Review 1701: The Wanderers

The Wanderers is the second book in Pears’ West Country Trilogy. After the startling events at the end of The Horseman, 13-year-old Leo Sercombe is on his own. Almost starving, he is rescued by gypsies. Thus begins a wandering life.

Lottie lives an odd life on her father’s estate. She is angry with him because of his treatment of the Sercombes, so she keeps very much to herself. Reluctantly, she engages with society, but she is most interested in studying biology.

Like most middle books, The Wanderers seems a little unfocused because it can’t by definition have a climax. It is interesting enough and devotes the same kind of minute observation as in the first book to such subjects as castrating sheep.

We are obviously working toward the First World War and presumably some kind of reunion for Leo and Lottie as the class gulf between them broadens. And yet, of course, it will soon narrow again.

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Review 1699: Two-Way Murder

The night of the Hunt Ball is a foggy one indeed. Nick Brent gives visitor Ian Macbane a lift to the dance. On the way home, though, he has a far different companion, Dilys Maine, a beautiful young woman whose strict father did not give her permission to go to the ball. In the fog, the car nearly runs over something huddled in the road. When Nick finds it is a body, he urges Dilys to run home by herself so she won’t have to give evidence.

Nick can’t turn around or back all the way down the narrow lane, so he goes to the nearest farmhouse to call the police, that of Michael Reeve. Finding no one home, he breaks in through a pantry window to make the call. However, someone comes in and attacks him.

Things don’t look good for Reeve. An older constable identifies the body as his brother Norman, who left ten years ago, but Reeve denies it is him. The body was almost certainly driven over by Reeve’s car, but Reeve says he often parks it on the verge with the keys in. His family having past run-ins with the police, he’s not inclined to cooperate.

But Inspector Waring of the C. I. D. thinks things are more complex than they look. He believes they center around Dilys Maine and the rivals for her affection.

The Introduction to this novel informs us that this is the first time it has been in print, the unpublished manuscript having been part of the author’s estate. That makes it a real prize for the British Library Crime Classics series. The Introduction further comments that for many years E. C. R. Lorac’s novels were only available to collectors. I’m enjoying them very much and am glad they are being republished.

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

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Review 1692: The Horseman

I was in the midst of putting a hold on Tim Pears’ The Redeemed to read for my Walter Scott prize project when I noticed that it was the third in his West Country Trilogy. The prize judges have an annoying habit of picking books for their shortlist that are well into a series, and I have paid the price before of trying to read just the nominated book, which you would assume would stand on its own. But sometimes not, so I went ahead and got the first two books of the trilogy as well. The Horseman is the first.

It is 1911. Leo Sercombe is the son of a carter on Lord Prideaux’s country estate in Western England. Leo is twelve and speaks seldom, but he has a strong love for and interest in horses. He frequently slacks off from school to help work on the various farms that make up the estate, and he is beginning to attract the attention of the estate’s head groom for his talent with horses.

Sharing his love of horses is the lord’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lottie, whom Leo occasionally encounters.

The novel minutely observes everyday life in an early 20th century rural setting, particularly the work. Although it is occasionally lyrical, the writing is mostly spare. I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying it but somehow kept reading, even though terminology and process sometimes escaped me. I was actually intending to read a completely different book next, as I often do with series, but the ending, which is sudden and unexpected, made me want to read the next book immediately. If it’s a fast-paced novel you are looking for, this one is not for you, as it is more concerned with detail.

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Review 1690: Tension

When Sir Julian, who is on the board of the local commercial and technical college, mentions the name of the new Lady Superintendent to his wife, she recognizes it. She believes Miss Marchrose is the young woman who jilted her cousin.

Lady Rossiter’s belief in her own kindness conceals her meddlesome and ill-natured personality even from herself. She dislikes Miss Marchrose on sight. When she sees a friendship growing between Miss Marchrose and Mark Easter, the popular Superintendent, she makes it her business to spread insinuations about Miss Marchrose’s character.

Sir Julian likes Miss Marchrose and disapproves of his wife’s interference in the running of the college. I kept waiting for him to step in and stop her.

This novel, while it sparkles with wit and contains several comic characters, is about the serious subject of the damage of loose talk and gossip. Don’t look for a silly romantic novel here. I was rapt by this novel, as I found Miss Marchrose gallant and detested Lady Rossiter’s hypocrisy and self-deception.

That being said, the novel contains some very funny characters, for example, silly Iris Easter, the author of a novel entitled Why Ben! A Story of the Sexes, and her pseudo-Scottish lover, Douglas Garrett, or Mark Easter’s horrendously behaved children, Ruthie and Ambrose, alias Peekaboo. This is another excellent book from the British Library Women Writers series.

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

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Review 1689: The Sleeping and the Dead

I have to say that it’s very unusual for me to guess the murderer in an Ann Cleeves mystery. For this standalone mystery, however, I guessed the culprit almost immediately, although not from any clues. Nor could I figure out how the person was connected to the murders.

The lake at an adventure camp is unusually low when one of the instructors takes her canoe out. It is so low that she can see a body underwater next to what used to be a pier. When the body is examined, it is deemed to have been in the water at least 10 years.

When Detective Peter Porteus’s team finally identifies the body, it belongs to a teenager named Michael Grey. Although he disappeared in the 1970’s, he was not even reported missing until his elderly foster parents died a few years later, leaving him their house. What is odder is that the team can find no evidence that he even existed before he attended school in Cranford.

Hannah Morton, now a prison librarian, was Michael’s girlfriend in school. The last time she saw him was at a cast party for the school play just before A level exams. But Porteus knows there is something she’s not telling him.

It is not too long before there is another death, but how can Porteus connect these two murders 40 years apart? Another good one from Cleeves.

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Review 1688: The Chianti Flask

Did she or didn’t she is only part of the concern of this psychological drama that is more of an apres-crime novel. Or was it a crime?

The novel begins with Laura Dousland on trial for the murder of her much older husband. But whether he was murdered or committed suicide is really the question. It all seems to hinge on a missing Chianti flask that the police think may have been used to deliver the poison. Laura says they were out of Chianti, but their Italian servant says a Chianti flask was on the table during dinner. A search for the flask finds nothing.

Laura is found not guilty but is overwhelmed by the attention she continues to get. She has been left nearly penniless with only a gloomy and poorly maintained house to sell, as Fordish Dousland notoriously only spent money on his own interests and his income was only for his life. All the money Laura saved during her years as a governess was spent trying to maintain the household and feed them.

Laura just wants to be left alone after the trial, but her well-meaning but insistent ex-employer, Mrs. Hayward, thinks Laura would be better off engaged in society. Left ill from imprisonment, Laura begins to get worse.

Dr. Mark Scrutton, whom Laura knew slightly before the trial, makes it his business to get her out of the Hayward’s home and into an isolated seaside cottage owned by his family. But soon there is another conflict when Scrutton tells her he is in love with her.

The Chianti Flask is an effective psychological novel that really gripped me. I got so caught up in the couple’s difficulties because of Laura’s notoriety that I almost forgot I was reading a mystery.

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

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Review 1685: Our Endless Numbered Days

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy’s father James spends his time talking with his survivalist friends while her mother, Ute, prepares for a concert tour. Ute has been gone several weeks when James tells Peggy they are going on vacation. They travel from London to Germany camping in a tent, finally arriving at a small cabin that is falling down. James tells Peggy that everyone is dead and they are the only people left in the world, which has been destroyed.

In 1985, Peggy has been returned home to Ute and her brother Oscar, who was born after she and James left. She is struggling to adapt to the real world.

This novel reminded me very much of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, only with an added twist. Still, it is absolutely gripping, as James gradually loses touch with reality.

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Review 1683: The Chalk Pit

Forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway is asked to look at some human bones that were discovered in old chalk mining tunnels below Norwich. Although at first glance she believes they may be medieval, they also show signs of having been boiled. Tests show them to be more modern, perhaps 10 years old or less.

Around the same time, a homeless man named Eddie visits DCI Harry Nelson because he is worried about his friend Babs, who has not been around for two weeks. As the team asks around for Babs, Judy talks to another homeless man named Bilbo, who says Babs may have gone underground. Within a day Eddie is found stabbed to death in front of the police station and Bilbo has disappeared.

The team’s attention is taken away from these events by the disappearance of Sam Foster-Jones, a suburban housewife who vanished from her home after someone came to the door, leaving her four small children alone. Nelson has a feeling that this disappearance is related to that of Babs and the deaths of Eddie and Bilbo.

This series, always entertaining, has improved steadily, especially in regard to the difficulty of guessing the solution. Ruth remains a likable character, and I still enjoy all the secondary characters in the series.

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Review 1681: Mamma

Diana Tutton only wrote three books. All of them feature dysfunctional families, although Guard Your Daughters is a quirky but relatively traditional romantic novel. Mamma is more unusual.

Joanna has been a widow for 20 years, because her husband died unexpectedly in the early days of their marriage. Although only 41, she has a 20-year-old daughter, Libby, with whom she has a close and loving relationship.

Joanna has just moved when Libby comes for a visit and informs her that she is getting married—to an Army major named Steven. The marriage is to be soon, because Steven expects to be deployed overseas within a few months.

At first, Joanna is not sure what attracted Libby to Steven. She finds him unattractive, and at 36, he is closer to her age than Libby’s. However, circumstances throw them together to live with her, and she begins to understand that she and Steven have more in common than Steven and Libby. With her feelings for Steven growing, Joanna must figure out how to navigate this emotional situation.

Tutton depicts these relationships skillfully, in a way that makes you feel only sympathy for the characters. It is an empathetic and emotionally astute portrayal.

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

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Review 1680: The Darkest Evening

During a blizzard just before the winter solstice, Vera Stanhope misses a turn on the way home and encounters a car off the road with its door open. Inside is a baby. Vera realizes she is near the drive to her cousin Janet Stanhope’s stately home, so she takes the baby and goes to the house.

Once Vera has established that neither the Stanhopes nor their housekeeper Dorothy knows who the child is, she summons Holly to open up a case. Then Neil Heslop, the tenant farmer, comes in to inform them that he’s found a dead woman in the snow.

The woman, Lorna Falstoner, has been brutally struck in the head. She is established as the baby’s mother, but no one knows what she is doing on the property. She is unmarried, and the team can find no one who knows the identity of the baby’s father. Vera becomes convinced that finding this information will lead them to the killer.

With its frozen setting, The Darkest Evening is atmospheric and mysterious. I had no idea of the identity of the murderer. Cleeves is becoming a master of the red herring.

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