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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Review 1571: The Stranger Diaries

Here’s a final book for RIPXV!

I have been following Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway mysteries, which I enjoy, but Galloway’s homage to the gothic novel, The Stranger Diaries, is something else again. I thought it was a stand-alone, but Goodreads has it marked as Harbinder Kaur #1, so perhaps there will be more.

Clare Cassidy is a schoolteacher who is writing a book about R. M. Holland, a Victorian gothic writer whose home is now occupied by Clare’s school. He was also the author of a horror story called “The Stranger.”

When she arrives at school, Clare is horrified to discover that her friend Ella was murdered in her home. Later, when Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur comes to interview her, Clare learns that a piece of paper with “Hell is empty” was found with the body. Although Clare tells the police that the quote is from The Tempest, she does not say that it is also used in “The Stranger.” Another thing that Clare doesn’t tell police is that Ella had a one-night stand with Rick Lewis, their married department head.

Later, when Clare goes to check her diary to see what she wrote about Ella and Rick, she finds that someone has written a message in her diary. When the handwriting is compared to that of the note by the body, it is the same.

This tribute to gothic literature is atmospheric and truly scary at times. I thought it was terrific.

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Review 1570: The Body Lies

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

The Body Lies opens with the body of a woman lying in the cold. We don’t have any context for this scene for some time during the novel.

The unnamed narrator is pregnant when she is attacked by a complete stranger in the street. Three years later, when she is ready to return to work after a break for child care, she is still afraid, so she looks for a job outside the city. On the basis of her published novel, she is offered a job at a university in the north. Her husband Mark says he can’t leave his job immediately, so he comes to visit as often as he can.

The narrator’s inexperience results in her getting more and more work piled on her by her department head. But more worrisome is the contentious tone between some of the members of her MA creative writing class. In particular, Nicholas Palmer, who seems talented, takes an aggressive attitude toward Steven Haygarth, who opens his crime novel with a nude girl’s dead body.

The narrator finds herself unwittingly getting involved with Nicholas in a way she doesn’t want to be. Nicholas says he’s trying an experiment with fiction never tried before. She has no idea how it will affect her.

At first, I was a little impatient with the student compositions, especially Nicholas’s, even though I knew they would be important to the plot. However, this novel slowly becomes very suspenseful. I have liked all of Jo Baker’s books, and they’ve all been different from each other.

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Review 1569: The Seagull

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Disgraced former superintendent John Brace is dying in prison, so he asks Vera Stanhope to visit him. He tells her he has information about the disappearance years ago of Robbie Marshall. He will tell her where Robbie’s body is if she will check in on his daughter, Patty Keane, a single mother with mental health problems.

Vera does, so Brace tells her he discovered Robbie dead one night and buried him in a culvert on St. Mary’s Island. When the police investigate the scene, they find two bodies in the culvert, a man and a woman.

The team’s investigations seem to indicate that the female may be Mary-Frances Lascuola, the mother of John Brace’s daughter, a junkie who vanished a few years before Robbie did. Then, Gary Keane, Patty’s ex-husband, is found dead. A common denominator that seems to link all of the people the team is investigating is the Seagull, once an upscale nightclub that burned down years ago. Another common link seems to be the Gang of Four, a group of wildlife buffs whose members were John Brace, Vera’s father Hector, Robbie Marshall, and a shadowy character known as the Prof.

This is another complex and interesting mystery by Cleeves. Her novels are always atmospheric with believable characters and difficult mysteries.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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