Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

‘This is not a detective story, this is a story about a detective’

Nothing ventured

Macmillan|5 September 2019|337 pages|e-book|Review copy|3*

Years ago I enjoyed reading a few of Jeffrey Archer’s books, including Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less and Kane and Able. Archer is a prolific author, but I haven’t read any of his later books or his diaries about his time in prison. But I was interested when I saw that he had started a new series about William Warwick – Nothing Ventured. It is the first in the series of books following William’s progress from detective constable to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

It is indeed, a story about a detective, rather than a detective story and as such it is rather episodic, following William Warwick’s career.

William joins the Metropolitan Police force, against his father’s wishes. Sir Julian Warwick QC, had hoped his son would join him in chambers and train to be a barrister, like his sister Grace. He works on the beat in Lambeth before transferring to the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard, where he becomes involved in a number of cases of fraud and theft, including tracing the whereabouts of a phial of the moon dust brought back from the Apollo 11 mission by Neil Armstrong, and arresting an old man who had forges the signatures of famous authors in first editions. Whilst investigating the theft of a Rembrandt painting, the Syndics of the Cloth Makers Guild, from the Fitzmolean Museum in Kensington, he meets Beth Rainsford, a research assistant at the gallery and they fall in love almost at first sight – but Beth has a secret that she keeps from him. 

The premise is promising, but it’s written in a very straight-forward and factual style and my overall impression, despite the crime elements, is that this is a rather mundane and bland novel. William does this, does that, goes here, goes there, often at a break-neck pace that gives impetus. But the characters are drawn very sketchily with little depth – William is an intelligent young man, precocious and naive, eager to please and to learn, his father, Sir Julian, a suave, elegant and successful QC and Grace, his sister, an up and coming young barrister, and so on.

I suppose it is the base for the rest of the series but I found it too predictable. However, I thought the court scenes and the final little twist at the end enjoyable and I’m wondering if I want to go one to read the next book in the series which focuses on William’s time as a young detective sergeant in the elite drugs unit. I’m not sure that I do want to – there are so many more enticing books to read.

My thanks to Macmillan for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Art of Dying

Canongate Books|29 August 2019|416 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*

A Note From the Publisher

 

Many thanks to Canongate Books for an e-book review copy via NetGalley.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

 A house with the darkest of secrets.

Family upstairs

Random House UK Cornerstone|8 August 2019|464 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stepleton

Narrative Non-Fiction 4*

Adventures of Maud West

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton and published by Picador, is subtitled ‘Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime‘. With a title like that I thought it sounded just the sort of book I would like – and I did.

It is so intriguing – was Maud West really who she said she was? Susannah Stapleton discovered that she really did exist and was indeed a private investigator with her own detective agency, based in London in the early part of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards.  The book gives plenty of extracts from Maud West’s own accounts of her investigations under Golden Age crime fiction titles such as The Lady Vanishes, The Body in the Library, and They Do It With Mirrors, for example. But these accounts had me wondering just what was the truth and what was fiction. They are so incredible! Maud was truly an amazing person – a master of disguise, equally able to pass herself off as a man, or a fortune teller, or a parlour maid, and skilled with a revolver, able to face down blackmailers. There are photographs of Maud – at work in her office and in a number of disguises. And it was not just in Britain – she worked all over the place including  New York, Cape Town, Brazil, and Jakarta. 

But what makes the book so good, and what kept me glued to the pages are the details of how Susannah Stapleton went about her research, included within the main narrative of her book. I haven’t come across this before – usually  an author lists the sources used at the end – and there is just such a list (a very long and comprehensive list) at the end of this book.  I was more intrigued by Stapleton’s own methods of research into finding out about Maud than I was by Maud herself.

 I also loved all the details of the changing society in which Maud lived – the role of women in the struggle for equality, details of the living and working conditions and of the crimes that real life private detectives investigated – divorces, missing persons, adultery and theft.

It more than lived up to my expectations, but I am still wondering did she really do what she said she did? Whatever the truth she was a complex woman and a very private one at that.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea

Historical fiction at its best

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’ 

Katharina fortitude

Sanderling Books|23 July 2019|print length 446 pages|e-book review copy|5*

My thoughts:

I loved this book; beautifully written and meticulously researched Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea it presents a vivid portrait of Katharina von Bora from the beginning of her married  life with Martin Luther in 1525 to her death in 1552. It is the conclusion to Katharina: Deliverance, which covered the early years of her life from 1505 up to her wedding to Luther.

They both work well as standalone novels but I think reading both gives a fully rounded picture of her life. Margaret Skea is a skilful storyteller and seamlessly blends historical fact into her fiction. She is an award winning author both for her short stories and her historical novels – and Katharina: Deliverance was Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society Novel Award 2018.

Just as in Katharina: Deliverance, I was transported back in time and place to Reformation Germany, and in particular to Wittenberg in Saxony, experiencing the social, cultural and political situation. It’s also an intensely personal novel and I feel I really came to know Katharina and Martin very well. They lived through turbulent times, suffering outbreaks of plague, political and religious conflict as well as coping with the death of two of their children. Their marriage, initially one of convenience, opposed by some of his friends and fellow reformers, eventually became full of their love for each other and Martin came to value Katharina’s candid opinions and the support she gave him.

I felt immense admiration for Katharina, for her strength of character, resilience and courageous spirit. She gave birth to six children, whilst looking after Martin, who was often ill and suffered from depression. And in addition she also managed the daily life of the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, often under financial difficulties because of Martin’s generosity towards others. She catered for the students and all the visitors and boarders, as well as working in the garden, with its vegetable beds and herb garden, the brewhouse, stable and piggery. Luther continued to be involved in religious controversy, whilst lecturing students, and holding his Table Talk sessions discussing a variety of topics ranging from theology and politics to diseases and their remedies.  He also translated the Bible into German, composed hymns, catechisms and treatises. 

I have often written in my reviews that I am not a fan of novels written in the present tense, but I had no issues with it in either of these books about Katharina and I think it fits the story perfectly. I was totally immersed in the story, enhanced by the richly descriptive writing, which made it compulsively readable for me.

In her Author’s Note Margaret Skea states that her book, based on a research trip in Saxony, ‘is a work of fiction, and though based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation’. There is a list of the main characters, a glossary of German terms and a map showing Saxony and Surroundings to help with the locations. It is a remarkable story, full of drama, centred on Katharina, a strong and courageous woman who never gave up no matter the difficulties that life with Luther brought her. I loved it.

With many thanks to Margaret Skea for sending me an advance review copy.

 

Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way

Who killed Ruby

Harper Collins|30 May 2019|403 pages|Review e-book copy|3.5*

Ruby was murdered 32 years ago but her death still affects her family – Stella her mother, Vivienne her younger sister, and Cleo, Vivienne’s 13 year old daughter. Who Killed Ruby?  begins in a house in Peckham, London where the three of them are in shock, as a man lies dead on the kitchen floor. Whilst they wait for the police to arrive, Vivienne asks what they should tell them and Stella replies that they will tell them it is the man who murdered Ruby. This rather begs the question – is it?

The novel then rewinds two months describing the events that led up to that first scene and also reveals the events that led up to Ruby’s murder. It’s a complex tale told mainly from Vivienne’s point of view. She was just a child of eight when the murder happened and it was largely her testimony that convicted Jack Delaney, Ruby’s boyfriend. She had been alone in the house when she found her sister’s pregnant body splayed out on her bedroom floor. Jack has always protested his innocence and now he has been released from prison. But Vivienne is vague about the details of the murder, having blocked out her memories of what had happened and what she had seen. Plagued by nightmares ever since Ruby was killed, she is now terrified that Jack will come looking for her, wanting revenge.

The second viewpoint is Cleo’s. She is excited about the messages she’s exchanging online with Daniel, who she met on a gaming site. He tells her he is 14 and lives in Leeds. She lies to Vivienne about it and says that she is texting her friend Layla. Gradually Vivienne begins to remember what happened the day that Ruby died, but when Cleo disappears she becomes frantic, certain that Jack has taken her.

It is a tense and emotional mystery that kept me guessing to the very end. My suspicions about Cleo turned out to be partly correct, but as for who killed Ruby I was thrown off track by all the different characters who could be the culprit and I just couldn’t decide who I thought it could be. When the identity of the killer was revealed I was so surprised as it was someone I’d not even considered. I wasn’t convinced by some of the characters and thought they were too obviously there to confuse the reader. But overall I did enjoy the book. And I liked the emphasis on family relationships – particularly on the mother/daughter relationships.

Many thanks to the publishers, Harper Collins, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Bear Pit by S G MacLean

Bear Pit

Quercus/ 11 July 2019/Paperback/ 416 pages/ Review copy/ 5*

S G MacLean is one of my favourite authors of historical fiction, so I was delighted to read her latest book, The Bear Pit.  It is the fourth book in her Damien Seeker series, set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. I’ve read the previous three books. Reading them takes me back to England in the 17th century, a time and a place full of danger and unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones, I think it would help to follow the progression of events if they are read in order.

This one begins in September 1656 as three men are waiting for Oliver Cromwell to emerge from Westminster Abbey on his way to the State Opening of Parliament in Parliament House. Their plan to assassinate Cromwell had been in preparation in Cologne and Bruges for a year and a half, but that day it was thwarted. However, they will not give up.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. Thurloe is floundering under all the reports from the Continent about plots against Cromwell’s life and to reinstate Charles Stuart as King. He tells Seeker until they have corroboration of the rumours they don’t have the time or capability to look into the matter. Not wanting to go against Thurloe’s orders, Seeker decides to take part in a raid on an illegal gaming house which ends with the discovery of the body of an elderly man chained to the wall by his neck and half eaten, obviously ravaged by a bear. But bear baiting had been banned and all the bears had been shot recently – or so it was claimed. Where had the bear come from and why was the man killed? And what connection, if any, does the murder have to the plots to kill Cromwell?

Like all good historical fiction The Bear Pit blends historical fact and fiction. There was indeed a plot to assassinate Cromwell in the autumn and winter of 1656 as described in the novel, whereas the mystery of the man killed by a bear and the subsequent search for the bear’s whereabouts are fictional. 

Some of the things I enjoy in this book are the return of characters from the earlier books -Sir Thomas Faithly, Lawrence Ingoldby, Manon, Marie Ellingworth, to mention just a few, and the glimpses we see of other historical figures – such as John Evelyn, a young Samuel Pepys, the poet Andrew Marvell as well as John Milton and one of my favourite historical figures when I was at school – Prince Rupert of the Rhine. I was fascinated by the details of The Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled by John Tradescant and his son, in Tradescant’s Garden in South Lambeth. In her Author’s Note S G MacLean states that these were indeed, very much in existence and were open for business as well as being a public attraction. The remains of the collection are held in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. 

S G MacLean is a wonderful storyteller and her books are full of authentic detail skilfully interwoven in the stories without holding up the action. The Bear Pit is a fast-paced book, full of action and danger and wonderful characters, especially in the figure of Damien Seeker. He is the hero of the book – strong, dedicated to his work, indefatigable in his search of the truth and loyal to his friends and colleagues. The atmospheric setting complements the plot – the streets of London in winter, the cold, fog and damp and in particular Bankside in Southwark and the eerie atmospheric wastes of Lambeth Marsh. I was completely absorbed in the book. I found it compelling reading both the murder mystery and the assassination plot gripped me and I raced through it, eager to find out what happened. I was absolutely incredulous at the ending though, but it does give me hope that there may be fifth Damian Seeker novel.

Many thanks to the publishers, Quercus, for my review copy via NetGalley.