Surprise heir

Ruth Ware’s novel The Death of Mrs. Westaway incorporates several things I love, and I was drawn to it from the first page. The protagonist, Hal (Harriet) Westaway, is such a vibrant character and her precarious existence is so appealing that it’s hard not to buy in.

Hal has been raised by a single mother in a small but unusual and fulfilling life; her mother was a tarot card reader in a booth on the pier in Brighton Beach and, partly through instruction and partly through absorbing the daily atmosphere of her mother’s tradecraft, Hal has acquired all the skills to follow after her when she is tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside their front door.

Hal stays in their small but known and comforting bed-sit after her mother is gone, and takes up the mantle of tarot card reader, although she always hearkens to her mother’s voice in her ear that tells her not to believe the patter that makes her so successful with her clients. Hal enjoys the combination of the beauty of the tarot and the skillful use of psychological clues to direct the faith of the tourists and drunken hen parties in her “fortunes”; she doesn’t care for those few fanatics who return again and again trying to come at truths that Hal knows better than to promise them.

Hal has made one foolish decision in the aftermath of her mother’s death; between the halting start-up of her takeover of the tarot booth and the slow months of winter that don’t contain the huge number of customers present during the tourist season, Harriet got behind on her bills and resorted to visiting a moneylender. She is stunned to realize how quickly and disastrously the interest on this loan has compounded, and is in imminent danger from the loan shark’s enforcers if she doesn’t come up with the money soon.

Just at the crux of this fraught situation, Hal receives a letter from a law firm, telling her that her grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that her presence is required at the funeral and subsequent reading of the will. She knows just enough about her mother’s family to realize that someone has made a mistake; but there are sufficient similarities in her background that cause her to grasp at the idea that she can pull off a deception and perhaps come into some funds that will help her out of her desperate straits. She scrapes together the last of her funds, buys a ticket to Porthleven, and sets out to collect “her” inheritance.

Haven’t we all imagined at some point that a long-lost legacy will arrive in the mail or via a phone call? That we will be pulled back at the last second from the brink of ruin by the generosity of a remote relative who turns out to have doted on us as a precocious three-year-old and has been generous in their bequest? I loved the entire set-up for this story, and Hal’s tentative but determined foray into a strange house filled with family that may or may not be hers.

The tale owes a lot to both Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: First of all, it takes place in Cornwall, scene of the bulk of du Maurier’s storytelling, and the creepy housekeeper definitely gives off an obsessive Mrs. Danvers vibe. The house itself is a gothic nightmare straight out of Christie, of cold, dark, dust-filled rooms reverberating with an unhappy past, and the Westaway family, though cordial on the surface, has obviously been greatly affected (and not in a good way) by their upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Hal feels the greatest affinity for the sole in-law in the bunch!

I have to say that the strong-willed, smart, and likeable character of Hal largely carried this book for me. I loved her back story, her personality, her profession, and her daring. The rest of the characters were, by comparison, made of cardboard, and some were outright cliché. They were okay as a backdrop for Hal, but it would have been nice if the only glimpses into their story had gone farther than a few incomplete and unsatisfying diary entries. None of them is overtly friendly, no one voluntarily supplies family history, and despite being surrounded by all these people, Hal has to solve her mystery through a not always compelling combination of research and subterfuge.

The thing is, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is not exactly a mystery, although there are mysterious elements to solve; it’s not entirely suspense, although it’s suspenseful; and the resolution is a bit telegraphed and not as exciting as it could have been. At several points in the story, it seems like the book doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be gothic horror, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. But if you focus on the story as being Hal’s alone, and simply let yourself enjoy the atmospheric vibes, it ends up being a satisfying read. The integration of the tarot into the story made it special for me, as I have always had a fascination with both the artwork and the infused meaning of those cards. This is the second Ruth Ware book I have read, and although the other one was better conceived and executed, I believe I prefer this one based simply on the appeal of character.

Cold cases abound

My first read of 2021 is Shed No Tears, by Caz Frear, third book in a series of police procedurals starring Detective Constable Cat Kinsella. Coincidental to my third-to-last read for 2020, Troubled Blood, it’s also a cold case previously related to a serial killer. I don’t project anything sinister here—they were released at almost the same time, so I doubt there’s any copycat behavior going on—but it’s interesting to me when people come up with virtually the same idea, especially when they are treated and resolved so differently.

The case in Shed No Tears had seemed open-and-shut: A missing woman had been seen by a witness entering the home of a man who later turned out to be the serial killer of several other women, so even though her body wasn’t recovered with the rest, the police and everyone else presumed (largely on the word of this witness) that Holly Kemp was his last—though unclaimed—victim. Christopher Masters never came out and said that he had killed Holly, but he tantalized the public and the police with that possibility for years, until his death in prison.

Six years after her disappearance, however, Holly’s body has turned up, and it’s nowhere near the location where the other bodies were found—in fact, it’s on the other side of London. It’s not buried like they were; the cause of death is different; and if it weren’t for a couple of facts—the rock-solid word of the witness and the fact that Masters had indeed spent some time in a location near the ditch in the abandoned field where Holly was found—one would almost think it was a different killer altogether.

And after exploring and exhausting everything known to them about Masters and his victims, Cat and the team begin to suspect that’s exactly what they have. But the witness still holds to her story, some of the principles in the case have since died or disappeared, and all they really have to go on are a few anomalies and some gut feelings. Since this is a police procedural, these hunches lead after much mind-numbing work to some actual facts that refuse to jibe with their initial view of the crime, and the ultimate solution is far from anyone’s assumptions.

As with previous volumes in this series, Cat is still juggling her public life as a dedicated and honorable police officer with her private life that is peripherally connected, through her father, to organized crime, and is still hiding from her boyfriend, Aiden, the connection between his family and hers that has the potential, should it become known, to utterly ruin their relationship. There’s not a big furtherance of that relationship in this book, although there is some movement in the stalemate between Cat and her dad; but there’s a big surprise at the end (besides the solution to the case) that may lead to a different direction in subsequent books.

Frear has created a great procedural team in DCI Kate Steele, DS Luigi Parnell, and all the minor characters in the “situation room” with them. Their personalities are highly developed, their interactions interesting and fresh, and their results always arrived at by a combination of teamwork and of helping one another share their most outrageous theories as they brainstorm their way to a solution. Although I don’t find it quite on a par with Cormoran Strike, I’m really enjoying this series, and greatly look forward to more.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Procedural, no police

I just finished reading Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. (I don’t know why she ever bothered to use a pseudonym, since she outs herself right on the first book cover flap, but whatever.) I’d almost like to make that statement (I finished!) twice or three times, because at 944 pages, this was a gargantuan achievement!

At that many pages, I also expected it to be an achievement that cost me some labor, and to be saying afterwards that she needs an editor—but I’m not going to do that. I loved the entire book. I didn’t find anything extraneous I wanted to cut.
I enjoyed reading it 40 or 50 pages at a time at the breakfast table or during my middle-of-the-night intermission from sleep, wherein I wake up and need to separate myself from my dreams, get a glass of water, and redirect my mind with good fiction, and I was reluctant to finish it.

Just to deal with this up front, there is absolutely no transgender character (or scandal) here. If you have heard that, you have been misinformed. In one instance, a killer puts on a wig and trenchcoat to disguise himself. That’s it. If you want to argue about this, go somewhere else. I’m tired of all the ugliness.

This book was such a wonderful adventure or exploration of all the ways two dedicated and stubborn people solve a mystery by following every lead, reading every note, re-interviewing anyone with any potential involvement, however small, and keeping their minds open and churning up ideas and solutions. It’s the first time that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott have tackled a cold case, let alone one more than 40 years old, but their innate curiosity leads them down the path of one of the most fascinating mysteries they have ever encountered—the disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough. They are simultaneously tending to three or four other clients’ cases at the same time, aided by their contract hires Barclay and Morris, and organized by new secretary Pat; and their personal lives, both apart and together, are also on display. Robin is hoping that her unexpectedly acrimonious divorce from Matthew will conclude soon, while Strike is still dealing with the fallout from his ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who married someone else and gave birth to twins but still texts him wistful (and manipulative) messages in the middle of the night. And both of them are all too conscious of some significant moments they have shared that could mean more, if either of them chooses to act.

This is the ultimate in police procedurals, without having the police involved. Because of some good contacts, some clever thinking, and some helpful people, the detectives are able to get their hands on a good part of the police record, but the complication is that the original lead detective was suffering a mental breakdown while conducting the case, while his successor was more interested in devaluing everything his predecessor had done than in actually breaking new ground. So in some ways they are looking at the case not only with fresh eyes, but with attention to details that no one previous had seen in the same light.

As usual, Rowling also provides great side characters, who give both darkness and whimsy as their contribution to the main story she is telling. Robin’s relationship with Morris and Strike’s interactions with Pat, as well as the background of Cormoran’s family problems, provided great context and cushioning for the rest.

I don’t know what it was about this book—whether it was the book itself or simply the way I approached reading it, a little at a time rather than an all-out binge-fest—but I never got impatient with any red herring or tired of their continued speculations to one another about the various aspects. Part of it, of course, is the way Rowling writes the interactions between the partners, and the excruciatingly slow build she has given their relationship through multiple volumes that keeps you reading for any hint of a shift. There are some in this book, but I’m neither giving them away nor hinting at how extensive they might be. All I will say is that I felt completely satisfied by the resolution of the case, and that I have no doubt that the next chapter in the Cormoran-and-Robin show will be interesting!

Between the “greats”

I follow a lot of authors and anticipate their books and then, paradoxically, when they come out I take my time about getting around to reading them. I think it is a defense mechanism—equal parts fear that they won’t be as good as I have anticipated, or that they will be as good but that they will take me a lot of time and energy to get through and then think about and analyze. Sometimes, after all, you want a reading experience that is not intense, that is not taxing, that takes you somewhere familiar and allows you to follow along somewhat passively instead of being an active reader.

I have been in that exact place, during the past two weeks. I had a choice between reading Return of the Thief, “the thrilling, 20-years-in-the-making conclusion to the New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner,” which is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time; Troubled Blood, the next in the exciting and engaging Cormoran Strike private detective series by alias J. K. Rowling; or V. E. Schwab’s brand-new book The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which is already making waves on all the best-of book lists out there. Thief and Addie are close to 500 pages apiece, while Rowling has done her usual of increasing the page-count of the book with each addition to the series, this one coming in at a whopping 944! So taking on any one of them won’t be a short-term experience, and deciding which to prefer above the others is also all locked up with my feelings towards each. Do I really want my favorite series to end?
Will these books live up to the others? Is the hype bigger than the book?

My response, this past week, was to turn aside from all three of them and pick up an early entry in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, The Enemy. After I got about a third of the way into it, some vaguely familiar scenes made me go check Goodreads, whence I discovered that I had actually read this book before; but it was more than five years ago, I have read at least 400 books (maybe more) in the intervening years and, despite certain scenes jiving with my memory, I didn’t remember anything about how it resolved.

As some readers of my blog will remember, I swore off of more Reacher books after reading the latest one, which was dark and ugly and didn’t feature the Reacher we had all come to know and respect for so many years and volumes. But this one is not only early in the series (#8), it’s also a flashback to when Reacher was still in the military working as an active police major (M.P.), solving crimes from within the confines of rules and protocol.

It begins on New Year’s Eve 1989, when Reacher is still in the army and has inexplicably been transferred from Panama to Fort Bird, North Carolina. Everyone else is out celebrating the turn of the decade, but Reacher is on duty when a two-star general is found dead in a sleazy motel 30 miles from the base, and it looks like he wasn’t alone. It’s the classic case of heart attack in the midst of sex but, by the time Reacher arrives, the hooker is no longer on the scene, nor is the general’s briefcase. Reacher’s new boss at Bird tells him to “contain the situation” so that the army won’t be embarrassed, but when Reacher goes to deliver the news of the general’s death to his widow in Virginia, the widow turns up dead too, and speculation about the contents of the briefcase suddenly turns the affair into something more complicated. Reacher recruits a (female) M.P. named Summer to help him run down all the details, and the two of them go ever deeper into danger as they defy the military to dig into this broadening potential scandal.

The book is a convoluted, intriguing puzzle from start to the very last page. There is a quote on the cover of my paperback from the Chicago Sun-Times that calls it “a thriller that gallops at a breakneck pace.” This proves that no one at that newspaper actually read the book; while it is, indeed, thrilling at certain points, and Reacher and Summer travel extensively across the States and into Europe during a 10-day period, spending as little as eight hours at some destinations, the pacing of this book is deliberate and every detail is noted, from what the protagonists are wearing down to how many cups of coffee they consume during breakfast at the Officers’ Club. In order to appreciate Reacher, you have to dwell in the details, because you never know when one will become significant.

This was a good one, and bravo to Lee Child for writing this background story so successfully.

As for making a decision between the three alternatives I mentioned at the top of this blog post, I think the safest is probably the stand-alone book in which I don’t have quite as much invested, so Addie LaRue will be my next read. Unless I put them all off to do some theme reading for the holidays, such as Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at the Cupcake Café? It’s entirely possible…

Farthing

I am a big fan of science/speculative fiction writer Jo Walton, although I have found her offerings to be somewhat uneven between things I love and things I recognize as worthy while not personally caring for them. I was excited to discover that she had written an alternate history in which Great Britain negotiated its way out of World War II in return for a treaty with Hitler, who proceeded to conquer the European continent while sparing England across the Channel.

I thought Farthing was a new work, possibly designed to address the fascism and bigotry that have been revealing themselves these past few years in America; but after I got into it I discovered it had been published in 2006 and was, in fact, the first of a trilogy, the others being Ha’penny and Half a Crown.

I also found the book disappointing in some respects, but only because I had a particular expectation that it didn’t fulfill. I thought it was a full-on alternate history and would deal more specifically with the details of that world; instead, Walton used post-war Britain allied with Germany as a backdrop for a “locked-door” murder mystery novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie, which is not really what I wanted to read.

The details of the alternate history do matter to the story: Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the aristocrats of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat at the Eversley’s estate. Lucy, daughter of the house, is one of the invited guests, although her new husband, David Kahn, a Jewish banker, is less welcome. Lucy has “thrown herself away” by marrying him, and is tolerated, rather than welcomed, into her old social circle as a consequence. Neither of them really wished to come to the country that weekend, but Lucy’s mother imperiously summoned them, and David felt perhaps she was holding out an olive branch, although Lucy, being more familiar with her mother’s prejudices, knows that can’t be the case.

Soon the two can only wish they had resisted the invitation and stayed in town; Sir James Thirkie, a friend of her parents who is also the person who engineered the historic agreement with Hitler for peace, has been murdered sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, and some details of the murder look like they have been specifically engineered so it can be blamed on David Kahn.

Fortunately, the Scotland Yard inspector sent down to solve the case is less gullible than are the local police and sees the nature of the set-up; he doesn’t view Kahn as remotely likely in the role of murderer, but if he can’t see his way clear to accusing someone else, Kahn is likely to go down for it, as Jewish scapegoat on the scene. Inspector Carmichael does his level best to come up with a solution, but new details keep getting thrown at him that twist the mystery further this way and that until no one knows how it will end.

Although I recognized and appreciated both the set-up and the writing in Farthing, I felt somewhat dissatisfied after reading it. The mystery itself was not particularly intriguing, and the alternate history aspect left me wanting more world-building. I also wasn’t a big fan of the alternating point of view between first person (Lucy’s journal of the events) and third person (Inspector Carmichael’s investigation), although I did like both characters quite a bit. Character development is one of Walton’s strong suits, and she didn’t fail here, particularly as regards the inspector, whose ulterior motive for refusing to suspect David Kahn enriches the story.

It was strange to read the book from within the throes of the current political climate. I started the book two days before Election Day, and finished it a couple of days afterwards, and I did appreciate how the author asked the reader to consider the consequences of allowing fascist behavior to continue and grow. There is also a familiarity about the plight of the Jews in this book as compared with the history of black people in America; there are all these little bits of discrimination that each by themselves seem fairly innocuous (especially if you are not the party who is targeted by them) but taken collectively they are seen to intentionally omit, push out, reject, and deny full personhood.

I don’t think I am sufficiently enamored of this book to pursue reading the other two; but if you are a person who enjoys Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and also appreciates good character development, witty dialogue, and an unexpected background for all of that, you might want to check out this trilogy.

My preference for Walton’s alternate history oeuvre is her three-book series that begins with The Just City. The Thessaly trilogy is based on the idea that the goddess Pallas Athene, curious as to its outcome, creates a society designed to follow the tenets of Plato’s Republic. She extracts 100 caregivers and 10,000 babies from various points in history (past, present, and future), puts them together on an island located in the distant past, and instructs the adults to raise the children strictly according to Plato to be their “best selves.” A few years into the experiment, she kidnaps and throws Sokrates into the mix, and then things get interesting.

The unexpected

Have you noticed that when it comes to famous and/or beloved writers, the unexpected is not welcome? I couldn’t believe how many people groused about Tana French’s last book (review here) when it turned out not to include the Dublin Murder Squad, even though it was a great story on its own.

I will confess, however, that I myself have done some “editing” when it comes to authors I like: For instance, I freely tell everyone that Jenny Colgan’s books previous to 2012 are not up to her standards, while all the books written during and subsequent to that year are wonderfully plotted, characterized, and entertaining.

I have come to the conclusion that while there may sometimes be validity in people’s rejection of particular titles because they were written early in a writer’s career, the truth is probably just that they didn’t follow the successful formula the author later evolved and made her own. In other words, they were unexpected.

One such novel of which I just turned the last page with great personal satisfaction is Liane Moriarty’s book The Last Anniversary. When I picked it up, I had already read many of Moriarty’s books, beginning with the later, more well known (and successful) ones and gradually working my way backwards. Her more recent books are not precisely formula, but they do seem to deal with women (and men) of a certain age, a certain financial and social status, and at a particular stage in their marriages, their careers, their parenthood, or what have you. So The Last Anniversary came as something of a surprise.

First of all, while the protagonist is about the right age (39), nothing else about her conforms to Moriarty’s other characters who, by this time, have entered into (and sometimes already exited out of) matrimony, have most of them had children, and almost uniformly live in the suburbs populated by others such as themselves. Sophie Honeywell is a successful business woman, popular and with many friends, but the last person in her circle to remain single. She sometimes wonders if she did right, breaking up with Thomas Gordon on the very day he had been planning to propose; she simply didn’t feel passionate enough about Thomas and was, in fact, a little stifled by his adoration, but perhaps she has missed her one chance in life to have the family she has always wanted? Sophie mostly doesn’t let it get her down, and she never thinks about Thomas (now married to someone else) until an odd occurrence brings him back into her life.

While they were dating, Thomas took her to the family “compound,” an island in the Hawkesbury River about an hour from Sydney where his entire family lives. Sophie had actually been there before she met Thomas; Scribbly Gum Island has become a tourist attraction because of an unsolved mystery regarding the Munro Baby. Thomas’s family are the caretakers of the mystery house from which Alice and Jake Munro went missing, leaving behind a whistling kettle, a freshly baked cake, and their baby crying in her cradle. Thomas’s great-aunts Connie and Rose discovered (and raised) the baby, and turned the mystery of her parents’ disappearance into a rather lucrative business—tours of the house, followed by cups of tea and scones, not to mention the sale of tourist tat.

Now, Thomas’s Aunt Connie has died, and she has somewhat inexplicably left her house not to any of her own relatives but to Sophie. There was something about Sophie’s innate cheerfulness that Aunt Connie had enjoyed, the few times they had met, and she decided Sophie was the type of person she wanted living in her house after her, even though she is no longer with Thomas.

Sophie makes some token objections but is secretly delighted; she adored Aunt Connie’s house from the moment she set foot in it, she loves the idea of living on an island, and she is more than ready for a change in her life. Although Sophie, an only child, is quite happy with her own family of three and has been quite spoiled with love and attention by her parents, she is also happy to be absorbed into this new, larger family.

The thing I liked so much about this book is that it relentlessly pursues the unexpected. With that build-up you would think that the next event would be for Sophie to find some young man associated with the island who was perfect for her, but with some obstacles in the way that would make it just absorbing enough to watch them work out how to come together. That doesn’t happen.

As you are introduced to other characters on the island, you develop new expectations, but the story keeps building them up and then taking yet another twist. Margie, one of the two daughters of the Munro Baby, is in an unhappy marriage with husband Ron, who no longer sees or values her. Margie eventually decides to take action to change her life, but keeps it a secret from everyone who knows her best. Granddaughter Grace, a young and beautiful artist married to Callum, has just given birth to Jake and is suffering cruelly from postpartum depression, but manages to present a blank face to the world and hide her secret. Aunt Rose, adrift after her big sister Connie dies, wonders if it’s time at almost 90 years old to start making her own decisions instead of abiding by Connie’s iron-willed decrees.

Moriarty hits a perfect balance between the whimsical and serious sides of this story. She addresses such issues as post-natal depression, the tick-tock of the baby clock for women approaching their 40s, stale marriages, and women’s insecurities in general, but she never lets the individual issues overwhelm the direction and mood of the book.

Threaded in amongst these narratives as a sort of semi-comedic relief is the central mystery of the Munro Baby, which certain younger members of the family are determined to solve. Connie and Rose know the truth, as does Enigma (the actual Munro Baby, now in her 70s), but Connie decreed that none of the others were to know until their 40th birthdays had arrived.

Although Sophie remains firmly the protagonist, the glimpses into the backgrounds, desires, and secrets of all the other characters make this a lively story that keeps the reader guessing almost to the end. None of the secrets are resolved in quite the way most readers would expect (and there is a perfect little “easter egg” at the end from an unexpected direction), which is what made this book a success for me, despite its lack of resemblance to Moriarty’s later oeuvre. Take a chance on it yourself and see if you agree.

Can I say that the various covers used on this book were irritating in their almost complete irrelevance to the story? Why not a picture of an island? or a deserted house on the shore? or even the damned marble cake left freshly baked on the table? Why a tree? Why a floating key on a ribbon? Why a hill with a baby buggy? (the closest, but still not accurate) C’mon, publishers, figure it out.

Bones will tell

I almost always feel sharply divided when reviewing one of Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway books, because there is always much to like and also much to quibble about, and I sometimes feel nitpicky when I give in to the latter. And yet, that’s what a book reviewer does, if left feeling unsatisfied, irritated, or frustrated by a book. Her newest, The Lantern Men, is no exception to this split reaction.

The story in brief: Ruth has moved mountains in her personal life in order to distance herself from the father of her child, with whom she remains in love: She has moved away from her beloved Saltmarsh to Cambridge to take up a new job, she has moved herself and her daughter, Kate, in with her American lover, Frank, and she is no longer officially on call as Norfolk police’s consulting forensic archaeologist. That job she has left to her colleague, Phil, who has always craved the limelight that Ruth mostly shunned, and is quite thrilled with that position despite the inconvenience of having to pick up some of Ruth’s classes at the North Norfolk university since she has left.

It has been two years of escaping into these various refuges from her mostly inarticulate longing for DCI Harry Nelson, who does reciprocate Ruth’s feelings but who feels constrained to stay in his marriage, partly because of his respect and remaining affection for his wife and his desire to keep a good relationship with his two grown daughters, but mostly because of the surprise of a late-in-life child—George, who is now two years old. The fact that Nelson and Ruth share parentage of Kate continues to make their lives awkward, but everyone seems to have settled—if somewhat uneasily—into their place in this unorthodox extended family, with Nelson’s older daughters now embracing Kate as their sister and Kate, in turn, delighting in Baby George.

These are the circumstances when a convicted killer brings Ruth back into Nelson’s orbit. Ivor March is in prison for killing two women, whose bodies were found buried in his girlfriend’s garden and covered in his DNA; but Nelson has always been convinced that March was also responsible for the deaths of two other women, gone missing in the same time period and with an eerie similarity in both looks and circumstances to those he killed. Now March has offered to tell Nelson where the bodies are buried, but only if Ruth (rather than her colleague, Phil) will be the archaeologist who excavates the grave. He won’t give a reason, except to say that Ruth is a much superior archaeologist to Phil and will see things he wouldn’t.

As usual, the research into the legends behind the murders in this series is meticulously done; in this case, the legend of the Lantern Men, whose wandering lights on the Fen lure people to their deaths in the marsh, has been appropriated by three men who conceive of it as their duty or privilege to find people—specifically, tall blonde young women—lost on the marshes and rescue them. These men live, along with a couple of women with whom they are involved, at a retreat center for writers and artists and are themselves the instructors. The women they “save” end up staying with them for a time and then leave—or disappear, depending on perspective.

I had little fault to find with the cast of new characters whose intertwined relationships were so confusing to the police in terms of whose loyalty to suspect when it came to the murders. All of that was valid stuff for red herring material, and worked quite well. I also enjoyed, as per usual, the regular cast of officers and friends that surround both Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson—officers Judy, Tanya, and Cloughie, and the eternally weird Cathbad—and the valid details of the police procedural.

What I did find poorly done was Ruth’s relationship with Frank. These two people have supposedly been living together for two years, and yet there is no closeness depicted. Ruth does remark at one point that she finds it endearing when Frank calls her “honey,” but the evidence, which is scant, about their interaction is that she holds him constantly at arm’s length, doesn’t confide in him about anything but the most surface of daily events, feels uneasy about depending on him too heavily when it comes to Kate, and basically seems almost blatantly uncomfortable with their situation. And Frank is such a cardboard character. We get one or two details about his American accent, the way he dresses, and how he helps around the house, and a few negative reactions when he discovers Ruth is seeing Nelson regularly again for work; but by and large Frank is barely a presence, let alone a major player, in this book.

I was hoping so hard that if something were to happen again between Nelson and Ruth, it would for once be something definitive—they would finally decide that, regardless of whom it would hurt, they would be together. But it was the same old thing, from a greater distance but otherwise identical, that we got in all the previous books: Ruth longs for a sign that Nelson still cares but feels guilty when he gives that to her, and ruminates on whether, if they were together, they could even stand to cohabit; Harry is even less articulate inside or outside of his mind, simply reacting with anger and jealousy at every manifestation of Ruth’s changed lifestyle and relationship with Frank. This has gotten so old that I am almost out of steam when it comes to hoping for a resolution. If it doesn’t happen in the next book, I’m out.

Apart from that big caveat, there were some small things in this book that just plain irritated me. One rule of writing: Never bring something up if it doesn’t have some kind of significance or result later on. In murder mysteries, of course, this means don’t show a gun early on if no one is going to use it later. But in this book it was more in small details that kept being dwelt upon but never explained. One example: Ivor March’s girlfriend, Chantal, is characterized as someone who always dresses inappropriately for every situation. The police drop by to see her at her home and she is attired as if she is on her way to a party, wearing a tight pink dress and heels, at 10:00 in the morning. At chance meetings she is wearing such outfits as a pencil skirt, white blouse and pumps, as if she is going to work, but she doesn’t (work). After three or four of these comments on her appearance, I expected that at some point someone would say, She dresses like this because…but no one ever does.

I also found the ultimate solution of the mystery to be rather flat, especially after all of the intricate hoopla. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there didn’t seem to be any more than a random motivation for the killer to do what the killer did…as if “I liked it” was sufficient justification. Maybe it is, in the case of a serial killer…but one would like to understand something about why a particular type of victim was chosen, or whether it was a peculiar synchronicity that put them in the killer’s path…something!

The cliffhanger at the end will probably carry me over to the next book, because I remain a sucker for finding out “what happened”…but if it doesn’t result in something more concrete, that will be the end for me of the saga of Ruth
and Harry.

New mystery series

I’m always looking for new (good) mystery series, and someone on Goodreads mentioned this as similar to the series of other authors I enjoy, so I tried out Caz Frear’s first book, Sweet Little Lies, with her British protagonist, Detective Constable Cat Kinsella.

Cat was only eight years old when she met Maryanne Doyle, and it was a pure case of idolatry. Maryanne was the girl all the girls wanted to be, a teenage rebel with long dark curls and sparkling blue eyes. Cat and her family were on holiday, and although she’d seen Maryanne hanging around with her older sister, Jacqui, it was when Cat and her dad picked Maryanne up while she was hitchhiking in the rain that Cat formed a real impression of her. Cat knew she was being played when Maryanne expressed admiration for her Tinkerbell pendant, but she gave it up willingly to this gorgeous girl with the forceful personality.

A few days later Maryanne disappeared, but not before Cat observed her standing out in a field having a heated conversation with Cat’s own father, and overheard the word “blackmail.”

Before the family leaves for home, her dad is questioned by the police about Maryanne’s whereabouts, but he says he didn’t know her at all. Cat knows he’s lying, but she is Daddy’s girl and isn’t about to rat out her own father. But when Maryanne never turns up again, the memory of his lie festers and builds a wall between them, especially after Cat goes over to the “other side” from her dad with his tenuous ties to organized crime to become a police detective.

Then, a missing housewife is discovered in a park not far from the pub her father runs, and Cat wonders…

I enjoyed this book. It started out more like a psychological thriller, with Cat in therapy after a bad experience on the job, but quickly evolved into a fairly straightforward police procedural, albeit with a rather important connection to the protagonist’s personal life. Part of what I liked about it is that Cat, a dedicated officer who always wants to do the right thing, is now so conflicted because, despite her estrangement from him, she still feels the need to protect her father. And yeah, her silence isn’t completely altruistic: She knows that if any whiff of personal involvement with the case came out, her boss would sideline her in an instant, while she, naturally, wants to stay in the thick of things and be the first to know what happened.

A police procedural is only as compelling as the team the author puts together, and this is a good one. Cat’s immediate superior, DS Luigi Parnell, is the perfect old plod, wise and street smart as well as intuitive and kind. Cat idolizes her boss, DCI Kate Steele, for her brilliance and dash as well as for the way she looks after her officers. And the rest of the team is gradually developing into individuals before our eyes as they work the case. There is humor, camaraderie, and some snappy repartee.

There’s also plenty of suspense as the plot evolves. My only caveat would be the stunning coincidence that is at the heart of the murder mystery, but the author makes it work, and delivers an exciting and not wholly expected conclusion.

I liked it enough that I decided to go on to Frear’s second book, Stone Cold Heart. This book, too, had a satisfyingly convoluted murder mystery at its heart and lots more details about Cat’s personal life, both with her dysfunctional family and with her new boyfriend, Aiden, who is in the dark about the role Cat played in the mystery surrounding his sister, Maryanne Doyle. Cat is trying to keep things light because she knows that eventually the truth will out, but Aiden is pushing the relationship forward and Cat is having to juggle big time. Meanwhile the mystery of the Australian girl who came to London to have some fun and ended up dead keeps sprouting new suspects without satisfactorily absolving the old ones, and the team is baffled and frustrated. That’s a lot of intensity to deal with in one detective constable’s life…

There is a third book coming out on December 1st, and I’m already in line for the Kindle version at my library.

If you’re wondering what other series might be similar to this, the one that immediately comes to mind, for its protagonist, its team, and its satisfyingly baffling mysteries, is Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint series.

Missing Francis

I am a huge fan of Dick Francis mysteries. When he passed away and his son took up his mantle, I decided to reserve judgment until I had read a few. (I had been burned once before by this dynamic when the brilliant and innovative Frank Herbert died and his son Brian started writing decidedly inferior sequels to his Dune series.) It was noted that Felix had helped Dick with the massive research required to deliver his books, and since I was cognizant of what that involved (Dick’s books were chock full of interesting details about all sorts of things), and since it was also noted that Felix had co-written the last few, I believed that Felix might just have the master’s touch.

I have read several of Felix’s books since he began writing on his own, and while they weren’t quite Dick Francis, they weren’t bad. I enjoyed both Bloodline and Damage, and when I saw that Triple Crown was another book featuring Jeff Hinkley (the protagonist of Damage), I was somewhat enthusiastic about picking it up.

I think it will be my last authored by Felix.

I am not an apologist for such American quirks as overly armed police officers, or the animal cruelty that is present in the branding of cattle and horses, or the convoluted groups of associated government departments that nonetheless refuse to work together. Quite the contrary, in fact: Based on my experience working as a librarian who was constantly called upon to be a social worker for certain of our patrons, I applaud the recent movement towards scaling back police influence to do the things they are actually trained to do. I am a vegetarian and deplore all forms of deliberate injury to animals; and I think the level of jockeying for power in Washington is ludicrous. But that doesn’t mean I want to read about all those things and, if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be in the pages of what is supposed to be an entertaining mystery novel.

The plot seems like a reasonably good one: Jeff Hinkley, who works as a covert investigator for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), is requested to come to America to help their Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) find out who in their organization is passing on confidential information that will help horse trainers and owners evade arrest when they get up to such things as drugging rival horses. After consulting with the agency’s Deputy Director, by whom he was invited to come, Hinkley sets up a sting operation in which he goes undercover as a groom for a trainer believed to cut corners to win races, hoping that, as an insider, he will be able to find information on the mole. As he discovers some horrifying steps this trainer is taking to win the Triple Crown, his added motive becomes to root out this corruption before more horses die.

The execution of the story turns into a vehicle for Francis, disguised as Hinkley, to exhibit a condescending supercilious attitude toward American horse-racing when compared with the British, and this attitude constitutes almost the only defining trait of the protagonist—he is otherwise so unmemorable that near the end of the novel, when he decides to dye his hair and beard dark as a disguise, I was utterly surprised that he had been a blond previous to the dye job, because his physicality was left so vague throughout the book. Hinkley is completely lacking in the charm, intelligence, or wit of a Dick Francis hero. He is a fatal combination of bland and pompous that endears him to no one, including his fellow characters or the reader.

In addition to the rather overbearing anti-American themes is the pedantic tone of his explanatory passages, which constantly trip you up and shove you out of the story. The dialogue is likewise stilted and formal, and the character development is rudimentary at best, and laden with offensive clichés. Hinkley’s attitude toward his co-worker, Maria, the Puerto Rican hot walker for the stable, basically consists of his observation that she’s a hot mama; his Mexican roommate is a drunkard and a simpleton; he seems surprised that a female federal agent could be such a crack shot; and another female agent becomes a stereotype of a whiny mistress to her colleague’s married man. Dick Francis’s gentle misogyny was both understandable (due to his age and upbringing) and predictable; but what is Felix’s problem with women in particular? It seems that, along with not respecting them, he doesn’t particularly admire them either. At least his father had a healthy appreciation and understanding of relationships and knew how to write them.

My constant feeling during the reading of this novel was that I was trudging through a quicksand of expository prequel while hoping the actual story would pick up at some point and become involving, but it never did. By the time the book reached the intended climactic scenes, I simply didn’t care—and the lackluster way in which they were written confirmed those feelings.

Next time I’m feeling nostalgic for an exciting mystery with a horse racing theme, I’ll go back and re-read the real thing. And perhaps, at this point, this Francis should quit putting “A Dick Francis Novel” on his covers.