Review 2162: Shrines of Gaiety

It’s 1926. Ma Coker is being released from jail, and it’s like a circus in front of the prison. Nellie Coker is the head of a crime family in London, the owner of five clubs that Frobisher, the new broom at the police station, thinks are responsible for the disappearance of quite a few girls.

Miss Gwendolyn Kelling has unexpectedly inherited some money, so she quits her job in York as a librarian and decides to search for her friend’s sister, Florence Ingram, and Freda Murgatroyd, both 14, who have gone to London to make their fortunes, Freda being positive that she is going to be a star. When she goes to the police station, Frobisher asks her to visit one of the Coker clubs to report what she can observe.

Niven Coker, Nellie’s oldest son, by coincidence comes upon Miss Kelling on the street after she has been mugged. He gives her a ride to her ladies hotel, and afterwards she receives her purse.

Frobisher has been asking at the office for Maddox, one of the inspectors, but he has been on sick leave. Frobisher is sure Maddox is corrupt, but what he doesn’t know is that Maddox is putting the final pieces in place to take over Nellie Coker’s clubs. To start with, there is arson.

Maddox isn’t the only one after the Coker empire. There’s also Mr. Azzopardi, who begins by trying to exploit the weaknesses of Nellie’s youngest son, Ramsey.

There are some dark deeds in this novel, but it is written with a lightness that conveys more the fevered fun seeking of the time. For a crime family, the Cokers are curiously benign, and Nellie Coker seems to be three steps ahead of everyone else. The novel is more of an ensemble piece and doesn’t have a main character, although we admire Miss Kelling and also the plucky but naïve Freda. Although ostensibly a crime novel, I found it more a portrait of a particular period and enjoyed it very much. Atkinson has based some of it on the life of Kate Mayrick, the owner of clubs in Soho.

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Review 2120: The Rising Tide

Fifty years ago, a group of students attended a retreat at the urging of their teacher. They were so struck by it that they continued meeting every five years on Lindisfarne. This year, Rick Kelsall, a media star, finds himself in disgrace after one of his staff accused him of inappropriate behavior. He likes attention and the first night of the retreat, tells them all he’s writing a novel based on true events. During the night, he is murdered and left to look like a suicide.

Vera figures the most obvious suspects are the others there for the retreat—Philip, a wild boy turned Anglican vicar; Annie, a divorcee who works at a deli; Lou, who spends most of her time caring for her husband, Ken, stricken with Alzheimers; and Ken. In years past, there were three more participants: Charlotte, Rick’s ex-wife, who was bored by the retreat; Dan, Annie’s ex-husband; and Isobel, who was killed after she had a fight with Rick and drove off onto the causeway when the tide was coming in. Their teacher, Judith, was also at the first retreat.

Vera’s team turns up lots of intriguing information about the retreat participants and their connections. Charlotte, who had been a celebrity, now runs a failing spa. Dan, from a lower social class than the others, is now a wealthy resort owner. Vera is shocked to find out that his partner is Katherine Willmore, the Police and Crime Commissioner. Further, it was her daughter who made the allegation against Rick, which she has not revealed to Vera.

On the team, Holly and Joe are still feeling competitive, but they have started getting along better. And Joe has shown some independence from Vera.

Vera has a notion that the crime has some connection to Isobel’s death years ago. Then another person connected with the group is killed.

As usual, Cleeves has written another tightly plotted, clever mystery. However, for this one, I found the ending incredibly touching.

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Review 2090: A Pin To See a Peepshow

A Pin to See a Peepshow is a fictionalized retelling of a famous British true crime. Jesse, who was a contributor to the Notable British Trials series, chose to make the life of her main character and the details of the crime slightly different from the actual events.

Julia Almond is an unusual girl who projects the assurance that her life is going to be different from that of the others around her. She has a sense of style and after finishing schooling, is able to find work at a small dressmakers.

Julia has lived mostly in a daze of romantic daydreams except for her work at the shop, where she thrives and is promoted. But she finds her real life boring and seems to care only for her dog, Bobbie. She is waiting for a great love.

What she gets is Mr. Starling, a friend of her father’s. During the First World War, her father dies. Her mother can’t afford the house even with Julia’s small salary, so her uncle, aunt, and cousin move in and begin to order things as they want. Julia’s bedroom, which has been her sanctuary, is invaded by her cousin Elsa. Julia is told that Bobbie can’t sleep in her room. She kicks up enough of a fuss to get that changed but finds Elsa trying to lure Bobbie away from her. When Julia finds living at home unbearable, she decides at twenty to marry Mr. Starling, whose wife has died and who looks a lot more handsome in his uniform. This, of course, does not work out well, but she gets along for years until she meets Leonard Carr, a sailor seven years younger, who begins pursing her.

Jesse’s message is that Julia would not have ended up as she does if she had not been lower class and financially insecure. Any poorer and she would have just left with her lover. Richer and divorce would have been commonplace, but to her it was a scandal. Further, although she was innocent of murder, she was convicted because of her adultery and the difference in age between her and her lover.

Jesse paints an open-eyed but sympathetic picture of Julia. Although I could have done without some of the sections at the end where others reflect on the execution, it is a powerful and affecting piece of writing.

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Review 2059: The Fortune Men

I didn’t read what The Fortune Men was about ahead of time, because I was reading it for my Booker prize project. That meant that at first I wasn’t sure why the novel switched between the stories of two characters, Mahmood Mattan, a Somali stoker who is a gambler and a petty thief, and Violet Volacki, a middle-aged Jewish storekeeper. However, when I turned to the back of the book, I learned that Mattan was the last man in Cardiff to be sentenced to death for the murder of Violet Volacki in 1952 and that years later he was found to have been wrongfully convicted.

Mahmood is not a perfect man. He has quit going to sea to be near his Welsh wife and children, but work is hard to find for a black man, and he has too much time on his hands. He spends it gambling and womanizing and occasionally stealing. He has a big mouth and he lies a lot. But he is not a murderer.

When the police come to see him because a woman was robbed and her throat cut, he doesn’t tell the exact truth about where he was, because he was dangling after a Russian woman and he doesn’t want his wife to know. A black man, possibly a Somali, was seen outside the store, but even after the victim’s sister and niece say it was not Mahmood, it’s pretty clear that the police decide it was him and look for people to place him there. After a reward is announced, plenty of them pop up.

This novel is well-written and should have been haunting, but first I kept having problems staying with it, and later, even after I got more interested, I felt distanced from the characters and the story. Mohamed went on side trips through the memory of Mahmood’s life that should have made readers feel closer to him, but I did not, and I noticed Goodreads reviewers complaining about the same thing.

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Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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Review 1890: Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead is certainly a story teller. In Harlem Shuffle, he tells the story of Ray Carney, whom he describes as “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked.” Carney’s father broke knees for a living, and Carney hated him, so Carney has earned a degree in business and has worked hard to keep his furniture store going. He only occasionally deals in suspect merchandise.

However, Carney’s cousin Freddie, who grew up like a brother, is the type of guy who is always up to something and it never turns out well. In the first section of the book, Freddie is planning a heist with some guys, and when they need a fence, he suggests Carney. Carney knows this is way above his head, so he says no. He is tipped off that Freddie is in trouble when he gets a call from some men working for Chink Montague, a notorious criminal, looking for something that belongs to Chink. It turns out Freddie has not conveyed Carney’s refusal to the gang, and soon Carney finds himself in possession of a large emerald necklace that is part of the robbery of a hotel vault.

This novel is set in late 50’s and 60’s Harlem, and vividly depicts the events of this period at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Whitehead is clever about earning the readers’ sympathy for Carney despite his misdeeds. He makes it clear how difficult it was during this time for an African-American who starts with nothing to make a success of himself. Aside from Freddie’s plots, Carney has to deal with the slights of his in-laws, who think their daughter married beneath herself, as well as paying off both the thugs and the police, being cheated by supposedly respectable businessmen, and so on. Another absorbing novel by Whitehead.

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Review 1873: Juggernaut

Esther Rowe is a Canadian nurse who has just finished delivering a patient in Cannes and finds herself having to make a decision. Will she return to snowy New York or try to find a job in beautiful, warm Cannes? She decides on Cannes and soon accepts a post with Dr. Sartorius even though he seems intimidating.

Celebrating her new job by getting a drink at an expensive café, she overhears a conversation between a young man and a beautiful woman. He is telling her he has a job in Argentina, and she doesn’t want him to go. Later, the woman comes to Dr. Sartorius’s office for an injection. She is Lady Clifford, the much younger wife of Sir Charles Clifford, a wealthy manufacturer.

Not long after Esther starts working for Dr. Sartorius, he informs her that he is closing his practice to care for Sir Clifford, who is suffering from typhoid along with other ailments. However, he invites her to come along as the day nurse.

She hasn’t worked there long when she beings noticing odd things. Lady Clifford doesn’t pay much attention to her husband but insists on giving him his milk every day. The house is frequented by Arthur Holliday, the young man Esther saw with Lady Clifford at the café. Roger Clifford, Lord Clifford’s son, arrives unexpectedly after Lord Clifford suffers a downturn. He never received the cable sent to summon him home.

Although it isn’t very hard to figure out what’s going on in the Clifford house, Esther is a strong, feisty heroine and the novel depends more on psychology than the complex plots more usual in 1928, when Juggernaut was written. Also, there is an understated romance, and the last 50 or so pages are extremely suspenseful. Juggernaut is Campbell’s first book, and I am looking forward to more.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1865: Truth

Of the Peter Temple novels I’ve read, Truth strikes me as the most hard-boiled. It has witty dialogue but not the lightness of some of the others. The ending is lighter but also cynical.

Stephen Villani has just been made the head of the Victoria Homicide Squad, and he’s already exhausted. At a brand new, very expensive condo, the body of a young girl is discovered, in her teens, maybe, and clearly having suffered abuse before her death. Villani is even more affected because she looks like his 15-year-old daughter, Lizzie, who has run away from home.

When his team begins trying to collect data from the building’s security people, they are told there was a big system outage that night because of an opening at the attached casino, so they have no camera footage and cannot tell whose key card was used to enter the condo. Also, the management is reluctant to divulge the names of the owners.

A bit later, they are called to a scene of torture and murder of two thugs in a local gang. The pressure comes down to Villani to concentrate on this crime and drop the investigation of the girl’s murder, but Villani is not willing to do that.

Besides pressures at work, Villani has other troubles. A huge forest fire is threatening his father’s place as well as the forest he and his father planted, and he knows his father won’t evacuate. His daughter Lizzie was returned home but already ran away again. His relationship with his wife Laurie is on the skids. And he is tormented by his relationship with his father, who left him alone at a young age to take care of his younger brothers but has never shown him any affection. Finally, he has kept silent about a major crime committed by a coworker.

Temple never seems to use an unnecessary word, and here the effect is heightened by the tough, affectless cops who only seem to speak in incomplete sentences. The dialogue is witty, although I didn’t understand all of the slang. This is a complex, cynical thriller about family and politics in law enforcement.

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Review 1858: The Night Hawks

D. I. Harry Nelson calls forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway to a site on the coast where a body was discovered nearby by some metal detectorists. The same detectorists, a club called the Night Hawks, have also found a trove containing a skeleton.

Ruth, as the new department head, has hired her replacement, David Brown, who is already irritating her. She finds him coming along to excavate the skeleton despite herself.

Although the young man found along the coast turns out not to have drowned, and in fact, is a local ex-con, the cause of his death is not immediately apparent. Shortly thereafter, two of the Night Hawks report hearing shots at a remote farm. A young policeman is the first onto the scene, where he discovers what appears to be the murder/suicide of a scientist and his wife, Douglas and Linda Noakes. A few days later, the young policeman is dead from an apparent virus, the same as, it turns out, killed the young man found by the sea.

This novel mixes in local folklore with an intriguing mystery. Further, it seems to be moving along Ruth’s relationship with Nelson, the married father of her child, even though they don’t actually spend much time together in this one. I’m still finding this series enjoyable.

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Review 1853: The Broken Shore

Recovering from severe injuries inflicted in an encounter with a dangerous killer, Detective Joe Cashin has left a big-city homicide squad for his home town in a small Australian port. He is living in the wreck of his grandfather’s house.

His superior officer orders him to take charge in the assault on Charles Bourgoyne. An old man but still powerful and respected, Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home and is in critical condition. The initial hypothesis is that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, as his expensive wrist watch is missing.

Cashin’s role is resented by Detective Hopgood, because the crime happened in Cromarty, in Hopgood’s jurisdiction. When they get a tip that three Aboriginal teenagers from the area tried to hock a watch of the same brand as Bourgoyne’s, Hopgood manages to botch their apprehension so that two of the boys are killed. Cashin is told to take leave, but he continues to pursue the case.

This is a dark and moody mystery written in Temple’s usual fluid and witty prose. It’s quite gripping.

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