Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter 001

A question on the TV show Pointless about the novels of Colin Dexter reminded me I have a few of his books to read, Service of All the Dead being one of them – and it was one of the pointless answers too! So that gave me the push to read it.  My copy is a secondhand book – an Omnibus containing  The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn as well as Service of All the Dead.

It really is one of the most puzzling crime fiction books I’ve read – if not the most puzzling! CI Morse sums it up himself:

There are some extremely odd points in this case, Lewis – or rather there were – each of them in itself suggestive but also puzzling. They puzzled all of us, and perhaps still do to some extent, because by the time we’d finished we’d got no less than five bodies on our hands and we were never in a position to learn what any of the five could have told us. (page 295)

Morse was on holiday, bored and at a loose end, when, stepping off a bus near St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, he saw a notice advertising a jumble sale at the church – it seemed to him pre-ordained that he should enter the church. This set in motion his fascination with the death of the churchwarden, killed in the church the previous year and his subsequent discovery of the deaths of four more people. His interest is enhanced by the attraction he feels for Ruth Rawlinson, who cleans the church.

Aided by Sergeant Lewis, he digs into the history of the churchwarden, the vicar and members of the church and uncovers an intricate web of lies and deceit. Morse acts on instinct and consequently both Lewis and myself were in the dark for a great part of this book. He proposes several motives for the murders and alternate scenarios of what had happened before untangling the complex mess. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns.

Even though I was lost in the plot I found the book compelling reading – it’s a superbly constructed puzzle. This is certainly not a police procedural in the normal sense – there is little account of forensic evidence for example. It is strong on character and on place. The scene of the murders is St Frideswide’s, a fictional church, possibly based a couple of Oxford churches, St Michael-by-the-North-Gate with a Saxon tower and St Mary Magdalen and it is there in the tower that Morse suffers from his great fear of heights.

Service of All the Dead was first published in 1979. I suppose I must have seen the TV version of this book, as I watched all the episodes and this one was shown in 1987 – I don’t remember it! Inevitably as I read it I could see John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis.

Blue Heaven by C J Box

There are lots of things I like about reading e-books, but I’ve found that my Kindle has become a Black Hole – it sucks in books and once they are in there they may never see the light of day again. I don’t even know how many books are lost in there. It’s so easy to download books and just forget they are there. With print books they’re always around sitting on the shelves and even if they are in boxes they take up space and are visible. Not so on an e-reader, the books are invisible.

So it was with Blue Heaven by C J Box – it has sat in my Kindle for nearly three years an unread and indeed a forgotten book. And here is where my liking for reading challenges came into its own, because I was looking for a book with ‘blue’ in its title for Bev’s Color Coded Challenge and up popped Blue Heaven.

I loved it and will certainly look out for more books by C J Box.

The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

It’s set in a farming community which is changing as people move into the area – specifically retired police officers, about 200 hundred of them, which is where the book title comes from, as according to Fiona Pritzle, the mail lady and local gossip, ‘They call North Idaho ‘Blue Heaven at the LAPD ‘. So when Monica reports her children missing it’s natural for the ex-policemen to volunteer to search for them and as the local sheriff is new to the job, they soon take over the investigation.

Annie and William meanwhile have discovered that not everyone is who they seem to be and it’s not safe even to call home. Until they met Jess Rawlins, an old rancher, a lonely divorcee who is in financial difficulty and struggling to keep his ranch going.

This is really a straightforward story of kids on the run but just to complicate things a little there is a newcomer, Eduardo Villatoro, another retired police officer from California, who arrives in town trying to trace the money stolen from a Santa Anita racetrack several years earlier when a young guard was killed.

It all melds together in a fast paced chase to save Annie and William, the tension maintained until the end. There are several things that kept me gripped as I read Blue Heaven. It’s one of those books that I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it and keen to get back to it. First of all it’s written in a style that appeals to me – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters, secondly characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures, and finally the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 731 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0312365705
  • Publisher: Corvus (1 July 2010)
  • Source: I bought it

Challenges: Color Coded Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the first Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson mystery, published in 1887. A Study in Scarlet is a novel in two parts. The first, narrated by Dr John Watson, begins in 1881 with Watson on nine months convalescent leave from the army, having been shot in his shoulder whilst in Afghanistan, followed by an attack of enteric fever. As a result he was weak and emaciated – ‘as thin as a lather and as brown as a nut.‘ He was looking for lodgings when he met a friend who introduced him to an acquaintance who was working in the chemical laboratory at the hospital – Sherlock Holmes, who he described as ‘a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness. … He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’ 

They get on immediately and take a suite of rooms in 221B Baker Street, after Holmes astounded Watson by deducing that Watson had served in Afghanistan. Holmes describes his occupation as a ‘consulting detective‘ solving crimes for both private individuals and the police, using his intuition, observation and the rules of deduction. Tobias Gregson and Lestrade both Scotland Yard detectives regularly ask Holmes for his help.

Very soon they are involved in investigating the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.

A Study in Scarlet is a superb story introducing Conan Doyle’s characters – Holmes reminds Watson of

… a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent.

Holmes is his brilliant best, leaving the police officers behind as he discovers the killer. And there then follows a flashback, narrated in the third person, to Part II The Country of the Saints to America in 1847, specifically to a Mormon community, explaining the events that led up to to the murder, where John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy are first rescued from death in the desert and then subjected to the community’s rules, specifically with regard to Lucy’s marriage. At first I just wanted to get back to the murder inquiry and find out how Holmes discovered the murderer’s identity, but soon I was engrossed in the American story. Eventually the two parts come together in Chapter VI as Watson resumes the narrative and  Holmes reveals how he solved the problem by reasoning backwards and from a ‘few very ordinary deductions‘ was able to catch the criminal within three days.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, written in a straightforward style with enough description to visualise both Victorian London and the American Wild West. I’d watched the TV version A Study in Pink in the Sherlock series, which although very different in some respects is surprisingly faithful to the book in others. I like both versions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and died in 1930. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming the surgeon’s clerk to Professor Joseph Bell said to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’ methods of deduction. He gave up being a doctor with his success as an author and became involved in many causes – including divorce law reform, a channel tunnel, and inflatable life jackets. He was instrumental in the introduction of the Court of Criminal Appeal and was a volunteer physician in the Boer War. Later in life he became a convert to spiritualism.

See Fantastic Fiction for a list of works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Challenges: Read Scotland 2014, the Colour Coded Challenge, Mount TBR 2014 and My Kind of Mystery.

In Our Time edited by Melvyn Bragg

I began reading In Our Time, A Companion to the Radio 4 series back in August and I’ve been reading short sections on most days since then, finally finishing it this morning. It is long book and I didn’t want to read it quickly.

Melvyn Bragg has selected episodes on a wide variety of subjects encompassing the history of ideas – philosophy, physics, history, religion, literature and science. This book contains transcripts of 26 programmes, a selection from hundreds of programmes broadcast over eleven years. The benefit of having it in book form means that it’s easy to pause, think, or re-read to make sure I was understanding the subject as much as possible.

The programmes are listed on the back cover – Darwin was covered by four programmes:

In Our Time P1010233

With such a wide range of subjects it’s not so surprising that I found some more interesting than others, but I was surprised that some that didn’t appeal from the titles were actually fascinating and I now know more about black holes and antimatter than before – how much I can remember is another matter! I’m not alone in this, as Bragg said in the Afterword, his:

… only regret is that in the more testing subject areas he finds that his memory after the programme will not retain some or even much of what made the programme intriguing. (pages 573-4)

But it’s there in print, so I can refresh my memory at any time! I liked the fact that these are transcripts, not formal lectures, so that it comes across as conversations between experts with Bragg, every now and then asking the questions that someone like me, not knowing much about the subject, would want to ask. An ideal book for an eclectic reader!

It’s not easy to pick out highlights as there are so many that fascinated me. As Halloween is approaching I’m remembering the chapter on ‘Witchcraft’, but others as diverse as ‘Tea’, ‘Socrates’ and the four ‘Darwin’ programmes also stand out. And where else could you go from ‘Agincourt’ to ‘Plate Tectonics’?

In Our Time is broadcast each Thursday at 9am on BBC Radio 4. This week’s episode was ‘Rudyard Kipling’. This and all the other programmes are available as downloads.

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (17 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340977507
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340977507
  • Source: my own copy

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, has been sitting on my bookshelves for 7 years (and moved house with me). It’s one of those books that I kept taking down off the shelf, flicking through it and putting it back.

As we’re in the middle of the R.I.P. IX Challenge it seemed this could be a good book to read as it’s fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. Amazingly they eat, sleep, fall in love and go to work in a city that looks like any on Earth with trees, houses, roads, businesses, shops, cafés and so on. It seems they are kept there as long as there is someone alive who remembers them. Parallel with this is the story of Laura, trapped in the Antarctic.  She is one of an expedition exploring methods of converting polar ice to use in manufacturing soft drinks. When their communication system fails two of the team go for help leaving Laura on her own. Eventually she too ventures out across the snow towards the Ross Sea, where there is a station studying emperor penguins.

I’m glad I read this book even if it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The idea is good, and the two stories are dealt with in alternate chapters. It’s soon obvious that there has been some sort of worldwide disaster or epidemic and at first I was caught up with both stories, but the link between them is so obvious that the element of surprise or suspense just frittered away very quickly.

There is plenty of description; rather too much though and I got tired of reading about Laura’s struggle to cross the Antarctic, and the numerous descriptions of her battles to get in and out of her frozen sleeping bag, and hauling the sledge across the snow. There are plenty of flashbacks and digressions that promised to be interesting but were left undeveloped. It’s as though Brockmeier compiled the book from a series of short stories and scenic descriptions. By the end I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters as they all waited for whatever came next. It’s a shame because I thought the idea had so much promise – what does happen when we die?

Reading Challenges

Mount TBR: Checkpoint #3

It’s time for the third quarterly checkpoint in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2014
Bev asks 2 questions:
 
1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  

I have read 40 books. The full list is on my TBR Challenge page. In terms of how many mountains I’ve scaled this means that I have just 8 books left to read to reach my target of Mt Ararat (48 books) by the end of the year. Looking at the photo from Wikipedia I think I’m probably at the top of the Lesser Ararat. I should reach Greater Ararat by the end of the year if not earlier. 

2. Pair up two of your reads using whatever connection you want to make. Written by the same author? Same genre? Same color cover? Both have a main character named Clarissa? Tell us the books and what makes them a pair.

It was obvious when I looked at my list which two books make a pair:

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor and Shakespeare: a Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Both books are non-fiction and obviously about Shakespeare and they complement each other very well.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

And Shakespeare: a Biography is structured mainly around the plays.  But above all, Ackroyd Shakespeareit places Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. 

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

I’ve had The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine sitting on my unread shelves for a while and when the R.I.P. IX Challenge came up I thought it would be a good book to include in the challenge, because the cover blurbs describe it as a ‘horrifying mystery’, ‘chilling’ and with a ‘horrible climax’.

Brimstone wedding

My copy is a second-hand paperback, which is no longer in print, but The Brimstone Wedding is available as an e-book.

Jenny Warner is a carer at a retirement home, Middleton Hall where she meets Stella Newland, who is dying of lung cancer. At first Stella never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know. 

Their stories intertwine, some narrated by Jenny and some by Stella as she records events in her life on a tape recorder which she leaves to Jenny.  They have more in common than Jenny initially thought and as Stella slowly reveals her past the tension in the book begins to mount.

The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. The description of the house is superb, set in an overgrown garden, with clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, food and champagne still sitting in the fridge and a red Ford Anglia locked in the garage. It’s all very subtle at first with tantalising hints about what had really happened in Stella’s past, but the full horror is left to the end, which by that time I was itching to find out if it was what I suspected it was. I was not disappointed; it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, nothing is left out but there are no superfluous characters or sub-plots. Everything ties in well and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. It is indeed a ‘chilling’ book. It’s about love, hate and indifference, about relationships between couples and families, and about obsession, deceit and betrayal.

Here are just a few quotations that I noted as I read. The opening sentences, set the scene and illustrate Jenny’s superstitious nature. Throughout the book there are numerous examples of her beliefs:

The clothes of the dead don’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she had. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she’d never known anyone as superstitious as me. (page 3)

and

When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them. (page 17)

She is also aware of ill omens – a bird dying in your hand means your hands will shake for ever, it also means a death in the family and red and white flowers mixed are the worst possible omen at a funeral meaning there will be another death. I was wondering what significance the title has: Jenny has been married for thirteen years, which according to her mother is a ‘Brimstone Wedding’ anniversary. Jenny thinks:

Maybe because it’s explosive or because it’s hard and dark like a burning stone, which is what brimstone means. (page 231)

I think The Brimstone Wedding is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. It certainly qualifies not only for the R.I.P. Challenge, but also for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014 and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Two R.I.P. IX Books

So far I’ve read five books that fit into the R.I.P. Challenge categories of Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural. As I’m behind with writing about these books here are just a few notes on two of them:

Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley. Like the other Wycliffe books this is set in Cornwall. Detective Superintendent Wycliffe is on holiday recuperating from an illness when he meets the intriguing Kemp family and visits Kellycoryk, their decaying ancestral home.  The Kemps’ behaviour is odd to say the least and when Roger Kemp’s second wife, Bridget disappears people remember  that his first wife had also disappeared in what had been assumed was a boating accident. Wycliffe is inevitably drawn into the investigation.

I have yet to read a Wycliffe book and be disappointed and this one is no exception. It’s a complex story with sinister undercurrents and good depiction of a dysfunctional family. It kept me guessing almost to the end. This fits into the ‘Mystery’ category.

The next one I read is the short story (just 27 pages), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is definitely a suspense story of a young woman slowly but surely losing her mind – or is it a case of a woman suffering from post-natal depression most cruelly treated by her doctor husband? Her husband believes she has just a ‘slight hysterical tendency‘ and prescribes rest and sleep, scoffing at what he considers are her fantasies.

The un-named woman has just had a baby, which she is unable to bear to be near her. She spends most of her time in an attic bedroom, with barred windows and a bed fixed to the floor. The walls are covered in a hideous yellow wallpaper which has been torn off in places. It’s not a beautiful yellow like buttercups but it makes her think of old, foul bad yellow things – and it smells.  The pattern is tortuous and she sees a woman trapped behind the wallpaper as though behind bars, crawling and shaking the pattern attempting to escape. Definitely a creepy and disturbing story!

It reminded me of Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue with a similar sense of claustrophobia and helplessness. But The Yellow Wallpaper is much more horrific and by the end I began to question just what was real and what was imagination – it’s psychologically scary!

These two are both books from my to-be-read piles.

Catching Up

Half of September has gone! I’ve read 5 books and haven’t written about any of them (except for one and that’s for the Shiny New Books blog – more about that book later). The other four books are:

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (on Kindle)
  2. Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley
  3. Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt (on Kindle)
  4. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

It’s much easier to write about a book straight after I’ve read it, so today’s post is about the last book I’ve finished, which is The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie. I’ll try to nudge my brain into writing about the other books as soon as I can.

The Moving Finger is a book I’ve had for a few years now, so it’s one off my to-be-read shelves. It is described as a Miss Marple mystery, but as she doesn’t appear in the book until three-quarters of the way through and after there have been two deaths, she doesn’t have a big part, although she is instrumental in unveiling the murderer.

The story is narrated by Jerry Burton, who has recently moved into the market town of Lymstock with his sister, Joanna. His doctor had instructed him to move to the country where he can take things slowly and easily whilst he recovers from a flying accident. Lymstock seems to be a ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘, but soon after the Burtons have moved in Joanna receives a very nasty anonymous poison-pen letter. They discover that other people have also received them, and soon afterwards Mrs Symmington apparently commits suicide followed by the death of her maid, Agnes, which is without doubt murder.

I liked The Moving Finger. As usual with Agatha Christie’s novels there are plenty of suspects, including Mrs Cleat, well-known as the ‘local witch’, and there are plenty of clues, with a good deal of misdirection throwing me into confusion about who could possibly be the culprit. She captures the nastiness of the anonymous letters well with their accusations of illicit sexual activities. I always think Agatha Christie excels with her dialogue. It’s all so natural and I have no difficulty following who is speaking. I was also convinced about the characters, especially Megan Hunter, Mrs Symmington’s twenty-year old daughter and her relationship with her step-father. Lymstock, itself is a place about fifty years behind the times, but by no means the ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘ that Jerry Burton was seeking.

The police are eventually called in, in the person of Superintendent Nash who then requests help from an expert from London on anonymous letters – Inspector Graves. But the vicar’s wife, Mrs Dane Calthrop isn’t satisfied and brings in an expert of her own, an expert who ‘knows people‘, ‘someone who knows a great deal about wickedness‘ and that person is of course, Miss Marple.

The Moving Finger was first published in 1942 in New York and then in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1943. Along with the puzzle, Agatha Christie, speaking through her characters. makes several comments that interested me – on work/idleness for example. The local doctor’s sister, Miss Griffith, who is a Girl Guide leader, states that idleness is an unforgivable sin, and in response Jerry Burton says:

Sir Edward Grey … afterwards our foreign minister was sent down from Oxford for incorrigible idleness. The Duke of Wellington, I’ve heard, was both dull and inattentive to his books. And has it ever occurred to you, Miss Griffith, that you would probably not be able to take a good express train to London if little Georgie Stephenson had been out with his youth movement instead of lolling about, bored, in his mother’s kitchen until the curious behaviour of the kettle lid attracted the attention of his idle mind?

Another example – considering whether Providence/the Almighty/God would permit dreadful things to happen ‘to awaken us to a sense of our own shortcomings‘, Jerry Burton responds:

There’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I might concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.

Re-reading at her detective novels, Agatha Christie wrote in her Autobiography:

I find that one I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years later. One’s views change. Some do not stand the test of time, others do.

Put On By Cunning by Ruth Rendell

book cover of </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning, aka in America as Death Notes is another book off my to-be-read shelves, an enjoyable read. It was first published in 1981.

The epigraph indicates just what is to follow:

So shall you hear €¦
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads €“ all this can I
Truly deliver.

Hamlet

It is a tale of great complexity, a tale of murder and conspiracy to murder. A wealthy old man, Sir Manuel Camargue, one of greatest flautists of his time is found dead. Ankle deap in snow he had lost his footing in the dark and slipped into an icy lake and became trapped. His heiress, his daughter Natalie, had only recently been reunited with him after an absence of nineteen years. Although it seems a straight forward death, Camargue’s much younger fiancée, puts doubts in Chief Inspector Wexford’s mind when she tells him that Camargue had said that the woman who presented herself as Natalie was an imposter.

As is Wexford’s way he becomes obsessed with finding the truth and wonders if Camargue’s death was actually murder, despite the Chief Constable’s insistence that he forgets about it as the evidence all points to his death being an accident. Indeed, the verdict of the inquest is ‘Misadventure’. Wexford, however, is persistent in his doubts and convinced Natalie is an imposter, he is determined to investigate, which leads him to both California and France.

There is much I enjoyed in this, the eleventh Wexford book. It begins well, Ruth Rendell sets an excellent scene, and I could easily visualise the locations and characters, with beautiful descriptive passages. Inevitably, as both Wexford and Inspector Burden, begin to unravel the mystery more and more characters are implicated, until it really does seem a complex case becoming even more complicated, with too many coincidences and characters.

I thought that Wexford was keeping far too much to himself – leaving both Burden and me too much in the dark. The ending came as somewhat of an anti-climax as Wexford explained what had really happened and revealed all the false leads. Still, it kept me guessing to the end and I wondered (as I often do) just what clues I had missed along the way.

And now I’m wondering if I could attempt a ‘Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine Reading Challenge’, along the lines of the ‘Agatha  Christie Reading Challenge’, ie to read all her books. I’ve read several already.