Day 1246: The Crow Trap

Cover for The Crow TrapThe Crow Trap is Ann Cleeves’s first Vera Stanhope mystery, set in the North Pennines in Yorkshire. It is unusual in that Vera is barely a character until halfway through the novel.

The first half is narrated by three different women who are doing an environmental impact study for a proposed quarry. They are staying in a remote cottage called Baikie’s that is used by students doing research.

Rachel is the head of the project, and she arrives to discover the body of her friend, Bella, in the barn of the nearby Black Law Farm. Bell has apparently committed suicide and left her body in a place where it would be discovered by Rachel rather than by her invalid husband, Dougie. Rachel is disturbed by this suicide, because she can’t think of a reason for it.

Anne is at the cottage to survey plant life. But she is already involved in a way that may be a conflict of interest with Godfrey Waugh, the married man who will decide whether to excavate the quarry. She is irritated by both other women, especially with Grace.

Grace is there to survey wildlife and has been reporting an astonishing number of otters, to the point where Anne is suspicious of her numbers. Grace is very quiet, sharing almost nothing of herself with her work mates, sleeping little, and hardly eating. Then Grace is found murdered nearby the cottage.

Vera, an eccentric-looking woman, begins investigating the women and the quarry deal. But she views the two women still working in the cottage as a crow trap, a cage containing a crow that is there to attract another crow. She thinks the killer will strike again.

Although this mystery spends so much time on background that some may find it a little slow moving, that is one of the features that makes it stand out. There is some information about the killer that the reader can have no way of knowing, but there are hints enough that it is possible to guess the right person. In any case, I thought this was an excellent mystery, complex and interesting. The characters seem real. The Yorkshire setting that is so evocative in the TV series isn’t vividly evoked, nor are the accents, but that’s a slight fault.

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Day 1244: The Blank Wall

Cover for Women Crime WritersThe Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is the last novel from the 1940’s in my first volume of the Women Crime Writers collection. (I skipped Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place as I have reviewed it before.) I must say that all of them have been excellent.

Lucia Holley is an ordinary upper-middle-class housewife trying to cope while her husband is away at the war. She has been having difficulty with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Bee. Recently, she found out that Bee was seeing an unsavory character, Ted Darby, who is 36. When she visited him to ask him not to see her daughter anymore, he refused. Bee has found out and is furious.

That night, Lucia spots someone in their boathouse and catches Bee on the way out to see Ted. She refuses to let Bee out, and her old father, Mr. Harper, overhears. Later he tells Lucia that he went out to tell Darby to leave and pushed him into the water.

Early the next morning, Lucia goes out for a swim and finds Darby dead in the bottom of the boat. He has fallen on the anchor, which has pierced his chest. Determined to protect her father and her daughter’s reputation, Lucia disposes of the body. But horrible events are just getting started.

At first, I was a bit impatient that Lucia’s fear for her daughter’s reputation has her cover up what is, after all, an accident. However, this story pulled me along, so that soon I was completely immersed in Lucia’s problems. I just felt that it wouldn’t have hurt Lucia’s spoiled daughter to find out the troubles her little rebellion caused.

Overall, I am so far impressed by the quality of the novels in this collection. They are not as well known as contemporary thrillers and crime writers written by men, but they are better than many of them.

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Day 1238: Raven Black

Cover for Raven BlackTo our delight, our local PBS station airs a lot of British and Australian mysteries. Even though most of them are older, we have not seen them before, so we are happy. Two series we have begun watching (and getting older ones from Netflix) are Vera and Shetland, both from the novels of Ann Cleeves. So, I looked for the first book in each series. Raven Black is the first novel of the series set in the Shetland Islands.

Magnus Tait is an old man hoping for visitors on Hogmanny. He hasn’t had any for years, though, ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl years ago. But this year is different. Two drunken teenage girls, Catherine and Sally, stop by on their way home from a party.

The next day, Magnus sees Catherine on the bus, and she walks home with him. The day after, her body is found lying in a field by a neighbor. She has been strangled with her own scarf.

Immediately, the islanders, even many of the police, assume Magnus killed her. Inspector Jimmy Perez isn’t so sure there are similarities in the cases, but he’s not in charge. Instead, it’s Inspector Taylor, over from the mainland.

Who could have killed Catherine? Was it Mr. Scott, her teacher, who invited her over after school to discuss extracurricular reading? Robert Isbister, a grown man that Sally likes, has been asking questions about Catherine. She was seen talking to Duncan Hunter, an ex-school friend of Perez’s, at one of his wild parties. Or was it Magnus?

This novel is absorbing, although I thought it could have been more atmospheric, given the setting. I liked Jimmy Perez, though, and I never guessed the murderer or the motive. (I missed the first episode of this series on TV, which was this one.) That, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often.

As an aside, I love the theme music for Shetland, and just rereading this review before publication has brought it to mind.

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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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