Tag Archives: crime fiction

Friday Faceoff – Be as a tower firmly set…

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week the theme is a cover featuring a tower, so I’ve selected The Black Tower – Book 5 of the Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries by P.D. James.

 

This edition was produced by Touchstone in April 2012 and I want to like it more than I do. It seems a rather cool idea to envelope a rather haunting image of a tower in a very dark tint. In reality, I think the result is rather dreary and unappealing – though I’m unsure whether that’s really the case, or the fact that I am very much drawn to bright, sunshine colours.

 

Published in April 2010 by Faber and Faber, I much prefer this version – though it might also be because this is cover of the book that I’ve read. It is rather brooding with a stark beauty about it and I also like the way the author and title fonts have been handled. This one is my favourite.

 

This edition, published by Scribner Book Company in January 1975, must have had poor P.D. James sighing in disgust. What were they thinking? This is a sophisticated murder mystery featuring a nuanced, clever protagonist during a personal crisis. Yet, this looks like something out of a Boys’ Own Annual…

 

This Spanish edition, produced by B de Books in August 2012 is certainly a lot better than the previous effort. The tower perched on the edge of the cliffs with the sea in the foreground and the deep blue colour is certainly attractive, but I think this cover still lacks sufficient finesse for such a cleverly constructed book.

 

This German cover, published in December 1998, is a dreadful effort. Someone let the children loose in the graphics department and then accidentally forgot to erase the effort – surely? So we have the photo of a ruined tower grafted over the image of flames which aren’t even to scale, making the whole thing look completely false. And then they further ruined the dodgy effort by plonking a lot of writing on the cover – although, come to think of it, maybe they added it in a vain attempt to draw attention away from the shockingly bad job they’d made. Which is your favourite?

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Review of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Book 1 of the Russell and Holmes series by Laurie R. King

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My husband scooped this off the shelves, looking for a quality whodunit and enthusiastically recommended it.

1915. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honey bees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs. Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical and recently orphaned, Mary Russell displays an intellect to impress when Sherlock Homes – and match him wit for wit. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protégée and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective.

beekeeperI’m skipping the rest of the blurb on the grounds that it contains too many spoilers. Have to say, this book didn’t grab me from the first page as it did Himself. Although I enjoyed the sparky relationship between Holmes and Russell, and felt that King’s evocation of the period very impressive, it took me a while to get into the story. Not that I minded all that much – that I was in the hands of a master storyteller was evident from the start. Mary Russell is a convincing young woman and as the book charts her steady maturation from a furious teenager to a talented and formidably focused young woman, the book is as much about her coming of age as it is about a partnership with the world’s most famous detective.

King’s version of Holmes worked. We are very familiar with his clever, difficult character via a number of TV depictions. As a semi-retired gentleman tucked away in rural Sussex, some of his sharper edges have been rounded. Though his impatience with his waning physical powers is well handled, and the eventual shift in their relationship from master/pupil to genuine companion provides the main engine to this book’s narrative.

I enjoyed the view of John Watson as a kind, thoroughly dependable companion, but far too dim to be regarded as anything like Holmes’s equal. This version chimes perfectly naturally with Conan Doyle’s stories in Watson’s viewpoint, it seemed to me. King’s take on World War I from Mary’s viewpoint is also well done. The misery of those back home when confronted with the shattered men returning from the trenches and the constant grind necessary to sustain the war effort is vividly created, adding an interesting layer of social comment on a historically fascinating, rather grim period.

But what of the actual cases Holmes and Russell have to deal with? No matter how good the characterisation, historically accurate backdrop and dialogue – if the whodunit part of this novel isn’t strong enough to sustain the rest, then The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is nothing but a failed homage to one of the greatest literary characters ever invented. Fortunately, this aspect of the book is excellent. Though if you are a fan of wall to wall action, car chases and full-on gory action, then give this book a miss. The slow-burn, steady build-up of a seemingly intractable case with the poring over a handful of clues leading to Holmes’s – and increasingly Russell’s – brilliant deductive leaps that was Conan Doyle’s trademark won’t necessarily satisfy many modern tastes. Despite the fact that this book was first published in 1994, it feels a lot older – a tribute to King’s strong writing and easy familiarity with the character.

Do I have a problem with King using someone else’s character and taking the story in her own direction? Clearly, there are a number of Sherlock fans out there who do. I’m not one of them. King has paid attention to the manner in which Conan Doyle crafted his stories and character and has been respectful of the original, while adding another, additional series of books to the canon. However, I do have a niggle. And it does involve a spoiler – in subsequent books, Holmes marries Russell and given there is a forty year gap between them, I find this whole notion uncomfortable. Particularly as she is only fifteen when they first meet and very damaged. I’m aware that a number of recent unpleasant court cases involving the sexual exploitation of children have made this a far more fraught topic than it would have been back in 1994 when this book was written. But a forty year age gap is big – and given that Holmes has always been depicted as being largely uninterested in women, with most of his energy and taste running to cerebral stimulation, I’m not sure that this works.  However, this isn’t an issue with this first book in the series, and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of a really interesting, nuanced read.
8/10

Review of The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts – A Jim Qwilleran Feline Whodunit by Lilian Jackson Braun

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catwhotalkedtoghostsThis author has an interesting history. She died in 2011 at the age of 97, but back in the 1960’s, she published the first three of her The Cat Who… series to universal acclaim. In 1966 the New York Times called her latest offering ‘the new detective of the year’. And then nothing for eighteen years. But in 1986 her first book, The Cat Who Saw Red was republished and once more featured in the best-seller charts and this time, Lilian Jackson Braun followed it up with more in the series.

By her death, she had produced 29 books and three short story collections – The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts is the 10th in the series. So, after picking up the book convinced it was a fantasy whodunit – did I still enjoy this unusual crime novel?

Relaxing to the sound of Verdi’s ‘Ortello’ late one Sunday night, Jim Qwilleran is disturbed by the shrill demands of the telephone. His erstwhile landlady, Iris Cobb, now resident manager of the Goodwinter Farm Museum, is distraught. Knowing her frail state of health Qwilleran is concerned and becomes even more so when a piercing scream severs their connection. Arriving at the museum he finds Iris slumped on the kitchen floor, a glass of milk abandoned on the counter. But what at first looks like a natural, if sadly premature, demise from heart disease proves to be much more sinister. Once again the detective talents of Koko and Yum Yum, Qwilleran’s sleuthing Siamese companions, are in demand in sleepy Pickaxe.

And there you have it. A constantly curious man who is convinced his Siamese cats’ antics can help him uncover this nasty crime. I was immediately drawn in, despite very quickly realising that what I’d picked up wasn’t what I thought it was. The writing is slick and Jim Qwilleran’s character instantly appealed. He is slightly curmudgeonly and very comfortable with his own company – and those of his cats. He has a girlfriend, but I got the feeling that though they are fond of each other, passion doesn’t keep him awake at nights… A refreshing change after all the angst-ridden YA I tend to read. And the interlude where she acquires a Siamese kitten of her own had me laughing aloud. It isn’t often that a novelist is brave enough to poke fun at her hero and sleuth – but Jackson Braun does exactly that as Qwilleran fumes to himself over the ridiculous fuss Polly makes over her kitten. Because while he also calls his cats ‘sweetie’, he isn’t so  irritatinglycloying or simpering – so he tells himself.

Meantime we also get a slice of daily life in amongst the darker goings-on in Pickaxe, with a generous array of characters who both entertain and provide plenty of suspects. While I was aware that there was a fairly substantial back story that I’d missed – Iris Cobb features in several of the earlier books, for instance, so that I think if I’d read those I would have been more upset at her death – at no time was I left floundering because I had come in at number 10 in this long-running series. And as for the plot that had poor Iris done to death – did it work? Absolutely. The denouement was highly satisfying and surprising. I won’t claim that I am particularly good at guessing who did what in this genre, but there were some genuine surprises at the conclusion that had me flipping back through the pages to see when the clues were first seeded throughout the book.

I can see exactly why this series first became popular – and was republished nearly twenty years later. Jackson Braun’s writing is both accomplished and different. If you come across The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts, don’t pass up the opportunity to read it. Even if – like me – you prefer dogs…
9/10

Review of The Devil’s Edge – Book 11 of the Ben Cooper & Diane Fry series by Stephen Booth

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This is the latest offering by Stephen Booth, in his crime series set in the Peak District and featuring his two police officers, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry.

The newspapers call them the Savages: a band of home invaders as merciless as they are stealthy. Usually they don’t leave a clue. This devilsedgetime, they’ve left a body. To DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry, the case appears open-and-shut – a woman in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor. But then another victim turns up, dead of fright. As the temperature rises, so does the body count, and soon Cooper and Fry realise they’re just pawns in a twisted game… a game that ends in the sinister shadow of the mountain ridge called the Devil’s Edge.

Don’t let the above blurb fool you – the storyline isn’t all about blood, gore and fear. For me, the strength of Booth’s writing is that it is more edgily relevant and contemporary than many crime novels. There is a real feel that this book could only be set right now – featuring the preoccupations about the economic crisis causing police funding cutbacks and stretching resources as widely as possible. As Cooper – who is the main protagonist in this book – struggles to work out just why his instincts are twanging about this case, we are given a ringside seat in the stresses of policing a rural area. Booth’s slow-burn build gives us slices of Cooper’s daily routine, along with the steady accumulation of information and evidence as residents in the exclusive village of Riddings are questioned in an attempt to get to the bottom of the murders.

We learn of the tensions within the small, isolated community perched at the foot of one of the stunning beauty spots that gives the book its name – the Devil’s Edge. As ever, the characters are wonderfully complex and those of us who are fans of Booth’s work also get reacquainted with Fry’s edgy aggression and Murfin’s cynicism that can only be assuaged by another sausage roll…

Meanwhile the stark Peak District landscape pervades the novel, providing an atmospheric backdrop to the unfolding drama which eventually leads to the dramatic climax during a thunderstorm. I’m not surprised to hear that Cooper and Fry’s exploits are in the process of being televised – the mystery for me has been that no one has thought to do so, sooner.

Any niggles? While I do appreciate the wonderful setting – the Peak District happens to be one of my favourite places – I do think Booth needs to take care that he doesn’t overplay it. For the first time when reading a Booth novel, I did find myself skimming the descriptions of the scenery during the second half of the book.

Overall though, it’s a relatively picky point – and in a year that hasn’t, so far, been the best, getting my annual fix of Booth’s moody whodunit while the rain batters at the windows, certainly has me feeling more like facing the gale-force winds to try and weed the sulking vegetables…
9/10