Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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Review 2036: A Slow Fire Burning

Laura Kilbride often has poor judgment, such as when she spent the night with Daniel Sutherland. That night turned ugly, and she was seen by the writer Theo Myerson leaving the area with blood on her face. She says she didn’t kill Daniel, but an accident in her youth has left her with a condition that causes her to react inappropriately, and the detectives think her behavior is odd.

Another odd witness is the woman who discovered the body, Miriam Lewis, whose narrowboat is next to Daniel’s. She hasn’t told the police that she bears a grudge against Theo Myerson, who stole significant portions of her memoir for his best-selling thriller. And Theo happens to be Daniel’s uncle.

Carla and Theo’s marriage did not survive the death of their young son when he was in the care of Angela Sutherland, Daniel’s mother. This accident happened many years ago, but Carla and Theo were never able to forgive Angela, and Angela has recently died.

There are more secrets to come out before the murder is solved. Hawkins does a good job of keeping the pace moving while keeping the readers on the edges of their seats.

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Review 2035: The Appeal

Janice Hallett, and others obviously, thought she was being original when she decided to write a murder mystery entirely in texts, emails, and documents. Maybe she was, but it seems she couldn’t have chosen a more cumbersome way to convey her story. At almost 450 pages, the novel has about 200 pages of plot, and no one is killed until 100 pages from the end.

Further, Hallett cheats by leaving out some of the correspondence until the end. But my biggest problem with the novel is the complete lack of plausibility of the situation. A professor gives two students the task of analyzing the case, but he is hiding information from them and asking them questions he already knows the answer to, not asking them to find evidence of who really is the murderer. I wonder what kind of class the author could have been envisioning.

The plot is this: an amateur theater company is putting on a play. However, the usual director, Martin Hayward, asks his son James to take over because his granddaughter Poppy has cancer, and he is involved in fund raising to pay for an experimental treatment.

Two newcomers to town, Kal and Sam Greenwood, try out for parts in the play at the urging of Isabel Beck, a clingy girl who is Sam’s coworker and new bestie. But there is something unexplained about the Greenwoods, who have just returned from working as aid workers in Africa. Sam also seems hostile to Tish Bhatoa, the doctor who is arranging Poppy’s treatment.

One side-effect of its approach is that the novel also contains about 100 pages of exposition of the murder, which bogs things down so much that, unbelievably, I finally gave up on it less then 50 pages from the end because I couldn’t take it anymore.

What is most unlikely, though, is the role of the police. There isn’t one! There are two minor events involving the police, but their reports are so amateurish as to be unbelievable. What kind of police report takes down testimony without bothering to take the name of the witness?

Then, finally, the victim is killed. Hallett withholds the victim’s name, and in fact one of the puzzles set by the professor is to figure out who is killed! What nonsense! After the murder, there is no evidence of a police investigation except the documents, and lots of questions are unanswered that the police would have to investigate.

A great deal is made of the status of the characters in terms of class. I didn’t understand things this way at all. For example, one student states that no one listens to Isabel because she is low status. No one listens to her because she’s silly!

Finally, the theory of murder is presented, as far as I could tell, with absolutely no proof. I say “as far as I could tell” because I finally stopped reading. What balderdash! I can’t believe this book was so popular.

This year I forgot about Readers Imbibing Peril for September, but I have some nice chilling books coming up!

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Review 1743: The Family Upstairs

Here’s another book that qualifies for RIP XVI!

Libby Jones knows that she is adopted and that on her 25th birthday she’ll receive some sort of inheritance. However, she is floored to find she has inherited a house in Chelsea that is worth millions.

The house has a dark history, though. Twenty-four years ago, Libby was found in a cradle in the house with four dead people, an apparent cult suicide. Her teenage brother and sister were missing.

Alternating with Libby’s discoveries is the narrative of Henry Lamb, her brother, who was 10 years old when first Justin and Birdie and more fatefully, David Thomsen and his family moved into the Lambs’ house. Slowly, David begins bringing Henry’s infatuated mother and weak father under his thumb.

We also hear from Lucy, another former inhabitant of the house, who is barely surviving, homeless on Italian streets with her two children and her dog. She needs to get to England and to do so, must beg for help from her abusive ex-husband.

This novel feels like it is building to a suspenseful ending, but its ending is surprising and ambiguous. I wouldn’t exactly class it as a thriller, but it is dark and interesting.

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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 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 1716: Burial of Ghosts

Yesterday was the beginning of RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril), which continues through October. During these two months, the goal is to read gothic novels, mysteries, crime novels, horror, or other dark and mysterious books! This one certainly qualifies, so it’s my first book for RIP XVI.

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Having read all of the existing Vera Stanhope and Shetland novels, I decided to try a few of Ann Cleeves’ stand-alone novels. Burial of Ghosts seemed more to me like one of Catriona McPherson’s thrillers than Cleeves’ mysteries.

Lizzie Bartholomew is in Morocco recovering from traumatic events when she meets and has a short affair with an older man, Philip Samson. Some time after she returns to her home in Newbiggen, she receives a letter from a lawyer, Stuart Howden, telling her that Philip has died from cancer and asking her to attend his funeral. Later, at his office she learns that he left her a small legacy, provided she try to find and befriend a teenager named Thomas Mariner. Howdon implies that Mariner is Philip’s illegitimate son.

When Lizzie finds Thomas, she luckily goes into the house with a neighbor, because Thomas is dead, stabbed to death. Still, because Lizzie was previously involved in a stabbing and because she has been diagnosed bi-polar, Inspector Farrier questions her as a suspect. When he checks her story, he tells her that Stuart Howden denies knowing her. However, Farrier does not believe she stabbed Thomas.

Lizzie decides to try to discover who killed Thomas. She finds that Thomas was prepared to be a whistle blower but not for what.

It’s not a surprise that the mystery is difficult to figure out, although I was surprised that Lizzie, having found that Howdon lied, doesn’t question the rest of his story. I enjoyed this novel but felt there was no way to guess the solution.

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