Review 2052: #1929 Club! The Seven Dials Mystery

It seems like whatever year is chosen for this club, this time 1929, there is an Agatha Christie book to be read. This time, it’s one of her earlier books that does not feature any of her well-known sleuths and is more of a satire on thrillers than a real mystery. This book also qualifies for R. I. P. XVII.

The young people staying at the home of Lord Coote decide to play a joke on Gerry Wade, who is known for sleeping late. They go to town and buy a bunch of alarm clocks to sneak into his room overnight and set to go off in the morning. However, in the morning Gerry is found dead of an apparent overdose, and seven of the eight clocks are arranged on the mantelpiece instead of on the floor, where they had been left.

Even though Gerry is known as a deep sleeper, the inquest brings in a verdict of accidental death, but Jimmy Thesiger thinks otherwise and gets “Bundle” Brent, Lord Caterham’s daughter, to help investigate. Their friend Ronny Devereux, who works in the foreign office, seems to have some idea of why Gerry might have been killed, but then he is shot to death.

Jimmy and Bundle get on the trail of a secret society known as the Seven Dials that is based in a hidden room in a nightclub. The crimes may revolve around plans to be leaked to the Germans.

The Seven Dials Mystery is Christie’s tongue-in-cheek answer to the thrillers that were popular in its time. Think The Thirty-Nine Steps. It is not entirely effective, but it has some witty dialogue and a few twists.

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Review 2048: The Decagon House Murders

Although a mystery should eventually make everything clear, it definitely should not belabor the obvious as if readers are numbskulls. Unfortunately, The Decagon House Murders does so several times. We’re only a few pages in when some members of a university mystery club are introduced and it’s clear that they are using the names of Golden Age mystery writers. But then the novel not only explains this but laboriously tells us who those writers are. Okay, I thought. It’s Japan. Maybe everyone wouldn’t know. But then, just a few pages later, a drawing of the floorplan of the Decagon House appears, labeled Figure 2, and then it is laboriously described—a description that adds nothing to the figure and “(See Figure 2)” is actually included. There are also several excruciating recaps of the clues, not to mention the four- or five-page explanation at the end of everything that happened.

So, here’s the setup. Some members of a university murder club are spending their spring break on an island where more than a year earlier there was a series of murders and the house was burned down, leaving only a utility building called the Decagon House (and an odd utility building it is). After the students depart for the island, some of their colleagues back on the mainland receive letters accusing them of murdering another club member, who died in a drinking party the year before. That person was the daughter of the family that was murdered on the island six months later. These two students, Kawaminami and Morisu, begin looking into the island murders by visiting the victim’s brother Nakamura Kōjirō, where they meet Shimada Kujoshi, a friend of Kōjirō.

The group on the mainland think they are pursing an intellectual mystery—a puzzle—but on the island, the murders have started with the death of Orczy, one of the two women, strangled in her sleep.

We won’t comment on the bad taste demonstrated by the selection of this venue for their meeting so soon after the death of the family. The novel had some surprises, or rather, it successfully led me up some blind alleys, pages and pages before the characters got there. It is interesting, though, that I noticed a Goodreads review claiming this is a “fair play” mystery—that it provides clues for the reader to get the solution. Actually, it hides a key relationship that would give away the motive until after the identity of the murderer is revealed.

The author’s bio claims this novel is a landmark book that revived the puzzle mystery in Japan when it was published in 1987. To me, it feels like a throwback to some of the more primitive efforts of the early 20th century. Anyway, I’m not sure the puzzle mystery needs to be revived.

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Review 2044: Crook O’Lune

Crook O’Lune is named for a crook of the Lune River in the remote fells of Lancashire. Here, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald has chosen to take his holidays, staying with his friends Giles and Kate Hoggett. Macdonald is looking for a farm to buy for his retirement.

For his part, Gilbert Woolfall has just inherited his uncle’s farm at High Glimmerdale, called Aikengill, and is trying to decide what to do with it. His commonsense tells him to sell it, since his career is in Leeds, but he wants to keep it.

Almost as soon as he settles down to examine some old papers, he has a series of visitors. Betty Fell wants to marry Jock Shearling, but they don’t want to live with her parents. She asks if she and Jock can look after the house for him, but in Gilbert’s mind, that depends on the housekeeper, Mrs. Ramsden, who can’t decide whether to return to her family or stay. Then the Rector, Mr. Tupper, arrives indignant that Gilbert’s uncle left nothing to the church. Gilbert knows that his uncle felt there was something suspicious about an ancient grant by the family to the local school and church that was reappropriated for another community, so he is not inclined to help Mr. Tupper. Finally, his neighbor, Daniel Herdwick, wants to buy some property.

Although it seems that we’re never to learn much about Macdonald (except that he wants to own dairy cows), I enjoy Lorac’s books because they focus a little more on characters than the usual Golden Age mysteries do and because the crimes aren’t over-complicated and unlikely. This one also has a lot of descriptions of this area of England, enough to make me want to go there. In that respect, It reminds me of some of the Molly Clavering books and their setting in the Scottish borderlands.The night after Gilbert returns to the city, two things happen: there is a fire in his cellar that kills Mrs. Ramsden, who was supposed to be away for the night, and some sheep are stolen from the valley.

Macdonald begins investigating certain aspects of the case, like who the stranger seen in a wild area of the fells might be or which way the sheep could have been driven out of the area.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2040: The Zig Zag Girl

I’ve been enjoying Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, so I thought I’d give her Brighton series a try. This first novel takes place in 1950.

Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens has always felt a little self-conscious about part of his war work. After helping the Finnish army, he was part of a group of illusionists called the Magic Men, whose job was to fool the Germans that Scotland was well defended. After a disastrous accident in which their commanding officer, Charis, was killed, they were disbanded. Edgar had been in love with Charis.

Edgar’s best friend in the service was Max Mephisto, a well-known magician. Although Edgar hasn’t seen Max since the Magic Men were disbanded, the murder of a young woman reminds him of Max. She has been cut in three, like the illusion of the Zig Zag Girl, which Max created. Edgar consults with Max, who is still working the magic circuit, and his old army group members begin showing up. There is Diablo, an old magician who spends most of his time drinking; Bill, the carpenter who constructed the illusions; and Tony Mullholland, a magician whom no one much liked.

But before the rest of these characters reappear, Max recognizes the murder victim as Ethel, his assistant who left the act to get married. When Tony Mullholland is also killed, Edgar begins to believe that the crimes are connected somehow to the Magic Men.

Although I feel I need to get to know Edgar better and he didn’t really figure out much in this case, the series promises to provide more entertainment. Max is an interesting character, and I’m curious how he’ll be brought into the upcoming mysteries.

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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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