Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

The quotation on the cover of Elizabeth Speller's novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, compares it to Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong - a glowing recommendation if ever there was one.  This is the first book in a series featuring Laurence Bartram, a former infantry officer in the great conflict of WW1. Laurence has enough time on his hands to dabble in the occasional mystery while pretending to write a book about church architecture.
    Until, that is, Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend, requests his help. She wants to know why her once confident brother committed suicide. Sure, he had a terrible war, and suffered badly from shell-shock, but he seemed to be so much getting better. And then there is the question of some strange bequests John made in his will to people his family had never heard of.
    Laurence has a bit of crush on Mary and is only too happy to oblige, even if he is somewhat diffident about his ability to discover anything useful. But he's charming enough in a polite, public school kind of way, and people are happy to talk to him.
    First there's William Bolitho who helped rescue John from a collapsed tunnel, now confined to a wheelchair and married to feisty Eleanor. The rescue only partly explains John's bequest, and Laurence is certain there's something else the Bolithos are hiding.
    Another bequest is to a Mrs Lovell. This one's even more peculiar in that she has no recollection of having met John Emmett, and can only imagine that he was a friend of her son who was killed in the war.
    There are more question marks hovering over the care John received at his nursing home where there are rumours of harsh treatments. And then there's a photograph that Mary has found among John's effects showing John with a group of soldiers. This clue looks more promising and reveals what turns out to be a firing squad. As a reader, one's antennae are immediately waving furiously, but it takes Laurence a bit longer to get stuck into finding out more about John's involvement in the execution of a fellow officer.
    While on the one hand this reads like a mystery novel, there is a lot more to it than the drama surrounding an ex-serviceman's suicide. The book creates a grim picture of the kind of battlefield justice that occurred during the First World War, and the terrible and ongoing damage the war had on a the different kinds of people caught up in it all. These characters are given plenty of depth to be believable and engage the reader's empathy.
    Bartram is at first just a nice, helpful chap, but his story is just as poignant as everyone else's and it's no surprise he's a bit of a softy. It is just as well he has his old school pal Charles at hand - also at a loose end for something to do - as he provides a bit of back-up when things look dangerous. Charles does the driving and puts his trusty service revolver to good use, thankfully, or there might not be a Laurence Bartram around for the next book in the series. This would be a shame because the blend of mystery, and sympathetic characterisation is a winning combination.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas writes a refreshingly different sort of crime novel and Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand is no exception. It begins in the normal way - with a body - only this case is out of Commissaire Adamsberg's jurisdiction.
    The young woman found stabbed to death near Strasbourg reminds Adamsberg of a series of murders that he first came across in the 1970s, back when he was still living in the village of his boyhood home. Another young girl was killed - this time the girlfriend of his brother Raphael. Adamsberg, then a rookie policeman, had to act quickly to ensure his brother wasn't fingered for the crime.
     His chief suspect was the hawkish and aloof Judge Fulgence, an unpleasant man who lived nearby. Adamsberg hunted the judge over the course of his serial killing career but was never able to bring him to justice.
    The Strasbourg case gives the Commissaire a strong feeling of unease. When Adamsberg goes to view the body, his worst fears are realised - three stab wounds that are in perfect alignment and equidistant. The weapon could likely be the garden fork or trident that Fulgence used years ago. Adamsberg is certain the judge is operating again, and yet how can this be when he has been dead for years?
    Meanwhile, his second in command, Capitaine Danglard, is unusually frosty with Adamsberg. Has the Commissaire done something to upset him or is it because of their forthcoming trip to Canada to study the latest in forensic techniques? Danglard is terrified of flying and would do anything to avoid it.
    Much of the book's humour comes from the relationship between the two policeman as well as the contrast between the French police and their French Canadian counterparts. At first the Canada visit seems to be a detour from the main story - Adamsberg discovers his one true love, Camille, is in Montreal and is besieged by jealousy. Yet here another trident murder takes place and Adamsberg has trouble proving his own innocence. To avoid being thrown into a Canadian gaol, he becomes embroiled in a madcap scheme to escape back to France.
    Vargas again writes a clever mystery that is highly original and combines light-hearted moments with darker ones, irony and emotional depth. I love the odd characters she throws in, all of them unusual enough to seem well-rounded, such as the two old ladies Adamsberg hides out with in Paris: the calmly sensible Clementine who determines to fatten the Commissaire up, and the more genteel Josette who turns out to be a master hacker.
    The characters themselves are often wonderful story-tellers, particularly Adamsberg, but also his Lieutenant Retancourt and assorted witnesses, such as old Barlut, who grew up in the same town as the judge. The story is peppered with unusual facts about smoking toads, prehistoric fish and even Mah Jong. All of this combines to make the novel a very rich concoction and all the more satisfying for something that is so entertaining.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Sixpenny Song by Jennifer Johnston

Sometimes all you need is a simple story, just a few characters and well-considered, natural prose, which is what you get in Jennifer Johnston's latest novel, A Sixpenny Song. It's a small book, but it kind of sneaks up on you with its depth of feeling and evocativeness. 'Acerbic, lyrical, witty and heartbreaking,' it says on the flyleaf and I would have to agree with all of that.
    The book is about Annie, who at thirty, has been living in London and avoiding her childhood home since leaving school. She works in a bookshop and lives simply in a rented flat. Her father, a wealthy businessman with a talent for making money, nurturing it as you would a garden, was always a tyrannous, larger than life figure and she couldn't wait to get away from him.
    His sudden death is a shock and Annie returns to Dublin for the funeral and where she discovers she has inherited the family home. Suddenly life has new possibilities - if she sells the house she could buy her own bookshop in a pleasant nearby village, like Glashule. Annie begins to make plans.
    But when she bumps into Kevin, the odd job man who works in  her late father's garden, Annie is drawn back to the past and the story of her mother, Juliet. There is so much, it seems, that people want Annie to know. When Annie visits Kevin's aunt, Miss Dundas, the old lady reveals that she and Juliet were great friends. There is a painting Miss Dundas made of Juliet, that she is eager for Annie to see.
   Then there are the diaries that Annie's Dada wrote including the years of his marriage to Juliet, leading up to her tragic death when Annie was a child. The diaries reveal so much pain, anger and heartbreak that it is hard to imagine why he didn't destroy them unless he wanted Annie to read them.
    And then there is Kevin - so charming and supposedly carefree, the sort of man Annie could even fall for. Over assorted dinners, outings and walks, Kevin describes another side to Juliet, and a story that includes loneliness, powerlessness, a secret affair and despair.
    It turns out that a journey home for Annie becomes a journey into the past. While her parents may be dead, their terrible story threatens to overwhelm her.
    Johnston is a master storyteller and imbues the narrative with plenty of atmosphere - of the house, the surrounding countryside, the weather and through music. She does this without having to throw in lengthy descriptive passages, yet the reader is left with very vivid images of the setting. This is a short but accomplished novel that will stay with you long after you have finished reading.


Friday, 14 March 2014

A Lonely Death by Charles Todd

A Lonely Death is another in Charles Todd's Inspector Rutledge series, featuring the back-from-the-war, Scotland Yard policeman who can never forget the trenches. The shell-shock that marks him has made sleep something to fear while inside his head, lurks the voice of Hamish McLeod, the officer he had shot for refusing an order.
    Because of this Rutledge is something of a loner, too afraid to get close to anyone in case they discover just how damaged he is. But from the point of view of story-telling, Hamish and Rutledge form an interesting duo. However much they resent each other,  Hamish's comments are often helpful in assessing a witness and frequently alert Rutledge to danger.
    This time Rutledge is in Sussex where three bodies have been discovered in the town of Eastfield near Hastings. Each were men who had survived the war, only to have been garrotted not far from their homes. It seems there is a serial killer at work, and his signature is to leave an army identity disc in each victim's mouth.
    With three men dead, the police track down the remaining five ex-servicemen from Eastfield, and Rutledge at first considers that an event during the war is the reason for the deaths. Or does the answer lie closer to home? The third victim, Anthony Pierce, was the son of a wealthy brewer, but his brother, Daniel, had a reputation for getting into trouble. Daniel left Eastfield under a cloud and has fallen out with his father, the wealthy owner of a brewery. Does he have a secret agenda involving vengeance? And why does the local school headmistress resent Rutledge's involvement in the inquiry?
    It all creates a fairly interesting mystery, the tension running high with the fear that the killer will strike again. But there's a further mystery as well, bequeathed to Rutledge by a retiring senior officer at Scotland Yard. This cold case hinges around the death of an unknown man found strapped to the sacrificial stone at Stonehenge - the only clue to the killer is the remnant of flint in the body's stab-wounds.
    On a personal level, the war rears its ugly head again when a good friend commits suicide, unable to cope with the failing hearing and mental anguish that are a legacy of his time in battle. And Meredith Channing, a woman Rutledge can't seem to forget, comes to him with a strange request.
     These subplots round out the story nicely, lifting the novel from being a straight-forward whodunit and give our dogged policeman a chance to develop his character further. The story builds towards an exciting scene in a moonlit churchyard, with Rutledge stalking the killer - or is the killer really stalking him? A Lonely Death is very hard to put down an is a welcome addition to a series that is becoming a firm favourite.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Early on in Fowler's latest book you know something is seriously amiss in Rosemary's world. In 1996 she's a fifth year university student who is still trying to find out what she might be good at. Early on she tells us she used to be a great talker. As a child she talked so much that her father would tell her to begin in the middle.
    Which is how We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves starts off - with Rosemary describing a family that has dwindled to just herself and her parents. A family whose members scarcely talk to each other. And we learn that seventeen years ago, Rosemary's sister, Fern, disappeared and a year later her brother left home.
    The story see-saws between the middle - where there's an interesting scene in which Rosemary finds herself charged with disruptive behaviour and assaulting a police officer alongside a flamboyant drama student called Harlow - and the beginning, filling in the gaps of Rosemary's childhood that will lead us to discover the elephant in the room - the story of Fern.
    The middle describes Rosemary's sort-of friendship with Harlow, who has a talent for getting in and out of trouble. Rosemary doesn't usually have friends because she has never been able to trust herself to talk, not wanting to reveal too much of herself, which is usually the foundation for friendship. It is lucky she has a nice flatmate or she would be seriously alone.
    And the reason why she is so alone, so adrift and unable to settle on one particular course or another, is that she was from a baby a part of an experiment, and her sister wasn't really her sister but a chimpanzee. From the 1930s to the 70's, behavioural scientists were fascinated by primates and their similarity to humans and in particular whether or not they could be trained to communicate with people using sign language.
    While much was documented about the animals at the heart of such projects, the story of the children raised with them was not. Taking up the challenge, Fowler has created a well-researched and believable novel that is also hugely original. Rosemary is a quirky, sensitive narrator with a dry sense of humour, when she could so easily have been self-pitying and too damaged to be sympathetic. It is obvious that the experiment that has made Rosemary the way she is has done some harm, but it has meant she has a very original view of the world. At the back of her mind is the thought that Fern and her brother, Lowell, are out there somewhere and it is surely her destiny to try to find them, and this creates a powerful storyline.
    While the novel has a lot to say about the cruelty associated with scientific experimentation on animals - and there are some startlingly haunting images here - there's also plenty of warmth and humour. Fowler creates such interesting characters, and the scenes she throws them into - the bars, cafes, student apartments and even the police station - are entertaining particularly when seen through through Rosemary's eyes.
    It takes a real talent to produce a book that has a powerful message and is also fun to read. And Fowler just keeps getting better and better; this is an author who is definitely on my watch list.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women is classic Barbara Pym, a novel concerning the seemingly small world of Mildred Lathbury, one of those capable, sensible women who people turn to for help in a crisis. She can be depended on to provide cups of tea and even meals, and helps out with jumble sales at the local church where she is close friends with the vicar and his unmarried sister, Julian and Winifred Malory.
    At thirty-one, Mildred is considered a spinster - this is the 1950s after all - and with a small legacy, she has enough to live on while doing charitable work for a society that helps impoverished gentlewomen.
    All this makes Mildred sound rather dull, and yet as a narrator she is anything but. Not only is she witty and can come up with a pertinent quotation at the drop of a hat, she is perceptive about the motives of others and her own feelings as well.
    As the story begins, Midlred's old school chum has just moved out of the neighbouring flat and new neighbours - the glamorous Napiers - are moving in. They're going to have to share a bathroom, so establishing a cordial neighbourliness early on is important. And sure enough, there are soon pleasant chats over the teacups and Mildred discovers that the Napiers have marital difficulties.
    Helena Napier made one of those hasty war-time marriages, swept off her feet by the charming Rockingham Napier, but years later, she finds him shallow. Her anthropologist colleague, Everard Bone is so much more stimulating. Rockingham however finds Helena messy, lacking in domestic skills and is careless with his cherished period furniture.
    Meanwhile at the vicarage, Julian and Winifred are dazzled by their new lodger, Allegra Gray, who seems so suitable in every way, being a clergyman's widow and attractive to boot. Could Julian begin to rethink his vow to remain an unmarried vicar?
     Midred's ability to act as a sounding board and readiness with the tea pot means that much of what happens is told through conversations. She is tugged one way and then another, charmed by the Napiers and then called to act as a go-between; ignored for weeks by the Malorys in favour of their new lodger, only to be the one they turn to when it all turns to custard.
    We meet a cluster of hilarious minor characters - the no-nonsense Sister Blatt, who punctuates conversations with the a disdainful snort or clickings of teeth; Everard Bone's dotty mother and her paranoia regarding birds - it seems no character is without their peculiar quirks.
     Excellent Women is very entertaining in a quiet, understated way, and is a good reminder of how daftly misguided people can be, even with the best intentions. On top of this we have Pym's quaint and fast vanishing world, in itself a source of fascination.