Review 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Review 1323: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Cover for The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the novel that made John Le Carré’s name as a master of espionage fiction. His introduction to my edition tells just how much he resented the attention he got for it. Even though it is one of his earlier books, having been published in 1963, it is one I hadn’t read.

At the beginning of the novel, Leamas watches in anger from West Berlin as his last good agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot crossing the border from East Berlin. Leamas is fairly sure, on his return to England shortly thereafter, that his career as an operator is over. Instead, he is offered a dangerous last mission. He is to appear to have been retired to a desk job, to go to pieces and lose his position and continue to go downhill with the hopes that he will be approached from the other side. The objective? To take down Mundt, a ruthless official on the other side of the wall and the man responsible for Karl’s death.

All goes according to plan, and Leamas is approached shortly after he gets out of prison for assaulting a grocer. Only, if you are familiar with Le Carré, you know that things will be much more complicated than they seem to be. And Leamas has one weakness. During his descent, he got involved with a young, naïve girl, Liz, a member of the Communist Party.

Le Carré is a master of suspense and a plotter of labyrinthine plots. In addition, his novels always have more going on in them that just action, such as raising serious issues of morality. This novel is rightfully a famous member of its genre.

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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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