Review 1630: Scot & Soda

I love Catriona McPherson’s creepy psychological thrillers mostly set in small Scottish villages, and I like her Dandy McGilver mysteries set in the early 20th century, but I wasn’t that enamored with the first of her Last Ditch mysteries, set in present-day Northern California. However, I thought I’d give the second one a try before giving up.

One of the jokes of this series is a Scottish woman as fish out of water. That woman is Lexie Campbell, a therapist. She and her friends from the Last Ditch Motel are on the houseboat she inherited in the last book having a Halloween party. When Lexie tries to haul up the beer she has been cooling in the water, up comes a corpse with a wig and tam on its head. Lexie also spots a ring on his finger.

Detective Mike Rankinson is not exactly Lexie’s friend, so after Lexie has a brain wave when she reads a newspaper story about a horse having its tail cut off, Mike isn’t very receptive. Lexie thinks the events remind her of the poem “Tam O’Shanter.” In pursuit of this idea, she and some friends visit a derelict farm that has a burial mound in it, and they find some women’s clothing with blood on it.

The hallmarks of this series are Lexie’s tiffs with the police, the plethora of eccentric friends, and the confusing myriad of clues. One of the things I like about McPherson’s other books is the atmosphere of small Scottish villages, with some eccentric characters but ones that are mostly believable. In this series, McPherson has tried to create the same atmosphere with the eccentric inhabitants of the Last Ditch Motel. First, there are so many of them that I can’t keep them straight. Second, this doesn’t really work in a big city setting, even in California. Finally, I find her making mistakes about the American side of things, having her characters say things Americans wouldn’t say, for example. I think I won’t be reading more of this series.

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Review 1487: Strangers at the Gate

It seems too good to be true when Paddy Lamb returns from a job interview to report that he’s been offered a partnership at a firm in Simmerton. When his wife, Finnie, raises questions about where she is going to work and how far the commute is, he comes back with an offer of a lease on a cottage belonging to the firm’s owner and the promise of a job for her as a deacon at Simmerton Parish Church.

As soon as they arrive, things begin falling apart. Finnie can see that her help isn’t really needed at the parish church. Then, Finnie and Paddy are invited by Tuft Dudgeon, the wife of Paddy’s new boss, for dinner on the night they move in. They have a pleasant evening, and the two are walking home when Finnie realizes she left her bag. Something has been spooking her all day, so when she returns to the house and can’t raise the Dudgeons, she goes back to the kitchen. There she finds Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon in a pool of blood, apparent suicides.

She is about to call the police when Paddy stops her, because in his past he was involved in minor criminal activity. The couple decides to wait and let someone discover the bodies, thinking that will happen shortly. But when Paddy arrives at work, he finds that someone has sent a fax saying they have left on vacation to Brazil. The only problem is that the fax was sent after Finnie saw the bodies. As Finnie and Paddy try to get someone to discover the bodies, the lies begin to pile up.

My first impression of this situation was that it was a silly one for McPherson, who usually writes good modern-day cozy thrillers. It was hard for me to believe that Finnie would agree to lie. She is a deacon, albeit an unconventional one, and she seems to take this seriously although with a light touch. However, if you can buy into the situation, it’s a fairly wild ride to the conclusion.

I really love McPherson’s thrillers, because they combine a creepy plot with a community of likable characters often featuring life in a small Scottish village. This one follows that pattern while providing loads of atmosphere in this isolated, dark village.

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Review 1427: Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble

Dandy Gilver receives a note from an old school friend, Minnie Bewer, asking for her assistance, but when she and her partner Alec Osborne arrive at Castle Bewer, what exactly the family wants is more difficult to ascertain. Whatever it is, it revolves around a missing necklace they call the Cutthroat and the disappearance 30 years ago of Bluey Bewer’s father, Richard.

Minnie Bewer wants Dandy and Alec to safeguard the castle while the Bewers put on a play. Bluey wants them to search for the Cutthroat and assure inland revenue that it is not in their possession before death taxes are assessed on his father’s 100th birthday. Ottoline Bewer, Bluey’s mother, wants them to find the necklace. To do that, Dandy reckons they must find Richard. There is a lot to do, and it must be done during the disturbance of rehearsing and performing the play Macbeth.

As usual with this series, there are lots of red herrings and a lot of confusion. That usually derails me, but this time I realized almost immediately the truth of one facet of the story, and I was right. Once I had figured it out, a lot became obvious.

Still, the Dandy Gilver mysteries are always fun cozies. The first one was set at the end of World War I, and this one in 1934, so it’s been a long-developing series.

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Review 1359: Go to My Grave

Cover for Go to My GraveDonna Weaver and her mother have invested everything in The Breakers, a large house on the Galloway coast that they have made available as either a self-catered or fully catered vacation rental. Donna is excitedly awaiting their first guests, an anniversary party of cousins and their spouses, while her mother attends a hospitality convention.

When the guests arrive, however, it becomes clear that they have all been there before. Twenty-five years ago, they attended a 16th birthday party for Sasha, the man whose wife, Kim, has planned this trip.

The reactions of the guests when they recognize the house make it clear that they do not relish memories of this party. Then, shortly after they arrive, things begin appearing in the house that hearken back to that occasion. What is happening in the house? Is one of the guests trying to gaslight the others?

Occasionally, we see flashbacks to 1991, when a 14-year-old local girl named Carmen is invited to the party. When she arrives, she brings along her 12-year-old sister.

This novel is truly riveting, although the answer to what is happening seems a little too contrived. Although McPherson is known for her “cozy” thrillers, this one is probably more accurately described as a modern gothic thriller. The ending to it is a bizarre mixture of cozy and chilling. I didn’t know quite what to think of it, but the best term I can come up with is “morally challenged.” We are presented with an ambiguous conclusion to tone down the ending, but I know very well what I think happened.

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Review 1317: Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

Cover for Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the BallroomDandy Gilver fears that her summons to a house named Balmoral in Glasgow may prove to be a humdrum affair, but she is mourning her dog, Bunty, and feels a need to get out. When she and her partner, Alec Osborne, arrive, their doubts about their customers are confirmed, for Sir Percival and Lady Stott are vulgar nouveau riche. However, they fear that their spoiled daughter, Theresa, or Tweetie, is in danger.

Tweetie is taking part in a ballroom-dancing competition. She has begun receiving veiled threats that someone wishes her harm. The Stotts have urged her to quit the competition, but she is determined to continue. So, Dandy and Alec repair to the Locarno Ballroom to investigate. It seems that only Tweetie’s partner, Roly; her cousin, Jeanne; the pianist, Miss Thwaite; or another couple, Bert and Beryl, could have access to leave some of the messages. But what Dandy and Alec can’t figure out is why everyone around the ballroom seems so terrified. Shortly, they discover that there was a similar incident the year before that resulted in a death.

Although I am gaining enthusiasm for McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, my taste for the Dandy Gilver mystery series is losing momentum. I like Dandy and Alec but feel that perhaps this series gets a little too mired in red herrings, if that makes any sense.

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Day 1295: Scot Free

Cover for Scot FreeI’ve read almost all Catriona McPherson’s books, which up to now have fallen into two categories—her historical mystery series set in post-World War I Scotland and England featuring Dandy Gilver and her stand-alone present-day cozy thrillers, set mostly in Scotland. Scot Free is the first in a new series, the Last Ditch mysteries, featuring Lexy Campbell and set in California.

Lexy is waiting to have her last meeting with clients before she returns to Scotland. Her marriage to an American dentist has turned out to be a big mistake. She is waiting at her office for the Bombaros, who hired her as a marriage counselor to help them keep their divorce amicable. After she helps them with divorce papers, she’ll be off.

But the police arrive to question her. Mr. Bombaro is dead, having been murdered with fireworks. Elderly Vi Bombaro is the chief suspect, and Lexie is suspected of being her accomplice.

Lexie can’t believe Vi is guilty, and she is even more sure of that when Vi’s niece Sparky shows up with her new husband and a couple of thuggish business associates, and they begin taking over Mr. Bombaro’s fireworks manufacturing business. So, she decides to investigate.

Lexie has her own problems, however. She is currently homeless, and her clothes are locked in her office, the pass for which has expired. So, she checks into the Last Ditch motel and into the realm of a collection of colorful characters.

Scot Free is a funny, enjoyable novel even though McPherson signaled a little too obviously the identity of the murderer. I am a little worried, though, about the change of locale. If McPherson decided to move to the United States to appeal more to American audiences, I have to say that much more appealing to me are her Scottish settings, especially the atmospheric ones of her thrillers. The Scottish fish out of water theme can be funny, but I can imagine it getting old quickly, along with the cast of eccentric characters at the Last Ditch. For one thing, Lexie makes a lot of generalizations about Americans based on the Californians she meets, and we all know that Californians aren’t that representative of average Americans. Also, she gets at least one thing wrong. The American cop catches her in a lie because she claims that someone says “I’ve got . . . ” instead of “I have . . .” I believe that most people I know are just as likely to say it one way as the other. I noticed a few other small problems as well.

These are not very big criticisms. I just hope that McPherson doesn’t drop her moody present-day stand-alones for this series, because they are my favorite.

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Day 1194: House. Tree. Person.

Cover for House. Tree. PersonI scented gaslighting very early on in Catriona McPherson’s newest cozy creepster, House. Tree. Person. That did not spoil my enjoyment.

Ali McGovern has a trauma in her past and hints of a nervous breakdown. Her family is in a precarious financial position, too, because her husband, Marco, used her successful salon to prop up his failing restaurant. So, they lost both. When Marco falsifies her credentials to get her a job at Howell Hall, a mental hospital, she goes along with it, thinking she won’t get the job. But she does.

She comes home after her first day at work to a different problem. Her fifteen-year-old son, Angelo, is implicated somehow in the discovery of a body on the grounds of an old abbey across the street from the McGovern’s flat. The police think he knows something about it. Marco seems to know what is going on, but neither Marco nor Angelo will tell her.

At work she meets a cheerful and supportive staff, but her boss, Dr. Ferris, finds fault with her slightest action. In a catatonic patient, Sylvia, Ali thinks she sees signs of consciousness. She also believes that something is going on with Julie, a teenage patient who claims she’s being held there against her will.

Catriona McPherson has become one of my favorite writers for suspenseful and spooky but light reading. Her characters are engaging, and she creates a strong sense of place in small-town Scotland. House. Tree. Person. is another page-turner from her.

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Day 1123: The Reek of Red Herrings

Cover for The Reek of Red HerringsAlthough I’ve come to prefer Catriona McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, for lighter fare, her Dandy Gilver mysteries are lots of fun. Dandy began her career in 1918 with After the Armistice Ball. Twelve years later, she and her partner Alec Osbourne are more sedate, but not much more.

Dandy and Alec’s newest client wants them to skip the family Christmas to investigate a confidential problem. He is a herring exporter, and several barrels of his herring have been returned containing foreign objects, that is, the pieces of someone’s body. Mr. Birchfield does not want to notify the police, because knowledge of this problem will ruin his business. He wants Dandy and Alec to find out who is missing and what happened.

Because the herring fishermen and the “quines,” the girls who gut the fish, only return home a couple of months a year, they must travel to the fishing village of Gamrie, on the Banffshire coast, over Christmas. Dandy is all too happy to escape a dreary house party.

In Gamrie, the two pose as philologists, supposedly recording the local dialect. The village is an uncomfortable one, with freezing weather and a stark hotel as the only accomodation. The villagers themselves are caught up in the preparations for five marriages. All the brides are pregnant, for the custom is to be handfasted and only marry if the handfasting “takes,” that is, the bride gets pregnant.

There is some concern in the village about the marriages of two of the Mason girls. They are marrying two of the Gow boys, who fished in the same boat with John Gow, their older brother. John Gow went overboard last year, and it is considered unlucky for anyone to marry his shipmates unless they take to different boats. But the Gow brothers are keeping their brother’s boat and marrying the two Mason girls, whose older sister was handfasted to John Gow and who disappeared after his death. This news has Dandy checking with Mr. Birchfield that the corpse is indeed male, but it is.

Dandy and Alec also have the dubious pleasure, suggested by Dandy’s husband Hugh, of going to visit Searle’s Realm of Bounteous Wonder. This display is a series of rooms depicting various scenes made up entirely of stuffed animals, a wonder of taxidermy. The two brothers, Warwick and Durban, are very odd, and the exhibits are appalling.

Dandy and Alec’s investigations turn up no unaccounted for villagers except Nancy Mason, but they eventually hear about several missing strange men, people who came to town but never were seen again. Some of the men were derelicts and one was an artists’ model. At least two claimed to have work. So, Dandy and Alec go from having no potential victims to several. All the while, a terrific storm is threatening.

This novel was interesting, from the perspective of the villagers’ wedding traditions and beliefs. Although I figured out fairly soon something about the missing men, I did not figure out the overall scope, nor the identity of Mr. Pickle, as Alec calls the body. This was a fun, if a bit ghoulish, mystery.

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Day 915: Come to Harm

Cover for Come to HarmKeiko is a Japanese exchange student working on her doctorate who has accepted a grant from an association in Painchton, Scotland, near Edinburgh University. Her grant comes with a free flat that has even been stocked with food. Keiko is overwhelmed by everyone’s hospitality, particularly with their propensity for stuffing her with food, much of which she finds unappetizing.

Not everyone is welcoming, though. Her landlady Mrs. Poole is the proprietor of the butcher shop below Keiko’s flat. She is a recent widow, but her unfriendly behavior seems to indicate more than grief. She has two sons, Malcolm and Murray, and she certainly isn’t encouraging them to befriend Keiko. She also spends every morning cleaning the seldom-used slaughterhouse in the yard.

Early on, Keiko finds a note behind the radiator in her flat. It is clearly from a blackmailer, perhaps to the previous occupant of the flat. She also notices that several women have vanished from town. As Keiko tries to figure out what is going on in town, she also has quite a few misunderstandings with people through not understanding exactly what they’ve said.

I had a few problems with this novel that I haven’t had with other McPherson thrillers. For one thing, the reasoning behind the Painchton Trading Association’s grant to Keiko seems so flimsy that I had a hard time imagining even a child would believe it, let alone the entire town. The town committee seems to be up to something illegal, which lends to the atmosphere of the novel.

And then there is the resolution of the plot. First, Keiko’s suppositions run so berserk that I started to think the novel was an elaborate joke and that maybe I was reading an updated version of Northanger Abbey. But I won’t say whether I was right or not.

So, I wasn’t as happy with this novel as with others by McPherson, particularly as compared to the wonderful Quiet Neighbors. I thought it was obvious fairly early on that one character was dangerous, but Keiko doesn’t realize this until very late in the novel. Still, the novel is atmospheric and the ending is suspenseful, and parts of it are funny, so all that will probably keep most readers happy.

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Day 901: As She Left It

Cover for As She Left ItAt some point, I decided that the heroine of As She Left It just got herself involved in trying to solve too many mysteries. So, I didn’t find this novel quite as good as I have McPherson’s others. Also, there is at least one whopping big coincidence.

Opal Jones has moved back to the house in Leeds where she grew up. Her mother recently died, and she then learned that the house was in her own name. Since her life is in some disarray, she decides to move back.

Opal hasn’t been to Leeds for 10 years, since she was 13. She also hasn’t been in touch with her alcoholic mother. She has been totally unaware that 10 years before, a little toddler, Craig, whom she used to babysit, disappeared when he was under the care of his grandparents, Dennis and Margaret. Through a series of misunderstandings, each of his grandparents thought the other was looking after him. Opal decides to try to find Craig.

Some other neighbors in her street are old men, members of a jazz band with whom Opal used to play the trumpet. One of the old men, Fishbo, says he hasn’t been in touch with his family in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Opal decides to try to find Fishbo’s family, despite warnings from his friends.

Opal also finds a puzzle in the posts of part of her bed. Needing something to sleep on, she has bought a magnificent bed for a very low price, not realizing until she got it home that the headboard and footboard are mismatched. In the posts of half the bed, she finds messages of distress, but she needs the other half of the bed to see the entire message. In trying to find the other half, she meets Norah, a little old lady suffering from dementia living in a house full of antiques. Soon she believes that someone is looting Norah’s house of its valuable furniture.

Having embroiled herself in these mysteries, Opal begins receiving threats, but she doesn’t know how the threats are connected with the mysteries. There is also the mystery of the person next door, whom she hears crying at night. Since she can’t believe her neighbors would have taken Craig, she wonders if his kidnapper has moved in next store. But then, all of her neighbors seem to be hiding something.

Although I liked Opal and was interested in the story, there just seemed to be too many threads to the plot. Overall, I think, it limited the possible suspense of the novel. The coincidence, too, of what happened to the other half of the bed is pretty unbelievable. But a lot of the puzzles are noise, to keep Opal from facing her past.

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