Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert, first published in 1950, was his fourth Inspector Hazelrigg novel. It’s the first one I’ve read, although I have read two of his other books. There is an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, which gives details of Gilbert’s career as a a solicitor and as a mystery writer. He wrote 30 novels and 185 short stories, as well as work for radio, television and stage.

As the title tells you Smallbone is dead. He was one of the trustees of the Ichabod Stokes Trust together with Abel Horniman, the senior partner of a London law firm, Horniman, Birley and Craine. After the recent death of Abel, whilst looking for the deeds relating to the Trust, Marcus Smallbone’s body was discovered in the Trust’s deed box, a large, hermetically sealed box.

Inspector Hazelrigg runs the police investigation. It’s obviously an inside job and with the help of Henry Bohun, a newcomer to the firm, the police investigate each of the suspects until by process of elimination the culprit is identified. Of course it’s not that straight forward, as each person’s motive, opportunity and alibi is considered and there are a number of red herrings that did baffle me a little. There is rather too much detail about the finances of the firm for my liking, but apart from that the book moves along swiftly.

The setting in the solicitors’ office after the end of the Second World War is well done and reflects the differences between the male professionals and the female admin staff with their intrigues, rivalries and flirtations. I think Bohun is the most interesting character, although they are all individually distinguishable. Bohun is not just new to the firm, but also a newly qualified solicitor. He has para-insomnia and never gets a full night’s sleep, averaging about ninety minutes a night. It doesn’t make him feel tired, but means he has lots of time to help Inspector Hazelrigg and still carry out his job, as well as doing a good deal of reading, walking the streets and even working as a night watchman. It’s written with a light touch and a sense of humour and I enjoyed it very much.

Now, I’d like to read more of Gilbert’s work, maybe starting with some of his short stories as Bohun appeared in nine short stories and also in a six-part radio thriller and Hazelrigg featured in nineteen short stories as well as in six novels.

Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) wrote thrillers, police procedurals and espionage novels that rank among the highest and most varied achievements of British crime writing in the second half of the twentieth century. A founding member of the Crime Writers’ Association, Gilbert was for many years partner in a London law firm and drew on his knowledge of the law in writing his most acclaimed novel. For more information about Michael Gilbert see this article by Martin Edwards.

Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 5145 KB
Print Length: 236 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0755119193
Publisher: British Library Publishing (22 Jan. 2019)
Source: I bought it

My Friday Post: The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

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.

I bought The Birdwatcher by William Shaw this week. It’s a book I’ve been looking out for, ever since I read about Shaw’s books on Café Society’s blog. So when I saw it was a limited time deal on Kindle at 99p I knew I had to buy it. It looks really good and it’s gone to the top of my books to read next pile.

It begins:

There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team.

The first was it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.

The second was that, although nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  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:

Ferguson said, ‘See, I don’t believe a boy like you would have just stayed in the room with his dad, like that. Not for almost an hour.

The book blurb:

Sergeant William South has always avoided investigating murder. A passionate birdwatcher and quiet man, he has few relationships and prefers it that way.

But when his only friend is found brutally beaten, South’s detachment is tested. Not only is he bereft – it seems that there’s a connection between the suspect and himself.

For South has a secret. He knows the kind of rage that killed his friend. He knows the kind of man who could do it. He knows, because Sergeant William South himself is a murderer.

Moving from the storm-lashed, bird-wheeling skies of the Kent Coast to the wordless war of the Troubles, The Birdwatcher is a crime novel of suspense, intelligence and powerful humanity about fathers and sons, grief and guilt and facing the darkness within.

~~~

I like those opening lines – letting the reader know straight away that South is a murderer and also a policeman. And he is the birdwatcher of the title. Immediately I wanted to know more.

Have read this book? Does it appeal to you?

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A labyrinth of clues. A mystery novel hiding a deadly secret. A killer with a fiendish plot: a brilliantly intricate and original thriller from the bestselling author of Magpie Murders

Random House Cornerstone| 20 August 2020| 400 pages| Review copy| 5*

Moonflower Murders is a follow up novel to Magpie Murders. It has the same format – that of a book within the book. Although I don’t think you have to read Magpie Murders first as this stands well on its own merits, I think it would help to know the background and some of the characters if you do.

Susan Ryeland, the main character, has retired as a publisher and is running a small hotel on a Greek island with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas. Their hotel is in debt, they’re in danger of going bankrupt and she is missing her literary life in London. So, when Lawrence and Pauline Trehearn, the owners of an hotel, Branlow Hall in Suffolk visit her and ask if she would investigate the disappearance of their daughter Cecily from their hotel for a fee, she decides to go – and at the same time visit London.

Before she had disappeared Cecily had read Alan Conway’s murder mystery, Atticus Pund Takes the Case, based on a murder that happened at Brownlow Hall eight years earlier. At that time, the evidence against Stefan, the general maintenance man was overwhelming and he was convicted. Cecily was convinced that there was something in the novel that proved Stefan wasn’t responsible for the crime. Unfortunately she hadn’t told anyone what had convinced her. The Trehearnes had read the book, but they couldn’t see any connection, although there are similarities – the characters are clearly based on the people at Brownlow Hall, with the same or similar names.

Susan had published Conway’s books, but thought that if he had indeed discovered that an innocent man was in prison he would have gone straight to the police and not turned it into a novel. But investigating Cecily’s disappearance, she re-reads his book and examines the evidence relating to the murder of eight years ago.

Moonflower Murders combines elements of vintage-style golden age crime novels with word-play, cryptic clues and anagrams. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to work it all out. it – Anthony Horowitz’s style of writing suits me – so easy to read, I whizzed through it, no doubt missing all the intricacies and clues along the way. But it is such an enjoyable way to read – no need to puzzle about the structure, or who is who as the characters all come across as individual people. Of course it’s not a straightforward mystery and along the way I was easily distracted by the red herrings. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to work it all out.

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

My Friday Post: Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

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.

My choice this week is Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert, one of the British Library Crime Classics.

It begins:

‘The thoughts of all present tonight,’ said Mr Birley, ‘will naturally turn first to the great personal loss – the very great personal loss – so recently suffered by the firm, by the legal profession and, if I may venture to say so without contradiction, by the British public.’

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  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 55 (page 56 is missing)

‘And why does that mean he couldn’t have killed Smallbone?’ said Bohun quietly.

‘I quite forgot, ‘ said Hazelrigg, ‘You don’t know how he was killed.’

‘I don’t said Bohun steadily, ‘and I suggest,’ he added, ‘that if you you’re going to trust me you don’t set traps for me.’

The book blurb:

Horniman, Birley and Craine is a highly respected legal firm with clients drawn from the highest in the land. When a deed box in the office is opened to reveal a corpse, the threat of scandal promises to wreak havoc on the firm’s reputation – especially as the murder looks like an inside job. The partners and staff of the firm keep a watchful and suspicious eye on their colleagues, as Inspector Hazlerigg sets out to solve the mystery of who Mr Smallbone was – and why he had to die.

Written with style, pace and wit, this is a masterpiece by one of the finest writers of traditional British crime novels since the Second World War.

~~~

This will be the third book by Michael Gilbert that I’ve read. I thoroughly enjoyed Death Has Deep Roots when I read it last year, and so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy this one too.

If you have read it please let me know what you thought of it.

How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister

I’ve read three books by Gillian McAllister and enjoyed each one so I was delighted when I saw that she has a new book, How To Disappear published today. But, I have mixed feelings about this book, because although it is so tense in parts and is compulsive reading – I really wanted to know what happens next – I did have difficulty in suspending my disbelief for a large part of it. I liked the originality of the story – a murder mystery that is not a police procedural or an amateur detective story, but the story of a family devastated by their experience of being in witness protection. Although I’ve seen TV dramas about witness protection I’ve never read a novel before about it.

Blurb:

What do you do when you can’t run, and you can’t hide?

Lauren’s daughter Zara witnessed a terrible crime. But speaking up comes with a price, and when Zara’s identity is revealed online, it puts a target on her back. The only choice is to disappear. To keep Zara safe Lauren will give up everything and everyone she loves, even her husband. There will be no goodbyes. Their pasts will be rewritten. New names, new home, new lives. The rules are strict for a reason. They are being hunted. One mistake – a text, an Instagram like – could bring their old lives crashing into the new. They can never assume someone isn’t watching, waiting.

As Lauren will learn, disappearing is easy. Staying hidden is harder…

I thought it began well, although, it’s written in the present tense, often a stumbling block for me, setting the scene and establishing the characters. Zara is fourteen when she witnesses the murder of a homeless man by two teenagers. A year later she gives evidence as Girl A, to protect her identity, at the trial of two teenage footballers. But it all goes wrong, the boys are freed and after the trial a search is on to discover her identity and make her pay for what she did. As the situation escalates she is forced to go into witness protection.

This is a dark, intense story about what happened next, and going into more detail about what led up to the murder. It’s told from the four main characters’ viewpoints – Zara, Lauren her mother, Aidan her stepfather and his daughter Ruby. It moves along at quite a good pace, although sometimes I thought it was a bit repetitive about long hot baths or lack of a long hot bath, comfort eating cakes, and compulsive shopping.

The main themes of the book are about witness protection, parenting and family relationships. Gillian McAllister explains in her Author’s Note that there are many blanks she was unable to fill in, ‘due to the UK’s protection service not wishing to reveal their secrets’ to her. She hopes it is ‘believable despite basically having … made it up.’ I found it believable up to a point, but it was the characters’ behaviour that I found so far-fetched. However, it certainly made me wonder how I would cope in witness protection, faced with being unable to contact the family I’d left behind in anyway for fear of the consequences. But, most of all, I didn’t enjoy reading it, and for me that is important when I’m reading a novel. It left me drained – and the ending felt so contrived that it really spoiled the whole book for me.

This was not an easy book for me to review, especially as I was expecting to enjoy it as much as her earlier books!

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1560 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (9 July 2020)
  • Source: Review copy
  • My rating: 2

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

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin

I finished reading  Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin a while ago, so this is just a brief post which really doesn’t do justice to this beautifully written book, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle. It will be published by Europa Editions on 7 July 2020. My copy is an uncorrected proof from NetGalley.

This is a story of love and loss – and hope. Violette, the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne, is a character I really warmed to; she is optimistic, brave, creative and caring. This is very much a character driven story, and full of original and quirky characters, such as the three gravediggers – Nono, Gaston and Elvis. But it is also a story with a mystery at the heart of it – as Julien Seul, the policeman is delving into his mother’s past, intrigued by her wish to have her ashes scattered far from her home and on the grave of a stranger.

It is also an emotional and moving story about Violette, her estranged husband, Phillippe, his miserable parents and their young daughter, Leonine. What happened to Leonine is especially tragic. But this a story full of warmth and happiness and life in the cemetery is full of surprises and joy. It is not what I expected to be and I am so pleased I’ve read it.

I haven’t said very much about the plot – so here is the publishers’ description:

A POIGNANT RUNAWAY BESTSELLER full of French charm and memorable characters, Fresh Water for Flowers is Valérie Perrin’s English debut.

Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Casual mourners, regular visitors, and sundry colleagues—gravediggers, groundskeepers, and a priest—visit her to warm themselves in her lodge, where laughter, companionship, and occasional tears mix with the coffee she offers them. Her life is lived to the rhythms of their funny, moving confidences.

Violette’s routine is disrupted one day by the arrival of Julien Sole—local police chief—who insists on scattering the ashes of his recently deceased mother on the gravesite of a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Julien’s inexplicable gesture is intertwined with Violette’s own difficult past.

With Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin has given readers an intimately told story that tugs on the heartstrings about a woman who believes obstinately in happiness, despite it all. A number one bestseller in France, Fresh Water for Flowers is a heartwarming and tender story that will stay will readers for years after the final page is turned.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an uncorrected proof copy.

 

The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson

Nordic noir, as bleak, cold, snowy and empty as Iceland.

Penguin UK – Michael Joseph/ 30 April 2020/ 320 pages/ review copy/ 4*

About the book

1987. An isolated farm house in the east of Iceland.

The snowstorm should have shut everybody out. But it didn’t.

The couple should never have let him in. But they did.

An unexpected guest, a liar, a killer. Not all will survive the night. And Detective Hulda will be haunted forever.

My thoughts

The Mist is the third novel in Ragnar Jonasson’s Hidden Iceland series, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. The trilogy began with The Darkness in which Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir was on the verge of retirement. The second book, The Island goes backwards in time with an investigation in 1997. The Mist featuring Hulda goes back yet again to 1987 as Hulda is worrying about her daughter, Dimma and her relationship with her husband, Jon. Alongside the story of what is happening in her personal life, she is also investigating the disappearance of a young woman and a suspected murder case, a particularly horrific one in an isolated farmhouse in the east.

I thought the first part of this book, about Erla and her husband, Einar, who live in the furthest reaches of eastern Iceland was completely gripping, especially with the arrival of a stranger lost in a snowstorm. Erla invites him in and the nightmare begins. This is one of those books where to know too much about the plot would really spoil it. All I’m going to say is that it starts slowly, and the tension and suspense gradually rise throughout, with an increasing sense of dread.

I loved the setting, Jonasson’s writing bringing the scenery and the weather to life – you can feel the isolation and experience what it is like to be lost in a howling snowstorm. The emotional tension is brilliantly done too, the sense of despair, confusion and dread is almost unbearable. My only criticism, a small one, is that when I reached a certain point in the novel, quite a bit before the end, it seemed obvious to me what the outcome would be. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment, but I would have preferred not to have known and is the reason I’ve given this 4 stars instead of 5.

My thanks to the publishers for my copy via Netgalley.

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Random House Bantam Press| 5 March 2020| 391 pages|e-book| Review copy| 3*

About the Book

Deaths and disappearances have plagued the vast liner from the moment she began her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912. Four days later, caught in what feels like an eerie, unsettling twilight zone, some passengers – including millionaire Madeleine Astor and maid Annie Hebbley – are convinced that something sinister is afoot. And then disaster strikes.

Four years later and the world is at war. Having survived that fateful night, Annie is now a nurse on board the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, refitted as a hospital ship. And she is about to realise that those demons from her past and the terrors of that doomed voyage have not finished with her yet . . .

Bringing together Faustian pacts, the occult, tales of sirens and selkies, guilt and revenge, desire and destiny, The Deep offers a thrilling, tantalizing twist on one of the world’s most famous tragedies.

My thoughts

I loved The Hunger by Alma Katsu, so I was looking forward to reading The Deep. It began really well and it’s beautifully written. It’s a mix of fact and fiction. It moves between 1912 as the Titanic sets sail on its maiden voyage and 1916, as its sister ship the Britannic, converted to a hospital picks up soldiers injured in the battlefields to take them back to England. There is a large cast of characters, some are real people and others are fictional; the stories on the two ships are told from their different perspectives.

The story revolves around Annie Hebbley, a stewardess on the Titanic and a nurse on the Britannic. It begins in 1916 when she is in an asylum and receives a letter from a friend, Violet Jessop (a real person) who had been on the Titanic with her, asking her to join her as nurse on the Britannic. Annie, however, has a dark secret in her past, which is slowly revealed – most of the time I was reading I couldn’t decide how much was real and how much imaginary. She grew up in Ireland and her mind is full of the fairy stories and superstitions her grandmother had told her. And things start to go wrong as soon as she boards the Titanic.

It didn’t grip me as much as The Hunger, although it’s a very atmospheric novel and I loved the way Alma Katsu has combined fact and fiction. The scenes on the Titanic convey the splendour of the ship, the wealth of the passengers and the contrasting conditions between the different classes of passengers, and the crew. Similarly, the stark conditions on The Britannic and the suffering of its passengers are vividly portrayed. Some of the passengers are convinced that the ship is haunted and there is a genuine sense of menace, of something sinister and supernatural waiting to strike them all. However, I didn’t think the supernatural elements were as convincing later on in the novel and I found the ending confusing.

It’s not a quick read, beginning slowly and, although at first I thought this was going to be a really engrossing novel, my interest began to flag later on. I was actually relieved when I finished it. That maybe because I knew the fate of the Titanic and I didn’t empathise with Annie, the main character. As historical fiction I think it works quite well, but the main focus of the book is not the sinking of the Titanic or of the Britannic – it’s the story of the passengers and crew of both ships. The supernatural elements just confused me – especially the ending, which is so ambiguous – just who was Annie Hebbley? It’s surreal and I suppose you just have to make your own mind up. It’s been in my mind ever since I finished reading.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy.

This is my first book for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, and my eighth book for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

I haven’t read anything set in Romania before and so when fellow blogger Marina Sofia, who has translated Sword from Romanian, told me about this book by Bogdan Teodorescu, a journalist and political analyst, I was keen to read it. Unusually it is crime fiction in which a serial killer is on the loose, but with a difference – it’s a complex novel, a political thriller focusing on the political and social dimensions of the racial conflict between the Romanians and the Roma or ‘gypsies’. The killer is hunting down his victims from the minority Roma community. As the racial conflict continues the ethnic tension rises highlighting the corruption and manipulation by the politicians and by the mass media in particular.

The book opens with a scene in Bucharest’s Obor Market as The Fly, a con man, playing his card and shell games, is killed by a person who suddenly appeared, brandishing a sword which he then plunged into his throat. This is followed by more killings – all of them of gypsies. Despite the number and method of the murders it is not gory or too graphic.

Written in a clear, journalistic style, there is a large cast of characters, listed at the end of the book including politicians and their advisors, journalists and media moguls, victims and police. The narrative moves between them as they give speeches, discuss the situation in numerous meetings, phone calls and media broadcasts. It reveals how Romania had moved on since Ceaușescu‘s Communist reign overthrown by the 1989 Revolution. In places I found the amount of dialogue and speeches slowed the narrative down more than I preferred.

At 272 pages it is not long, but it is not a quick read, partly because of the large cast and partly because it took me a while to sort out the unfamiliar names and partly because of the number of speeches. That said, I throughly enjoyed Sword, especially the setting and the unique (for me at least) focus on the political and cultural scene in Romania – and the murder mystery.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 908 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Corylus Books Ltd (8 May 2020)
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • My Rating: 4*

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Blurb from Amazon:

First published serially between January and December of 1878 in the sensationalistic monthly London magazine “Belgravia”, Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” is the author’s sixth published novel. Set in Egdon Heath, an area of Thomas Hardy’s fictionalized Wessex known for the thorny evergreen shrubs, called furze or gorse, which are cut there by its residents for fuel.

When the story begins, on Guy Fawkes Night, we find Diggory Venn, a merchant of the red mineral called reddle which farmers use to mark their sheep, giving aid to Thomasin Yeobright, whom he is in love with but has unsuccessfully wooed over the preceding two years. Diggory is helping Thomasin, who is in distress having left town with Damon Wildeve under the false promise of matrimony, return home to her aunt, Mrs. Yeobright. Damon has rebuffed Thomasin in favor of the beautiful young Eustacia Vye.

However when Mrs. Yeobright’s son Clym, a successful diamond merchant, returns from Paris, Eustacia loses interest in Damon, seeing a relationship with Clym as an opportunity to escape the Heath in favor of a more glamorous and exciting locale. A classically modern novel, “The Return of the Native” presents a world of people struggling between their unfulfilled desires and the expectations of society. 

My thoughts:

Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors and I throughly enjoyed The Return of the Nativewhich I think is one of his best books. I loved the setting on Eldon Heath, which is based on the small heath by Hardy’s childhood home, but is much larger. The ancient round barrows named Rainbarrows, and Rushy Pond, which lie immediately behind Hardy’s childhood home, form the centre of the fictional heath. Hardy’s description of it is detailed, poetically lyrical and beautiful. 

It’s a dramatic and tragic love story. It has a large cast of characters, with lovers who change their affections throughout the novel and it’s full of intrigue with striking moonlit scenes, disputes, heated quarrels and misunderstandings, along with rustic characters and traditional celebrations, for example Guy Fawkes night, May Day and a Mummers’ play at Christmas.

It was first published in 1878 in three volumes with revisions at later dates. The revision I read was published in 1912. Hardy’s Preface establishes that the events described took place between 1840 and 1850. ‘Egdon Heath’ is a combination of various heaths that were later ploughed or planted to woodland. He liked to think of it as the ‘heath of that traditionary King of Wessex – Lear’. The Return of the Native is a complex novel, shocking to its contemporary public because of its depiction of passionate and illicit sexual relationships (tame by today’s standards).

It begins with a description of Egdon Heath, a sombre isolated place, loved by some and hated by others, some regarding it as a prison. Along the ancient highway that crossed the heath the solitary figure of an old man sees a cart ahead of him in the long dry road. Both the driver, who walked beside it, and the cart, were completely red – he was a reddleman, who supplied  farmers with redding for their sheep. He plays an important part in the novel, appearing at significant times and places to great effect on the course of events. 

It’s not a book to read quickly and it transported me back to a time that ceased to exist before I was born, where time moved more slowly, ruled by the seasons and the weather, and with a clearly defined social hierarchy. And yet, I was surprised to find that youngsters were scribbling graffiti on ‘every gatepost and barn’s doors’, writing ‘some bad word or other’ so that a woman can hardly pass for shame some time.’ Learning to write and sending children to school was blamed:

’Ah, there’s too much of that sending to school these days! It only does harm. … If they’d never been taught how to write they wouldn’t have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn’t do it, and the country was all the better for it.’ (Page 108)8

Quite simply – I loved it. It’s a love story full of depth, atmosphere and passion, but also of tragedy  and a mix of darkness and light.