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Archive for the tag “whodunit”

A churchy whodunit

The Martyr's ChapelThe Martyr’s Chapel by Dudley J. Delffs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An American Episcopalian (or Whiskeypalian, as one of the characters puts it) version of Father Brown solves the mystery of a murder in an almost disused chapel in a quiet university town in Tennessee. Father Griffin Reed’s sister Bea is also a would-be Miss Marple, but she doesn’t solve the mystery, so doesn’t actually make it.

It also reminded me a bit of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman, with its diocesan exorcist-turned-detective protagonist. I wonder if the murder-mystery in a churchy setting is becoming a genre in its own right.

It is not, however, quite up to the standard of G.K. Chesterton or Phil Rickman. For one thing, Dudley J. Delffs doesn’t get the church background and setting quite right. “Divine” seems a very improbable name for an Anglican/Episcopalian cathedral, and the author clearly doesn’t have a clue about the role of deacons and the diaconate in an Anglican setting, which makes it feel rather inauthentic.

The author tends to go into great detail about the characters’ clothing. Perhaps to those familiar with the culture this will send cultural signals that I, having never been to Tennessee, may miss. I was picturing wing tips as a kind of collar, until the author described them as tapping on the floor. There is also an almost Enid Blytonish feel to the descriptions of food and eating.

In spite of these shortcomings, however, it’s quite a readable story, and as a whodunit it kept me wondering who the villain was until almost the last chapter.

I also learned things about American culture that I hadn’t known before. Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving I’d heard of, as important US cultural festivals, but apparently there is a third, at about the same time of the year — Homecoming. I had to Google to look it up — perhaps it isn’t as controversial as the other two, and so seems to be less discussed on the Internet. It also seems that, as the US academic year finishes with Commencement, it commences with Homecoming. I suppose the nearest thing to that in my student days in South Africa was the annual charity Rag, but I don’t know if they have those any more.

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The Blind Man of Seville (Javier Falcon, #1)The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A crime novel set in Spain.

Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.

The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.

About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus‘s novel The outsider.

One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952

It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society’s shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, Tangier, those were the days,’ because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.

The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.

Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word “parameters” in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.

No, Dostoevsky it isn’t, but it’s still an above-average whodunit.

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What hidden lies: a South African whodunit

What Hidden Lies (Persy Jonas #1)What Hidden Lies by Michele Rowe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A South African whodunit.

I’ve read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I’ve read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in Denmark, Greece and Turkey. But it doesn’t seem to be a popular genre with South African writers. So I enjoyed this one, and not just because it was set in South Africa, but because it was a pretty good specimen of the genre.

The protagonist, Detective Sergeant (or is it Constable? she seems to get promoted without explanation in the first couple of chapters) Persy Jonas, seems like a fairly ordinary person — not a poet, not an aristocrat, not alcoholic or going through a traumatic divorce, not a rogue cop perpetually on the verge of being fired for drunkenness, but brought back in the nick of time because no one else is such a brilliant detective. Persy (short for Persephone) Jonas is an ordinary person and an ordinary cop. It makes it more real, somehow.

Of course she has her problems; which cop, real or fictional, doesn’t? She has problems at home — domestic violence3 in the family. She has problems coming to terms with things in her past. It’s just kind of refreshing that those problems don’t include booze and/or divorce, or perpetual disciplinary problems with superiors related to insubordination.

And of course there are problems at work. There are problems of racism, sexism and corruption, rivalries and personality clashes. But they don’t take over the story.

In addition, in many whodunits one gets the impression that murder is the only crime the police ever investigate, so the stories seem somehow unreal. In this book there is a murder investigation, but it is sandwiched in between burglary, theft, and looking for a lost dog. That makes it feel more convincing as a police procedural, somehow.

There are a few editorial slip-ups — Persy’s rank being one of them — but they don’t detract from the story, so I’ll still give it five stars. I think Persy Jonas could become one of my favourite fictional detectives.

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The Unburied: a historical murder mystery

The UnburiedThe Unburied by Charles Palliser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second historical murder mystery I’ve read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.

Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book — the use of the word “teenager”, is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.

As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence — part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine’s visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe’s may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian’s eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.

It’s a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.

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Friend of the devil — book review

Friend Of The Devil (Inspector Banks, #17)Friend Of The Devil by Peter Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A student is murdered in “The Maze”, a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. His colleague Annie Cabbot, seconded to another division, is called to investigate the murder of a disabled inmate of a home in the coastal town of Whitby. Subsequent investigations reveal links between the two cases, which have historical roots going back to previous cases, and events in described in some of Robinson’s earlier books.

As a police procedural/whodunit it is up to Peter Robinson‘s usual high standards for the most part, though it seemed to get off to a rather shaky start. Having been a student myself, albeit a long time ago, I’m pretty sure that if one of my friends had disappeared after we’d been to pubs in town, we would have been very concerned about it, and would have been anxious to contact the police before they contacted us (though in South Africa in those days we might also have considered the possibility that the police themselves might have been responsible for the disappearance). So there is an air of unreality about the first few chapters of the story, where the friends of the missing student seem quite uncaring, and even after discovering that she was murdered, seem reluctant to get involved.

Though Peter Robinson lives in Canada his books, set in Yorkshire, have generally seemed fairly authentic to me. But in this one I noticed a transatlantic drift. He used “momentarily” in the American sense of “in a moment” rather than the more usual one of “for a moment”, and also used “moot” in a transatlantic sense of “not worth debating” rather than “debatable”. Most notably several of the characters are described as rolling their eyes.

Now it’s quite a long time since I lived in the UK, and for all I know people there may have adopted eye-rolling widely, and similarly the other modes of expression, but it struck me as a bit out of place.

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Bury your dead (book review)

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #6)Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the one we bought first, because of the blurb, and only after getting it did we discover that there is a metastory that runs through the series, with the same characters popping up again and again.

Chief Inspector Gamache is on leave in Quebec, recovering from injuries received in an earlier shoot-out, and is asked ny the local police to help with a case — an amateur archaeologist, notorious for his obsession with finding the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, is murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, an English-speaking institution. The murder could increase tensions between the French and English-speaking communities of the city, and Gamache is asked to help because he speaks better English. He has also been doing some historical research of his own in the library.

I suppose one of the reasons I like books like this is my own interest in historical research, and so mysteries of the past that have repercussions in the present are the kind of thing I like reading about. Added to that is that my wife Val’s great great grandfather, William John Green, was born in Quebec in 1790, so the city is the setting of a historical mystery that has exercised many members of the Green family for more than a century. The period is entirely different to that of the story in this book, but the setting is the same, and the book gives a feel for the city and its present inhabitants.

In addition there are some more historical threads in this book. Gamache keeps having flashbacks to an earlier case, where he feels he failed, and he sends his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, to have another look at yet another case, which he thinks may have gone wrong, in the village of Three Pines, which seems to crop up in all these novels. These cases may have been covered in a couple of the books that we haven’t read, so mentioning too many details may be spoilers for the books we haven’t read yet.

There are a couple of things about the series that become slightly annoying — Louise Penny seems to be more given to detailed descriptions of every meal the characters eat than Enid Blyton and I, for one, get a bit tired of reading yet another description of maple-cured bacon and other Canadian delicacies. But it is generally a good read.

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The cruellest month (book review)

The Cruellest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #3)The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal (review here).

I’m beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I’ve read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I’m beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby’s exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.

The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.

In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.

One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny‘s novels seem to have the same mix. This doesn’t seem to be quite as well-researched as Rickman’s books, however. The character who leads the seance is a Wiccan, but in the book is called a Wicca, but perhaps that is a term preferred by Canadian Wiccans.

That’s enough for now — I’ll need to read more to see where the series is going.

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Dead Cold (book review)

Dead Cold (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #2)Dead Cold by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first detective story I’ve read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, and try to solve the mystery. Most of the others these days withhold such clues from the reader, perhaps to resist spoilers, and the detective protagonist trots out the solution at the end, revealing for the first time the clues that enabled him to solve the case. Perhaps that’s because most of the crime fiction publishjed nowadays are police procedurals or psychological examinations of the criminal mind — the whydunits.

In any case, I managed to work out the identity of the perpetrators about halfway through, because the clues were available.

Of course crime fiction is not true life crime. The author can go around scattering clues for the detectives (and the readers) to pick up, but in real life criminals rarely do that.

Dead cold is the second of a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, We actually bought the sixth one (Bury your dead) on a sale, and discovered references to earlier books featuring some of the same characters, and tried to get the first one, but it was not available, so I’ve started reading the series with the second book.

Chief Inspector Gamache is dealing with two murders — one of a homeless woman in Montreal, and the other of an interior designer in the village of Three Pines, 100 km away. The first case is not really his, but one that he is giving a second opinion on, by an informal arrangement with a friend in the Montreal police. One of the biggest difficulties is to find the identity of the victims.

A minor mystery is that Dead cold was originally published under the title of A fatal grace, and one wonders why the title was changed. The most notorious example of this was the change of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, but it seems to be a confusing and unnecessary practice. Is it done for copyright re4asons, or just because publishers like to confuse readers, or perhaps dupe them into buying two copies of the same book, thinking that, becxause it has a different title, they haven’t already read it?

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Not dead yet (book review)

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can they search for the killer if they don’t know who the victim is?
And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette,
whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.

Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.

Are there flaws?

Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can’t imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat.

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Lily of the field (book review)

Lily of the FieldLily of the Field by John Lawton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.

It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.

When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.

But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven’t read the other books.

The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.

Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he “went ballistic”. “Ballistic” was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM — an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I’m sure it took a few more years before the term “went ballistic” was applied metaphorically to human beings.

The second such anachronism is where someone is described as “a scrounger living low on the food chain”. Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don’t think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.

Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of “blows coppers away”. That one I’m not sure of, but I don’t think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.

Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren’t around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.

In spite of that, it’s still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I’ll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really.

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