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 1881: Death in Kashmir

A quote on the cover of Death in Kashmir compares M. M. Kaye to Agatha Christie. A more accurate comparison in terms of the type of novel it is—romantic suspense rather than mystery—is to Mary Stewart, although there is just something about a Mary Stewart book that this novel doesn’t quite have. Still, Death in Kashmir is entertaining enough.

The novel is set in 1947, the year before the British left India, and it provides an interesting look at the life of British upper-class people living there at the time, although the natives are mostly only in the book as servants.

Sarah Parrish goes to Kashmir to attend the last meeting of the India Ski Club at Gulmarg in a primitive hotel that is usually only open in the summer. The outing has already been shadowed by the death that day of Mrs. Matthews in an apparent skiing accident. In the middle of the night, Sarah awakens to a scraping noise and realizes someone is trying to break into the room next door, that of another young woman, Janet Rushton. Sarah quietly hurries to Janet’s door to warn her and is shocked to be greeted by a drawn gun. However, when Janet sees someone has tried to enter by the bathroom window, she confides in Sarah that she is an agent for the government. She and Mrs. Matthews discovered an important secret and were waiting for help from their superiors when Mrs. Matthews was murdered.

A few nights later, Sarah and Janet have joined an expedition farther up the mountain to ski and spend the night in a ski hut. Sarah catches Janet ready to ski off in the middle of the night because she has finally been contacted by her people. The next day, she too is found dead.

Returning to Peshawar after the trip, Sarah tries to forget what she has learned, but she receives a letter from Janet’s attorney enclosing the receipt for her houseboat in Srinagar and telling her the secret can be found there. So, she finds herself returning to Kashmir with her friends Hugo and Fudge Creed. There she encounters all of the people who were on the ski trip, with a few extras, like the attractive Captain Charles Mallory.

The Cold War plot seems a little silly when compared to those of some of the masters, like Le CarrĂ© (and may more fairly earn the comparison to Christie, who also has some silly Cold War plots), but it leads to plenty of suspense and an unguessable villain. A small criticism is that both sides seem to have so many helpers that it’s no wonder there was a leak. A bigger caveat is that the explanations at the end go on for quite a while longer than seemed necessary.

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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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