Day 1200: Magpie Murders

Cover for Magpie MurdersMy husband and I love Midsomer Murders. The program has not been broadcast in Austin for years, so we began collecting the DVDs. After our move, we were happy to find that the Portland PBS station periodically airs the older series, which we’ve been watching. So, I was delighted to learn that Anthony Horowitz, the author of Magpie Murders, had written some of the screenplays. How could I go wrong?

Alan Conway, the author of the successful Atticus Pünd mystery series, has sent his latest manuscript, Magpie Murders, to his publisher. After a brief introduction by his editor, Susan Ryland, we’re plunged directly into his Christie-esque whodunnit.

But the novel comes to an abrupt end before it is finished. The last few chapters are missing. Before Susan can contact Conway, she learns he is dead from an accidental fall off the tower in his home.

The publishing house hasn’t been doing that well recently, so Susan begins looking for the final chapters. They have been erased from Conway’s computer, and the manuscript is not with his others. Susan’s boss’s copy is missing the same pages.

Susan begins to suspect that Conway’s death was not an accident. As she investigates, she finds that Conway borrowed characters, settings, and ideas from his real life and liked puzzles and anagrams. Susan thinks that the key to Conway’s death may lie in his manuscript.

I enjoyed Magpie Murders and thought that its novel within a novel structure was clever, but I also didn’t think that the Pünd novel was all that important to the plot. That is, it was important, but it wasn’t necessary to include the entire novel. Of course, this structure gives you two entertaining mysteries for the price of one, but I thought that there were too many characters in the Pünd novel, and it was confusing. Also, too much was told in narrative rather than in action and dialogue.

I did not solve the Pünd mystery, but I did somehow sense who the murderer was in the “actual” mystery despite not knowing the motive. When the motive was revealed, it seemed weak to me.

This seems like a severe review, but I actually enjoyed the novel very much. So, I guess I am carping at small things. The action moves forward nicely, the interior mystery has a pleasant old-fashioned feel, and the “real” mystery has an engaging heroine.

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Day 1172: The Long Drop

Cover for The Long DropAlthough it too is set in Glasgow, The Long Drop is a departure from Denise Mina’s usual crime series. Instead, it is an account of the crimes and trial of Scotland’s first serial killer, Peter Manuel. In the 1950’s, Manuel was tried and found guilty of the murders of two families and a woman. Although he likely killed other women, a charge against him for the murder of another woman was found not proven.

The novel follows two paths—testimony about the events of a night following the murders in which Manuel met William Watt, a man whose family were Manuel’s victims and who almost certainly paid to have his wife killed, and the actual events. Pretty much everyone in the court is lying.

This novel is billed as a thriller, but it is more of a court procedural. Although it is interesting, it suffers from not having a single character you can feel sympathy for. The wild city of Glasgow in the 1950’s is very atmospheric, however.

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Day 1167: My Darling Detective

Cover for My Darling DetectiveBest of Five!
My Darling Detective is an absolutely charming book. It is not a conventional mystery novel, despite its title. Instead, it focuses more on the characters’ everyday lives.

In 1970’s Halifax, Jacob Rigolet is attending an auction, bidding for his employer on a photograph from World War II, when a woman runs in and splashes the photo with a bottle of ink. To Jake’s horror, the woman is his mother, who is supposed to be safely tucked up at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

Jake’s fianceé, Martha Crauchet, is a detective who has caught a cold case that she thinks may be related to this incident. Back in 1945, the year Jake was born, Detective Robert Emil was suspected of murdering and assaulting some Jewish citizens of Halifax. A woman who identified him as being near the victim at the time of the murder disappeared. The connection Martha sees is that Emil also attacked Jake’s mother during the same time period, the same day Jake was born, in fact. Alert Martha also realizes that Bernard Rigolet could not possibly be Jake’s father, as he had been deployed to Europe for a year when Jake was born and in fact died in Germany two days after his birth.

Nora Rigolet’s breakdown is also a mystery. Long a respected librarian at the Halifax Free Library, she was committed after an incident in which she appeared to believe the war had just ended. In the midst of this breakdown, she set up a display in the library of photos by the same photographer whose work she tried to deface three years later at the auction. This photo, called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony,” actually shows Bernard Rigolet in battle one day before he was killed.

As Martha and her two partners, Hodgson and Tides, gather evidence against ex-Detective Emil, Martha tries to get to know Nora, to uncover the events surrounding Jake’s birth. This novel is said to be an homage to film noir, but it’s not really noirish. The charm of this novel lies in the relationship between Martha and Jake, with their honest and funny discussions, their love of the radio program Detective Levy Detects, and the details of their everyday lives.

This is a charming and likable novel, with amusing dialogue. I understand that Norman is known for his novels set in the Maritimes, and I will be seeking out more.

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Day 1145: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

Cover for By the Pricking of My ThumbsBy the Pricking of My Thumbs is one of the books I read for the 1968 Club. It is one of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels.

Tommy and Tuppence are a witty and urbane middle-aged couple who used to be involved in some sort of secret service organization.  The novel begins with a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at a retirement home, where Tuppence makes the acquaintance of a Mrs. Lancaster. Mrs. Lancaster asks Tuppence if it was her child and talks about a child hidden behind a fireplace.

After Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later, Tuppence asks after Mrs. Lancaster only to learn that she was abruptly removed from the home. Before she left, she gave Aunt Ada a painting of a house that seems familiar to Tuppence, and she uses the excuse of trying to return the painting to find Mrs. Lancaster. For some reason, she fears that the woman is in danger.

1968 club logoTommy is away at a conference when Tuppence begins trying to track down Mrs. Lancaster. The address left for her at the retirement home is a hotel, which has no record of her. All inquiries seem to dead end, so Tuppence begins looking for the house.

Although Tommy and Tuppence are vibrant, I did not feel that the other characters showed Christie’s usual talent for adroit characterization. Even though they eventually connected, the two strands that the investigation uncovers make the novel overly complicated. I could have done without the crime syndicate angle and thought it was unnecessary to the story. Besides, the other thread was much more chilling. Still, I enjoyed reading this Tommy and Tuppence novel.

Other Books for the 1968 Club

Aside from the reviews I’ve published this week, here’s a list of other books published in 1968 that I previously reviewed:

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Day 1106: Unnatural Habits

Cover for Unnatural HabitsPhryne Fisher meets Polly Kettle, a journalist on the track of a story about pregnant women disappearing from the Abbotsford convent, where they work in the Magdalene laundry. Phryne thinks that Polly is too naive and foolhardy and that she will soon run into trouble. And she is right—almost immediately, Polly disappears.

When Phryne looks into it, she learns that several girls have disappeared from the laundry. She also hears that a shady employment agency is offering actresses parts overseas and that her friend, Doctor MacMillan, has been asked to verify the virginity of a surprising number of young women lately. Could a white slavery ring be practicing in Melbourne? But why would they want pregnant women?

link to NetgalleyI am finding with Greenwood that things that appear to be related usually aren’t. As with the other Phryne Fisher novels I’ve read, there is more than one criminal involved, which I feel is a cheat.

Also, Phryne is beginning to seem a bit cartoonish to me as she battles evil and sexism. For light reading, these novels are enjoyable, but I think I have read enough of them.

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Day 1088: The Trespasser

Cover for The TrespasserBest Book of the Week!
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series just gets better and better. One thing that makes it stand out is that it doesn’t feature a specific detective. Instead, the main character in each novel was a more minor character in the previous novel.

This novel, like the previous one, features Steve Moran and Antoinette Conway, but The Trespasser is written from the point of view of Conway rather than Moran. She and Moran are in a difficult position on the squad. Moran is a rookie, and Conway thinks that everyone on the squad wants her off. She has been faced with blatant sexism, and some of her cases have been threatened because of missing evidence or messages that have purposefully not been passed on.

Just as she and Moran are getting off shift, the boss sends them on what appears to be a standard domestic violence case. A young woman, Aislinn Murray, has been found dead in her flat, apparently the victim of a beating. Conway and Moran are taken aback because their boss insists that Detective Breslin also be assigned to the case.

Smelling a rat, Conway and Moran begin trying to work the bulk of the case behind Breslin’s back. Although they have an immediate suspect in Rory Fallon, the man Aislinn had a date with that night, he claims Aislinn never opened the door when he arrived. Breslin seems awfully set on focusing on Rory, and Conway catches Breslin discussing her and the case with his partner McCann, in a way that makes her suspicious.

I haven’t always liked French’s recent novels as well as I did her earlier ones, but this one is right up to form. She has created two fascinating characters with the belligerent Conway and her easy-going partner, Moran. The dialogue is really well done, and the conundrum of Aislinn’s life is interesting. This is a gripping novel.

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Day 1072: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cover for The Cornish Coast MurderI have to admit, I’ve been picking out these British Library Crime Classics by their beautiful covers. The last couple I’ve read have been based on vintage travel posters.

The Reverend Dodd is the vicar of the village of Boseawen. Each Monday he and Doctor Pendrill have dinner and exchange library books, mostly mysteries. But this evening is interrupted by a terrific storm off the coast. Then the doctor is summoned to the house of Julius Tregarthan.

When the doctor arrives, he sees there is nothing he can do. Tregarthan has been shot from outside the window. Reverend Dodd notices that there were three shots at different heights through three different windows.

When Inspector Bigswell arrives to investigate, he quickly surmises that the shots must have come from the cliff path. This idea makes things look bad for the victim’s niece, Ruth Tregarthan, who was one of only two people whose footprints were found on the path and who argued with her uncle that night. More suspiciously, her lover, Ronald Hardy, has gone missing.

This novel shares the Golden Age fascination with puzzles and doesn’t focus much on characterization. Unfortunately, I was about 100 pages ahead of Dodd on one of the biggest puzzles. I would also say that there is a cheat in the murderer’s identity, but I don’t want to say what it is.

So, not the best of the classic mysteries I’ve read recently, but certainly one for those who like puzzles.

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