Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

Gallows Court by Martin Edwards has been on my radar since it was published last year. And I’ve read plenty of reviews full of praise for it, so my  expectations were high as I began reading, especially as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his other books that I’ve read, particularly his Lake District murder mysteries. Gallows Court, set in 1930s London, is a change of direction for Martin Edwards, born out of his fascination with that period in history and his love of Golden Age detective fiction. It is the first in a series; the next book, due out in March next year, is to be Mortmain Hall, a sequel to Gallows Court. 

Gallows Court

Blurb (Amazon):

London, 1930.
A headless corpse; an apparent suicide in a locked room; a man burned alive during an illusionist’s show in front of thousands of people. Scotland Yard is baffled by the sequence of ghastly murders unfolding across the city and at the centre of it all is mysterious heiress Rachel Savernake. Daughter of a grand judge, Rachel is as glamorous as she is elusive.

Jacob Flint, a tenacious young journalist eager to cover the gruesome crimes, is drawn into Rachel’s glittering world of wealth and power. But as the body count continues to rise, Jacob is convinced Rachel is harbouring a dark secret and he soon becomes part of a dangerous game that could leave him dancing at the end of the hangman’s rope if he pursues the truth.

My thoughts:

I think this must be the twistiest book I’ve read – there are twists and turns galore, my head was spinning as I read the first 100 pages. I had to stop when I realised that apart from Rachel and Jacob I had little idea of who anybody was, what they were doing and how they interacted. There are so many characters and the story is told in short sections moving rapidly from scene to scene and from one viewpoint to another. I had to go right back to the beginning – start again and this time concentrate much more on who was who and what they were up to.

Jacob Flint is constant throughout, but Rachel Savernack is not. I was never sure about her, what to think of her, or who she really was because it’s obvious that there is more to her than first meets the eye. The pressure never lets up – there is always tension and suspicion about who is telling the truth, and who is not who they appear to be. You just cannot believe anything as it’s full of illusions and tricks to baffle and mislead. Towards the end the fog lifted and I began to suspect the truth. It is certainly a challenging book and if you enjoy an intricately plotted murder mystery with plenty of suspense and intrigue then this is the book for you.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Head of Zeus (6 Sept. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1788546075
  • ISBN-13: 978-1788546072
  • Source: Library book
  • Martin Edwards website.
  • My rating: 4*

Reading challenge: The Virtual Mount TBR

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Riviera Set

Little, Brown Book Group|November 2016|448 pages|Library book|3.5 rounded up to 4 on Goodreads*

When I read Cath’s review of The Riviera Set: 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess on her blog Read Warbler I thought it sounded fascinating, so I reserved a copy at the library. I has taken me almost a month to read it, but I did enjoy it.

Mary S Lovell explains in her Introduction that this is ‘less of a biography, more the story of a house and those who peopled it between the years 1930 and 1960.‘ The book begins with Maxine Elliott, telling of her early life  – she was an American, born Jessica Dermot in Rockland, Maine in 1868. She was a most remarkable woman who became an actress, famed for her beauty and her pure speaking voice. She came over to England, had successfully entered the Edwardian social scene in 1899 and after divorcing her husband, actor Nat Goodwin in 1908 she established herself at Hartsbourne, a country house in Hertfordshire. During the First World War she bought a barge and fitted it out as a first-aid clinic and soup kitchen to help with the war relief effort, bringing food and medical supplies to thousands of displaced people in Belgium. Many of the people who socialised at Hartsbourne flocked to visit her there. 

And then in 1930 she commissioned the architect Barry Dierks to build  the Chateau de l’Horizon on the land she had bought on a narrow stretch of rocks with a small promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, first of all about Maxine herself, then the description of the construction of the Chateaux and the years that Maxine owned it and lived there. Maxine really came into her own there as a superb hostess.

chateau de l'horizon

Regular visitors included Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham among many others – famous actors and actresses as well as members of the aristocracy and politicians. I was interested in Clementine Churchill’s reaction to the Riviera set – she disapproved of their behaviour and often didn’t accompany him on his visits.  She also disapproved of Winston’s gambling at the Casino. Then there were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who lived nearby before the Second World War – the picture painted of them is not flattering – and there was much talk about how to address Wallis and whether the women should curtsy to her. By the time the War approached Maxine had lost her sparkle, suffering from ill health and she died in March 1940.

And after her death nothing was the same – and my interest in the book began to wane. The Chateau was bought by Aly Khan, the Aga Khan’s heir presumptive at the time. There is quite a lot about his time there, his womanising, his marriage to Rita Hayworth and the social scene of the post-war period up to 1960. Nevertheless it is a fascinating and entertaining book about a pampered, luxurious and decadent world.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

Dolly by Susan Hill

Dolly

Profile Books|October 2012|153 pages|Library book|4*

Dolly: A Ghost Story is a small book – in size and in length and I read it very quickly. Although I think it is a supernatural tale I don’t think it is a ghost story. But it does have an uneasy foreboding and melancholic atmosphere, mainly set in a mysterious isolated country house in the Fens.

There is not much to say about it really. It’s the story of two children, cousins Edward and Leonora who spend a summer with their Aunt Kestrel at her house, Iyot Lock, a large decaying house in the Fens. Edward tries to get on with Leonora, an insufferably mean and spiteful child. Expecting a birthday present of a doll from her aunt, she has a tantrum when she is given a baby doll totally unlike the doll she wanted and breaks its head. From that point on strange things begin to happen with disastrous consequences.

It is well written and I relished the descriptive writing of the landscape, that oppressive feeling that the sky above is falling in on you that I’ve experienced in that area. The tension is there from the start and it gradually builds as events unfold and the storm clouds gather.  There are hints of evil as well as spite and malice, in Leonora and what happens to the doll and the cousins is where the supernatural element comes in. 

But I think the plot is too formulaic and I could easily foretell what was going to happen. To say what it reminded me of would be too much of a spoiler. The ending, as so often in short stories and novellas comes too quickly, but nevertheless I did enjoy reading it. There is a certain satisfaction in predicting what would happen and being right as opposed to getting to the end and expecting more. It made a pleasurable change as it filled a gap between longer and more demanding books.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries

Quercus |1 November 2018|410 pages|Hardback|Library Book|3*

I knew very little about The Stranger Diaries before I opened the book beyond the fact that it is a standalone novel by Elly Griffiths, a murder mystery with a Victorian Gothic feel. It sounded different from her other books that I’ve read, so I was intrigued. 

It begins with the opening of the Victorian Gothic writer R M Holland’s short story, The Stranger, a ghost story set at midnight at Halloween. Clare Cassidy, an English teacher at Talgarth High, where Holland once lived, runs short courses for adults on his work. She is also writing his biography, hoping to discover the truth behind the stories that his wife fell to her death down the stairs, (there are rumours that her ghost haunts the building). Was his wife killed, or was her death suicide or an accident? And was the mysterious ‘Mariana’ his daughter? There is no record of either her birth or her death. 

But the main plotline is the modern mystery – that of the murder of Ella,her friend and fellow English teacher. A line, ‘Hell is empty!‘ from Holland’s story is found in a note beside her body. Ella, however, is only the first murder victim and gradually it becomes clear that the motivation for the killings centres around Clare. Is she a suspect or a potential victim? The story has three narrators, each one clearly distinguishable – Clare, her teenage daughter Georgia, and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, giving different perspectives on events. Excerpts from The Stranger are interspersed between the chapters along with Clare’s diary, in which she records her suspicions and fears that could hold the clue to the killings, and those about the police investigation. 

Overall, I did enjoy The Stranger Diaries. I liked the literary references to Victorian literature and the details about R M Holland (a fictional character).  I thought the characters were interesting, especially Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur. But I didn’t find either the short story, The Stranger, or the atmospheric setting particularly spooky and I thought the murder mystery was rather unconvincing, especially the ending. Maybe my expectations were too high – or maybe it’s the wrong time of year to read it, and Halloween and November would be more appropriate!

Reading Challenges: Calendar of Crime (the main action takes place in November) and the Virtual Mount TBR challenge.

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Blurb:

Immortalised by Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling performance in the 1961 film of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Truman Capote’s timeless portrait of tragicomic cultural icon Holly Golightly, published in Penguin Modern Classics.

It’s New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany’s. And nice girls don’t, except, of course, for Holly Golightly: glittering socialite traveller, generally upwards, sometimes sideways and once in a while – down. Pursued by to Salvatore ‘Sally’ Tomato, the Mafia sugar-daddy doing life in Sing Sing and ‘Rusty’ Trawler, the blue-chinned, cuff-shooting millionaire man about women about town, Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveller, a tease. She is irrepressibly ‘top banana in the shock department’, and one of the shining flowers of American fiction.

My thoughts:

I’ve never seen the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a high-priced escort looking for a rich man to marry, but I understand that it’s only loosely based on the novella and is set in the 1960s rather than the 1940s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a quick read and very entertaining. The narrator is not named, although Holly Golightly calls him ‘Fred’ after her brother. He’s a writer and at the beginning of the book he is reminiscing about Holly with Joe Bell, who ran a bar around the corner on Lexington Avenue. They hadn’t seen or heard from Holly  for over two years. She used to live in the apartment below Fred’s in a brownstone in the East Seventies in New York. Her past is almost as unknown as her present whereabouts.

She’s a free spirit, charming and carefree, but craves attention. She has a cat, plays the guitar and likes to live as though she’s about to leave – all her belongings still in suitcases and crates – and has a great many friends who she entertains with numerous parties. She gets the ‘mean reds’, days when she’s afraid, expecting something bad is going to happen, but she doesn’t know what. On days like that she gets in a taxi and goes to Tiffany’s which calms her down and where nothing bad could happen to her, but not for the diamonds. She doesn’t ‘give a hoot’ about diamonds and thinks it’s ‘tacky to wear them before you’re forty’.

Her life is a mass of contradictions, one character describes her as a ‘phony,’ but a ‘real phony’ with crazy ideas and always on the move. She’s involved with a Mafia gangster, Sally Tomato, who she visits in jail every Thursday. But her life is really a mystery and not all is as it appears on the surface, longing for something wonderful to happen.

There’s a lot packed into this novella of 100 pages. There are also three short stories at the end of the book in the remaining pages – and these are a delight. I think these are among the best short stories that I’ve read!

There’s House of Flowers about a young woman called Ottilie, who makes the best of her life, first as a prostitute and then as the wife of Royal, a young man who takes her to live in a house in the mountains, a house of flowers with wisteria on the roof, vines over the windows and lilies blooming at the door. But all is not as idyllic as it seems in this beautiful and exotic setting.

A Diamond Guitar is set in a prison farm, a story of unrequited love when a new prisoner arrives bringing with him a guitar studded with glass diamonds. The third story is maybe my favourite, A Christmas Memory, about a young boy, Buddy and his cousin who is sixty or so years older than him. It’s a heart-warming story with a poignant ending.

I loved Capote’s writing – it’s lively, richly descriptive with sparkling dialogue, and his ability to conjure up characters with depth in a few paragraphs is impressive, to say the least.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (27 April 2000) – originally published in 1958
  • Source: Library Book
  • My Rating: 5*

Challenges: The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

I Found You

Arrow Books|2016|438 pages|Library book |4*

After I’d enjoyed reading Watching You by Lisa Jewell so much I looked for more of her books to read and borrowed I Found You  from my local library.

Blurb:

Surrey: Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one.

East Yorkshire: Alice Lake finds a man on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, no idea what he is doing there. Against her better judgement she invites him in to her home.

But who is he, and how can she trust a man who has lost his memory?

My thoughts:

I Found You plunged me straight away into the mystery of the identity of the man Alice Lake found sitting on the beach at Ridinghouse Bay (a fictional seaside resort) in the pouring rain. He can’t remember who he is, or how or why he is sitting there. And, of course, I thought he must be Lily Monrose’s husband, Carl who has gone missing. These two strands of the story are written in the present tense. They alternate with another strand written in the past tense about events that took place 22 years earlier when a family of four, teenagers Kirsty and Gray, with their parents, are spending their summer holiday in Rabbit Cottage, a former coastguard’s cottage. That holiday changed all their lives.

One of the things I liked about this novel is its strong sense of place. Ridinghouse Bay is a small seaside town with the usual attractions for holidaymakers –  a pub, a seafood restaurant, cafe, a beach bar and a fairground . And there is a map showing all the locations around the Bay.

Alice’s cottage is tiny, an old coastguard’s cottage built over three hundred years ago.

Beyond her window, between Victorian street lights, a string of sun-faded bunting swings back and forth in the boisterous April wind. To the left there is a slipway where small fishing boats form a colourful spine down to a concrete jetty and where the great dreadful froth of the North Sea hits the rocky shoreline. And beyond that the sea. Black and infinite. (page 2)

Alice is a bit eccentric, a generous and kind-hearted woman, living on her own with her four children and three dogs. The cottage is too small for her family, cramped, with low ceilings that slope and bulge, but she invites the man in to stay in the studio/shed in her back yard which is where she makes art from old maps to sell on the internet. The children decide to call him ‘Frank’ and she tries to help him remember what had happened to him. Then Frank begins to have flashbacks and thinks he may have killed someone.

Lily, meanwhile is trying to find Carl. They had met and married in the Ukraine and although she has spoken to his mother on the phone she has never met her. The police tell her his passport is a fake and his mother isn’t answering her phone, but she finds her address and goes to see her. But the house is empty.

I read this quickly, it’s very readable. The characters are realistically drawn with depth – and the puzzle about Frank’s identity kept me guessing. It’s not as clear-cut as it first appeared and I kept changing my mind as I read on. It certainly isn’t the ‘cosy’ mystery, that the opening pages seem to indicate, but it is a story that me gripped as the tension rose to a dramatic and violent climax.

I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Lisa Jewell’s books to read.

There will be a new Lisa Jewell novel – The Family Upstairs which is out on 25 July. Her earlier books are:

Ralph’s Party (1999)
Thirtynothing (2000)
One-hit Wonder (2001)
A Friend of the Family (2003)
Vince and Joy (2005)
31 Dream Street (2007)
The Truth About Melody Browne (2009)
After the Party (2010)
The Making of Us (2011)
Before I Met You (2012)
The House We Grew Up In (2012)
The Third Wife (2012)
The Girls (2015)
aka The Girls in the Garden
I Found You (2016)
Then She Was Gone (2017)
Watching You (2018)

Destroying Angel by S G MacLean

Destroying Angel (Damian Seeker #3)

Destroying Angel is S G MacLean’s third book in her Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime. I have read The Black Friar, the second book in the series, but I have still to read first one, The Seeker – I have reserved this at the library, so hope to read it soon.

This third book is set in 1655 when Seeker is sent north by Colonel Robert Lilburne to the village of Faithly, on the Yorkshire moors. The Rule of the Major-Generals has begun in which England and Wales were divided into ten regions, each governed by a major-general who answered to the Lord Protector. Seeker is to brief the local commissioner, Matthew Pullan, on the latest anti-Royalist laws and the new  measures  and taxes to be imposed on Royalists, to prepare the way for the rule of the major-generals. As the vicar, Septimus Jenkins complains:

This England that Cromwell is making is not the England of free men. … Local officers – village constables – to be encouraged to inform on magistrates, justices of the peace, even, that they don’t consider well enough affected to the new ways. No race meetings nor cockfights nor bear-baitings to be held, no gatherings of Royalists in men’s private houses nor in public places even, for fear that should  a handful of themselves in one place they will have nothing to do but plot to overthrow Cromwell. Answer for your movements, don’t gather with your friends. (page 50)

These are hard times and Faithly is a place full of resentment and fear, brought to crisis point when Caleb Turner, a Trier appointed by the government to enforce Puritan morality arrives in the village. In particular he has come to try the vicar for ‘ungodly acts’. Added to that people have been whipped up into a frenzy of superstition at the suspicion of witchcraft. And that is made much worse when Gwendolen, Matthew’s young ward, who some suspect was a witch, dies from eating poisoned mushrooms – the deadly destroying angel fungus.

Faithly Manor, on Faithly Moor, is the home of Sir Edward Faithly, the local JP, whose father Sir Anthony and younger brother, Thomas had fought for the Stuarts. Sir Anthony was killed during the Civil War and Thomas had fled the country, whilst Edward had stayed on to run their estate. There are rumours that Thomas has now returned to England and Seeker had been sent to discover his whereabouts.

As well as searching for Thomas, Seeker has to find out how Gwendolen died – was it an accident or had the poison been intended for someone else and if so who and why? A large part of the book is set in York and, helped by the street plan showing the key areas and buildings, I enjoyed following Seeker’s walks around the City. Seeker is my favourite character in the book; an enigmatic character, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust. I felt I knew very little, though, about his background so was pleased that as the story progressed more details of his personal history are revealed with the appearance of people from his past.

One reason I like S G MacLean’s books (her earlier books were written under the name of Shona MacLean) is that she has based them on solid historical research (she has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen). Another reason is that her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly, full of atmosphere and tension.

The Bear Pit, the fourth Seeker book is due out this July, taking him back to London to investigate illegal gambling dens. And so I hope to find out yet more about Damian Seeker.

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Quercus (12 July 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 978-1-78648-4178
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 4*

Destroying Angel qualifies for the When Are You Reading? challenge, the Calendar of Crime challenge in the category of a book originally published in July, and as it is a library book it also qualifies for the The Virtual Mount TBR challenge.