Review 2105: The Royal Secret

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now the widowed Mrs. Hakesby, meet Mr. Van Riebeeck at the theater, Marwood has no idea that his investigation of someone selling state secrets will involve him. Cat, who has carried on her husband’s architectural business since his death two years before, has thought she would never be drawn to a man, but she is to Van Riebeeck.

When Marwood’s investigation begins to focus on Van Riebeeck, he tries to warn Cat, but she just thinks he is jealous, which he is. In the meantime, Cat is working on plans for a chicken house for the King’s sister, Madame, and is asked to take them and a model to France.

Van Riebeeck has already killed three people and proposed marriage to Cat before he disappears. But since one of the murdered is Marwood’s own footboy, he is determined to find him.

This is another excellent entry in the Marwood/Lovett series. The main characters remain interesting, and Taylor involves them in some intriguing plots. I am enjoying them.

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Review 2100: Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

I looked for a biography of Katherine Swynford after reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, a novel about her life. I had a suspicion that the story was greatly romanticized, and acclaimed biographer Alison Weir agrees with me.

The bare bones of Katherine Swynford’s story are dramatic. Of undistinguished foreign parentage, Swynford was married to a low-ranking knight in the army of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III. John was the most wealthy and powerful noble of his time except for the King. Katherine was attached to the Duke’s household as sort of a governess for his children with his duchess, Blanche of Lancaster, to whom he was devoted. Katherine’s husband served overseas. (Weir has him dying of illness rather than being murdered by a servant faithful to the Duke.)

After Blanche’s death, John married Constance, titular Queen of Castile and tried for years to take back her country from usurpers. This marriage was not successful, and soon the Duke began an affair with Katherine that lasted for years. The couple parted then reunited, but Lancaster astounded everyone by marrying her after Constance’s death. Amazingly, Katherine was the ancestress of every king of England since 1399 and of six American presidents.

Although Katherine’s story is an intriguing one, there is so little historical information available about her that the biography is mostly about her husband and sons, with information derived from records of grants and budgets. This is the kind of research that is probably fascinating to the writer but not so interesting to the reader.

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Review 2099: The Eustace Diamonds

The Eustace Diamonds is the third of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series and the least political so far. In fact, although it contains a few political discussions, it is really a social commentary and satire.

The beautiful Lizzie married Florian Eustace for money, while Florian married for love. Lizzie, being mercenary, deceitful, and immoral, broke his heart, and he, being very ill, died before Lizzie was even 21, leaving her with the Eustace heir, her son.

Lizzie is left very well off, with a yearly income and Portray Castle for life. However, the Eustace’s upright solicitor, Mr. Camperdown, notices that Lizzie has not returned the Eustace family diamonds to the estate. Repeated requests for the return of the diamonds meet with no reply.

Lizzie has recently engaged herself to Lord Fawn, an engagement his family is not really happy about, because they think Lizzie is a woman of few morals—and they are right. But Lord Fawn is attracted to her beauty and is also not very well off. However, when Lord Fawn hears rumors that Lizzie is keeping family jewelry that doesn’t belong to her, he begins to back off. His position in the government doesn’t warrant any scandal.

The Fawn’s governess, whom they dearly love, is Lucy Morris, a childhood friend of Lizzie’s. Around this time, Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock, proposes to Lucy despite his family’s disapproval. They have nothing against Lucy but wish Frank, for the sake of his profession, would marry a girl with some money.

When Lizzie begins having trouble about the diamonds, she turns to Frank. Although he knows on some level that she is a liar, she is able to charm him and make him sympathetic to her. She lies about the circumstances in which she received the necklace from her husband—circumstances that make a legal difference—and he begins to think Lord Fawn is a dastard for trying to back out of the engagement. Lizzie wonders if she wouldn’t rather marry Frank.

In many ways, this novel resembles Vanity Fair, as Lizzie tries to make her way in society, although with ultimately less success and less sympathy from me. Lizzie gets involved with some dubious characters and eventually there are not one but two robberies. A very interesting and unusual side plot for this age involves Lizzie’s friend Mrs. Carbuncle, who is trying to marry off her niece, Lucinda, to Sir Griffin Tewett before she completely runs out of money. Lucinda doesn’t want to marry any man at all and certainly not Sir Griffin, who appears to only want her when she is rejecting him. It’s sad that in his time the only way Trollope can resolve this plot is to have Lucinda run mad, almost but not quite like the Bride of Lammermoor, to whom there are references in the text. Still, it was interesting to me that at this period of literature, Trollope includes an attractive young woman who doesn’t want to marry as one of his characters.

Trollope skillfully engages us with lots of questions. Will Lizzie keep the diamonds? Will Frank keep his engagement? Which of eventually four men with Lizzie marry?

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Review 2097: Death in the Tunnel

I have enjoyed reading the Golden Age crime novels published by British Library and Dean Street Press, but many of them put a complicated plot ahead of the development of character and motive. At some point, I think many of these puzzle-driven novels get too tangled in their clues to be enjoyable. One of these is Death in the Tunnel, which actually faces us with two puzzles—how the crime was committed and how another crime got it started.

Sir Wilfred Saxonby gets on the train home from London one evening and asks for a private compartment. When the train is midway through a tunnel, the driver sees a signal to stop and slows almost to a halt before getting the green light to speed up again. When the train gets to its destination, Sir Wilfred is found dead, shot by a small-caliber pistol. Everything Inspector Arnold can discover seems to point to suicide. But there is that strange halt and other anomalies. Arnold’s friend Desmond Merrion is inclined to suspect murder. But the locked train compartment amounts to a locked room mystery.

First of all, let me just say that it’s a good thing Desmond Merrion is around, because Inspector Arnold has got to be one of the dumbest cops in history. For example, as soon as the tunnel’s ventilation shaft was mentioned, I knew it was important, but it takes another day and Merrion’s suggestion for them to look at it and still Arnold has to have the car tracks that lead to it pointed out to him. Later again he fixates on a poor old man when it is obvious he has been framed.

The murder itself isn’t hard to understand, but a crime that kicked it off had my head reeling with details about when checks were signed. And that leads me to the things I didn’t buy at all: (1) that a man could tell immediately the brand of typewriter used to type something (with comparisons to samples, yes, but not at one glance) and (2) that “experts” could tell by looking at a check whether it had been endorsed when it was written or later.

So, all in all, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some others. By the way, there was no discussion of motive at all.

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Review 2089: The White Priory Murders: A Mystery for Christmas

Although The White Priory Murders is not explicitly set at Christmas, it has a nice, snowy setting. I received this novel just recently and thought I’d post my review in time for Christmas.

Carter Dickson is a pseudonym for John Dickson Carr, who was known for locked door mysteries. I confess to not being big on them, but this one is a different sort from the usual very cerebral locked door mystery and has some moments of true suspense.

James Bennett is the American nephew of Sir Henry Merrivale, an amateur sleuth. He has traveled to England with a group of people in the movies and is concerned about an attempted poisoning, so he consults Merrivale. The people concerned are centered around Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who was ignored by the British acting establishment but has since made it big in America, so she is determined to star in a historical play in England. With her are Rainger, a director; John Bohun, a theatrical presenter; Jervis Willard, an actor who will play opposite Marcia; Emery, her publicist; and Louise Carewe, the daughter of a potential investor, Lord Canifest, who wants to marry Marcia. Someone has sent Marcia a box of chocolates, and Emery was slightly poisoned after eating one. Merrivale says the attempt was not serious.

Later, though, the entire group goes to stay at the White Priory, a centuries old house owned by John Bohun’s brother Maurice and also occupied by his niece, Katherine. Bennett arrives very early in the morning to find that John Bohun has just discovered Marcia’s body in the pavilion where she insisted on spending the night. She has been beaten around the head, but the biggest mystery is the fresh snow around the pavilion, unbroken by any footprints except John’s, going in. According to the events established during the night, she must have been murdered after the snow began falling.

Everyone has secrets, and soon there is a series of attempted murders, attempted suicides, and successful murders, as Inspector Masters summons Merrivale to help him figure it all out.

I received this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2088: Mrs. Tim Flies Home

I intended to read the Mrs. Tim books in order, but that hasn’t quite worked out, and I received this one just in time for Dean Street Press in December.

Hester Christie (Mrs. Tim) reluctantly leaves her husband in Kenya, where he is now posted, to form a household in England that her children can return to for the summer holidays. But en route she stops for two days in Rome. There she is unexpectedly met by family friend Tony Morley. Her couple days of sightseeing with him create a misunderstanding that travels all the way back to England to cause trouble for her through the person of Mrs. Alston, whom she met on the plane from Kenya to Rome.

Mrs. Tim has found a house in Old Quinings called the Small House. Although she loves the house, she finds she has a troublesome back neighbor and a landlady who isn’t to be trusted. She also meets some pleasant neighbors and helps out a young man in his romance with a nice young girl. She solves a mystery and finds out why some of the villagers are treating her oddly.

This book is another breezy entry in the Mrs. Tim series, written in the form of letters to her husband. It gets a little patronizing toward the ancient Romans (conveniently forgetting about the Inquisition), but they’re dead so they won’t mind. Otherwise, it’s an entertaining read.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2085: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Last summer, my husband and I watched a set of programs on BritBox—not a series but separate movies each with the title “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” and a different subtitle. When I looked at the credits, the name Kate Summerscale rang a bell, and I realized I had read her book The Wicked Boy about a Victorian true crime. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is also nonfiction, about a famous Victorian murder and the detective whose career was nearly destroyed by the case.

In June 1860, the Kent family awakened to find three-year-old Saville Kent missing. Searches of the property eventually located him under the seat of an outside privy with his throat cut. A window of the dining room was ajar.

The initial investigation was botched, with local police assuming the crime was committed by a servant or outsider, and even hiding some potential evidence. John Whicher, a top detective in the newly formed detective department, was assigned to the case after two weeks, as a result of reported bungling.

Mr. Whicher was thorough in his investigation despite lack of cooperation and even obstruction by the local officials. He concluded that Saville was murdered by his 16-year-old sister, Constance (this is not a spoiler because this information comes out fairly early in the book), but felt he didn’t have enough proof to make an arrest. However, the local magistrates pushed him into it.

It is the national reaction to the crime and Mr. Whicher’s suspicions that Summerscale concentrates on, as well as telling what happened to the principals later. This is a really interesting book, relating how Mr. Whicher was a model for early fictional detectives and how this case affected early crime fiction.

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Review 2079: Partners in Crime

I decided to read all of the Tommy and Tuppence novels in order when I read that they were Christie’s favorite sleuths. Partners in Crime is the second book in the series, set six years after the first.

Tuppence is beginning to be bored when Mr. Carter, Tommy’s boss, asks him to take six months off his work in the Secret Service to reopen the Blunt Detective Agency, which the department believes is connected with espionage. They are to look for a Russian blue stamp on a letter and further contacts.

Partners in Crime is not exactly a collection of short stories, but it is about a series of crimes Tommy and Tuppence solve in between tussles with the bad guys. Each case takes up one or two chapters. The book also has a running theme of either Tommy or Tuppence taking on the persona of a different detective from literature in each case. Unfortunately, I didn’t know who most of the detectives were, so I missed some jokes.

Some of the mysteries are laughably obvious, but others are more difficult. The novel suffers slightly from the problem I find with short detective fiction—not a lot of time to develop plots, red herrings, and characters. However, Tommy and Tuppence are funny and charming, so I enjoyed the book.

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Review 2077: Literary Wives! State of the Union

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!

My Review

Literary Wives logo

State of the Union takes place in ten scenes, as Tom and Louise meet in a pub before their marriage-counseling sessions. The novel is almost completely dialogue as the couple bicker and each picks apart what the other says. Although Louise has had an affair, she says it’s because Tom stopped having sex with her. Tom says he stopped having sex with her because she was clearly uninterested.

I haven’t read a Nick Hornby novel in a while, although the ones I read I found touching and engaging, particularly High Fidelity and About a Boy. State of the Union just seems too facile to me, though, about a couple who are more interested in scoring points off each other than talking seriously about their problems. Then when they finally start talking, they clear up their problems too quickly.

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

It says Hornby wants someone to make a movie from his book.

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Review 2076: The Twyford Code

I know she is very popular, but I’m proving not to be a Janice Hallett fan. I almost finished her first book despite having serious problems with it, but unfortunately I had already purchased this one, because it was so popular, before I read that one. I quit reading The Twyford Code at about the 200-page point because it seemed rambling and pointless.

Steve Smith is a middle-aged ex-con who is determined to go straight. One day something reminds him of a day in school when his teacher took his class on a field trip because of an old children’s adventure story he found on a bus. Steve can’t remember that day very well, but he knows they went to Bournemouth to visit the home of the author, Edith Twyford, and he thinks that their teacher, Miss Isles, never returned from the trip. He decides to find out what happened to Miss Isles.

Steve doesn’t know that there is a whole internet culture around Twyford’s works, and people using them to search for treasure. He tries to get his old schoolmates to help, but they are not reliable for one reason or another. However, a librarian named Lucy is ready to help.

The entire novel is supposedly transcriptions of audio files Steve made on his phone, because the mission stated at the beginning of the novel is to figure out who he is (which would seem simple, but like the mission in the other Hallett novel, unlikely). I got a little tired of the misspellings this approach leads to as well as the rambling narration. The mystery seems to consist of word puzzles, and I wasn’t interested in solving them. I’m sure the book also includes a long and laborious explanation of the clues, which I’m not interested in reading. Finally, there is so much extra information thrown in that no one would be able to guess what is a clue and what isn’t. Hallett’s books seem to me to just throw in the kitchen sink in a very disorganized fashion and let the reader deal with it.

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