Review 1735: #1976 Club! Sleeping Murder

With the 1976 Club looming, I picked out some books to read for October that were published in 1976. Sleeping Murder also qualifies for RIP XVI! As usual, on this first post I’m also listing anything else I’ve reviewed published in 1976. As far as I know, there are only two:

Newlywed Gwenda Reed is house hunting along the south coast of England for herself and her husband Giles, both newly arrived from New Zealand. When she comes across a house in Dillmouth, she immediately feels at home there, although she experiences a fleeting panic on the stairs. Nevertheless, she buys the home.

Gwenda is residing in it to oversee updates to the house when she begins to experience something odd. She expects the stairs down from the terrace to be in one place but they are in another. When workmen remove some bushes where she thinks the steps should be, they find the stairs used to be there. Similarly, she keeps trying to walk through the wall in the dining room where she thinks there should be a doorway. When the workmen examine the wall, they say it had a door there. She imagines a particular wallpaper in what used to be the nursery, and when a blocked cupboard in that room is opened, she sees that wallpaper inside.

Gwenda is most upset because she’s had a vision of a woman dead at the bottom of the stairs and realized it was Helen. But she has no idea who Helen is. Feeling confused, she decides to consult friends in London. Accompanying the group out for the evening is her friends’ aunt, Miss Jane Marple. After she explains what’s been happening, Miss Marple says she should find out if she ever lived in England as a child.

Inquiries find that Gwenda lived in the house when she was three. At the time, her father had a second wife named Helen. But Helen supposedly ran off with another man. Gwenda and Giles find that Helen’s half brother, Dr. Kennedy, still lives in the area. He has some letters that she sent right after she left but hasn’t heard from her since.

Gwenda and Giles begin to believe that Helen was murdered. Did Gwenda’s father kill his wife, or did someone else?

It was hard for me to judge whether this was a difficult mystery, because I vividly remembered a TV production of it. However, knowing the identity of the killer made me appreciate how skillfully Christie salts in the clues without giving too much away. The characters are clearly defined, and Miss Marple is at her cleverest.

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Review 1732: A Day in the Death of Dorothea Cassidy

Here’s another book for RIP XVI, although a cozy one.

People in the town of Otterbridge are shocked when the body of Dorothea Cassidy, the vicar’s wife, is found murdered in the park. Most of the people in town loved her, she was so vibrant and enthusiastic.

Inspector Ramsey and Sergeant Hunter are having difficulty retracing her movements on the day before. Almost everyone who saw her is lying in some way. Old Walter Tanner found her car in his driveway that morning, and only he admits to disliking her, saying she was constantly after him to approve of changes she wanted to make to the church.

The Inspector Ramsey books are one of Cleeves’s earlier series. I have read all of her Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez books and a couple of stand-alones. Although this one has a clever premise, it feels less polished than the others. Cleeves often lets readers know some of what her suspects are thinking, but information about them is introduced naturally in the other books, for example, in conversations between characters. Here, we no sooner meet a character than we are told several facts about the person, a device which seemed clumsy to me. Also, character development seems quite a bit sketchier.

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Review 1729: The Witch Hunter

Here’s another one for RIP XVI!

Best-selling author Roger Koponen is appearing on the other side of the country when his wife Maria is murdered and posed in a black evening gown with a gruesome smile. When Jessica Niemi’s department has him driven home by a police officer, the car is later found burnt out with two dead bodies inside. While the team is beginning to believe that the murders are connected to Koponen’s books, two more women in black evening dresses are found, one under the ice in the lake behind Koponen’s house and one popping up from the hole, alive but barely. All of the women look a lot like Jessica.

I am not sure what attracted me to this book, possibly its setting in Finland, but it is just terrible. Let me count the ways:

  1. The main character (Jessica) is a millionaire who hides her wealth by pretending to live in a barely furnished studio apartment while actually living in a large apartment next door. How ridiculous is that?
  2. The characters, including Jessica, are completely flat. They have traits, not personalities. Some of them don’t even have those.
  3. The reason behind the string of crimes seems to have nothing to do with the bizarre crimes themselves. A manifesto is mentioned but never explained.
  4. The interactions between the teams are stunningly unprofessional, and often conversational exchanges don’t make much sense. What a person replies doesn’t always seem to have anything to do with what was said to him or her.
  5. The actual investigation seems haphazard and is unconvincing.
  6. Much space is devoted to a summer in Murano when Jessica is 19. It has nothing to do with anything.
  7. The writing or translation (or both) is mediocre and full of clichés. Some turns of phrase are odd and not idiomatic.
  8. The whole plot is overcomplicated and just plain silly.
  9. The blurb on the back of the book both misinterprets and overly reveals the plot.
  10. Jessica hardly does anything.
  11. The big thriller climax is resolved by Jessica waking up in a hospital. The end.

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Review 1727: The Dark Angel

Here’s another review for RIP XVI!

Forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway has been having a rough time lately. On the same day that it looked like Harry Nelson, the father of her daughter Kate, might split up with his wife Michelle for her, Michelle told him she was pregnant. Ruth’s mother died shortly thereafter. Now, after Detective Tim Heathfield sees her at a colleague’s wedding, he confesses to her that he is in love with Michelle and her baby might be his.

So, when she gets a call from colleague Angelo Morelli asking her to come look at some bones in Italy, she decides to go there for vacation. Angelo will put her and Kate up in an apartment in Castello degli Angeli, and her friend Shona decides to come along with her young son.

Ruth finds that Angelo’s request is mostly a ploy to get the producers of a television show he hosts interested again in his dig. However, she finds the atmosphere of the little medieval town strange, still full of enmities dating back to World War II.

For his part, Nelson is mildly concerned about the release from prison of Micky Webb, a man who paid to have his wife and children burned to death in their house. Nelson has seen Webb lurking in his neighborhood, but when he confronts him, Webb claims to be following a program that requires him to beg forgiveness of those he has wronged. He says he came to do that with Nelson but didn’t have the courage to knock. Soon, however, Nelson’s attention to this problem shifts when he learns there has been an earthquake in Italy where Ruth and Kate are staying. He and Cathbad jump on a plane for Italy.

In this novel, the emotional dynamics seemed almost more important than the mystery. However, I continue to find these characters interesting and enjoyed this installment in the series.

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Review 1724: The Mist

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I didn’t realize until just now that The Mist is the third book in a trilogy. Having not read the other two books, I’m not sure how much it would have affected my reading if I had read them.

Detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir is back at her desk after a traumatic experience. She is having trouble focusing, however, on the case of a missing young woman. Then she is called out of the office to investigate bodies found on a remote farm in the east of Iceland.

The story goes back three months to show what happened to Hulda and on the farm. Erla and her husband Einar are snowbound at the farm just before Christmas when a mysterious man appears at their door, claiming to be separated from his friends on a hiking trip. Erla is immediately suspicious of him, and he certainly acts suspiciously. But Einar invites him to stay until the snowstorm stops.

This novel is complicated and at times suspenseful, but I had some problems with it. First, it’s obvious almost immediately what’s wrong with Hulda’s teenage daughter. Second, most of the action of the novel is triggered when a character receives a letter. The next obvious step would have been for him to take it to the police, whom he is already working with. But does he? Of course not. There wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, but novelists should avoid such silly pitfalls.

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Review 1722: Punishment

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I thought maybe I had read an Anne Holt mystery years ago, but it appears not. In any case, I got interested in reading her Stubo/Vik series after watching Modus, a Swedish television series based on her Norwegian characters. It’s interesting, having seen the television series first, to notice the changes they’ve made.

Johanne Vik, a university researcher doing work on convicted criminals who maintain their innocence, is contacted by an old lady who has long been convinced of a miscarriage of justice. In 1988, Aksel Seier was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl based on flimsy evidence. After he served nine years, he was mysteriously released from prison and all the case paperwork disappeared. The woman wants Johanne to find out if Seier was innocent. Although this is not the kind of work Johanne does, she becomes interested in the case and agrees to help.

At about the same time, Detective Adam Stubo sees Johanne on television and asks her to help brainstorm the case of a series of kidnapped and murdered children. At first, she refuses but is drawn in by his persistence.

All along, we follow the story of Emilie, one of the kidnapped children who has not been killed, as well as the thinking of the murderer. This lends an extra layer of suspense about whether she will be saved.

I think this is a complex and well-plotted novel with interesting characters. There are a couple of huge coincidences at the end that I’m not sure of, but I am more than willing to continue the series.

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Review 1707: The Case of the Missing Marquess

My husband and I enjoyed watching Enola Holmes over the Christmas holidays, so I decided to give the first book in the series a try. I had assumed it would be YA, but it is actually marked for middle grades.

Enola Holmes, who is the younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock, finds that her mother has disappeared on Enola’s 14th birthday. When her brothers, who have not come home for 10 years, respond to her telegram, they have some unpleasant surprises in store—Enola that Mycroft is more interested in sending her to boarding school than in finding their mother and Mycroft that the money he’s been sending for the upkeep of the estate has clearly not been spent on the estate. Sherlock is just determined to find their mother.

Enola is offended at some slighting remarks Sherlock makes about her intelligence and is determined not to go to boarding school. Having figured out that her mother has left her some clues and hidden some money, Enola disguises herself as a widow and leaves the house to search for her mother. On the way, she hears that the 12-year-old Marquess of Tewksbury has disappeared and finds the first clues to his disappearance.

I always judge books by how much they entertain me, and I have to say, this one is probably very entertaining for a 12-year-old but was lacking for me. I can’t tell whether this is because I recently saw the movie—which really only borrowed the concept from the book—or not. Certainly, I found the movie sharper in wit, more full of adventure, and more likely, at least in its conclusion. I also couldn’t help comparing this book to the Flavia de Luce series, which has a much more distinctive voice and is much funnier. However, as reading for kids this is good fun.

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Review 1703: The Searcher

Tana French has gone slightly afield from her usual dark mysteries in The Searcher. For one thing, this novel doesn’t involve the Dublin Murder Squad. For another, although morally murky, the novel isn’t as dark as most of the others.

Cal retired to Western Ireland from the Chicago police force, because he felt himself losing his moral certainty. He has purchased a dilapidated farm, which he is fixing up, and he has formed a sort of friendship with Mart, an older neighbor.

Lately, though, he feels like he’s being spied on. One night when he has that feeling, he climbs out the bathroom window and catches someone looking in the living room window, but the person gets away. A few days later, while he is working outside, he hears someone approach and tells him to come out. The person is a boy, about twelve, named Trey. Cal gives him work to do, and it takes about three visits before Trey tells him what he wants. His brother Brendan, 19, has disappeared. Trey has heard Cal is a policeman and wants him to find Brendan.

Cal soon believes that Brendan got involved with some bad people from Dublin, but no one will tell him anything. Then he finds himself being warned off by different parties. At the same time, someone is killing his neighbors’ sheep.

French likes to work in the gray areas of morality, and The Searcher continues this interest. I think it is one of her best.

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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 1698: Bad Debts

My husband and I binge-watched all of the Jack Irish series and movies early during the pandemic. That led me to look for the first Jack Irish book, Bad Debts.

Jack Irish is a lawyer who has moved from high-powered cases to investigations and more mundane law work after the murder of his wife. He doesn’t immediately return the call of an ex-client, Danny McKillop, because he frankly doesn’t remember him. He misses another phone call from McKillop saying he’s in trouble and asking Jack to meet him in a pub parking lot. Jack looks up his file and finds that McKillop was found guilty of a hit and run of a political activist, while he was drunk. When Jack tries to contact McKillop, he learns he is dead, having been shot by police in the parking lot where he asked Jack to meet him.

Jack figures he probably didn’t do a great job of defending McKillop, since he was drunk most of the time after his wife’s murder. The evidence against him seemed solid: McKillop was found passed out in his car with Jeppeson’s DNA on the hood. But when Jack talks to Danny’s brother, he says that Danny was seen passed out some distance from his car shortly before the hit and run. McKillop’s wife says he had been a model citizen since he got out of jail, contrary to the police explanation of the shooting.

Jack decides to investigate the original incident, opening up a big can of worms.

This is an enjoyable novel, tightly plotted, full of action yet witty and well-written, a little more hard-boiled than I usually read but with appealing characters. The setting is a gritty Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most investigators in fiction, Jack has a well-developed other life, working horse-racing deals with Harry Strang and his colleague Cam, hanging out with the guys at the local, and learning woodworking from a master. And he meets Linda Hillier, an attractive reporter. I will definitely read more.

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