Day 1066: The Lake District Murder

Cover for The Lake District MurderIf I was thinking ahead, I would have read something for today that commemorated the Norman Invasion, but oh well . . .

The Lake District Murder is John Bude’s first mystery featuring Inspector Meredith. Golden Age mysteries seem to be divided between adventure novels and novels that focus on the puzzle. This one focuses on the puzzle.

A farmer stopping for gasoline finds the gas station owner, Clayton, an apparent suicide, with a mask over his face where he has funneled carbon monoxide from the engine of his car. But Meredith sees discrepancies at the scene. Why would the man have fixed himself a tea but not eaten it before committing suicide? And how could his hands be clean after he affixed the dirty hose?

Moreover, the victim was engaged to be married and had plans to emigrate to Canada with his bride. These plans are ones his partner in the garage, Higgins, claims not to know about.

Meredith’s investigation leads him to surmise that something illegal is going on involving the oil company and a chain of garages. As a result, the book focuses on this problem for most of the time, and it involves examinations of tank trucks, calculations of pumping speed and tank capacity, timetables, and lots of other details that are, frankly, boring.

When the solution comes, both to the illegal activity and the murder, it is so overly complicated that it’s hard to believe anyone would think of it. This is not one of the classic mysteries that I enjoyed. It focuses almost exclusively on the puzzle with little bother toward characterization or other literary elements.

Day 1065: Diana Tempest

Cover for Diana TempestThe plot of Diana Tempest depends on the actions of our heroine’s weak, selfish, and amoral father, Colonel Tempest. He runs off with his older brother’s young and foolish fiancée, only to tire of her after a few  years. When Diana’s mother dies shortly after her birth, he hands his daughter over to her grandmother, as he is only interested in his son, Archie.

The novel begins a few years later with Colonel Tempest rushing to the side of his dying older brother, hoping to reconcile. But his brother is so full of hatred that he formally recognizes his wife’s son John as his heir, even though he knows John is the issue of an affair between his wife and her cousin.

When John is a young man, Colonel Tempest drunkenly makes a bet that has major ramifications for his family. Even though he repents, he is unable to get out of the wager.

As a young woman, Diana and her grandmother manage to get by but have no extra resources. When Diana meets John, he falls in love with her, but she does not realize this and thinks they are friends. Later she understands she loves him, but it is after he makes a fateful discovery.

This novel fits very well into the sensationalist genre Cholmondely is known for. Its heroine and hero are likable, and it was enjoyable to read.

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Day 1056: The Owl Killers

Cover for The Owl KillersIn the 1321 village of Ulewic, England, a group of women have settled into a beguinage, a community of women who are committed to a life of celibacy and service but not one sanctified by the church. Some of them are from Belgium, and they are led by Servant Martha.

The village is experiencing dark days and some of the villagers are returning to a pre-Christian cult called the Owl Killers. When the beguinage takes in a leper and then the daughter of a lord, who has been raped, the villagers and the Owl Killers begin to turn against them.

Although this novel is atmospherically dark and seems well researched, I had a hard time sticking with it. This problem may have more to do with the fact that we were moving cross-country while I was reading it than with the book itself. But I frankly found few of the characters sympathetic. The village priest is so terrified that the truth of his affair with a man will come out that he is led into dastardly acts. Servant Martha seems completely blind to what is going on with some of the members of the beguinage. Beatrice is jealous and bitter. Osmana is sympathetic but one-dimensional.

I may try another Maitland novel at a better time. The novel blends a bit of the supernatural with a fairly straight historical narrative, which combination is interesting.

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Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 1044: The Lark

Cover for The LarkBest Book of the Week!
The Lark was E. Nesbit’s last novel for adults, and it is a delightful romp with lovable characters. I had been reading her books in order, but because of the recommendation of a friend, I skipped to this one. Written in 1922, it is set in post-WW I England.

The novel begins with a few scenes set several years before the main action. Exuberant 15-year-old Jane Quested finds an old book with a spell for seeing her true love, and she is determined to try it in the garden at night. John Rochester has just been advised by his mother to marry the wealthy Hilda Antrobus. (Jane and Rochester. Can this be a coincidence?) John is walking in the woods after missing his train and happens to come upon the scene just after Jane finishes her spell. She thinks she’s seen a vision of her future.

The war intercedes, and Jane and her cousin Lucilla are still in school at the end of it, both of them orphaned. They are surprised to get a sudden summons from their guardian, Arthur Panton. They are delivered to their new home, a small house called Hope Cottage, where they learn that Panton has lost all their money in investments and is leaving the country. He has left them with the house and 500 pounds.

Instead of being discouraged, Jane declares that they will live life as a lark, and the first thing to do is find a way to make money. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do anything.

One morning Jane hands out flowers to the workmen on their way to work. One of them suggests she sell the flowers. So, she and Lucilla begin selling flowers out of their garden but soon find the garden isn’t big enough. The next thing to do is to find a place that is.

Of course, John Rochester appears on the scene, as the nephew of the man whose house they want to lease. But Jane is determined not to be side-tracked by a vision from making her own way in life.

This novel is lively and full of enjoyable characters, as Jane and Lucilla attempt to earn their living and so meet all kinds of interesting people. It is a light-hearted novel that I enjoyed immensely.

At the suggestion of my friend Deb, I’m attaching a link for The Lark online, since it is difficult to find: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/N10292048.pdf. I myself bought E. Nesbit’s complete works from Delphi Classics, also in the form of an ebook (the only disadvantage, in my opinion). If you live in the U. K., it looks like there are some newly printed paperback copies available.

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