Review 1876: The Moon-Spinners

When I make up a Classics Club list, I always take the opportunity to add a few old favorites for a re-read. This time, I picked Mary Stewart’s The Moon-Spinners.

Nicola Ferris has gotten a head start on her holiday by accepting a lift to her destination, the village of Agios Georgios on the island of Crete. Since she is arriving a day early, she decides to take a walk up into the White Mountains instead of going into the village. She is enjoying her day when she feels someone spying on her and then she is attacked.

She finds herself in the company of a wounded English tourist, Mark Langley, and his guide Lambis. Mark came across an argument resulting in murder and was wounded by the murderer, who took away Mark’s teenage brother, Colin. Mark does not know who the people were and whether it would be safe to go to the authorities or whether that would jeopardize his brother.

Nicola helps them by taking care of Mark for one night while Lambis fetches supplies from his caique. However, once she reaches her hotel, she realizes that she has chanced into the middle of the wrongdoers—Stratos, the owner of the hotel; Sophia, his sister; and Tony, the English hotel manager. The murderer seems to be Sophia’s Turkish husband, Josef.

As Nicola and her older cousin Frances innocently pursue their holiday, Nicola keeps finding clues about the murder and begins to hope she can find Colin.

You can’t beat Stewart for descriptions of exotic locales, suspenseful plots, and a bit of romance. She’s a great storyteller and a fine writer.

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Review 1853: The Broken Shore

Recovering from severe injuries inflicted in an encounter with a dangerous killer, Detective Joe Cashin has left a big-city homicide squad for his home town in a small Australian port. He is living in the wreck of his grandfather’s house.

His superior officer orders him to take charge in the assault on Charles Bourgoyne. An old man but still powerful and respected, Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home and is in critical condition. The initial hypothesis is that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, as his expensive wrist watch is missing.

Cashin’s role is resented by Detective Hopgood, because the crime happened in Cromarty, in Hopgood’s jurisdiction. When they get a tip that three Aboriginal teenagers from the area tried to hock a watch of the same brand as Bourgoyne’s, Hopgood manages to botch their apprehension so that two of the boys are killed. Cashin is told to take leave, but he continues to pursue the case.

This is a dark and moody mystery written in Temple’s usual fluid and witty prose. It’s quite gripping.

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Review 1851: The House of Whispers

Hester Why travels to the Cornish coast to take up a position as a lady’s maid. Right away, we know something is wrong, because Hester is traveling under an assumed name and is drinking. When she arrives at Morvoren House, it seems a strange household. The mistress, Louise Pinecroft, is a frail woman who hardly speaks and refuses to leave a drawing room full of china, even though the room is freezing. Aside from an adopted daughter who, although adult, is treated like a child, there are only servants, including Creeda, a disturbing woman who is obsessed with fairies.

Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father arrive at Morvoren House. Dr. Pinecroft has purchased the house because it sits above some caves on a beach. He has a theory that clean, damp sea air could cure consumptives, so he has arranged for some consumptive convicts to live in huts built in the caves below the house. Neither Louise nor her father is thinking very clearly, because their entire family recently died of consumption, after which Dr. Pinecroft lost all his patients because he couldn’t save his family.

This gothic novel is set in two unnamed periods, most likely in the 19th century. It is about two women whose need to be needed basically shipwrecks their lives. It is fairly creepy, although I thought the ending was kind of all over the place. Still, Purcell knows how to write a page-turner.

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Review 1843: The Shape of Darkness

Newly recovered from a vicious bout of pneumonia, Agnes is still weak, but she is so poor she has returned to her job as a silhouette maker. Her mother is ailing, and she also has her nephew Cedric to support. Then she notices that her last few customers have been murdered—their throats slit.

Pearl is an 11-year-old albino who up until recently has been appearing as a ghost in her sister Myrtle’s seances. But Pearl seems to have a gift herself, so Myrtle has been advertising her as the White Sylph. Certainly something happens when she attempts to contact the spirits. She, though, doesn’t know what, because she passes out.

Agnes, worried that someone is targeting her business, decides that Pearl can help her.

Although I have been enjoying Purcell’s novels and this one is creepily Gothic, set as it is in old, dilapidated houses in Victorian Bath, it took me a while to get into it. However, I had patience that paid off. I had lots of theories about what was going on, but there’s no way I could have guessed the truth.

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Review 1840: #1954 Club! Destination Unknown

I read Destination Unknown for the 1954 Club, and it is really more of a suspense/espionage novel seemingly based on Cold War politics than it is one of her usual mysteries. It is also not nearly as effective.

Thomas Betterton is just the latest of a series of scientists and researchers who have seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Although his wife Olive says she doesn’t know where he is, Jepson and his colleagues in a labyrinthian government office building think he has defected. When Olive asks for permission to travel for her health, they decide to have her followed.

Hilary Craven has left England for Morocco in the hope that a change of scenery will lessen her despair after first her husband left her for another woman and then her only child died of meningitis. But it doesn’t help, and she soon is going from pharmacy to pharmacy collecting sleeping pills. She is about to take them when Jepson bursts into her room with an alternative. The plane she was supposed to take to Morocco has crashed. She missed it and got another one, but Olive Betterton was on it. Both women are physically similar and have red hair. Will Hilary take Olive’s place and hope to be contacted, to try to find out where the scientists are even though it’s likely she won’t survive this mission? She agrees.

Although there are some complicated strands to the plot, not only is the novel not a mystery but it doesn’t feature the deft characterization or humor that are usually part of Christie’s books. Not one of her best, I’m afraid.

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Review 1825: A Gingerbread House

Catriona McPherson, in her standalone novels anyway, is a master at creating creepy situations that eventually resolve into the making of warm communities. I guess that makes her the queen of gothic cozies. In A Gingerbread House, she’s hit it with another one.

Tash Dodd has discovered that her family’s transport business is involved in trafficking. She wants to take over the business and put things right, so instead of informing the police, she lodges her proof and presents her father with an ultimatum—retire or else. Then she goes into hiding to give him a week to think it over.

While she’s been away training to turn her business to greater good, she’s caught glimpses of some women just before their lives completely change. Someone is creating elaborate hoaxes to lure one lonely woman after another into a Victorian gingerbread-style house. The first is Ivy, an older woman who would like a friend but would settle for a cat. Instead, she meets Kate, who claims her twin sister looks just like Ivy. Please come to the house to meet her. Kate has a surprise in store for Ivy.

As usual, McPherson creates likable heroines—this time four of them—and there are friendly neighbors and a hint of a love interest. I enjoyed myself very much.

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Review 1809: The Survivors

I haven’t read much by Australian writers, so when I noticed that Jane Harper seemed popular, I thought I’d give her a try. The Survivors is set in Tasmania, and I am attracted to books set on islands.

Kieran Elliott hasn’t returned to his small home town for 12 years, not since the storm. But his father has Alzheimer’s and his mother is trying to move them, so he has brought his partner Mia and their baby daughter back to the beach town in Tasmania to help with the move.

It is late in the season, and most of the summer people have gone home. One of Kieran’s high school friends, Olivia, has had a house mate for the summer, Bronte, and Olivia is glad that Bronte will soon be leaving, because there has been friction. Bronte has been working late at the local bar and restaurant, and after Kieran was there late with his friends, Bronte is found dead on the beach.

The storm years ago has been an elephant in the room, but it’s not until about page 75 that we find out Kieran had been in some sea caves that day and came out too late for the storm rise. His older brother Finn and Finn’s partner lost their lives in the storm trying to rescue Kieran. Some townspeople blame him for their deaths, including his own father.

Although this incident would appear to have nothing to do with Bronte’s death, we don’t learn until about page 120, as if it’s not important, that a girl disappeared on the day of the storm, Gabby, Olivia’s 14-year-old sister. When her backpack appeared in the surf, the police assumed she had drowned in the unprecedented storm surge.

Of course, Bronte’s death is related to Gabby’s disappearance.

I found a few things about the novel a little irritating. One is slight—that Harper remarks on the physical fitness of practically every male character. Maybe this is an Australian thing or maybe it’s supposed to reflect Kieran’s profession as a physiotherapist, but it seemed silly and unnecessary. Then there is a continuity problem—if Kieran’s rescuers died, how did he get rescued? There is no explanation of that. It also bothered me that Harper took so long to tell us what happened during the storm, as that delay didn’t seem to serve a purpose, and even more so that Gabby’s disappearance was treated like an afterthought.

Things get going slowly, but they seemed to be building to a satisfying and exciting conclusion, but no. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that the promised thriller ending sort of fizzles out. That being said, there are some interesting developments at the end of the novel, causing it to improve considerably.

I don’t mean to give this novel a bad review. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged; there are just ways in which it doesn’t quite deliver.

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Review 1786: The Unforeseen

Although I haven’t yet read Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, the movie based on it remains one of my favorites for Halloween. I didn’t realize that The Unforeseen is not a sequel to it but a follow-up and that a few of the characters make a reappearance. So, I’m reading and reviewing out of order.

Virgilia Wilde cannot afford to live in the city while she is sending her daughter Nan to art school in London, so she buys a cottage in the wilds of Wicklow. There she enjoys herself rambling the countryside and working on a children’s book about birds. However, she begins having strange experiences. First, she thinks she is seeing ghosts—a shadow in the doorway when no one is there, a telegram being delivered when one isn’t. She fears she is losing her mind so consults Dr. Franks, a psychiatrist. But he thinks there is nothing wrong with her. He consults his son Perry, who is a doctor with an interest in parapsychology, and eventually they realize that Virgilia is having visions of the future.

In the meantime, Nan has a frightening encounter with a sculptor and decides to come home for the summer while she works on illustrations for a book. Virgilia doesn’t want Nan to know about her visions, but soon she has some frightening ones.

This is a good little thriller with a supernatural angle to it. It has convincing characters and beautiful descriptions of the Irish countryside, reflecting the relative peace of Ireland during World War II.

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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 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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