Day 1246: The Crow Trap

Cover for The Crow TrapThe Crow Trap is Ann Cleeves’s first Vera Stanhope mystery, set in the North Pennines in Yorkshire. It is unusual in that Vera is barely a character until halfway through the novel.

The first half is narrated by three different women who are doing an environmental impact study for a proposed quarry. They are staying in a remote cottage called Baikie’s that is used by students doing research.

Rachel is the head of the project, and she arrives to discover the body of her friend, Bella, in the barn of the nearby Black Law Farm. Bell has apparently committed suicide and left her body in a place where it would be discovered by Rachel rather than by her invalid husband, Dougie. Rachel is disturbed by this suicide, because she can’t think of a reason for it.

Anne is at the cottage to survey plant life. But she is already involved in a way that may be a conflict of interest with Godfrey Waugh, the married man who will decide whether to excavate the quarry. She is irritated by both other women, especially with Grace.

Grace is there to survey wildlife and has been reporting an astonishing number of otters, to the point where Anne is suspicious of her numbers. Grace is very quiet, sharing almost nothing of herself with her work mates, sleeping little, and hardly eating. Then Grace is found murdered nearby the cottage.

Vera, an eccentric-looking woman, begins investigating the women and the quarry deal. But she views the two women still working in the cottage as a crow trap, a cage containing a crow that is there to attract another crow. She thinks the killer will strike again.

Although this mystery spends so much time on background that some may find it a little slow moving, that is one of the features that makes it stand out. There is some information about the killer that the reader can have no way of knowing, but there are hints enough that it is possible to guess the right person. In any case, I thought this was an excellent mystery, complex and interesting. The characters seem real. The Yorkshire setting that is so evocative in the TV series isn’t vividly evoked, nor are the accents, but that’s a slight fault.

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Day 1241: Calamity in Kent

Cover for Calamity in KentReporter Jimmy London is on vacation in the seaside town of Broadgate recovering from an illness when he meets a man behaving oddly. This man is the operator of the Broadgate Lift, a cliff railway. He has discovered a body in the locked lift.

Jimmy is happy to be on the spot of a scoop, so he investigates while he sends the operator to the police. He is delighted to find that his old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, will be on the case. Shelley offers to exchange information with him if he will help investigate.

A classic locked door novel with a twist, the book was heavy going for me, for some reason. I think it was because if anyone made a point or explained anything, Rowland found a way, usually through Jimmy’s questions, to repeat it, as if he assumed his readers are dolts. As with many older mysteries, there’s not much characterization. So, a meh for this mystery.

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Day 1238: Raven Black

Cover for Raven BlackTo our delight, our local PBS station airs a lot of British and Australian mysteries. Even though most of them are older, we have not seen them before, so we are happy. Two series we have begun watching (and getting older ones from Netflix) are Vera and Shetland, both from the novels of Ann Cleeves. So, I looked for the first book in each series. Raven Black is the first novel of the series set in the Shetland Islands.

Magnus Tait is an old man hoping for visitors on Hogmanny. He hasn’t had any for years, though, ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl years ago. But this year is different. Two drunken teenage girls, Catherine and Sally, stop by on their way home from a party.

The next day, Magnus sees Catherine on the bus, and she walks home with him. The day after, her body is found lying in a field by a neighbor. She has been strangled with her own scarf.

Immediately, the islanders, even many of the police, assume Magnus killed her. Inspector Jimmy Perez isn’t so sure there are similarities in the cases, but he’s not in charge. Instead, it’s Inspector Taylor, over from the mainland.

Who could have killed Catherine? Was it Mr. Scott, her teacher, who invited her over after school to discuss extracurricular reading? Robert Isbister, a grown man that Sally likes, has been asking questions about Catherine. She was seen talking to Duncan Hunter, an ex-school friend of Perez’s, at one of his wild parties. Or was it Magnus?

This novel is absorbing, although I thought it could have been more atmospheric, given the setting. I liked Jimmy Perez, though, and I never guessed the murderer or the motive. (I missed the first episode of this series on TV, which was this one.) That, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often.

As an aside, I love the theme music for Shetland, and just rereading this review before publication has brought it to mind.

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Day 1232: Laura

Cover for LauraBest of Five!
Laura is the first of eight mystery novels included in a two-volume set, beautifully bound, called Women Crime Writers, published by the Library of America. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the best American literature in print, and I have ordered its catalog. (I received it after I wrote this, and I have to report that it publishes relatively few works by women. I am disappointed.)

Laura is a doozy of a mystery. I think it was made into a movie, and I believe I’ve seen parts of it, but I didn’t know the solution.

A young woman is murdered one Friday night by a shot in the face with a shotgun. Her body isn’t discovered until Sunday morning when the maid arrives. The apartment belongs to Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is to be married the next week.

The first section of the novel is narrated by Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s long-time friend. He is an older man, a writer who considers himself an expert on crime. Mark McPherson, the detective in the case, calls to interview him about Laura.

Laura seems not to have an enemy in the world, but she was about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a man with a need to feel superior, which it was difficult to do with a woman like Laura. But Shelby was about to marry the golden goose, as Laura was much more successful than he was. Would he have killed her? To his dismay, Mark feels himself falling in love with a dead girl.

Laura has a couple of twists, one that I think I should have anticipated but did not. It packs quite an emotional punch, especially for a novel written in the 40’s, the era of the hard-boiled detective.

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Day 1230: The Horizontal Man

Cover for The Horizontal ManThe Horizontal Man is the second novel included in my Women Crime Writers set of crime novels from the 1940’s and 50’s. I have only read one of them before, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes.

The Horizontal Man begins with a murder. Kevin Boyle, a popular professor at a women’s college, turns away from a woman who is furiously protesting her love, only to be hit fatally over the head with a poker. Who is this woman?

Kevin’s student, Molly Morrison, becomes hysterical when she hears of his death and seems to be taking responsibility for it. College President Bainbridge asks a psychiatrist, Dr. Forstmann, to evaluate Molly. Also investigating are college senior Kate Innes and reporter Jack Donelly.

The college seems to be a haven for neurotics. Leonard Marks, the professor who lives across the hall from Kevin, has been squeamishly privy to Kevin’s bragging about romantic conquests and is achingly aware of how poorly he fits into academic life himself. George Hungerford is an eminent professor who recently had a nervous breakdown. And there’s something odd about Freda Cramm.

Although we get to the answer before the characters do, this novel is truly chilling. I am really enjoying the novels in this series.

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Day 1227: Miss Seeton Flies High

Cover for Miss Seton Flies HighAgain, I requested Miss Seeton Flies High from Netgalley without realizing it is part of a series. In fact, “Hamilton Crane” is the pseudonym for the second writer of the series, the first being Heron Carvic. Miss Seeton Flies High is the 23rd book in the series.

If you are expecting a traditional mystery from this series, you’ll be surprised. Miss Seeton is a sort of cross between Miss Marple and a medium. Her forte is drawing surrealistic pictures that give the police clues about the crime in question, if they can figure them out.

Miss Seeton is asked about the kidnapping of a rich playboy and draws a picture of crazed sheep that leads the police instead to a pot-growing enterprise. Later, the retired art teacher receives a much-appreciated windfall. She uses it to take a short vacation in Glasonbury to research King Arthur for a local play. In Glastonbury, she meets a man who later becomes a victim.

This novel is set in the 1970’s and has a little bit of the 70’s atmosphere, especially with hippies and other New Agers in Glastonbury.

link to NetgalleyOf course, even the notion that the police would take Miss Seeton’s drawings seriously is ridiculous, let alone treat them as evidence. The reader has no hope of interpreting the drawings and guessing the perpetrator of the crime, since they are full of puns and not enough information about them is provided. Essentially, these novels are meant as spoofs of whodunnits. I’m sure they’re fun to write. I didn’t find the novel as much fun to read.

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Day 1221: Portrait of a Murderer

Cover for Portrait of a MurdererSet during Christmas of 1931, Portrait of a Murderer is an unusual novel. We know from the beginning who the murderer is, and at first it looks like he is going to get away with his crime. For its time, the psychological portrait of the murderer is surprisingly deep.

Gathered together for Christmas are Adrian Gray and his family. Adrian is in financial straits because of reckless investments he made through his son-in-law, Eustace Moore. Adrian’s oldest son, Richard, is a member of parliament who has been spending heavily on a blackmailing mistress and his bid for a title. Eustace’s investments are all about to fail, with many investors bankrupted. Youngest son Brand’s need to pursue his painting full time has overcome his duty to his family.

All three men plan to ask Adrian for money that he doesn’t have. Richard needs it to pay his blackmailer. Eustace needs £10,000 to keep his investors happy. Brand wants to offload his wife and children onto his father and sister so that he can return to Paris to paint. Failing that, he’d like a loan to support them.

Brand goes to speak to his father around midnight on Christmas Eve. He gets so angry because of Adrian’s attitude toward his career and life that he lashes out. Meaning to slam a heavy paperweight onto the desk, he hits his father in the head instead. Soon he is standing there stunned by what he has done. But it’s not long before he begins trying to find a way out of it. His solution? Frame Eustace.

This novel isn’t so much about the investigation as about Brand’s mental outlook. Dashing off a portrait of himself as he stands in the murder room, Brand recognizes his own genius and decides that nothing should get in the way of his art. Meredith seems, on the whole, sympathetic with him, even as he treats his own wife and children as discardable, simply because he is not sure of the children’s parentage.

Brand’s brother-in-law, Miles Avery, is not satisfied when Eustace is charged with the crime. Despite his wife Ruth’s apprehension, he manages to work out what really happened.

link to NetgalleyThere are some things that are now considered politically incorrect in this novel, originally published in 1933. In particular, anti-Semitic remarks may bother readers. Then there is Brand’s Nietschean sense of superiority, reminding me a bit of Raskolnikov without the feverishness. However, it’s a fascinating character study.

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