Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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Day 1283: The Husband’s Secret

Cover for The Husband's SecretCecilia Fitzpatrick is a super organized woman who volunteers for things and executes them perfectly all the while keeping an immaculate house, running a Tupperware business, and caring for her husband and children. One day, she accidentally finds an envelope addressed to herself from her husband, John Paul, to be opened in the event of his death. She asks her husband about it, and he gives her an unsatisfying answer and asks her not to open it.

Tess O’Leary thinks her marriage to Will is a happy one. She does, that is, until Will and her best friend and cousin, Felicity, come to tell her they are in love.

Rachel Crowley has been depressed ever since the death of her daughter, Janey, as a teenager. Only since the birth of her grandson has Rachel been happy. But now, her son and daughter-in-law are planning to move away to New York.

The lives of all these people are going to change with the revelation of John Paul’s secret.

I just gave this novel three stars on Goodreads but not because I wasn’t deeply involved in it. Rather, Moriarty presents us with some situations that aren’t easily resolved, but some of the choices she makes to resolve them make me uncomfortable. There is sort of a cruel quid pro quo that feels like it minimizes the acts of some of the characters. Further, it is put across in a jarringly flippant tone.

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Day 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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Day 1272: Beast in View

Cover for Beast in ViewHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

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Beast in View is quite the creepy tale. One of the novels in my 1950’s Women Crime Writers collection, it makes a departure from the others.

Miss Clarvoe has been leading an isolated life since her father died. She fled her home after inheriting most of his money, but she has been too reserved to do much with it except sit in her apartment. That situation is about to change.

Women Crime Writers coverMiss Clarvoe receives a phone call from Evelyn Merrick. She cannot remember Evelyn, but Evelyn begins to abuse her on the phone and threaten her if she doesn’t give her money. Miss Clarvoe is too embarrassed to go to the police, so she turns to Mr. Blackshear, her investment counselor, and asks him to find Evelyn Merrick.

While Mr. Blackshear investigates, we follow Evelyn as she commits a series of malicious acts. We soon realize that Evelyn is mad. Eventually, a murder is committed.

This novel builds up a terrific amount of suspense. It also has a mind-boggling conclusion. I have not been disappointed in this collection. All of the novels included in it have been excellent.

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Day 1266: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Cover for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleHere’s another book for the R.I.P. Challenge.

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I know that The Seven (or 7 1/2, depending on the edition) Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has been receiving a lot of attention, but I was unable to finish it. Looking back at some of the Goodreads reviews, I see that readers are focusing on the plot, although some complained that it was confusing and that characters kept changing identities.

Certainly when I started out reading the book, it seemed promising as a throwback mystery, with maps of the estate grounds and a floor map of the stately home where the novel is set. But I was only a few sentences in when the overwrought, highly embellished writing style with its inapt metaphors started irritating me. In short, I find it one of the worst written novels I have ever read.

Someone please tell Mr. Turton that bedrooms don’t have lips so they can’t be tight-lipped (p. 16), not even in metaphor. Similarly, sounds a character is hearing at the present time are not memories (p. 2). One’s eyes cannot roam, as they are attached to one’s head (p. 2). This is not colorful language, it’s the inept use of a thesaurus.

link to NetgalleyI also thought characters’ reactions were ridiculously unbelievable. When the main character arrives disheveled at the front door of a house and asks for a phone, and the servant gapes at him, he shakes him and says, “Don’t just stand there, you devil!” What? Then characters who appear subsequently show very little alarm at the news that a woman has been murdered in the woods.

This could be the most brilliantly plotted novel ever written, but I have no way of knowing, because I could not bear to read it. I stopped at page 21. I even stopped reading it and gave it a rest, hoping it wouldn’t bother me so much when I started again. That didn’t work.

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Day 1262: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Cover for The Disappearance of Ademe BedeauThe R.I.P. challenge surprised me this year, so I thought I’d look at what I already planned to review that would fit the category. The first book was this one. The idea is to spend September and October reading books that fit into specific categories, and mine are most likely to be mystery, suspense, or thriller, but a horror book or gothic novel might creep in there.

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The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is an unusual character study wrapped around a semblance of a murder mystery. Although it is labeled Inspector Gorski on Goodreads, much of it is concerned with the actions and thoughts of Manfred Baumann.

Manfred is a bank manager in Saint-Louis, a small town in the Alsace region of France. He leads an isolated life of extreme regularity, spending every evening at the Restaurant de la Cloche. He has no friends and spends most of his time by himself.

Manfred does not really date. He takes care of his needs in a weekly trip to a brothel. But he has become fascinated by surreptitiously observing the waitress at the restaurant, Adèle Bedeau, a sulky teenager with a well-developed figure. He even goes so far as to follow her when she meets her boyfriend.

Then Adèle goes missing. Inspector Gorsky can find no evidence of a crime, but he fastens on Manfred because he tells some lies. As far as the reader knows, he has not harmed Adèle, but maybe Raymond Brunet, the fictitious author of this novel, isn’t telling us everything.

Gorski begins to feel there is a connection with another crime years earlier, his first, for which a culprit was identified and convicted. Gorski was never satisfied, however, that they got the right man.

The depth of character portrayal of both Manfred and Gorski is what makes this novel stand out. It is portraying a creepy and paranoid guy in Manfred, however, and that may affect how much you enjoy the novel.

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Day 1255: The Blunderer

Women Crime Writers coverPatricia Highsmith can be very dark, and The Blunderer is about the darkest of her works that I have read. It appears in the 1950’s volume of my Women Crime Writers set.

The novel begins with a murder that at first seems to have little to do with the main action. After establishing an alibi for himself by making sure people at the movies see him, Mr. Kimmel follows his wife’s bus out of town until it stops for a break. Then he calls her out of the way to talk to him and strangles her.

Walter Stackhouse notices an article about the murder and figures out that Kimmel could have murdered his wife. He places a clipping about the murder in a scrapbook where he keeps notes and articles about different personality types, and he even goes so far as to visit Kimmel’s bookstore to take a look at him.

Walter is unhappily married to Clara, who criticizes him constantly and tries to drive away his friends. Lately, she’s been accusing him of having an affair with Ellie, a woman he has only met twice socially. Walter isn’t thinking of murder, however, but of divorce. When he asks Clara for a divorce, she attempts suicide.

The Stackhouses give their marriage another try, but soon Clara is behaving the same way. Walter does begin an affair with Ellie and makes plans to get a divorce in Reno.

Cover for The BlundererYou guessed it, of course. Clara gets on a bus to take care of her mother’s affairs after her death. Walter stupidly follows the bus to do he knows not what but cannot find her at the bus stop and assumes she has gotten off. Later, her body is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. Detective Corby sees the similarities to the Kimmel case and decides Walter has murdered his wife.

The suspense derives from Walter’s dilemma as he does just about everything wrong, raising suspicion in everyone he knows. Then Corby decides he can solve both cases by playing Stackhouse and Kimmel off one another.

This novel is certainly suspenseful. It may have been a little dark, though, even for me.

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