Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain

Six neighbours, six secrets, six reasons to want Olive Collins dead.

 

Quercus Books|7 February 2019 |416 pages|e-book |Review copy|4.5*

I first came across Jo Spain’s books last year when I read The Confession, a standalone novel and then The Darkest Place, her 4th Inspector Tom Reynolds Mystery book, both very good books. So I was keen to read her latest book, a psychological thriller, Dirty Little Secrets, another standalone book. I really enjoyed this very readable page-turner, keen to discover all the secrets.

It’s set in Withered Vale, a small, gated community of just seven houses, outside the small village of Marwood in Wicklow in Ireland. On the surface it is a perfect place where the wealthy live their  privileged lives and keep themselves to themselves – until a cloud of bluebottles stream out of the chimney of number 4 and Olive Collins’ dead and disintegrating body is discovered inside. She had been dead for three months and none of the neighbours had bothered to find out why she hadn’t been seen all that time. But someone must have known what had happened to her – the question being who?

When DI Frank Brazil, near to his retirement, and his partner young Emma Child arrive it’s not clear whether Olive’s death was accidental death or suicide. But they quickly establish that the boiler had been pumping out carbon monoxide and the vents and the letter box had been taped up.  It was then obvious that her death was either suicide or murder. There is plenty of DNA in the house, as it turns out that all the neighbours had visited Olive. She had tried to interfere in each of their lives and each one of them had something to hide, from past crimes, past relationships, addictions, and blackmail. They’re all suspects as each one had a motive for killing Olive.

I liked the way Jo Spain has structured her book – each character is introduced and gradually more and more facts about their lives and personalities are revealed. And Olive’s dead voice is interspersed among these people, revealing her personality, thoughts and relationships with the others, and showing just went on behind all the closed doors. I was fascinated and went from one person to the next wondering who was guilty, changing my mind as the book progressed. The characters are convincing and so it was easy to work out who was who and how they all interacted. The ending surprised me as although I had suspected what had taken place I hadn’t foreseen the whole picture.

I was hooked from the beginning to the end. Withered Vale went from being a place where the neighbours lived their lives in isolation to a much more united community as together they faced the enormity of what had happened.

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

Note: this book is one of my TBRs, so qualifying for Bev’s Mount TBR challenge and as it will be published in February it also qualifies for Bev’s Calendar of Crime challenge in the category of a February publication.

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong

Blurb

When Yu-jin wakes up covered in blood, and finds the body of his mother downstairs, he decides to hide the evidence and pursue the killer himself. 

Then young women start disappearing in his South Korean town. Who is he hunting? And why does the answer take him back to his brother and father who lost their lives many years ago.

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim, is the first of her books to be translated into English. You-jeong Jeong is a South Korean writer of psychological crime and thriller fiction. She is the author of four novels including Seven Years of Darkness, which was named one of the top ten crime novels of 2015 by the German newspaper Die Zeit.

My thoughts:

I thought that maybe I’d made a mistake in requesting The Good Son from NetGalley when I started reading it. And at 23% I was ready to abandon it – I was tired of reading about Yu-jin trying to get rid of all the blood in the apartment and on himself after he discovered his mother lying in a pool of blood – it was so repetitive and slow going. So I did something that I very rarely do and went to the end of the book to see if it was like that all the way through – and as it looked as though it wasn’t, I carried on reading.

This is a dark book, but although there is a lot of blood around at the start it isn’t actually a gory, blood and guts story. It’s a psychological did-he-do-it murder mystery. It’s tense and puzzling as Yu-jin tries to uncover what happened, at first unable to remember the events of the night before the murder. It’s written totally from Yu-jin’s perspective, so for most of the book it was as though I was reading his mind – and it’s a very strange, mixed up mind. He has difficulty with honesty and admits that he tells more lies than other people, which means that he can tell any kind of story in a believable way, and for a large part of this book I was willing to believe him, or to think the murder was all in his mind and that his mother wasn’t dead.

For years he had been taking pills which his mother told him were to control his epilepsy but he didn’t like the side effects so he had stopped taking them without telling his mother. Now he’s worried about having seizures and the blank spots in his memory are confusing him.  As more of his past life is revealed in flashbacks I began to revise my opinion of him and wondered if he could have killed his mother. When he was nine his father and older brother had died in tragic circumstances that are only revealed later on in the book and even then there are different versions of what actually happened. It’s an intricate plot and just as soon as I thought I could see where it was going I realised that I’d been hoodwinked.

The book is set in South Korea, mainly in Incheon, a city south of Seoul but the main focus is on this dysfunctional family and their relationships. I’m glad I didn’t give up on the book at 23% as after that point the story picked up pace and it held my interest to the end. But it is certainly a dark and unsettling character study of a psychopath.

My thanks to the publishers, Little, Brown Book Group, for my review copy via NetGalley.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1126 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group (3 May 2018)
  • Source: Review copy
  • My Rating: 3*

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

An intriguing and mystifying book by Diane Setterfield – Once Upon a River – without doubt one of the best books I read last year – I was entranced from the beginning to the end. It’s a mystery beginning in the Swan Inn at Radcot, an ancient inn, well-known for its storytelling, on the banks of the Thames. A badly injured stranger enters carrying the drowned corpse of a little girl. It’s mystifying as hours later the dead child, miraculously it seems, takes a breath, and returns to life. The mystery is enhanced by folklore, by science that appears to be magic, and by romance and superstition.

The story has a timeless feel to it but it is set somewhere towards the end of the nineteenth century. There are numerous strands and characters to the story and Diane Setterfield drew me slowly into the book with a leisurely description of the characters and their situations. Just as the river, a character in its own right, takes many twists and turns and has many tributaries, it becomes apparent that the little girl could belong to a number of different families all with links to the river. As the story progresses these individual families each claim the child as theirs and I was never really certain which of them – if any – were telling the truth. Much is hidden and much eventually is revealed.

It’s a multi-layered book that you need time to digest, richly atmospheric and told from multiple viewpoints. I loved all the detail – about the river itself, about photography as Henry Daunt (based on Henry Taunt, the real-life photographer of the Thames and surrounding areas) travelled along the river in a houseboat with its own darkroom, about the body’s metabolism and the treatment of injuries and diseases of the late Victorian period and about belief in the afterlife. Various people refer to Quietly, the ferryman who featured in the stories people told – he appeared when you were in trouble on the water, gliding in his punt, either guiding you to the safety of the bank, or if it is your time he takes you to another shore ‘on the other side of the river.

Once Upon a River is a beautifully and lyrically told story, and cleverly plotted so that I was not completely sure at times what it was that I was reading. It’s historical fiction with a touch of magic that completely beguiled me with its mysteries and fascinating characters. I enjoyed reading her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, years ago before I began my blog, but I loved this one so much more!

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

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2336 KB
  • Print Length: 419 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0857525662
  • Publisher: Transworld Digital (4 Dec. 2018)
  • Source: Review copy
  • My Rating: 5*

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Poisoned Pen Press|4 December 2018 |227 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*

This edition, published in association with the British Library, has a preface by Rachel Reeves, Member of Parliament for Leeds West and an introduction by Martin Edwards. It was first published in 1932 by George G Harrap & Co.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Division Bell Mystery – it’s entertaining on several levels both from the mystery ‘locked room’ aspect and historically, socially and culturally with its insight into how Parliament worked in the 1930s and the status of women in Parliament in the inter-war years. In fact political commentary runs throughout the novel. It was a period of great social injustice, people were still struggling in the aftermath of the Great War – a period of mass unemployment with demands for both political and social change.

Ellen Wilkinson was one of the first women Labour MPs. I’ve come across her before as a fiery politician, known as ‘Red Ellen’ both for her red hair and her left-wing politics. She supported the men from Jarrow in Tyneside in 1936 as they marched from their home town to London to present a petition against the mass unemployment and extreme poverty in the north-east of England. She marched with them for part of the way and handed in their petition to the House of Commons.

She was a keen murder mystery fan and The Division Bell Mystery is her one entry into the Golden Age Detective fiction. The classic mystery was popular in the interwar years as people entertained themselves with puzzles such as the ‘locked room’ mysteries as in this book.

The main character is the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary herself, Ellen Wilkinson portrays his role and political intrigue with convincing detail. There’s a financial crisis and the Home Secretary is negotiating with the American financier Georges Oissel for a loan. The Division Bell rings – a signal to MPs to cast their votes – and West is shocked to hear a gunshot as he is making his way down the corridor leading to Room J, where the Home Secretary and Oissel had been dining. On entering the room he finds the Home Secretary has left to vote and Oissel is slumped on the floor, his shirt front stained with blood and a revolver lying beside him. No one else was in the room, no one had been seen entering or leaving the room and there is no evidence of who had killed him. It falls to West to work with the police investigating his death.

It is a nicely complicated mystery but for me it is the setting and the characters that makes this book so interesting. West is the main character but I particularly liked Grace Richards, a young female MP, based on Ellen Wilkinson herself – in her preface Rachel Reeves points out the similarities between Ellen and Grace. Once I started to read The Division Bell Mystery I didn’t want to put it down – definitely a 5* read for me!

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

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*