Tag Archives: British crime fiction

Death Makes a Prophet: John Bude (1947)

“If there are many roads that lead to perdition, then there are as many that lead to salvation.”

I’d read 5 John Bude novels before arriving at Death Makes a Prophet. There was an unhappy marriage and a dead husband down on the farm in the 1936 The Sussex Downs Murder.  Then I read the 1952 Death on the Riviera in which serial character Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Meredith is hot on the scent of a counterfeiting ring. Then came 1935’s The Cornish Coast Murder along with a vicar who reads too many crime novels. The Lake District Murder, published in 1935, is a grimmer novel, but then humour returned in The Cheltenham Square Murders (1937) which concerns a handful of residents in an upscale neighbourhood. There’s adultery, bankruptcy, nosy neighbours and what’s more someone is taking their archery club membership to extremes by shooting the dashing Captain Cotton (wife stealer) through the head with an arrow.

Even though Death Makes a Prophet is now my sixth John Bude novel, I was unprepared for the comedy here. The novel concerns a religious cult centered in the town of Welworth:

Death makes a prophet

Welworth is not an ordinary town. It is that rarefied, mushroom-like, highly individualistic conglomeration of bricks and mortar known as a Garden City. There is no house in Welworth over thirty years old. There are no slums, monuments, garden-fences, bill-boardings or public houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor,  mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive and staggering range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of the population, Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other  community in the country. A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-much-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for the less high-minded citizens.

So Welworth is a town that attracts those who wish to live a certain lifestyle. These days we might say it’s a hippie community, or a crystal-waving town.  While there are 57 (!) religions in Welworth, the most “queer, somewhat exotic sect” is the Children of Osiris. Founded by Eustace K. Mildmann, the sect is also known as the Cult of Coo–or the religion of Coosim.

Clearly Bude is having great fun here with his subject. The timid Mildmann, a former bookseller, is Coo’s prophet and a sincere believer while the “financial prop, the true director of policy” is the wealthy, bombastic, insufferable Mrs. Alicia Hagge-Smith.

When the novel opens, Mrs Hagge-Smith claims to have had a vision of holding an “al fresco Convention”–a “gathering” of all of Children of Osiris (who will be housed in tents) at her country estate, Old Cowdene. Mildmann is horrified but the crafty, slimy Pen Penpeti, the so-called prophet-in-waiting, who claims to be a reincarnation of a “priest in the temple of Amen-Ra” is on the sidelines, flattering and stroking Mrs Hagge-Smith’s bloated ego. There’s a rift within the sect, and with money, power and influence in the offing, there will be murder….

A ferment was at work; small hostilities were growing, vague jealousies were gaining strength; little intrigues swelling into obsessions. And far off, no more than a dark speck beyond a horizon, wasn’t there a nebulous hint of approaching tragedy in the air?

Death Makes a Prophet is the funniest book I’ve read so far from the British Library Crime Classics. Bude very wisely mixes his characters, so we get sincere believers of Coo mixed with the opportunistic (Penpeti) and those who just need a paycheck (Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary). Plus then there are those innocent bystanders such as Mildmann’s adult son, Terence who is given sixpence a week pocket money and is forced by his father to wear “rational clothing.” Terence dreams of steak and kidney pudding, sneaks out for secret meat binges, and falls in love. Great fun.

Review copy.

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Sunday Silence: Nicci French

“After all, you’re a psychiatrist. You’re an expert in people’s dark sides.” 

Sunday Silence is the seventh novel in the Nicci French (husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French ) Frieda Klein series. If you haven’t at least read some of the series, then you don’t want to start with this book. In fact you need to go back to the beginning, to Blue Monday, the first Frieda Klein novel, which introduces the complicated world of our London-based psychotherapist Frieda Klein, and also her arch-nemesis, Dean Reeve.

Sunday Silence

Sunday Silence opens with Frieda’s world becoming (once again) the object of public scrutiny. A body is discovered under the floorboards of her London home, and since Frieda’s house/office has become a crime scene, she finds she must relocate, at least temporarily, to her friend, Reuben’s house.

The prickly Chief Inspector Petra Burge is in charge of the investigation, but the crime pulls Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who’s out on leave due to a broken leg, and Constable Yvette Long back into the game. Other returning series characters include: builder Josef (who discovered the body during renovations) and Frieda’s troubled niece, Chloe. It’s always satisfying to reconnect with series characters and see how their lives have progressed. In Reuben’s case, he’s suffering from cancer.

The body is identified as ex-policeman Bruce Stringer who was hired by Frieda to find Dean Reeve, so of course, the finger points towards Dean Reeve as the murderer. Dean Reeve was thought to have committed suicide years earlier, but Frieda has always insisted that he’s still alive. This murder seems to prove that she’s right.

Frieda is as complicated as ever, and as usual, she never reacts as she is expected to react. As the case gains national attention and reporters circle, there’s one scene that takes place during a press conference. She’s been groomed as to how she should behave.

Frieda opened her eyes. “There are psychiatrists who are interested in violence and evil but I’m not one of them. I’m a therapist and I deal with ordinary unhappiness. I don’t have any big theory about Dean Reeve. At a certain point in his life, I just got in the way.”

Months pass, and the furor over the crime dies down, and then attacks begin on people in Frieda’s life. … Frieda, a character full of contradictions, must curse the day she ran into Dean Reeve. And while she says she ‘just got in his way,’ we can’t help but feel that there’s a bit more afoot. It’s a terrible thing to become a psychopath’s object of interest, and the more he understands about his victim, then the more vulnerable that person becomes. Will this page-turner (one of the best of the ones I’ve read in this series) bring a close to the near-invisible cat-and-mouse relationship that’s existed between Frieda and Dean?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for books about therapists, so I enjoyed this one.

I always thought it was a mistake for Frieda to live AND work in the same place. Just saying…

There’s an eighth book in the series: Day of the Dead scheduled for July 2018 in the US

Cleo also read and enjoyed the book. (UK title: Sunday Morning Coming Down)

Review copy

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Just What Kind of Mother Are You?: Paula Daly

So I’m back for my third Paula Daly novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Mistake I Made for its bold voice, but The Trophy Child didn’t quite get my attention in the same way.  Just What Kind of  Mother Are You? has been lingering in one of my TBR stacks and for some reason, it was the sort of book I needed to read over the New Year.

Just what kind of mother are you

The book is set in the Lake District–a place where the real estate values make affordable housing difficult, but it’s also an area that attracts the well-to-do.

Gone are the days of the cheap and cheerful B&Bs, the fifteen-quid-a-nighters, including a full cooked breakfast. That doesn’t exist any more. The Lakes have a different clientele now. The walkers, hikers and outdoorsy types still frequent, but the place caters more for the country-retreat brigade. They want marble-tiled bathrooms as big as Joanne’s house. They want Michelin-starred restaurants. They want midnight cruises with pink champagne.

Lisa Kallisto is a working mother-of-three, a woman who runs a local animal rescue (more of that later). The novel opens with a scene depicting her harried life, so it’s easy to understand how some things just slip out of her grasp. Her daughter Sally had arranged a sleepover with friend, Lucinda, but then Sally cancelled at the last minute. Lisa failed to follow through on communication, so when Lucinda is reported missing the next day, some of the blame falls on Lisa’s shoulders.

Scenes of Lisa’s chaotic household are contrasted with a dinner party that took place months earlier at the home of Lucinda’s family: Guy and Kate Riverty. There’s a huge class divide which is embarrassingly clear from the time Guy opens the door and glances at Lisa and husband Joe’s clothes. And Kate’s bitchy sister, Alexa makes sure that the class difference is rubbed into Lisa’s nose.

But let’s get back to Lucinda’s disappearance. This is the second teenage girl to go missing (the first was taken and then later dumped still alive), and even as DS Joanne Aspinall searches for Lucinda, a third girl goes missing….

This is a pageturner. Part of the narrative is told by Lisa in the first person, and then sections concern Joanne (a very compelling police character) and the investigation. Small sections are told by the perv, and these brief sections included a bit more info than I wanted to know.

Anyway…

Lisa’s voice is compelling and drives the action forward. Some of that action occurs at the animal shelter, and also there’s a scene when Lisa makes a house call to rescue cats from a hoarder. I don’t know how Paula Daly gathered the information to create these scenes, but in my unpleasant experience, Paula Daly nailed the commodification of animals perfectly.  But the story is primarily  about the kidnap and rape of teenage girls who are being hunted by a predator who lives somewhere in the Lake District and moves freely, using his charm and looks to prey on the naive. There’s a subtext about appearances and how a good front can cover so much unhappiness:

It’s a strange thing to see these people’s lives displayed in this way, a hidden insight into the real workings of the family, but I suppose that’s what happens after a catastrophic event such as a child going missing. Or an overdose. The layers of respectability and properness are removed and, in an attempt to get to the truth, the family is stripped bare. Left exposed for all to see.

The ending was wrapped up a little too quickly, but I did not guess the outcome of the story. While I thought Joe’s reaction to something he’s told by Alexa (no spoilers here) was a little unbelievable, overall if you are looking for an absorbing crime read full of nasty people, then this is for you.

Cleo’s review

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Death of Anton: Alan Melville (1936)

“When the circus was here last year I was away, helping to bury my brother-in-law. It was the only thing I ever did for my brother-in-law that I didn’t immediately regret afterwards.” (Dodo to Minto)

Crime blended with humour can work well–and it can also be a tasteless disaster. Rest easy crime fans, Alan Melville’s Death of Anton from British Library Crime Classics is a delight.

Death of anton

As the cover indicates, this is a novel that focuses on a circus– Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie to be precise, which arrives in town for a number of performances. Also in town is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Minto who is dealing with family problems (namely a younger sister with a penchant for trouble who insists on marrying a gormless vacuum cleaner salesman).

Detective Inspector Minto strikes up a conversation with a man in the hotel dining room, and the man, who is the circus clown Dodo, mentions, before he realizes that he’s confiding in a Scotland Yard police detective, that the circus is a hotbed of crime:

No, Mr Minto, if it’s crime you’re after. Carey’s is the place for it. Theft, immorality, blackmail-you’ll find all the pretties there.

This incident turns out to be significant when the circus lion tamer, Anton, is found dead in the lion cage. First appearances indicate that he was mauled to death, but in reality, he’s been murdered, and someone’s made a clumsy attempt to cover up the crime.

Minto becomes an instant fan of the circus, and when he’s also befriended by some of the circus workers, naturally he becomes embroiled in solving the crime. There’s no shortage of suspects. Scraping away the facade of the circus as some sort of ‘family,’ we see that there was some funny business between Anton and the womanizing owner, Joseph Carey who makes many enemies through his “amorous adventures.” Anton stirred the jealousy of a another circus performer, and there’s also Anton’s ex-partner, Miller, who was kicked out of the lion act. Before Anton’s murder, there’s a wonderful section which details Anton’s performance in the ring with the tigers, and the tension and very real threat of violence is well conveyed. Circus life may be non-traditional, but it’s also portrayed as slightly claustrophobic, distilled into a microcosm, full of rivalries and tensions. The married trapeze artists, Loretta and Lorimer are perfect examples of this; husband and wife squabble over her behaviour, and whereas an ‘ordinary couple’ might stew in silent rage, we see how trust is so important when you are swinging, passing from one trapeze bar to another, 100s of feet up in the air without a net below.  ‘Mistakes’ in timing are fatal, so trapeze performers need marital bliss or risk death.

The delight here comes in the humour, and we see the dynamics of the Minto family set within the construct of the crime. Early on in the novel, the murderer confesses to Detective Inspector Minto’s brother who is a priest. Father Minto won’t reveal the confessor and DS Minto wishes that his brother “had stuck to his original idea of becoming an engine driver.” 

I knew very early in this novel that I was going to love it. Here’s Minto questioning Mr. Carey

“What did you find?” asked Mr. Carey. He seemed a little worried about this.

“Never mind. And stop asking me questions. It’s most disconcerting. I’ve lost the place now–where were we? Oh yes. Anton, for the third and last time, was killed during the party–probably between midnight and one-thirty. So that anyone who wasn’t at the party at that time is under suspicion. Clark Gable, for instance. The Emir of Transjordania, for example. Or the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Or you… You left the party about half past twelve, didn’t you? You’d any amount of time to do it. Much more time than Mr. Gable or the Emir of Transjordania. In fact I think we can safely wipe them out. I’m not so sure about the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He might have been addressing a meeting in the district, and nipped over and done it.”

I follow several other crime bloggers and they all reviewed this novel enthusiastically too, so I’d say if you are at all interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction or British Library Crime Classics, give this one a go.

Cross Examining Crime

The Invisible Event

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

(I thought Catholic priests were required to report crimes as serious as murder so I looked it up and apparently they aren’t. They keep quiet about child abuse, so why was I surprised.)

Finally for animal lovers, the tigers don’t fare well, and reading the book was a painful reminder about the lives of some of the animals (and an argument for the closing of all animal acts.)

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Uncle Paul: Celia Fremlin (1959)

Three sisters under pressure and the vagaries of love and marriage are under examination in Celia Fremlin’s novel, Uncle Paul. Meg is the main character here, and when the novel opens, she receives a telegram from her sister Isabel regarding their older half-sister, Mildred. Isabel is on holiday in Southcliffe with her new-ish husband and her sons from a previous marriage. Mildred, the most troubled sister of the three, is also on holiday, but in Mildred’s case, she’s left her current husband (yet again) and Isabel is worried.

Uncle paul

So it’s Meg to the rescue, but first she asks for advice from her boyfriend Freddie (an Oscar Wilde-ish character who lounges around in a scarlet silk dressing gown and who is the book’s greatest character):

“Quarrel with them,” came the instructions down the wire, decisively. “It’s the only way with families. Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to. So quarrel, girl, quarrel for your life! And then come round and have a drink. In about half an hour.”

Meg packs up and goes to join Isabel at the seaside. Isabel and her sons are holed up in the grotty family caravan, and Isabel’s hubbie…. well he’s nowhere in sight.

As for Mildred, she booked a holiday rental, a remote cottage which happens to be the same place she stayed 15 years earlier on her honeymoon with Uncle Paul. But the honeymoon went horribly wrong. Paul went to prison, and Mildred went on with her life. Staying at the cottage again brings back painful memories for Mildred, but there’s something else afoot. Has Paul returned and does he seek revenge?

Uncle Paul is a slow burn novel with fear, suspicion and hysteria built slowly, so don’t expect a page-turner. Meg is the sensible, most solid sister, Isabel is scattered and nervous, and Mildred, with her tendency towards drama and self-involvement, is the most unstable of the three. At first, Meg dismisses Mildred’s concerns as yet another play for attention, but after spending a night in the cottage, Meg has cause for alarm.

Author Celia Fremlin juxtaposes the simple, sometimes tedious activities of the day (sitting in the hotel with other guests and playing on the sand with the children) with the nameless fear that awaits in the night. The plot emphasizes how suspicion can undermine even the strongest bonds, and that concern can easily grow into hysteria. There are so many weird things going on in the lives of these sisters; Isabel seems overly anxious about her husband’s imminent arrival, and Meg even begins to question who Freddie really is.

Uncle Paul, a Woman in Peril novel, is a precursor to the extremely popular Domestic Thrillers of today–the books where wives start to question who their husbands really are. Uncle Paul’s strength is its characterizations. I was impressed by how women dominant this story, and how the men, for the most part, are almost entirely absent. There’s some wonderful humour here especially when author Celia Fremlin dabbles with hotel life, the precocious child Cedric and the dapper Captain Cockerill.

I’ll be reading more from this author.

Review copy.

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Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

Review copy

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The Birdwatcher: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series ( She’s Leaving Home, The Kings of London, A Song for the Brokenhearted ) series is notable for its intense 60s setting, so it’s not too surprising that Shaw’s standalone, The Birdwatcher presents an equally compelling atmospheric novel, this time set on the Kentish coast. Grounded against a stark unfriendly landscape, The Birdwatcher is the story of police sergeant William South, a solitary man who plugs away at his job and spends his time …. bird-watching. And he’s picked a great place for it, a marshy area on a remote shingled promontory, a perfect area for shore birds and its nuclear reactors don’t exactly attract tourists:

Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse, the metal and concrete blocks that surrounded the two reactors rose, unnaturally massive in the flat land. These colossal shapes were surrounded by rows of razor-wire fences. 

William South’s paced, orderly, quiet life begins to unravel when he’s assigned to “hand holding” the new DS, Alexandra Cupidi who’s transferred, as it turns out, under a cloud from the Met. A single parent with a troubled teenage daughter, Cupidi’s just arrived and she’s already caught a murder case. South tries to beg off the assignment, he’d “always avoided murder,” and to make matters worse, the victim is his neighbour, friend and fellow birder, Robert Rayner.

Rayner has been savagely beaten to death over a period of time. Cupidi feels that the murder is very personal, a result of rage. As she investigates, with South reluctantly by her side, it becomes clear that Rayner lied about his past.

The Birdwatcher

In spite of the fact that South did not want to become involved in the murder case, soon his entire life, private and professional, is taken over by DS Cupidi. There’s a sign of things to come when he sits in the car she’s had for a day, and already has to move crumbs and food wrappers aside in order to sit. South valiantly sends out hermit vibes which Cupidi blithely ignores. Soon she sets up headquarters, for convenience, at South’s house, violating his carefully established privacy.

Where South is methodical, Cupidi seems to embrace chaos. It would be easy to underestimate Cupidi, but South realises that would be a mistake when they discuss the victim’s private life:

“To be honest, now I think about it, he never talked that much about anything else.”

She stood, looked at her watch. “Because he didn’t have anything to say? Or because he had something to hide?”

He would have to watch her, he thought.

The investigation of Rayner’s murder is alternated with chapters which reveal South’s past in Ireland. We know from page one, that South has something to hide (which explains his lifestyle), and we also know that the past will inevitably catch up to the present.

The police procedural is not my favourite type of crime novel, as all too often this form can bog down in detail. Not so with The Birdwatcher, and while I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, the compelling narrative, along with the idea of the futility of trying to escape one’s fate, make for a gripping read. Shaw convincingly makes the argument that bird-watching and policework, at least for William South, go hand in hand. Bird-watching has made South a better policeman, or perhaps it’s vice versa. As with Breen and Tozer, Shaw has created a fascinating dynamic between South and Cupidi, and Shaw fans will be pleased.

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Rush of Blood: Mark Billingham

In Mark Billingham’s suspenseful crime novel, Rush of Blood, three British couples meet at a Florida resort, and in spite of the fact they are all quite different, they spend their days and evenings together on the beach, at the mall and at various bars and restaurants. Just as the holiday concludes, Amber, a young girl from Georgia who is also staying at the resort with her mother disappears. While the mother frantically looks for her child, the three couples lounge by the pool; it’s their last day. Why should they spend it chasing after a girl who was a bit of a nuisance to the holidaymakers?

The three couples return to their lives in England while the search for Amber rages on in their absence. Then her body is found and a murder investigation begins. In Florida, the investigation is headed by Detective Jeffrey Gardner,  and for the purposes of tying up loose ends, he asks the British police for some follow-up information from the three couples. Trainee Detective Constable Jenny Quinlan is assigned to the task as it’s considered a very minor job, but Jenny doesn’t see it that way; she takes it seriously. Then when another girl similar to Amber goes missing in Kent, it seems that the six holiday makers have moved from being witnesses to being suspects.

rush-of-blood

Mark Billingham takes us into the lives of the three couples: the obnoxious Ed whose job in the publishing industry is in a downward spiral and his teacher wife, Sue. Then there’s builder Barry and his second wife Angie. Finally there’s would-be actress/writer Marina and her boyfriend Dave–a very mismatched couple.

When the three couples parted ways in Florida, there were some airy promises made about exchanging e-mails and keeping in touch. Angie is the one who pushes keeping the connection almost as though the unsolved crime leaves unfinished business between them. The novel goes back and forth between the couples and the three dinners they have together back in Britain, and we view the “Sarasota Six”  as they see themselves but also as they are seen by others. Ed, with his constant sexual innuendos, is clearly the alpha male, and Dave’s fascination with crime is supposed to be seen as creepy (we crime readers can understand), but the relationships between the women are not so easy to define. TDC Quinlan finds them all a bit weird

Barry Finnegan was clearly capable of snapping without much provocation. Ed Dunning was a sleazebag and Dave Cullen was just downright creepy.

Some chapters are also told by the killer, and of course we try to guess the masked identity. I loved the novel’s premise of the holiday that goes wrong and the plot structure which shows the couples trying to sink back into normalcy but that happy state evades them. The relationships between the couples are well done and highlight the competitiveness through the dinners. The weakness for this reader resides in the way that it seems fairly obvious, through the process of elmination, who the killer is. The plot breadcrumbs to the solution were so obvious that I knew it couldn’t be that simple and guessed the identity of the killer fairly early on.

Luck and lies then, that’s about the size of it. The other thing, the ‘why’, well that’s not really for me to say, is it? Anyway, I’m not sure I could put it into words that made sense and how could anybody? Whatever it is that makes your blood race and puts your hands where you know they really shouldn’t be.

The thing that opens the cage. 

Here’s Cleo’s review.

Review copy

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But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

but-a-short-time-to-live

Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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The Beautiful Dead: Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer’s crime novel, The Beautiful Dead begins with the brutal slaying of a young female office worker. We don’t know the name of the killer, but we know that he’s driven by dark impulses that won’t be satisfied with one bloody death. Eve Singer, reporter for iWitness News, on the so-called “meat beat,” is so repulsed by the murder scene that she ends up vomiting in the toilet much to the amusement of rival reporter and overall wanker Guy Smith from News 24/7.  

beautiful-dead

Even though Eve has worked on the crime beat for three years, there’s something particularly horrible about this crime, and even Joe, Eve’s cameraman imagines the horror of the victim’s death:

“Seriously,” he said while he checked the light. “Imagine all those people right there, half an inch away through a pane of glass, Christmas shopping. While some sicko is gutting you like a fish.”

One death soon becomes two, and it’s at that point that Eve is contacted by the serial killer who stages spectacular gory deaths and imagines that he and Eve are somehow in this ‘thing’ together:

We’re in the same line of work, you and I. I need people to die in order to live–and so do you. We’re the same. We want the same things.

Eve already doesn’t like her job and feels morally compromised by certain situations when she begins getting special favours from the killer–without giving too much away–she basically gets a ringside seat. In terms of scooping news stories, this is, of course, a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time, giving the killer a voice and an audience may encourage him. So Eve has a moral dilemma: should she use the exclusives the killer gives her?

Belinda Bauer sets the stage to show us Eve’s desperation. Eve has financial concerns, and she’s in a highly competitive career . If she’s too squeamish to use the killer’s news exclusive ‘gifts,’ others are not, so it’s very easy to justify forming this sort of uneasy partnership with the killer. Also Eve’s job in front of the camera has a very definite shelf life; can she afford to be ethical? But on the other hand if she forms this slimy alliance with a psycho, how will she sleep at night?

There’s a lot of backstory (sometimes too much) to this tale and we see Eve’s problematic home life where she has the burden of her father’s care. We see Eve’s day-to-day job where it’s normal for her to intrude on private lives and speculate on the grief of the families of victims. She’s already engaged in behaviour that most of us would avoid when the serial killer decides to be her ‘friend.’

I really enjoyed Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye which took a different path in its exploration of crime and psychics. The Shut Eye was not gory, and so I was not really prepared for the amount of gore in these pages.  Readers are best warned before coming to the book that the deaths occur on the page, so to speak. I really liked the character of forensics officer, Veronica Creed who has “the calm detachment of a psychopath, but none of the comforting iron bars between her and the rest of the world,” and I wished we’d seen more of her. Super-serial killers are not my favourite crime sub-genre, so that added to the gore and a Hollywood-style ending all combined into a less than positive reading experience.

But for an entirely different opinion, go to Cleo’s review here.

Review copy

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Filed under Bauer Belinda, Fiction