The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Publication date: 2 November, 2017, Quercus Books

Source: review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 3*

Blurb:

Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred…

My thoughts:

This is the fourth book in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.

It is set in 1953 at Christmas just a few months after the previous book in the series, The Blood Card and magician Max Mephisto is still sceptical about performing magic on TV with his daughter Ruby in a show called Magician and Daughter. Meanwhile his old friend, DI Edgar Stephens and his team are faced with solving the murder of Lily Burtenshaw, who had been strangled and found in her room tied to a chair, leaning forward and pointing to an empty crate with ‘King Edward Potatoes’ written on the side.

Max and Ruby are performing at the Brighton Hippodrome using a human sized version of the Vanishing Box in their act. The variety show also includes an act called the Living Tableaux, showing scenes from famous paintings or classical statutory, posed by a troupe of showgirls, naked apart from skimpy flesh coloured pants. Two of the showgirls, Betty and Janette, have become friends with Lily and are lodging at the same boarding house, but Edgar wonders if there is another connection between Lily and the Living Tableau? There is something so theatrical about the way the body was posed. Edgar and his two sergeants, Emma Homes and Bob Willis, begin their search for the killer, looking for motives and suspects. Then more murders are discovered and it becomes a desperate hunt to find the killer before he/she strikes again.

I enjoyed this book but for me there is too much focus on the main characters and their relationships. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is still not too happy about it.  However, his work means he isn’t able to spend much time with her. Meanwhile Emma’s feelings for him are getting stronger and their relationship deepens as she is drawn into deadly danger. Max’s relationship with Mrs M, his landlady in Brighton, is winding down and he is attracted to Florence, another one of the showgirls.

I liked the insight into the 1950s, particularly the theatre life. Illusion and misdirection play a large part – from the acts in the variety show to the murders, and all is not what it seems. The misdirection in the form of several twists and turns threw me off course.The clues are there, if you can but see them, yet I still had little idea who the killer could be until very near the end.

My thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 2nd November.

Conclave by Robert Harris

 

Conclave

I really didn’t expect to enjoy Conclave as much as I did, but then I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Conclave is about an election of a Pope and I found it absolutely fascinating as the process of the election unfolded. Harris describes the procedure as Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals leads the 118 Cardinals through the voting stages. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall watching it throughout as the Cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel, isolated from contact with the outside world.

There are quite a lot of characters involved, which at first was a bit confusing but soon their personalities became clearer and I began to have my favourites and hope that one of them would be elected. It’s all seen from Lomeli’s point of view, so my thoughts were coloured by what he reveals about each of the main candidates. As they progress through the stages of the election, whittling down the candidates to just a few, lots of secrets, scandals and disagreements are revealed. It becomes increasingly tense with each stage and Lomeli, who had been wanting to retire before the last Pope had died, finds that he too is one of the contenders – most reluctantly:

All he had ever desired in this contest was to be neutral. Neutrality had been the leitmotif of his career. (page 98)

And he realised that, whoever was elected Pope would never be able to wander around the city at will, could never browse in a bookstore or sit outside a café, but would remain a prisoner here! (page 142)

It’s also dramatic as events in the outside world impact on the Conclave.  I was completely engrossed and hoping that my favourite would be elected. Harris has thoroughly researched the subject and seamlessly woven the facts into the novel. He visited the locations used during a Conclave that are permanently closed to the public and interviewed a number of prominent Catholics including a cardinal who had taken part in a Conclave, as well as consulting many reports and books.

There is one point that I found hard to accept (I think that to say any more would spoil the book), although it is something I’d thought might happen but I’d dismissed as rather fanciful. Nevertheless I still think this is a 5* book as I enjoyed it so much – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3282 KB
  • Print Length: 287 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0091959179
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Sept. 2016)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My rating: 5*

After the Fire by Henning Mankell

Publication: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker, 5 October 2017

Source: review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 5*

Description:

Fredrik Welin is a seventy-year-old retired doctor. Years ago he retreated to the Swedish archipelago, where he lives alone on an island. He swims in the sea every day, cutting a hole in the ice if necessary. He lives a quiet life. Until he wakes up one night to find his house on fire.

Fredrik escapes just in time, wearing two left-footed wellies, as neighbouring islanders arrive to help douse the flames. All that remains in the morning is a stinking ruin and evidence of arson. The house that has been in his family for generations and all his worldly belongings are gone. He cannot think who would do such a thing, or why. Without a suspect, the police begin to think he started the fire himself.

Tackling love, loss and loneliness, After the Fire is Henning Mankell’s compelling last novel.

My thoughts:

After the Fire by Henning Mankell, translated by Marlaine Delargy, is not standard crime fiction and although there are crimes committed they are not the main focus of the book.  Living alone on an isolated island in the Swedish archipelago, Fredrik, a retired doctor, is devastated by the fire which destroyed the house he had inherited from his grandparents. He has nothing left apart from a boathouse, where he had set up an improvised surgery, a caravan (belonging to his daughter, Louise), and a boat. Suspected by the police of starting the fire, he tries to discover the culprit.

But the main emphasis of the book is on his reflections on life, death, ageing, and loneliness.  I found it absolutely fascinating as Fredrik looks back over his life.  His relationship with his daughter, Louise, who he hadn’t known about until she was an adult, is difficult – he knows almost nothing about her. However this changes when she comes to the island to decide what to do next and he gets more involved in her life.

Told in the first person by Fredrik it goes into detail about his fears of dying and the difficulties of understanding other people and both beginning and maintaining relationships. He has no real friends and only knows a handful of people living on the islands.  There is Jansson, a hypochondriac, the former postman, a snooper who read all the postcards he delivered, Oslovski, who he describes as a strange woman his contact with her is only to the extent of checking her blood pressure from time to time and parking his car outside her house on the mainland. Then there is Lisa, a journalist who writes for the local paper, a new acquaintance who interviews him about the fire and Nordin who owns the chandlery.

It’s beautifully written and I was entranced. I found it all very real, the people, the places and the mystery. It is both a character study  and a meditation on the complexities of life and death. Once I began reading I just didn’t want it to end.

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.

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.

The Break by Marian Keyes

The Break

Publication date 7 September 2017, Michael Joseph

Source: review copy via NetGalley

Blurb:

Amy’s husband Hugh isn’t really leaving her.

At least, that’s what he promises. He is just taking a break – from their marriage, their children and, most of all, from their life together. For six-months Hugh will lose himself in south-east Asia, and there is nothing Amy can say or do about it.

Yes, it’s a mid-life crisis, but let’s be clear: a break isn’t a break up – yet

It’s been a long time since Amy held a briefcase in one hand and a baby in the other. She never believed she’d have to go it alone again. She just has to hold the family together until Hugh comes back.

But a lot can happen in six-months. When Hugh returns, if he returns, will he be the same man she married? And will Amy be the same woman?

Because falling in love is easy. The hard part – the painful, joyous, maddening, beautiful part – is staying in love.

My view:

I think it was a mistake requesting this book from NetGalley! Years ago I read Under the Duvet, which I remember as amusing and entertaining, and I enjoy seeing Marian Keyes when she’s on programmes such as It Takes Two talking about Strictly Come Dancing – she’s very funny. The Break  is not the sort of book I usually read, but I’d thought it would be a change from my usual fiction.

But, I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy it. There are many characters, but I didn’t warm to any of them, particularly the main ones, Amy and Hugh. There’s lots of dialogue, which is OK but also lots of description of clothes – too much description of clothes.

It’s written in a chatty, gossipy style that gets very wearing after a while and although it’s easy reading it didn’t grip me and I struggled to finish it. So much so that each time I put it down I didn’t really want to carry on with it. I think my problem with it is that is very slow-paced and I thought it was over-long and drawn out. I did want to know what happened to Amy and Hugh, but it was all too predictable – not my cup of tea!

There are many 5* and 4* ratings on Goodreads, so I expect that if you’re a fan of her books you’ll love it.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1049 KB
  • Print Length: 570 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0718179730
  • Publisher: Penguin (7 Sept. 2017)
  • My rating: 2*