Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter 001A 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.

Sausage Hall by Christina James

When the publishers of Sausage Hall emailed me offering a review copy of the book I thought it sounded interesting, although I wasn’t keen on the title – I thought it sounded a bit gimmicky and it nearly putting me off reading it.  But I’m glad it didn’t because I would have missed out on a good story, a crime mystery with a sinister undercurrent exploring the murky world of illegal immigrants, and a well researched historical element. I enjoyed it.

Sausage Hall is the third book in the DI Yates series and although I haven’t read the first two that wasn’t a problem – it stands well on its own, but I’d like to read the two earlier books. This is set in the South Lincolnshire Fens and is an intricately plotted crime mystery, uncovering a crime from the past whilst investigating a modern day murder.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Sausage Hall: home to millionaire Kevan de Vries, grandson of a Dutch immigrant farmer. De Vries has built up a huge farming and food packing empire which extends, via the banana trade, to the West Indies. But Sleazy MD, Tony Sentance, persuades de Vries to branch out into the luxury holiday trade. De Vries and wife, Joanna, take the first cruise out to explore the potentially lucrative possibilities. However, back at home, a break-in at Sausage Hall uncovers a truly gruesome historical discovery. And when a young employee of de Vries is found dead in the woods, D.I. Yates is immediately called in … 

The narrative switches between the first person present tense (Kevan) and the third person past tense, which took me a bit to get used to. Actually I thought this worked very well; even though the use of the first person present tense usually irritates me, it didn’t in this book and it gives a good insight into Kevan’s character as well as providing essential information about his background and relationships.

I particularly liked DC Juliet Armstrong, DI Tim Yates’ colleague – the two make a good combination, even though Juliet spends a good part of the book isolated in hospital with Weil’s disease, having been bitten by a rat. In fact of the two characters I thought Juliet was the most clearly defined. Maybe a second reading would help clarify Yates’ character for me, or maybe this is where not reading the two earlier books is a drawback. This is not a book you can read quickly as there are plenty of characters and several plot threads that need to be kept in my mind as you read the book.

I liked the historical elements of the plot and the way Christina James has connected the modern and historical crimes, interwoven with the history of Kevan’s home, Laurieston House, known to the locals as ‘Sausage Hall’ and the secrets of its cellar – just what is the link between Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian financier, statesman, and empire builder of British South Africa, and the Jacobs family who were the previous owners of Sausage Hall?

Added to this is the mystery of the death of a young woman found dead in the woods near the De Vries food-packing plant in Norfolk. It seems she was employed at the plant although the supervisors there deny any knowledge of her. DI York suspects she is an Eastern European illegal immigrant. And as for Tony Sentance, just what is his hold over Kevan and his wife and their son, Archie? It was only just before the end that I suspected the truth. 

Publishers’ Biographical Note: ‘C.A. James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire. She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher. She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history. She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name.’

There is more information about Christina James and her books on her blog The earlier DI Yates books are In the Family and Almost Love.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Salt Publishing (17 Nov 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907773827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907773822
  • Source: review copy from the publishers

Lamentation by C J Sansom

Once again I am behind myself with writing about the books I’ve read! So here are just a few thoughts about C J Sansom’s historical novel, Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake book.

I have enjoyed the earlier books in the series so I had great expectations for Lamentation and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. What I like about these books is their historical setting and the Historical Notes giving yet more background to the period and emphasising that because the sources are ‘very thin’ that inevitably this is Sansom’s own interpretation of events and clarifying that Catherine Parr’s book was not, in the real world, stolen.

The book evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension. It begins as Shardlake is ordered to watch the burning at the stake of Anne Askew and other heretics (a real event). I’m not good at reading horrific scenes, but I managed this one without too much mental aversion of my eyes. Along with the mystery of the missing book, Shardlake is working on the Cotterstoke dispute between rival siblings, and has problems at home with his domestic servants.

I was also very taken with Shardlake’s introduction in Lamentation to William Cecil, Mary Tudor and a young Elizabeth I. I hope Sansom has more Shardlake books in mind.

Wycliffe in Paul's Court by W J Burley

We had to spend nearly 4 hours yesterday in the Newcastle Emergency Eye Department as D has a corneal abrasion. As my Kindle needed charging I picked up a lightweight paperback to slip into my bag to while away the time – and I nearly finished it whilst we were there! It was Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Paul’s Court is a quiet corner in the heart of the city: an oasis of peace and safety – until the night when there are two violent deaths. Willy Goppel, an émigré from Germany, is found hanging from a beam in his home; and fifteen-year-old Yvette Cole, who may or may not have lived up to her wild reputation, is strangled and thrown half naked over the churchyard hedge.

Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has the aid of a shrewd local sergeant, Kersey, but they still find this a difficult case to crack. Did Willy assault the girl and then hang himself? Or was his death not suicide after all? As Wycliffe and Kersey dig deeper they gradually untangle a complex network of secrets in the quiet of Paul’s Court …

My thoughts

Although there are plenty of suspects, all from the five houses in Paul’s Court I could easily distinguish them, even with the distractions of a hospital waiting room from children crying that they wanted to go home and people talking loudly next to me. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to concentrate enough to follow all the clues and it was only just before the culprit was revealed that I had any idea who it was. But it was still an enjoyable read.

Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective who doesn’t let himself become desk-bound and gets very involved with the investigation. This is the first time he has worked with Kersey, who sized him up thus:

He saw a man with a clear view of right and wrong who was not a bigot; he recognised a close-grained moral toughness with a hint of old-fashioned puritan zeal, but no wish to burn heretics. A man of compassion but no sentimentalist, a reformer but not a do-gooder. (page 70)

Wycliffe and Kersey make a good team; Kersey knows not just the area very well but also the local people and is able to give Wycliffe ‘vivid thumb-nail sketches of the inhabitants of Paul’s Court’. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives but who find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. W J Burley was very good at creating believable people caught up in extraordinary situations. I’ve read just a few of his 22 Wycliffe books – plenty more to read yet!

W.J. Burley (1914 – 20020 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 Inspector Wycliffe in 1966 and the series has been televised with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. Wycliffe in Paul’s Court was first published in 1980.

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.

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

She Never Came Home is a perfect little ghost story for Halloween. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen spins a suspenseful story of Alice and her husband Peter and their little dog, Foxy as they move into an old farmhouse deep in the Danish countryside. Just why is Foxy nervous about the cupboard under the sink, what is in the bedrooms upstairs that are excluded from their tenancy agreement, and why has the house been empty for over thirty years?

Both Peter and Alice are out of work, but Peter still has to work out his notice in Germany and leaves Alice alone in the house… Alice slowly discovers the horrible truth.

I really liked this short story, with its chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end. In just a few pages Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written such a compelling and entertaining tale.

This is my last entry in this year’s R.I.P. challenge and another one for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard describes her book, Cauldstane  as ‘a gothic novel in the romantic suspense tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart & Victoria Holt.‘ It is a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands:

Cauldstane stood, heroic, long-suffering, defying all that the centuries had thrown at it. (Wet rot and dry rot have proved more damaging to many a castle than the depredations of enemy artillery). I saw an ivy-clad tower, much taller than it was wide, with more windows than I could easily count, the whole topped by conical-roofed turrets and looking, from a distance, like a toy. (page 6)

The narrator is Jenny Ryan who is employed by Sholto MacNab, a retired adventurer and Laird of the castle, to ghost write his memoirs. Cauldstane, a beautiful castle is fast falling into disrepair and the MacNabs are struggling to maintain or even keep it.

When he employs Jenny Sholto jokes that every castle should have its ghost. Cauldstane not only has a ghost, there is also the MacNab curse, which affects the women the McNabs marry, with three deaths (two accidents and a suicide) attributed to the curse, and the legend of the Cauldstane claymore, supposed to possess supernatural powers to protect the MacNabs from evil.

Jenny immediately falls in love with the castle, but as she settles in a few things begin to disturb her – her notes on her laptop disappear. As she learns more about the MacNabs and their history, family secrets begin to surface. But what is the truth behind these stories? It seems to hinge on Meredith, Sholto’s second wife who was killed in a horrific car crash.

Cauldstane is peopled by well drawn colourful characters, a beautifully described atmospheric setting and a wealth of story-telling, recreating the past seamlessly interwoven with the present. Jenny not only falls in love with the castle, but also with Sholto’s heir, his son Alec and as she does so more strange events occur and it becomes obvious that there is a malign presence in the castle that doesn’t want her there. And it makes its presence known in a modern way – through Jenny’s laptop. No ghostly visions or  spooky voices, but a thoroughly evil presence capable of writing on the laptop as well as moving objects and putting Jenny’s life in danger, along with the music that apparently only Jenny can hear.

As well as being a gripping tale Cauldstane is also about fear. The epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) sets the tone: ‘Ghost: the outward and visible sign of an inward fear‘.  The MacNabs are not the only ones with things to fear in their past, for Jenny too has a troubled past and both have to learn how to overcome their fears. Cauldstane is also about loss and revenge, about good versus evil and the power of love.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has written seven novels. I enjoyed this one very much but my favourite of hers is still Star Gazing. For more information about Linda Gillard and her books see her website, Linda Gillard – Author.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland 2014, My Kind of Mystery and R.I.P. IX.

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.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

I first came across John Bude’s books nearly a year ago on Martin Edward’s blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name and thought they looked very interesting. His books are amongst those published by the British Library – reprints of unknown and undiscovered murder mysteries written in the thirties.  John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore, was writing in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the years between the two world wars. In 1953 he became one  of the founding members of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Anyway I made a mental note about the name and it lodged in the back of my mind until this September when I was in the Lake District and came across The Lake District Murder in the tourist information office in Glenridding on the shores of Ullswater. It has a striking cover, reproduced from a London & North Eastern Railway travel poster dating from the 1920s, showing a small steamer boat sailing on Ullswater, surrounded by the hills and mountains of the Lake District.

The LD mystery

The artist was John Littlejohns, who was born in Devon in 1874. He was a painter, illustrator, writer and teacher. As we had just been on a boat trip on Ullswater, in the Lady of the Lake (originally a steamboat), this immediately caught my eye.

The Lake District Murder as Martin Edwards writes in the introduction is ‘a world away from the unreality of bodies in libraries and cunningly derived killings on transcontinental trains.’ It is a police procedural, showing in intricate detail how the detectives investigate a crime. In this case a body is discovered in a car outside a lonely garage on a little used road. At first it appears that Jack Clayton one of the garage owners had committed suicide, but there are a couple of clues pointing to murder and when Inspector Meredith discovers that Clayton was planning to marry and move abroad it turns into a murder investigation. But what is the motive for murder and as everyone seems to have an alibi, who had the opportunity to kill Clayton? 

This book really takes you back in time. It was first published in 1935, which means that police methods of investigations particularly in rural areas was very different. Inspector Meredith uses buses or trains or travels the local roads on a motor cycle with a side car and pops into the local post office to use the telephone. It’s a slow process.

Having recently visited the Northern Lakes, I was fairly familiar with the landscape and could follow the action quite easily, but what I did find difficult was following the calculations Meredith and his colleagues carried out to work out petrol deliveries to the local garages, the lorries’ loads and the petrol storage capacities at the various garages. Inspector Meredith is a likeable character, with a happy home life, although his wife thought the police force made more than enough demands on his time  and tried to discourage their son’s interest in police affairs.

The Lake District Mystery is Bude’s second mystery novel. His first was The Cornish Coast Mystery,  and the third is The Sussex Downs Mystery (due to be released 27 October) both also reprinted by the British Library.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Sittaford Mystery is one of the earlier of Agatha Christie’s books, first published in the UK in 1931 and in the US as Murder at Hazelmoor. It’s not one of her Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, but features Inspector Narracott, ably assisted, if not lead, by Emily Trefusis, a remarkably resourceful and determined young woman. I really liked Emily.

The Sittaford Mystery begins with a seance, or rather a table-turning session at Sittaford House in a tiny moorland village near Dartmoor, not very far from the prison at Princetown. Snow has been falling for four days and now Sittaford is almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. At the seance are the tenants of Sittaford House, Mrs Willett and her daughter Violet, and their neighbours. When the message of Captain Trevelyan’s death is tapped out, followed by the word M-U-R-D-E-R, his friend Major Burnaby immediately decides to see if Trevelyan has indeed been murdered, walking in the snow walking six miles to Exhampton. Of course, when he gets there, he does indeed discover that his friend is dead, probably killed at the precise time that the message was received in the seance.

Inspector Narracott is called in and a young man, James Pearson, Trevelyan’s nephew is arrested for the murder. Emily, his fiancée, is convinced of his innocence. She enlists the help of the journalist, Charles Enderby and together they set out to discover the real culprit. Inspector Narracott is a quiet man, a thoughtful and efficient police officer, with a logical mind and attention to detail but Emily is determined and courageous in her search for the truth.

There are two mysteries in this book, who killed Trevelyan and why have the Willetts rented the house from him for the winter? I found it all very interesting, with plenty of clues, red herrings and suspects. Added to that is the escaped prisoner on Dartmoor, reminding me a bit of Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, and of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, emphasised Charles Enderby’s reference to the seance as a ‘queer’ business, and thinking of getting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s opinion on the matter.

The setting and the characterisation are good. But although the plotting is good for most of the book, I felt the ending and the motive for the murder are rather inadequate, not least because I don’t think you could actually deduce who the murderer is – I guessed, but it was only a guess – not all of the facts are revealed until the denouement. For this reason I can’t rank The Sittaford Mystery with Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, but it is still a good read.

Note: the TV version in the Agatha Christie Marple series not only changes the identity of the killer but also inserts Miss Marple into the story!