The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton was first published in 1930. Miles Burton is a pseudonym. His real name was Cecil John Charles Street (1884 – 1964) and he also wrote under the names of John Rhode and Cecil Way. I like these names – variations on the word ‘street’. This edition was published by the British Library in 2016 and is one of my TBRs.

It’s not an easy book to write about. There is a murder – that of the landlord of the Rose and Crown Inn in the village of High Eldersham. He was found dead slumped in a chair, having been stabbed in the neck. The local police don’t feel able to deal with the murder so call in help from Scotland Yard.

But when Detective Inspector Young arrives he discovers that there is something very strange about the village and its inhabitants. Like a lot of small and remote villages the local people keep themselves to themselves and are very wary of strangers – they’re not made welcome and they don’t stay very long. But it’s more than that. Strange things are happening, and Young’s theory to account for the queerness of the place seemed to him (and to me) ‘so impossible, so utterly fanciful, that to entertain it was to doubt his own sanity.’ It concerns ancient legends and customs with a supernatural element. And this is what makes it difficult to write about because to say anything more about this ‘queerness‘ would be to give away a major part of the plot.

Young decides he can’t deal with this on his own and he contacts his friend, Desmond Merrion, a brilliant individual from the intelligence branch of the Admiralty, he had met during the war. He writes to Merrion inviting him to the inquest into the Inn’s landlord death, where he meets a war-time acquaintance, Laurence Hollesley.

From that point on the novel branches into two stories – the murder mystery and a thriller full of danger, drama and pace, plus a damsel in distress and spot of smuggling thrown into the mix. I enjoyed it. It’s easy to read, even if I find it difficult to write about, with clearly identifiable characters and a good sense of location. There’s suspense and the tension rises as the mystery reaches its climax.

Merrion also appears in the one other book I have by Miles Burton – Death in the Tunnel, which I hope to read soon.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Sometimes I read books and have no desire to write about them, not because I didn’t enjoy them but because I just want to get on and read the next book. And this summer has been one of those times, so that now I’m finding difficult to remember all the details of the books I’ve read because I didn’t write about them soon after I finished reading. It’s been a strange time during this pandemic and it’s not been easy to concentrate. But I do want to keep a record of my reading and the only way now to catch up is to write some brief notes about each book, beginning with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize,

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I downloaded The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 3 years ago. I read it in July. It is a long and detailed book, written with such intricate plotting and numerous characters that it bewildered me at times. It’s historical fiction set in New Zealand in the 1860s, during its gold rush and it has everything – gold fever, murder, mystery and a ghost story too.

Blurb from Goodreads:

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. 

I found the structure a bit of a stumbling block at first as the chapters halve in length from the very long opening chapter to the very short final chapter – so that from feeling overwhelmed by the length and detail of the opening chapters, by the time that I neared the ending I felt distinctly dissatisfied with the brevity of the concluding chapters – the early chapters are too long and the final ones are too short. And the significance of the astronomical headings completely bypassed me.

But if this sounds as though I didn’t enjoy this novel, that is wrong, because I did for the major part of the book. I loved the pictures it builds up of the setting in New Zealand, the frontier town and its residents from the prospectors to the prostitutes, and the obsessive nature of gold mining. And I did become fully absorbed in the story during the week it took me to read. it

These are the other books I read in July and August and have not yet reviewed:

  • Thin Air by Michelle Paver
  • The Birdwatcher by William Shaw
  • Still Life by Val McDermid
  • Dead Man’s Footsteps by Peter James

My Friday Post: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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.

Today my Book Beginning is from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed by some to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls might continue upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

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. 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:

The sun went down smoothly behind the hills, slipping almost eagerly, at last, into the pillowy masses. There were already long shadows on the lawn as Eleanor and Theodora came up the path toward the side veranda of Hill House, blessedly hiding its mad face in the growing darkness.

This book has been described as a ‘perfect work of unnerving terror’, so it’s ideal reading for Hallowe’en.

Blurb:

Alone in the world, Eleanor is delighted to take up Dr Montague’s invitation to spend a summer in the mysterious Hill House. Joining them are Theodora, an artistic ‘sensitive’, and Luke, heir to the house. But what begins as a light-hearted experiment is swiftly proven to be a trip into their darkest nightmares, and an investigation that one of their number may not survive. Twice filmed as The Haunting, and the inspiration for a 10-part Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House is a powerful work of slow-burning psychological horror.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Somebody at the Door is one of the British Library Crime Classics, originally published in 1943. It’s set in 1942 and it gives a vivid picture of what life was like in wartime England. There is an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards.

In January 1942, Henry Grayling is on the 6.12 train from Euston, travelling home to Croxburn from work in London. There’s a fuel shortage so there are less trains than usual and the carriages are crowded – Grayling views all his fellow passengers with dislike and suspicion as he clutches his attache case, containing £120 pounds close to his chest.

He sits next to a young man, Evetts, who works for the same company and is smoking a foul smelling pipe, and on his other side is the Vicar of Croxburn, both of whom he knows. He also recognises Ransom, a corporal in the Home Guard platoon in which he, Grayling is a second lieutenant. The other occupants of the carriage are a fair young man with a club foot, a refugee doctor, a fat middle aged woman and her teenage daughter, and two young working men in overalls. Most of the passengers are suffering from colds, coughing and sneezing and Grayling has to hold his handkerchief in front of his nose. He is relieved to leave the train when it eventually pulls into the station at Croxburn. However, when Grayling arrived home he is seriously ill and dies later that evening.

An autopsy reveals that he had died of mustard gas poisoning and Inspector Holly finds that there are too many suspects; Grayling was an extremely unlikable person. The rest of the book reads like a collection of short stories as Holly investigates Grayling’s fellow passengers. Their stories are detailed and at times I felt they were too long and slowed the book down too much, but they are interesting in themselves. I particularly like the German refugee’s story, casting light on what life was like in Germany just before and at the onset of the war.

I did enjoy the book, the characters stand out as real people and also reflect Postgate’s own likes and dislikes. Martin Edwards’ introduction gives the background to Postgate’s writing – he was an atheist and a one-time Communist. His stories reveal the corruption in local government at that period, and the attitudes of the British government in the lead up to the war. The murder mystery is really secondary to the suspects’ stories, which makes the book more a reflection of the period, which Postgate does really well, than crime fiction. However, the murder mystery is well plotted, giving me plenty to unravel and it was only in the final section that I guessed who had killed Grayling.

  • Kindle Edition
  • File Size : 3089 KB
  • Print Length : 239 pages
  • Publisher : British Library Publishing (10 Oct. 2017)
  • Source: Prime Reading Library

The Search Party by Simon Lelic

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Viking| 20 August 2020| 35 pages print length| Hardback| Review Copy

Three years ago I read The House by Simon Lelic and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading The Search Party. I’m delighted to say that I think it is even better.

16-year-old Sadie Saunders is missing and five of her friends set out into the woods to find her. At the same time the police’s investigation, led by Detective Robin Fleet and Detective Sergeant Nicola Collins, is underway. The narrative alternates between the two groups. Sadie is a clever girl, popular with her school friends and loved by her parents, who favour her over her twin brother Luke and their younger brother, Dylan.

The opening lines propelled me straight into the story as one of Sadie’s friends, lost in the woods her makes an incoherent phone call to the emergency services. The caller doesn’t know their location other than it is ‘somewhere in the woods‘ near an abandoned building. And from that point on I was gripped, compelled to follow this complex novel, full of red herrings and multiple twists and turns. It is tense from start to finish, ending in an exhausting and terrifying chase that had me on the edge of my seat!

I really like Fleet, and the way he stands up to his boss, Superintendent Burton, whose main concern is the cost of the investigation. Burton puts pressure on him to arrest Mason, assuming he has killed Sadie even though her body has not been found. Mason is part of the search party, but Fleet’s instincts tell him Mason is innocent. Fleet is known for his ability to find missing persons and sticks to his gut feelings.

My only criticism is that at times the teenagers’ rambling discussions about what could have happened to Sadie and their disagreements went on too long for my liking. But that is just a minor point. They are all keeping secrets and in their interviews with the police they all lie and withhold vital facts and they are suspicious of each other, not knowing who they can trust. And I couldn’t decide what had happened to Sadie – had she run away, committed suicide or was she murdered and if so who was the murderer. They are all suspects, including Sadie’s parents. It was only just before the end of the book that I realised just what had happened.

My thanks to NetGalley and Viking, the publishers for a review copy.

Wycliffe and How To Kill a Cat by W J Burley

W.J. Burley (1914 – 2002) was first an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay. He created Wycliffe in 1966 and the series was televised in the 1990s with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. But I’ve never watched any of them. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.

Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat is the second book in the series and is the 7th one I’ve read. It was first published in 1970 as To Kill a Cat. It’s well written, with descriptions of the coast of Cornwall, firmly set in the late 1960s, specifically at the time of the astronauts first moon landing in July 1969. At one point Wycliffe reflects on the fact that a quarter of a million miles away men were walking on the moon.

Superintendent Wycliffe, despite being on holiday can’t help getting involved when a young woman is found murdered in her seedy hotel bedroom. She’d been strangled and her face had been savagely smashed in. A thousand pounds was still in a drawer, hidden beneath her clothes, so the motive wasn’t theft.

It’s a complex story that kept me guessing to the end. Once Wycliffe had established the young woman’s identity, there were several suspects he investigated, including her husband, a meek man whose mother dominated him and his aunt who doted on him, or maybe it was the owner of the nightclub, the Voodoo where she’d worked, or one of its patrons. I kept thinking it was this person and then that person …

I like Wycliffe, a quiet man who works on instinct, but I did feel sorry for his wife, left very much on her own as he occupied himself on investigating the murder – after all they were supposed to be on holiday. She doesn’t complain. Instead she made friends with some local people and went out with them in their motor launch to explore a bit of Du Maurier country.

Wycliffe is a comparative newcomer to the area and the divisional inspector, Inspector Fehling’s first impression of him was not favourable. He thought that Wycliffe did not look like a policeman. He didn’t look ‘tall enough and he seemed almost frail. A teacher, some kind of academic, perhaps a parson, but never a policeman.’ This reminded me that there used to be a minimum height requirement for policemen of 5ft 8in tall.

These two extracts describe how Wycliffe worked:

“Wycliffe stood for a while, apparently lost in thought. Actually, though ideas chased each other through his mind they could hardly be said to have any pattern of rational consecutive thought.”

“It was when he made an effort to think in a disciplined way about anything that he was most conscious of his shortcomings. And this reflection brought him back to the case. Not only did he find sus­tained logical thought difficult but he was always short of written data. He had the official reports but these were so full as to be almost useless. Any other detective would have a sheaf of private notes, but he rarely wrote anything down and if he did he either lost it or threw it away. Notes were repugnant to him. Even now he ought to be sitting at a desk with a notepad in front of him, jotting down his ideas, transposing and relating facts like a jig-saw.”

This is police procedural, reflecting the social values and attitudes of the 1960s. It’s an early book in the series, but I think it clearly shows Wycliffe’s character and the way he worked. I’ve read the books in the series totally out of order, so it was good to read the second one. I’m still wondering about the title as there are no details in it about how to kill a cat! I’m hoping to read the first one – Wycliffe and the Three Toed Pussy, which despite its title is not about an actual cat either, but about a young woman with a deformed foot.

My Friday Post: Dead Man’s Footsteps

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’m currently reading Dead Man’s Footsteps by Peter James.

It begins:

If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in a couple of hours he would be dead, he would have planned his day, somewhat differently.

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. 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:

And another part of his brain was telling him that while one plane hitting the Twin Towers was an accident, two was something else.

Dead Man’s Footsteps is the fourth Roy Grace novel, a fast paced police procedural. There’s a woman in hiding, a skeleton discovered in a storm drain, a man believed to have died in the 9/11 disaster, and a body found in the boot of a car submerged in a river in Australia. And there is the continuing story about Sandy, Grace’s wife, who had disappeared 9 years earlier.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

HarperCollins/ 20 August 2020/ Print length 346 pages/ Kindle edition/ 3*

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is Sophie Hannah’s fourth Hercules Poirot mystery novel and the first one I’ve read. I have read some of Hannah’s books previously. So, I know that she writes complicated and tricky plots. Whilst not attempting to reproduce Christie’s Poirot this book is loosely based on Christie’s books, as Hannah incorporates all the twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections that you find in them. There’s a country house setting, a number of suspects, and a gathering together at the end where Poirot reveals all.

Blurb:

Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate, where Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. But there is a strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there.
 
The coach is forced to stop when a distressed woman demands to get off, insisting that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. Although the rest of the journey passes without anyone being harmed, Poirot’s curiosity is aroused, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered with a macabre note attached…

Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And if Helen is innocent, can Poirot find the true culprit in time to save her from the gallows?

I wasn’t expecting a cloned Poirot and Hannah’s Poirot is not Christie’s Poirot. There’s no Captain Hastings in this book, Poirot’s faithful friend. Instead Poirot is accompanied by Inspector Catchpole from Scotland Yard. How on earth he got to be an inspector is beyond me – he comes across as rather dim and stupid and Poirot treats him as such, endlessly explaining things to him and telling him what to do in an officious manner.

There are three strands to the plot – who killed Frank Devonport; who is the hysterical woman with an ‘unfinished face’ who insists she will be murdered if she sits in a specific seat on the coach; and who is the mysterious woman who tells Poirot she is a murderer – what a stupid thing to do when she knows he is a ‘world-renowned detective’? And I wondered what makes Richard so sure that Helen didn’t kill Frank when she had immediately confessed that she had? And I’m still wondering why when he was invited to Kingfisher Hall, an exclusive and private country estate, he went by coach with 30 other passengers – even if it was a ‘luxury’ coach. I just can’t see Poirot travelling by coach!

This all makes the book extremely convoluted, confusing and tangled as well as long-winded. Poirot though works his way methodically through the mess and gets to the truth. However, I found it quite dull and repetitive and rather contrived. So, my rating for this book is 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3.

My thanks to HarperCollins for a review copy via NetGalley.

My Friday Post: 21 August 2020

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 Val McDermid’s latest book, Still Life, published yesterday. It’s a DCI Karen Pirie thriller. I love that cover!

It begins with a Prologue:

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Billy Watson cast off from the quay without the faintest flicker of premonition.

And then Chapter 1

Saturday, 16 February 2020

Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer wasn’t easily put off her food. But for once, she stared at the bacon and egg roll she’d made for breakfast with a slightly jaundiced air.

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. 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:

‘According to the coastguard he likely went in on the east side of Elie. Probably somewhere around the ruin of Lady Janet Anstruther’s Tower. And probably about ten to twelve hours before the Bonnie Pearl fished him out. So, round about now, yesterday evening.

Blurb:

On a freezing winter morning, fishermen pull a body from the sea. It is quickly discovered that the dead man was the prime suspect in a decade-old investigation, when a prominent civil servant disappeared without trace. DCI Karen Pirie was the last detective to review the file and is drawn into a sinister world of betrayal and dark secrets.

But Karen is already grappling with another case, one with even more questions and fewer answers. A skeleton has been discovered in an abandoned campervan and all clues point to a killer who never faced justice – a killer who is still out there.

In her search for the truth, Karen uncovers a network of lies that has gone unchallenged for years. But lies and secrets can turn deadly when someone is determined to keep them hidden for good . . .

~~~

This is the sixth Karen Pirie book in the series. I think they read well as standalone books, but as they continue Karen’s own story I also think they are best read in order – and for once I am reading these books in order! 

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*

Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.

Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.

They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.

Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.

And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.

‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.

I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.

Sebastian Barry

Photo credit: ©Alan Betson, The Irish Times

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.