Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

‘This is not a detective story, this is a story about a detective’

Nothing ventured

Macmillan|5 September 2019|337 pages|e-book|Review copy|3*

Years ago I enjoyed reading a few of Jeffrey Archer’s books, including Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less and Kane and Able. Archer is a prolific author, but I haven’t read any of his later books or his diaries about his time in prison. But I was interested when I saw that he had started a new series about William Warwick – Nothing Ventured. It is the first in the series of books following William’s progress from detective constable to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

It is indeed, a story about a detective, rather than a detective story and as such it is rather episodic, following William Warwick’s career.

William joins the Metropolitan Police force, against his father’s wishes. Sir Julian Warwick QC, had hoped his son would join him in chambers and train to be a barrister, like his sister Grace. He works on the beat in Lambeth before transferring to the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard, where he becomes involved in a number of cases of fraud and theft, including tracing the whereabouts of a phial of the moon dust brought back from the Apollo 11 mission by Neil Armstrong, and arresting an old man who had forges the signatures of famous authors in first editions. Whilst investigating the theft of a Rembrandt painting, the Syndics of the Cloth Makers Guild, from the Fitzmolean Museum in Kensington, he meets Beth Rainsford, a research assistant at the gallery and they fall in love almost at first sight – but Beth has a secret that she keeps from him. 

The premise is promising, but it’s written in a very straight-forward and factual style and my overall impression, despite the crime elements, is that this is a rather mundane and bland novel. William does this, does that, goes here, goes there, often at a break-neck pace that gives impetus. But the characters are drawn very sketchily with little depth – William is an intelligent young man, precocious and naive, eager to please and to learn, his father, Sir Julian, a suave, elegant and successful QC and Grace, his sister, an up and coming young barrister, and so on.

I suppose it is the base for the rest of the series but I found it too predictable. However, I thought the court scenes and the final little twist at the end enjoyable and I’m wondering if I want to go one to read the next book in the series which focuses on William’s time as a young detective sergeant in the elite drugs unit. I’m not sure that I do want to – there are so many more enticing books to read.

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

An Advancement of Learning by Reginald Hill: Mini Review

An Advancement of learning

An Advancement of Learning is Reginald Hill’s second Dalziel and Pascoe novel, first published in 1971. It’s much better than the first one, A Clubbable Woman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in a college, Holm Coultram College, where Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the discovery of a body found as an eight foot high bronze statue of Miss Girling, a former head of the College in the grounds is being moved. As the base of the statue is lifted earth falls away together with a shin bone followed by part of a rib cage and then a skull, still with a mop of dark red hair attached. Miss Girling had red hair – but she had died in an avalanche in Austria – so whose body was buried under the statue?

The plot is by no means straight forward and for most of the book continued to puzzle me, even though I thought the ending was rather weak. But the strength of this book is in the writing and the characterisation. It is a character-driven murder mystery, with a cast of characters including Girling, Halfdane, Fallowfield, Cockshut, and Disney, known as ‘Walt’, of course and I had no difficulty in keeping who was who clearly in my mind. It’s interesting to see the early relationship between Dalziel, shown as a rude, boorish character, and Pascoe, the university educated young DS. Dalziel is very much out of his comfort zone with the academic staff and looks to Pascoe to understand how the college operates, whilst mocking him. Pascoe renews his relationship with Ellie Soper, an ex-girlfriend from his university days – a feisty young woman, but a minor character in this book. 

Written in 1971 it is very much a book of its time. I read it quickly, as the two detectives uncover plenty of disagreements and power struggles in both the staff and student bodies – from rivalries to revelries on the beach, and more dead bodies turn up before the mystery is solved.

And reading it has made me keen to get on the next book in the series, Ruling Passion, which I’ve started almost straight away! I’ve been reading this series totally out of order, beginning with some of the later books – much more detailed and complex than the first books.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (25 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780007313037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313037
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 4.5*

Reading challenges: Mount TBR, Calendar of Crime, 20 Books of Summer

Operation Pax by Michael Innes

When people disappear, one hears talk of Milton Porcorum

Operation Pax

Agora Books|3 May 2018|384 pages|e-book|Review copy|4*

Operation Pax by Michael Innes, an Inspector Appleby mystery, was originally published in 1951, and in the United States as The Paper Thunderbolt.

I enjoyed Operation Pax much more than I expected I would when I began reading it. Almost the first third of the book is about a petty thief, Alfred Routh, an unpleasant little man, who for much of the time is confused and bewildered by his own thoughts and fears, which plunge him into utter panic. As his fears spiral into a engulfing and terrifying fantasy, he finds himself in the little village of Milton Porcorum and here is where his nightmare really begins. A tall man with square shoulders ushers him within the walls of Milton Manor, a most bizarre place where Routh fears for his life. A place where experiments are carried out in a sequence of laboratories and dangerous animals are kept in enclosures surrounding the house. A place with a mysterious and unnamed ‘Director’ who masterminds the whole operation.

After that rather surreal opening the action moves to Oxford and a rather more normal atmosphere – but strange and disturbing things are happening there too. An undergraduate, Geoffrey Ourglass, has disappeared and both his uncle, a university don and his fiancée, Jane, Sir John Appleby’s younger sister are concerned for his safety. Jane enlists her brother’s help to find Geoffrey – and so begins an adventure involving the dons of St Bede’s college, a group of boisterous children on bikes, European refugees as well as Appleby, Jane and her taxi-driver, Roger Remnant. It takes us from St Bede’s college into the depths of the Bodleian Library, on the trail of clues, around Oxford and out into the surrounding countryside in a thrilling chase against time to rescue Geoffrey. There are strange phone calls and most mysterious of all a formula written on a scrap of paper that threatens the safety of the whole world – it must be found and destroyed.

I loved a number of things about this book – the descriptions of the dons and their ‘erudite’ conversations, the setting in Oxford and particularly in the Bodleian library is brilliant, and the children are lively, argumentative and entertaining, providing comic relief.  It is pure escapism with an incredibly unbelievable plot and strange eccentric characters that wormed their way into my mind and made it a book I just had to finish. Once it got going it is fast- paced and it kept me guessing about the identity of the mastermind behind the threat to mankind – I was completely wrong!

The Author

Michael Innes is the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906 – 1994), a British scholar and novelist. He was born near Edinburgh, the son of a Scottish professor, and attended Edinburgh Academy, then Oriel College, Oxford where he won the Matthew Arnold Memorial Prize in 1939 and honours in English. He was a Lecturer, then a Professor in English at different universities, including Adelaide University in South Australia from 1935 to 1945. He became an Oxford fellow in 1949 and finished his academic career in 1973 as a Student (Fellow) at Christ Church Oxford.

As Michael Innes, he published numerous mystery novels and short story collections, most featuring the Scotland Yard detective John Appleby.

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

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Art of Dying

Canongate Books|29 August 2019|416 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*

A Note From the Publisher

 

Many thanks to Canongate Books for an e-book review copy via NetGalley.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers, is the second Lord Peter Wimsey book and one of my 20 Books of Summer. It was first published in 1926. My copy was reprinted in 1984 and I bought it secondhand four years ago.

Clouds of witness Sayers

From the back cover of my paperback:

A man is found shot, and the Duke of Denver is charged with his murder. Naturally, it is his brother, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is called in to investigate the crime. This is a family affair, for the murdered man was the fiancé of the sister of Denver and Wimsey.

Why, then, does the Duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Is he really guilty, or is he covering up for someone? Why is Wimsey attacked by an enraged farmer on the lonely moors? Why is an attempt made on his life in a Soho street?

My thoughts:

So many questions! And as I read even more popped into my mind – why did Lady Mary, Wimsey’s sister, leave the house at 3am on the morning of the murder? Why is she feigning illness? Whose footprints are those near the body of Denis Cathcourt (the murdered man)? What is the significance of the diamond cat charm with eyes of bright emeralds? And why won’t the Duke defend himself? Then there are the bloodstains and signs that the body had been dragged to the door of the conservatory where it was found, leading into the nearby thicket. If the Duke didn’t kill Cathcart who did and why?

The evidence against the Duke is circumstantial. So, Wimsey has his work cut out to prove his innocence and save him from the death penalty. Together with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker (who is in love with Lady Mary), and Bunter, his manservant, they look for clues and interview the family’s guests on the night of the murder. There are several strands to the story and minor characters who all manage to confuse the mystery.

There are some memorable scenes, such as Wimsey and Bunter’s escapade on the moors when they attempted to get to Grider’s Hole. The fog had come on them suddenly, blotting out their surroundings and they had no idea what direction to take. They strode forward gingerly unable to distinguish uphill from downhill – then Wimsey tripped into a bog, and found himself sinking up to his thighs. As well as struggling in the foggy bog, Wimsey also got shot and rather dramatically flew to New York in pursuit of evidence, a dangerous journey in a fragile plane as a deep depression was crossing the Atlantic bringing storms with heavy rain and sleet, rising to a gale as the plane lurched from gust to gust.

The trial scene in the House of Lords is fascinating:

The historic trial of the Duke of Denver for murder opened as soon as Parliament reassembled after the Christmas vacation. The papers had leaderettes on ‘Trial by his Peers’, by a Woman Barrister, and ‘The Privilege of Peers: should it be abolished?’ by a Student of History. The Evening Banner got into trouble for contempt by publishing an article entitled ‘The Silken Rope’ (by an Antiquarian), which was deemed to be prejudicial, and the Daily Trumpet – the Labour organ – inquired sarcastically why, when a peer was tried, the fun of seeing the show should be reserved to the few influential persons who could wangle tickets for the Royal Gallery. (pages 217 -218)

Clouds of Witness is a book of its time, there is much banter, wit and humour, and plenty of snobbery of all types clearly showing the class distinctions between the working and upper classes. It is a clever story, well told, with colourful characters and I liked the details it gives about Wimsey’s family as I’ve been reading these books totally out of order.

All in all, I enjoyed it – 4*.

Reading challenges: 20 Books of Summer, Calendar of Crime, and Mount TBR challenge 2019

Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way

Who killed Ruby

Harper Collins|30 May 2019|403 pages|Review e-book copy|3.5*

Ruby was murdered 32 years ago but her death still affects her family – Stella her mother, Vivienne her younger sister, and Cleo, Vivienne’s 13 year old daughter. Who Killed Ruby?  begins in a house in Peckham, London where the three of them are in shock, as a man lies dead on the kitchen floor. Whilst they wait for the police to arrive, Vivienne asks what they should tell them and Stella replies that they will tell them it is the man who murdered Ruby. This rather begs the question – is it?

The novel then rewinds two months describing the events that led up to that first scene and also reveals the events that led up to Ruby’s murder. It’s a complex tale told mainly from Vivienne’s point of view. She was just a child of eight when the murder happened and it was largely her testimony that convicted Jack Delaney, Ruby’s boyfriend. She had been alone in the house when she found her sister’s pregnant body splayed out on her bedroom floor. Jack has always protested his innocence and now he has been released from prison. But Vivienne is vague about the details of the murder, having blocked out her memories of what had happened and what she had seen. Plagued by nightmares ever since Ruby was killed, she is now terrified that Jack will come looking for her, wanting revenge.

The second viewpoint is Cleo’s. She is excited about the messages she’s exchanging online with Daniel, who she met on a gaming site. He tells her he is 14 and lives in Leeds. She lies to Vivienne about it and says that she is texting her friend Layla. Gradually Vivienne begins to remember what happened the day that Ruby died, but when Cleo disappears she becomes frantic, certain that Jack has taken her.

It is a tense and emotional mystery that kept me guessing to the very end. My suspicions about Cleo turned out to be partly correct, but as for who killed Ruby I was thrown off track by all the different characters who could be the culprit and I just couldn’t decide who I thought it could be. When the identity of the killer was revealed I was so surprised as it was someone I’d not even considered. I wasn’t convinced by some of the characters and thought they were too obviously there to confuse the reader. But overall I did enjoy the book. And I liked the emphasis on family relationships – particularly on the mother/daughter relationships.

Many thanks to the publishers, Harper Collins, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries

Quercus |1 November 2018|410 pages|Hardback|Library Book|3*

I knew very little about The Stranger Diaries before I opened the book beyond the fact that it is a standalone novel by Elly Griffiths, a murder mystery with a Victorian Gothic feel. It sounded different from her other books that I’ve read, so I was intrigued. 

It begins with the opening of the Victorian Gothic writer R M Holland’s short story, The Stranger, a ghost story set at midnight at Halloween. Clare Cassidy, an English teacher at Talgarth High, where Holland once lived, runs short courses for adults on his work. She is also writing his biography, hoping to discover the truth behind the stories that his wife fell to her death down the stairs, (there are rumours that her ghost haunts the building). Was his wife killed, or was her death suicide or an accident? And was the mysterious ‘Mariana’ his daughter? There is no record of either her birth or her death. 

But the main plotline is the modern mystery – that of the murder of Ella,her friend and fellow English teacher. A line, ‘Hell is empty!‘ from Holland’s story is found in a note beside her body. Ella, however, is only the first murder victim and gradually it becomes clear that the motivation for the killings centres around Clare. Is she a suspect or a potential victim? The story has three narrators, each one clearly distinguishable – Clare, her teenage daughter Georgia, and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, giving different perspectives on events. Excerpts from The Stranger are interspersed between the chapters along with Clare’s diary, in which she records her suspicions and fears that could hold the clue to the killings, and those about the police investigation. 

Overall, I did enjoy The Stranger Diaries. I liked the literary references to Victorian literature and the details about R M Holland (a fictional character).  I thought the characters were interesting, especially Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur. But I didn’t find either the short story, The Stranger, or the atmospheric setting particularly spooky and I thought the murder mystery was rather unconvincing, especially the ending. Maybe my expectations were too high – or maybe it’s the wrong time of year to read it, and Halloween and November would be more appropriate!

Reading Challenges: Calendar of Crime (the main action takes place in November) and the Virtual Mount TBR challenge.