Review 1365: The Witch Elm

Tana French is really good at evoking an atmosphere of dread, the knowledge that things are not going to turn out well. In The Witch Elm, though, she departs from her usual Dublin Murder Squad series somewhat. Instead of a narration from the point of view of one of the cops, it is written from that of another character and takes quite a while to work up to the murder.

The novel begins with a crime, however. Toby is out for drinks with his friends celebrating not having been fired from his job. He works PR for an art gallery that had been preparing a show of disadvantaged artists put together by a man named Tiernan. Toby found out that the most gifted work was not done by the alleged artist but by Tiernan himself, but it was so good that Toby didn’t tell. Now his boss has found out and cancelled the show but is allowing Toby to minimize the damage.

After Toby arrives home, he is awakened by robbers, who beat him badly. He nearly dies and suffers neurological damage and memory loss. He is enraged, though, when the police detective implies that the attack was personal, so he must know his attacker.

During his recovery, he tries to keep his friends and family from realizing how badly hurt he was, and he is not happy when he is contacted by his cousin, Susanna. It turns out his Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer, and Susanna would like him to stay with Hugo at his home, Ivy House, where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, lived every summer when they were kids. He decides to go, taking along his girlfriend, Melissa.

Although at first the time at Ivy House seems idyllic, the three enjoying living together only interrupted by family Sunday lunches, and Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research, the house has a secret. When Hugo calls a family meeting to discuss the disposition of the house, Susanna’s son Zach finds a skull in a hole in the wych elm at the back of the garden.

Soon, the house is overrun by police, who discover a skeleton in the tree. The family imagines it could have been there a long time—until it is identified as Dominic Ganly, a schoolmate of Toby’s, Susanna’s, and Leon’s, a boy who supposedly committed suicide by drowning the summer after school ended.

Toby cannot imagine how Dominic got inside the tree, but his memories of that time are intermittent. Detective Rafferty, however, thinks he knows something, appears in fact to think that Toby did it. Toby starts to wonder if he did.

This is truly one of French’s darkest novels, about the damage small acts can create, even for innocent people, and about how people can be blinkered by their own interests. I was riveted throughout, wondering where it was all going.

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Review 1361: Blue Lightning

Cover for Blue LightningI started watching the Shetland television series, based on Ann Cleeves’s books, before reading the books but found that they had changed the TV series just enough to allow the books to still surprise (or vice versa). Unfortunately, however, I accidentally read one of the later books before this one, so I knew about a key plot point going in.

Inspector Jimmy Perez takes his fiancée, Fran, home to Fair Isle to meet his parents. A storm comes in shortly after their arrival, making the island inaccessible. So, although he is supposed to be on vacation, when Angela, the scientist at the island bird research center, is found murdered, Jimmy must begin working the case by himself.

He finds that Angela, although married to the site administrator, Maurice, was quite free with her favors, especially to younger, fit men. That would seem to make Maurice a suspect, but he doesn’t appear to care. Further, Angela was not well liked, being arrogant and rude to most people. The night of her murder, she had a big fight with her stepdaughter, Poppy.

Jimmy’s team and the Fiscal finally make it over to the island, but they have only been there a short time when Jane, the cook at the research center, is also found dead. Jimmy thinks she must have found out or witnessed something.

As usual, Cleeves keeps us guessing. I thought I knew who the murderer was through most of the novel only to be wrong about that and the motive. There is a shocking event toward the end of the novel. I couldn’t judge its effect, because that was the thing I knew about.

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Review 1354: Weekend at Thrackley

Cover for Weekend at ThrackleyOccasionally, I have been reading the British Library Crime Classics published by Poison Pen Press, so I was delighted to find one on the shelves of my local library. I had not heard of the author, Alan Melville, but I was pleased to find the novel one of the most enjoyable of this series that I have read so far.

Jim Henderson isn’t getting ahead in life, but he’s doing it cheerfully. He has a room in a rather seedy rooming house, but he likes his landlady. He hasn’t been able to find a job in years, but he has managed to keep his membership to his club.

One morning, he gets an unexpected invitation from an Edwin Carson, who claims to have known him as a child, for a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim knows nothing about Carson, but when he visits his friend Freddie Upton to borrow evening clothes, he finds that Freddie is invited, too. Freddie tells him that Carson is a jewel collector with an amazing collection, and he has asked him to bring the Upton diamonds so that he can look at them. That doesn’t explain why Jim has been invited, however.

Before the two men arrive at the house, Freddie knocks over a charming girl on a bicycle. That girl, Mary, turns out to be Carson’s ward. Jim thinks things are looking up.

When the men arrive at the house, Jim is even more perplexed about why he is invited. The four other guests have only one thing in common: they all own famous jewels. Jim does not.

The house itself, although luxuriously and tastefully finished, is gloomy and built like a fortress. Jim soon finds that both his room and Freddie’s have been bugged. Just what is Carson up to?

This novel has an engaging hero and is written in a pleasantly jaunty style. It also has some witty dialogue. As is common in the genre, Carson’s plots are ridiculously complicated, and the chapter at the end where the police inspector explains everything seems unnecessary. All in all, though, I enjoyed this light novel.

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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 1317: Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

Cover for Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the BallroomDandy Gilver fears that her summons to a house named Balmoral in Glasgow may prove to be a humdrum affair, but she is mourning her dog, Bunty, and feels a need to get out. When she and her partner, Alec Osborne, arrive, their doubts about their customers are confirmed, for Sir Percival and Lady Stott are vulgar nouveau riche. However, they fear that their spoiled daughter, Theresa, or Tweetie, is in danger.

Tweetie is taking part in a ballroom-dancing competition. She has begun receiving veiled threats that someone wishes her harm. The Stotts have urged her to quit the competition, but she is determined to continue. So, Dandy and Alec repair to the Locarno Ballroom to investigate. It seems that only Tweetie’s partner, Roly; her cousin, Jeanne; the pianist, Miss Thwaite; or another couple, Bert and Beryl, could have access to leave some of the messages. But what Dandy and Alec can’t figure out is why everyone around the ballroom seems so terrified. Shortly, they discover that there was a similar incident the year before that resulted in a death.

Although I am gaining enthusiasm for McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, my taste for the Dandy Gilver mystery series is losing momentum. I like Dandy and Alec but feel that perhaps this series gets a little too mired in red herrings, if that makes any sense.

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Review 1315: Dead Water

Cover for Dead WaterI was trying to read Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series in order, but somehow I made a mistake and skipped the one before Dead Water. That unfortunately makes me privy to a key plot point for the previous book but did not spoil this one.

Jimmy Perez is on compassionate leave for reasons that readers of the previous novel will know, so he does not immediately become involved when the Fiscal, Rhona Laing, finds a body aboard the yoal that she shares with a group of rowers. The body is that of Jerry Markham, a reporter who left the island years ago to work in London. He has returned to Shetland to see his parents, the owners of a hotel, and for some other reason. He seemed to be working on a story, but if that is true, his editor knows nothing about it.

The mainland office sends Willow Reeves to be in charge of the investigation, and she immediately thinks the Fiscal isn’t telling everything she knows. The crux of the matter seems to be Markham’s reasons for returning to Shetland.

Jimmy slowly gets drawn into the investigation, which soon finds that years ago Markham made an innocent young girl, Evie Watt, pregnant and refused to accept responsibility for it. Evie lost the child, and now she is on the verge of marriage to John Henderson, a pilot. Evie acknowledges that Markham tried to contact her but says she refused to speak to him.

The team follows several leads, including a dispute over green energy, until another body surfaces and brings their attention back to Evie. This time the victim is her fiancé. Do the murders have something to do with Evie, or is it a coincidence that the victims were her ex and current lovers?

Again, Cleeves creates a twisty and suspenseful mystery for Jimmy Perez to figure out. Her characters are convincing, and we are truly interested in their fates.

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