Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake

A Golden Age Mystery

Published: 2017, Ipso Books. First published in 1940, Collins UK (The Crime Club)

Source: Review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 4*

I really enjoyed Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake*. It’s a Golden Age mystery first published in the UK in 1940; in the US as The Summer Camp Mystery, later in 1971 as Malice with Murder; and in 1987, as Murder with Malice.

There are several allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The train to Wonderland plunges into a tunnel, just as Alice enters Wonderland through a rabbit hole. But in this case Wonderland is a holiday camp, set on a cliff top overlooking the sea. And all is not well in Wonderland as there is a prankster in the camp , the self-styled ‘Mad Hatter’, who is playing nasty and cruel practical jokes on the holiday makers. Swimmers are ducked in the sea and held down, tennis balls are coated in treacle, left with a note that refers to a part of dormouse’s story in Alice in Wonderland. Then the jokes get more dangerous. The camp’s owners are concerned not just for the guests but also for their business as they fear a rival firm with a grudge against the company is trying to ruin them.

There are hundreds of visitors at Wonderland, but the action revolves around a few characters including Paul Perry, a young man who calls himself a scientist, but who is there taking notes for the Mass Observation project, Mr and Mrs Thistlethwaite and their teenage daughter, Sally, Albert Morley, a timid little man, brothers Mortimer and Teddy Wise, the camp’s managers, their secretary Esmeralda Jones and Nigel Strangeways, a private detective.

Like other Golden Age mysteries, Malice in Wonderland presents a puzzle, plenty of suspects, clues planted along the way and a detective who solves the puzzle. It also presents a picture of life just before the Second World War, the social attitudes and in particular the beginnings of the holiday camps. By the 1930s there were several camps, including Warners and Butlins, at seaside locations. Wonderland has dining-halls presenting food cooked by London chefs, a ballroom, bars, an indoor swimming-bath, a concert hall, a gymnasium and numerous playrooms, plus a programme of entertainment with professional hosts and hostesses. It’s described as ‘the biggest, brightest and most ambitious of all the holiday camps that had sprung up over England during the last year or two.’

I loved the setting, the interesting characters, and the fiendishly difficult mystery to solve (I only solved it just before the denouement). And it’s well written with humour and style.

*Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (1904 – 1972), one of the leading British poets of the 1930s. He published his first Nigel Strangeways detective novel, A Question of Proof in 1935. Malice in Wonderland is the 6th in the series.

My thanks to the publisher for a digital ARC via NetGalley.

Amazon UK

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

Publication Date: 26 September 2017, Random House UK, Cornerstone

Source: Review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 4*

Blurb:

The brilliant new novel from the international bestselling author of Home and Fool Me Once. Mistaken identities, dark family secrets and mysterious conspiracies lie at the heart of this gripping new thriller.

Fifteen years ago in small-town New Jersey, a teenage boy and girl were found dead.

Most people concluded it was a tragic suicide pact. The dead boy’s brother, Nap Dumas, did not. Now Nap is a cop – but he’s a cop who plays by his own rules, and who has never made peace with his past.

And when the past comes back to haunt him, Nap discovers secrets can kill…

My view:

I enjoyed Don’t Let Go very much. It’s a fast-paced mystery that moves between the past and the present with ease, good characterisation and a plot that kept me guessing to the end.

Two stories relating to Coben’s hometown of New Jersey inspired him to write this story. One was about a mafia leader and a make-shift crematorium and the other about a Nike missile control centre behind barbed-wire fencing near the mafia leader’s house and the elementary school. The stories turned out to be true, but Don’t Let Go is Coben’s own version.

Nap has never got over his twin brother, Leo’s death and fifteen years later he is still constantly in his thoughts. Leo and his girlfriend, Diana had been found by a railway line and it looked as though they had committed suicide, but Nap can’t accept that. And he is still obsessed by his girlfriend, Maura, who had disappeared the same night that Leo died. So when another cop, Rex Canton is found dead with Maura’s fingerprints at the scene of the crime, Nap is determined to get to the truth of what exactly had happened and to find Maura.

This is a book that I just had to read quickly, trying to follow the twists and turns as Nap and Ellie, also a friend from their schooldays, uncovered the secrets and lies that had been told over the years.

I enjoyed Don’t Let Go, but it did remind me of the only other book by Coben that I’ve read – The Woods, also about the murder of two teenagers twenty years earlier. Two other teenagers had disappeared and were presumed dead. Paul Copeland, now a County Prosecutor, is asked to identify a dead body, who turns out to be one of the missing teenagers. His sister was the other missing person and she is still missing. Same story in principle but different details and I’m wondering if this is typical of Coben’s books? Are they formulaic?

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, the publishers for a review copy.

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

A Climate of Fear (Commissaire Adamsberg #10)

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas (see below*), translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, is her 9th Commissaire Adamsberg book.

I had high expectations for this book and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s as quirky and original as the other Commissaire Adamsberg books I’ve read (I’ve read five of them, including this one). I like Adamsberg; he’s original, a thinker, who doesn’t like to express his feelings, but mulls things over. He’s an expert at untangling mysteries, an invaluable skill in this, one of the most complicated and intricate mysteries I’ve read. He’d compared the investigation right from the start to a huge tangled knot of seaweed, and summed it up at the end:

… you can’t just plunge into a thing like that. We were pulling out tiny little broken fragments, and getting drawn into other traps. We had elements, clues, but they were floating, dozens of them, just under the surface without any apparent connection between them, in a sort of fog. The whole thing had been drowned in confusion by this twisted and determined killer. (pages 393-394)

The ‘tangled knot‘ is most confusing to begin with, made up of a woman found bleeding to death in her bath, having apparently committed suicide, a strange symbol that appears at subsequent death scenes, a secretive society studying and re-enacting scenes from the French Revolution, and two deaths ten years earlier on an isolated island off the coast of Iceland, where the afturganga, the demon who owns the island summons people to their death.

As in earlier books, Fred Vargas brings in elements of the supernatural, of folk tales, myths and legends, all of which is fascinating and intricately woven into the murder mystery. I loved all of it, especially the tense and fraught relationship that developed between Adamsberg and his team as they became increasingly unable to follow Adamsberg’s line of thought. I also enjoyed reading the details about Robespierre and the part he played in the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror, plus the little quirky details such as those about the cat who sleeps on the photocopier and the tame wild boar that guards one of the characters.

All in all, a brilliant book.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker (14 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1910701386
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910701386
  • Source: I borrowed it from my local library
  • My Rating: 5*

These are the other books I’ve read by Fred Vargas:

* Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

My Friday Post: Extraordinary People

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring Extraordinary People by Peter May

Extraordinary People (The Enzo Files, #1)

Prologue

August 1996

He finds himself in a cobbled courtyard, breath hissing back at him from buttressed walls. A rasping, gasping breath, full of fear and the certainty of death.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56

‘He’s Scottish,’ Raffin said.

Thomas made a slight forward thrusting movement of his jaw to indicate his contempt for anyone who wasn’t Parisian.

Blurb:

An old mystery. 
As midnight strikes, a man desperately seeking sanctuary flees into a church. The next day, his sudden disappearance will make him famous throughout France.

A new science. 
Forensic expert Enzo Macleod takes a wager to solve the seven most notorious French murders, armed with modern technology and a total disregard for the justice system.

A fresh trail. 
Deep in the catacombs below the city, he unearths dark clues deliberately set – and as he draws closer to the killer, discovers that he is to be the next victim.

What do you think? Would you continue reading?

First Chapter First Paragraph: Falling in Love

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

This week’s first paragraph is from a library book that I’ll be reading soon, Falling in Love by Donna Leon. It’s the 24th Commissario Brunetti novel.

Falling in Love (Brunetti 24)

It begins:

The woman knelt over her lover, her face, her entire body stiff with terror, staring at the blood on her hand. He lay on his back, one arm flung out, palm upturned as if begging her to place something into it; his life, perhaps. She had touched his chest, urging him to get up, so they could get out of there, but he hadn’t moved, so she had shaken him, the same old sleepy-head who never wanted to get out of bed.

Blurb (from back cover):

As an opera superstar at La Fenice in Venice, Flavia is well acquainted with attention from adoring fans and aspiring singers. But when anonymous admirer inundates her with bouquets of yellow roses, which start to appear in her dressing room and even inside her locked apartment, she begins to fear for her safety and calls in an old friend.

Enter Commissario Brunetti.

But soon the threat becomes more serious. Brunetti must enter the psyche of an obsessive fan and find the culprit before anyone, especially Flavia, comes to harm.

I’ve only read a few of the Brunetti novels and certainly not in the order they were written. Apparently Flavia appeared in the first book, Death at La Fenice, in which Flavia Petrelli, one of Italy’s finest living sopranos had been the prime suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor – until Brunetti cleared her name.

This title doesn’t say this book is crime fiction to me. What do you think?

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Publication date: 24 August 2017, Century

Source: Review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 5*

Blurb:

A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funeral.
A very private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own.
A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control.
What do they have in common?

Unexpected death, an unsolved mystery and a trail of bloody clues lie at the heart of Anthony Horowitz’s page-turning new thriller.

SPREAD THE WORD. THE WORD IS MURDER.

My thoughts:

The Word is Murder is a very clever and different type of murder mystery. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before, one in which the author himself plays a major role.

Diana Cowper was killed later the same day after making the arrangements for her funeral. She was strangled in her own home. The police at first thought she’d been killed during a burglary, but there were no fingerprints or indeed any other clues to help find her killer.

The novel goes into a different realm with the introduction of ex-policeman, Daniel Hawthorne, who had been an adviser for Horowitz’s Foyle’s War series. The police call on Hawthorne as a consultant on out-of-the ordinary cases and he is working on the Diana Cowper murder. He proposes that Horowitz writes a book about him and his investigations into the case. However, they disagree about what Horowitz should write, which highlights the difference between writing crime fiction and true life crime books – and Horowitz gets dragged into the investigations.

At first I was slightly confused – were the details about Horowitz fact or fiction (a lot of it is true), was Hawthorne a real person or a fictional character, what was fact and what was fiction? It really is one of the most complicated and bemusing books I’ve read, full of realistic characters acting in a mystery full of red herrings and multiple twists and turns. I was soon totally immersed in this fascinating novel. I loved Magpie Murders, and I think Horowitz The Word is Murder is equally as amazing and maybe even better! I was totally unable to solve the mystery, the clues were all there, but I was so involved in sorting out what was real and what wasn’t and enjoying the puzzle that I completely missed them.

I am so delighted that I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

Six Degrees of Separation: Wild Swans to A Dark-Adapted Eye

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Falling Leaves Return To Their RootsThe first book in my chain is also about a Chinese daughter. It’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter  by Adeline Yen Mah. She grew up during the Communist Revolution, was blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A moving story set during extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong.

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

My next book is about a fictional daughter: The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham, historical fiction set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War. It covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth Summer should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.

The Tiger in the Smoke (Albert Campion Mystery #14)

This leads on to a book by another author named Allingham. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham in which Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem. Meg’s marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett should have been happy, until she began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, presumed dead in WWII. She calls on old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry – until a brutal triple murder. I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything.

Our Mutual Friend

And the next book is also set in foggy London – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,

… the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking,  wheezing, and choking: inanimate London was a sooty spectre … (page 242)

This book has multiple plots, centred on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. It begins as a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, find a corpse in the Thames.

A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4)

A body found in the Thames provides the next link in my chain to a modern crime fiction novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.  This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. Police Constable Lacey Flint thinks she’s safe. Living on the river, she’s never been happier. Until she finds a body floating on the surface, as she wild-swims in the Thames.

This leads to the last book in my chain, another book with the word ‘dark‘ in the title:

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed.

The narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories.

For once I have read all the books in my chain and they are all books I thoroughly enjoyed, a variety of genres – autobiography, historical fiction, classics and crime fiction. It begins in China and travels to Sussex to London through time from the nineteenth century to the present day.

When I begin a chain I never know where it will end. What about you, where does yours go and where does it end?

Next month (October 7, 2017), the chain begins with a book that I haven’t read (or heard about) – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.