Review 1340: The Word Is Murder

Cover for The Word Is MurderAnthony Horowiz does an unusual thing in his new mystery. He inserts himself into his novel as a character. It’s not just first-person narration by a fictional character, because he mentions projects he has worked on in real life.

He is approached by Daniel Hawthorne, a brusque ex-police detective, who wants Horowitz to shadow him on a case and write about it. Horowitz is hesitant at first but soon gets interested in the case.

Diana Cowper is murdered on the same day that she met with an undertaker to plan her own funeral. There may be some connection to an accident she had nearly ten years ago, in which she hit two boys with her car when they ran into the street. One was killed and the other badly injured. She has received threatening letters from Alan Godwin, the boys’ father.

Diana’s son Damian is a famous Hollywood actor who returns for his mother’s funeral. Horowitz assumes Diana’s murder is connected to the car accident, but then Damian is murdered, too.

Frankly, I was underimpressed by Horowitz’s last mystery, and I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t run across it in the library. I felt it was too concerned with the complicated plot and too little with the characters.

Right off the bat with this novel, I felt uncomfortable with Horowitz’s angle of making himself a character. I didn’t really like the narrative style.

I was really offended, though, when I realized that he kept important information that was vital to discovering the solution until the last 100 pages of the novel. That’s just plain cheating.

Horowitz has written screenplays for very good mystery shows, but his novels seem superficial and facile to me. I feel that his approach is more suited to television than to novels.

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Review 1337: Silent Voices

Cover of Silent VoicesVera Stanhope has taken her doctor’s advice and is swimming regularly at a health club. One morning, she finds the body of a middle-aged woman in the steam room. She has been strangled.

The victim is Jenny Lister, a social worker. She seems not to have any enemies, although she was the supervisor of Connie Masters, a social worker who was recently vilified when a boy under her care was murdered by his mother. Jenny’s daughter, Hannah, is devastated, and Hannah’s boyfriend, Simon Eliot, is very protective of her.

At the health club there has been a series of petty thefts, and Jenny’s handbag is missing. The thefts started when Danny Shaw became a cleaner, but are the thefts connected to the murder? Jenny might have been writing a book that she kept in the handbag.

As the investigation goes in several directions, Vera’s team soon feels as if it has too much to handle. Then Danny Shaw’s body is discovered.

This is another of Ann Cleeves’s complex but engrossing mysteries, set in Northern England. I think that Cleeves really has a talent for characterization and complex plots. I am enjoying this series.

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Review 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Review 1319: The Lesser Bohemians

Cover for The Lesser BohemiansI found The Lesser Bohemians a difficult book to read, in more ways than one. Still, if you are willing to give it a try, you may find it rewarding. It won Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black fiction prize, in 2017.

The narrator of the novel, whose name we don’t learn until the end, is an 18-year-old Irish girl who comes to London to attend drama school. She is naive and inexperienced, but she plunges right into a life of partying. Still, she has not yet accomplished what she wants to, losing her virginity.

Then she meets an older man in a pub. He is 38 and a well-known actor. They begin an affair that he makes clear is a casual one. Soon, however, she realizes she is in love with him. Darker times await.

One of the difficulties (but also joys) of this book is the writing style. Although the story is told chronologically, McBride writes in sentence fragments, smashes sentences together, shifts pronouns and verb tense, and plays with typography, leaving gaps between words and placing innermost thoughts in smaller type. Here, for example, is a paragraph about her first friendship.

Vaudeville she, drawing all around. Funniest. And good to found a friendship. At least she’s a side to go side by with to class. Vault a day then with its procession of self. What’s your name? Whereabouts are you from? Live close? I hate the announcing but new futures demand new reckonings so I shuffle around what I have. Not much, not much, only me. Far from exotic when there’s Spaniards and Greeks. And here the first Dane I’ve ever met. Australian girls. Not white or Irish. You mean English up North? I only crossed a sea. Speak French then? Amazing. Fluently? I’d love to slip my homogeneity but. On to the next class. Go.

Like the narrator, none of the characters have names until, toward the end of the novel, the narrator and her lover use their names in the text. This can make it difficult at times to tell which characters are speaking or being referred to. The shift to actual names signals a shift in clarity for the main character.

Another problem for some readers may be the rawness and explicitness of its sexuality and of some other subject matter. For we are dealing with two really damaged individuals. I had to laugh when I realized my library was shelving this novel with the romances. Trust me, this is not a romantic novel.

So, why do I say it is worth reading? For one thing, it has a great deal of energy that carries you along. Also, you come to know these characters, with all their flaws, and care what happens to them.

The novel shifts about 2/3 of the way through, when the man starts being honest about himself. One reviewer thought the novel sags a little here. Certainly, it shifts in style, and perhaps loses some energy, but I was interested in the story.

Perhaps I don’t believe the ending of the novel and what it promises after all the characters’ volatility. Still, I was touched by this book and thought it was well worth reading.

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Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Review 1309: The Punishment She Deserves

Cover for The Punishment She DeservesWho is meant by the “she” in the title of The Punishment She Deserves is ambiguous at first. The word may refer to Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, whose superiors, because of her behavior during her previous case, send her on the present case hoping she will mess up so they can transfer her. It may refer to her boss, Isabelle Ardery, whose drinking problem is seriously affecting her life and work. Perhaps it refers to one of the two controlling mothers Barbara and Isabelle encounter in their investigation. Or perhaps someone else.

Isabelle and Barbara are dispatched to look into an investigation of death in custody to see if it was performed correctly. The death in question is the apparent suicide of Ian Druitt, a clergyman who had been arrested after charges of paedophilia. Ludlow’s PCSO Gary Ruddock was dispatched to bring Druitt in to an unmanned station to wait for officers to pick him up for questioning. While Ruddock was making some phone calls, Druitt apparently hanged himself using his stole and a doorknob.

Barbara’s reaction is to investigate whether the death was indeed a suicide, but Ardery tells her their remit is only to determine whether the subsequent investigation was handled correctly. Nevertheless, Barbara uncovers a disturbing fact beyond the one that the allegation against Druitt was made by anonymous phone call. There was a gap of 19 days between the allegation and the order for the arrest, which was said to be urgent.

Barbara includes this fact in the report she writes about the investigation, but Ardery orders her to remove the information because of political reasons. Troubled, Barbara asks Inspector Lynley’s advice. He tells her to leave out the information if she wants to keep her job, but he takes the unedited report and sends it above their boss’s head. The resulting explosion ends with Ardery called on the carpet and Lynley and Havers on their way to Ludlow to investigate thoroughly.

Soon, Lynley and Havers have reason to believe that Druitt’s death was not a suicide. But believing that and proving it or finding the murderer are different things.

This novel finally shows Elizabeth George going back to form, concentrating more on the mystery than on the characters’ private lives and having her protagonists behave more like cops than they have in several of the previous novels. Although the private lives of Lynley and Havers were initially what made this series so interesting, I’ve felt that George has gotten too melodramatic with these plots in the last few books. So, it’s a relief having Barbara worry about tap-dancing class and Lynley concerned about how his relationship with his not very interesting girlfriend is going, but nothing more dramatic.

This mystery is complicated, interesting, and difficult to guess. It involves characters you come to care about. I really enjoyed it. I’m glad about this, because I’ve wondered whether I wanted to continue reading this series, and now I’m looking forward to the next one.

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