Day 1079: Murder in the Dark

Cover for Murder in the DarkOne of our pleasant discoveries since moving is to find that the local PBS station schedules lots more murder mysteries than Austin did, including our favorite, “Midsomer Murders.” On another channel, we also discovered the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” based on the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood being reissued by Poison Pen Press. When I saw that Netgalley was listing three of the series, I promptly requested them.

Phryne Fisher is a sort of flapper detective in this Australian series set in 1920’s Melbourne. Murder in the Dark is the 16th in the series. For those of you who have been watching the TV series, I have to warn you that this novel bears very little resemblance to the episode of the same name.

Christmas is nearing when Phryne begins to receive threats related to the Last Best Party, a house party given by siblings Gerald and Isabella Templar. Someone does not want Phryne to attend and even sends her a Christmas present of a poisonous snake. Of course, this makes Phyrne determined to attend.

When she speaks to Gerald about it, he admits that someone has sent him death threats. Soon after she arrives at the house, Gerald’s adopted son, Tarquin, disappears, as Isabella’s adopted daughter, Marigold, has already done. Although they thought Marigold had run away, Tarquin seems devoted to Gerald. Phryne also begins a sort of scavenger hunt, as she receives clues, supposedly from the murderer, that each lead to the next.

Phyrne soon finds out from her sources that someone has hired a hit man. Unfortunately, the description of the man is so vague that it could apply to most people.

In the sybaritic atmosphere of the party, Phryne tries to find the clues and locate the hit man before he kills someone. Since the guests include members of the upper classes, polo players, musicians, hashish smokers, the acolytes of the hosts, and even a goat lady, there are a lot of characters roaming about.

This novel was a pleasant enough light reading experience. The culprit wasn’t readily guessable because there was so little information about the plethora of characters. And indeed Greenwood cheats a bit by having, count ’em, three different culprits. I did glancingly guess the identity of the person who hired the hit man but dismissed the idea because it didn’t seem to make sense.

link to NetgalleyOne character who doesn’t appear in the TV series (oops! not until after I wrote this) is Phryne’s lover, an elegant Chinese man named Lin Chung. In this book, at least, he seemed to be completely unnecessary, perhaps only around to make Phryne’s behavior at the party seem more scandalous. But maybe he is more important in some of the other books. In any case, the TV show centers around a flirtation between Phryne and the police inspector, Jack Robinson, that does not seem to be present in the novels. Or maybe I’m talking from too little exposure to Phryne’s world.

Normally, I would avoid mysteries like this that go into great lengths to describe Phryne’s clothes and are too detailed about her love affairs. I have two more to read, so we’ll see how well I can stand it. In any case, these novels are like popcorn, light and fluffy.

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Day 1038: Truly Madly Guilty

Cover for Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty focuses around a suburban barbecue, during which something bad happens that literally everyone there blames themselves for. We don’t find out exactly what happened, though, until the end of the novel.

The novel follows two time streams. The first is a couple of months after the barbecue, when everyone is trying to process reactions to the event. Erika attends a talk that Clementine is giving about the event precisely because she has gaps in her memory. But she is unable to listen, because the whole thing upsets her too much.

Back on the day of the event, Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine and her husband Sam over because they want to ask them something important, a favor. Erika and Clementine have been supposed best friends since school, but Erika is unaware how Clementine resents her. Years ago, Clementine only befriended Erika to please her mother, who felt sorry for Erika.

Erika and Oliver’s expansive neighbor Vid interferes with their plans. When he hears Clementine and Sam and their two little daughters are coming over, he invites everyone to his place for a barbecue.

Erika’s confusion results from her being so nervous that she takes an entire pill of a sedative that her doctor has told her to try half or a quarter of. Then she uncharacteristically drinks, causing problems with Oliver, whose parents are alcoholics.

This novel untangles the events of that evening while it explores the relationships between the two women and between them and their husbands. I don’t think it was the best or most suspenseful Moriarty I’ve read, but her novels are always eminently readable.

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Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 961: Rush Oh!

Cover for Rush Oh!Best Book of the Week!
Perhaps I am harping on this subject, but yet again a distinctive authorial voice has made for an outstanding novel. In this case, the voice is that of Mary Davidson, the 18-year-old daughter of a whaler in 1908, Eden, Australia. Mary is relating the events of the year from a distance of 30 years later.

At that time, some of the whaling in Australia was done from shore, the whalers rowing out to chase the whales. In this activity, the whalers of Eden were assisted by, amazingly, a group of killer whales, who behaved more or less like really rough sheepdogs, herding and battering the other whales. In the novel, the leader of the killer whales, Tom, summons the whalers when whales are in the bay by smacking his tail loudly, and the whalers at times attempt to call the killer whales by smacking their oars.

The story begins with the arrival of a young man hoping for a seat in one of the boats. He is John Beck, reputed to be an ex-Methodist minister. Beck very soon seems to be courting Mary, although he is inconsistent in his attentions. Also, there are some indications that he has not been strictly truthful about his past.

Mary’s father George is short on men and had a very bad whaling season the year before, when they caught not a single whale. Although George “Fearless” Davidson (an actual historical person) is highly esteemed in the region, the financial situation is dire, and he must accept this totally inexperienced man onto his second boat.

The novel is peppered with rampaging whaling scenes and descriptions of the whaling life. It is written in a sprightly, witty, and engaging tone that reflects the personality of naive young Mary. Although it documents a disappearing way of life, it is wonderfully entertaining, and I loved every minute of it.

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Day 938: What Alice Forgot

Cover for What Alice ForgotAlice Love wakes up from an accident thinking she is 29, pregnant with her first child, and madly in love with her husband Nick. But she is actually 39, the mother of three children, and separated from Nick. It takes her a while to understand she is ten years older, much thinner, and quite a bit harder and more driven than she remembers.

Alice escapes from the hospital by simply lying to the doctors. But somehow, she must piece together her life from the allusions of other people and her own feelings of occasional discomfort. How can she get along with her three unknown children? What happened between her and Nick? Why are she and her sister Elizabeth on the outs? And who the heck is Gina?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, mostly because of its characterizations. Alice in her 29-year-old reincarnation is guileless and likable, and Nick in her memories is also endearing. Alice’s children seem like real kids, adorable one minute and infuriating the next.

I didn’t like as much the sections written by Elizabeth to her therapist or by Frannie to her long-dead fiancé, but their stories add more depth to the novel. Since the focus was so much on Alice, there probably wasn’t another way to fit that information in.

All in all, this is another highly enjoyable novel from Moriarty. Toward the end, I was afraid she was going to take an easy path, but she did not.

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Day 909: Big Little Lies

Cover for Big Little LiesBest Book of the Week!
From the very beginning of Big Little Lies, we’re aware that someone has been killed, but we don’t know who, or why, or by whom. Liane Moriarty’s novel artfully builds suspense as it draws you in to care about certain of the characters.

The action of the novel is centered around Pirriweee Public School, and it begins six months before school trivia night, when the death occurs.

Madeline Mackenzie is taking her five-year-old daughter Chloe to kindergarten orientation when she has a small accident. Jane, the younger single mother of Ziggy, helps her, and Madeline and her friend Celeste befriend her. Jane is moving to the area in a few months when Ziggy will be in kindergarten with Chloe and Celeste’s twin sons Max and Josh.

During the orientation, the kindergarten teacher notices that someone has been choking Amabella, so she brings this up in front of all the children and parents, asking Amabella to say who hurt her. Amabella doesn’t want to say but ultimately seems to indicate Ziggy. Ziggy states clearly that he didn’t hurt Amabella, so Jane believes him.

However, Renata, Amabella’s high-powered corporate mother, starts a campaign with some of the other mothers to ostracize Ziggy. This begins with not inviting him to Amabella’s birthday party. All of this behavior escalates, and for a while I thought it might be taking on a comic edge, like the school-based nonsense caused by helicopter parents in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? But underlying it all is the knowledge that someone will end up dead.

And the characters have their secrets. Madeline, whose husband Nathan deserted her with a newborn baby 14 years earlier, is upset because he and his new wife Bonnie seem to be winning her older daughter away from her. And Jane’s and Celeste’s even darker secrets come out later.

This novel is striking in its ingenuity and in how much Moriarty brings you to care for its characters. I was deeply involved from beginning to end. The conclusion was eminently satisfying. I’ll be looking for more books by Moriarty.

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Day 908: Relativity

Cover for RelativityIt’s hard to express my feelings about Antonia Hayes’s first novel, Relativity. When I say it’s sort of a feel-good novel about the ramifications of shaken baby syndrome, you’re going to get the wrong idea. So, maybe I should just start at the beginning. I read recently that Hayes’s own son was a victim, and that adds an unexpected dimension to the novel.

The novel begins from the viewpoint of a delightful character, Ethan Forsythe, the 12-year-old ex-baby in question. He is thrilled about astronomy and physics, and we meet him with his mother, Claire, watching the stars from the park. Ethan is a science nerd who is having some problems at school from bullying, and he also wonders about his father, whom his mother refuses to talk about. Finally, some particularly nasty comments about his father by his ex-best friend Will at school lead him to hit Will, an incident that he can’t remember. In the resulting conference with parents and his teacher, Will’s mother makes some cruel comments and Ethan is so upset that he has a seizure.

Claire, who is a distracted, hazy, self-involved person and overly protective parent, has been having her own problems. Her ex-husband Mark has written her a letter telling her his father is dying and wants to see Ethan. Claire has not allowed Mark’s family any contact with Ethan since Mark left. Claire decides it is not in Ethan’s best interest to meet Mark’s father John, so John dies without seeing Ethan. We know that Ethan had developmental problems as a baby, but it is a while (but still in the first third of the book) before we find out that his father was found guilty of shaking him and injuring him. For that, he served time in prison.

One of the questions of the novel is whether Mark did it or not. However, this novel deals with more issues than that. Mark insists he did not, and we don’t learn the truth about it until the latter part of the novel. It also deals with how both parents handle self-blame over the injuries to Ethan and the disintegration of their marriage. Another theme is Ethan’s own need for knowledge of his father.

link to NetgalleyThis was quite an enjoyable read for me, although I had some problems with the last part of the book. It is hopeful and gentle without providing a magic ending that solves everyone’s problems. That sounds good, right? But something about it bothered me in this context. The novel is compassionate and understanding, maybe too much so.

But the characters are convincing. Ethan is charming, especially in his friendship with his hospital friend Alison and in his love of and excitement for physics. Claire has reason for her over-protectiveness, although she is also very self-obsessed. Mark gradually pulls out of his own self-involvement over his ruined future to consider his son. Overall, I have to decide in favor of this novel, especially as Hayes undoubtedly knows her subject.

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