even though her body has not been found. Mason is part of the search party, but Fleet’s instincts tell him Mason is innocent. Fleet is known for his ability to find missing persons and sticks to his gut feelings.

My only criticism is that at times the teenagers’ rambling discussions about what could have happened to Sadie and their disagreements went on too long for my liking. But that is just a minor point. They are all keeping secrets and in their interviews with the police they all lie and withhold vital facts and they are suspicious of each other, not knowing who they can trust. And I couldn’t decide what had happened to Sadie – had she run away, committed suicide or was she murdered and if so who was the murderer. They are all suspects, including Sadie’s parents. It was only just before the end of the book that I realised just what had happened.

My thanks to NetGalley and Viking, the publishers for a review copy.

Wycliffe and How To Kill a Cat by W J Burley

W.J. Burley (1914 – 2002) was first an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay. He created Wycliffe in 1966 and the series was televised in the 1990s with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. But I’ve never watched any of them. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.

Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat is the second book in the series and is the 7th one I’ve read. It was first published in 1970 as To Kill a Cat. It’s well written, with descriptions of the coast of Cornwall, firmly set in the late 1960s, specifically at the time of the astronauts first moon landing in July 1969. At one point Wycliffe reflects on the fact that a quarter of a million miles away men were walking on the moon.

Superintendent Wycliffe, despite being on holiday can’t help getting involved when a young woman is found murdered in her seedy hotel bedroom. She’d been strangled and her face had been savagely smashed in. A thousand pounds was still in a drawer, hidden beneath her clothes, so the motive wasn’t theft.

It’s a complex story that kept me guessing to the end. Once Wycliffe had established the young woman’s identity, there were several suspects he investigated, including her husband, a meek man whose mother dominated him and his aunt who doted on him, or maybe it was the owner of the nightclub, the Voodoo where she’d worked, or one of its patrons. I kept thinking it was this person and then that person …

I like Wycliffe, a quiet man who works on instinct, but I did feel sorry for his wife, left very much on her own as he occupied himself on investigating the murder – after all they were supposed to be on holiday. She doesn’t complain. Instead she made friends with some local people and went out with them in their motor launch to explore a bit of Du Maurier country.

Wycliffe is a comparative newcomer to the area and the divisional inspector, Inspector Fehling’s first impression of him was not favourable. He thought that Wycliffe did not look like a policeman. He didn’t look ‘tall enough and he seemed almost frail. A teacher, some kind of academic, perhaps a parson, but never a policeman.’ This reminded me that there used to be a minimum height requirement for policemen of 5ft 8in tall.

These two extracts describe how Wycliffe worked:

“Wycliffe stood for a while, apparently lost in thought. Actually, though ideas chased each other through his mind they could hardly be said to have any pattern of rational consecutive thought.”

“It was when he made an effort to think in a disciplined way about anything that he was most conscious of his shortcomings. And this reflection brought him back to the case. Not only did he find sus­tained logical thought difficult but he was always short of written data. He had the official reports but these were so full as to be almost useless. Any other detective would have a sheaf of private notes, but he rarely wrote anything down and if he did he either lost it or threw it away. Notes were repugnant to him. Even now he ought to be sitting at a desk with a notepad in front of him, jotting down his ideas, transposing and relating facts like a jig-saw.”

This is police procedural, reflecting the social values and attitudes of the 1960s. It’s an early book in the series, but I think it clearly shows Wycliffe’s character and the way he worked. I’ve read the books in the series totally out of order, so it was good to read the second one. I’m still wondering about the title as there are no details in it about how to kill a cat! I’m hoping to read the first one – Wycliffe and the Three Toed Pussy, which despite its title is not about an actual cat either, but about a young woman with a deformed foot.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

HarperCollins/ 20 August 2020/ Print length 346 pages/ Kindle edition/ 3*

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is Sophie Hannah’s fourth Hercules Poirot mystery novel and the first one I’ve read. I have read some of Hannah’s books previously. So, I know that she writes complicated and tricky plots. Whilst not attempting to reproduce Christie’s Poirot this book is loosely based on Christie’s books, as Hannah incorporates all the twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections that you find in them. There’s a country house setting, a number of suspects, and a gathering together at the end where Poirot reveals all.

Blurb:

Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate, where Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. But there is a strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there.
 
The coach is forced to stop when a distressed woman demands to get off, insisting that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. Although the rest of the journey passes without anyone being harmed, Poirot’s curiosity is aroused, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered with a macabre note attached…

Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And if Helen is innocent, can Poirot find the true culprit in time to save her from the gallows?

I wasn’t expecting a cloned Poirot and Hannah’s Poirot is not Christie’s Poirot. There’s no Captain Hastings in this book, Poirot’s faithful friend. Instead Poirot is accompanied by Inspector Catchpole from Scotland Yard. How on earth he got to be an inspector is beyond me – he comes across as rather dim and stupid and Poirot treats him as such, endlessly explaining things to him and telling him what to do in an officious manner.

There are three strands to the plot – who killed Frank Devonport; who is the hysterical woman with an ‘unfinished face’ who insists she will be murdered if she sits in a specific seat on the coach; and who is the mysterious woman who tells Poirot she is a murderer – what a stupid thing to do when she knows he is a ‘world-renowned detective’? And I wondered what makes Richard so sure that Helen didn’t kill Frank when she had immediately confessed that she had? And I’m still wondering why when he was invited to Kingfisher Hall, an exclusive and private country estate, he went by coach with 30 other passengers – even if it was a ‘luxury’ coach. I just can’t see Poirot travelling by coach!

This all makes the book extremely convoluted, confusing and tangled as well as long-winded. Poirot though works his way methodically through the mess and gets to the truth. However, I found it quite dull and repetitive and rather contrived. So, my rating for this book is 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3.

My thanks to HarperCollins for a review copy via NetGalley.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*

Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.

Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.

They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.

Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.

And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.

‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.

I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.

Sebastian Barry

Photo credit: ©Alan Betson, The Irish Times

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

a perfect crime

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards is the sequel to Gallows Court. Both books are set in 1930 in London and reflect Martin Edwards’ fascination with that period in history and his love of Golden Age detective fiction.

1930. A chilling encounter on London’s Necropolis Railway leads to murder and a man escapes the gallows after a witness gives sensational evidence. After this string of strange, fatal events, journalist Jacob Flint discovers that he has been framed for murder. To save himself, he flees to Mortmain Hall, a remote estate on the northern coast. There, an eccentric female criminologist hosts a gathering of eclectic people who have all escaped miscarriages of cruel justice. This strange group puts Jacob a little on edge, but they may be his only hope to clear his name.

When a body is found beneath the cliffs near the house, it seems this gathering might be an ingenious plot to get away with murder. Are these eccentrics victims or are they orchestrators of the great deception? Jacob must now set out to uncover the labyrinthine of secrets within Mortmain Hall, alongside Rachel Savernake, woman whose relentless quest for the truth might just bring down the British establishment…

This is one of those books that I find difficult to review – it is complex with several plot lines. So, I’m going to be brief. It begins most unusually with an Epilogue in which Rachel Savernake is talking to a dying man about a ‘perfect crime’ and asks him what had happened at Mortmain Hall. Then chapter one begins with this strange statement, ‘The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage‘ and I was hooked. Rachel followed the ‘ghost’ as he entered a funeral train run by the London Necropolis Company for privileged first-class passengers. What was going on?

The novel moves on to a scene in the Old Bailey where Jacob Flint, a journalist is watching the trial of Clive Daneskin, accused of murder. After the trial he meets Leonora Dobell, a mysterious woman. Then the book gets very detailed, as more murder cases were described at length and I couldn’t see, at first, how they were connected, or how Mortmain Hall came into the story. But then I thought about the Epilogue and I realised that this is a book about ‘a perfect crime’, so I persevered and eventually it all became much clearer.

And there is further clarification when you reach the end of the book where the Epilogue, in its right place, is continued, followed by a chapter called Cluefinder, in which Martin Edwards lists 30 clues in the narrative, in the tradition of the Golden Age detective novels. Mortmain Hall is not a quick read because it is so detailed, but I did enjoy it.

Mortmain Hall was first published in the UK by Head of Zeus in April 2020 and is scheduled to be published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press on 20 September 2020. My thanks to Poisoned Press and NetGalley for a review copy.

His and Hers by Alice Feeney

HQ| 28 May 2020| 384 pages| Review copy| 4*

I read Alice Feeney’s debut novel, Sometimes I Lie three years ago and loved it. His and Hers is her third book and just like her first book I was utterly gripped by it and compelled to read it, puzzled and amazed by the cleverness of the plot. It’s a standalone psychological thriller.

Blurb:

Jack: Three words to describe my wife: Beautiful. Ambitious. Unforgiving.
Anna: I only need one word to describe my husband: Liar.

When a woman is murdered in Blackdown village, newsreader Anna Andrews is reluctant to cover the case. Anna’s ex-husband, DCI Jack Harper, is suspicious of her involvement, until he becomes a suspect in his own murder investigation.

Someone is lying, and some secrets are worth killing to keep.

The narrative moves between two characters ‘Him’, Jack Harper and ‘Her’, Anna Andrews and there is also a third narrator, the unnamed killer. Anna lives in London, working for the BBC. She grew up in Blackdown, and is an alcoholic, who is still recovering from a recent tragedy that pushed her to drink. Jack is a Detective Chief Inspector, who has recently moved to Blackdown from London to be in charge of the Major Crime Team based in Surrey. He knows Blackdown well as he also grew up there and Anna is his ex wife.

There is so much ambiguity and misdirection that there were times when I thought the killer could just as easily be Jack, or Anna, or one of the other characters – and wondered just which one was the narrator. More murders follow after that first one. But these are not random killings – and it’s soon apparent that the victims are all connected. They had all been at to the same school and had been guests at Anna’s sixteenth birthday party.

I read it quickly, suspending my disbelief and disliking most of the main characters – they really are downright nasty – cheating, lying, manipulating and abusing others, bullying and blackmailing them. – and worse. It kept me guessing throughout, changing my mind about the culprit, or culprits, as I read on. It’s not a comfortable read, dark and twisted with some gruesomely graphic scenes, which is why I’m giving this book 4 stars instead of 5. It’s one of those books I didn’t really like, but I did enjoy working out the puzzle of who could be trusted, who to be wary of and most of all who was doing the murders.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers HQ for an ARC.

Alice Feeney’s second book, I Know Who You Are, is one of the books lost in the depths of my Kindle library – I must dig it out.