Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cold Flat Junction by Martha Grimes

Cold Flat Junction follows on from Hotel Paradise which was a mystery novel complete in itself, but leaving enough for its young detective, Emma Graham, to uncover in a follow-up book. If you remember, Emma's curiosity was piqued by a photograph showing a family of stern looking aunts, their pretty younger sister, Rose, and their niece, Mary Evelyn, who drowned in mysterious circumstances forty years before.
    It is also the story of two murders, the first twenty years ago, when Rose was discovered stabbed in the chicken house. Taking the blame for her killing, her husband, Ben Queen, has just been released from prison, when their daughter, Fern, is shot dead near Lake Noir.
    Taking up where her inquiries had left off, Emma is determined to prove Ben Queen innocent, while also discovering the identity of the mysterious pale girl, who looks exactly like Rose. She is pretty sure that the key lies way back in the past, before the drowning of Mary Evelyn, who she is certain was killed by her aunts. But what reason would they have to hate her so much?
    The novel meanders its way around Emma's interviews with a wide cast of characters - many of whom we've met before: Sheba and George Queen, Miss Landis the schoolteacher and the regulars at the Windy Run Diner at Cold Flat Junction. Much closer to home, she teases out more stories from nonagenarian Aunt Aurora who reveals a potential scandal.
    Dwayne the mechanic will help out with transport to Lake Noir, and the spooky Brokedown House, while Ulub and Ubub and Mr Root will be among those few who take her seriously. Meanwhile Emma's mother, her martini guzzling business partner, Lola, and Lola's daughter the vapid ReeJane, all take a holiday leaving the hotel's few guests in the hands of Emma, her brother Will and the dishwasher dogsbody Walter. Good old Sheriff DeGheyn is patently upset on Emma's behalf, but the holiday gives Emma more chances to slip away and investigate in places that would appal her mother if only she knew.
    But DeGheyn is reluctant to heed Emma's concerns when it comes to Ben Queen's innocence and he remains a person of interest. This gives the story enough urgency to keep us all on our toes as things move along to a very surprising ending.
    Blended in with the story are some nice literary touches such as the deus ex machina, which is a crucial part of the musical production of Medea that Will and his friend Mill (Brownmiller) are putting together. Then there are the references to William Faulkner, a favourite author of Dwayne's, particularly the novel, Light in August, which gives Emma a clue to her mystery. There's also a lot of cigarettes and alcohol - truly Emma doesn't have a typical childhood - and endless meals. This gives the book plenty of colour as clues to the past slowly unfold.
    This is another satisfying read from Grimes, who is a whizz with atmospheric settings and quaint small-town characters, producing an imaginative story that shows just how the present can be mired in the past. But then the best stories so often do.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

There's nothing like a map at the beginning of a book, snuck in between the title page and Chapter One to whet your curiosity. And what could be better than a map of central Paris complete with the Isle de la Cite, Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower? Robert Goddard's novel The Ways of the World has exactly that being set in the city of light, during the spring of 1919, when Paris hosted many of the world's diplomats and heads of state in order to discuss the fate of the nations caught up in WW1 and set the tone of the new peace. Or something like that.
    When one James 'Max' Maxted - formerly of the Royal Flying Corps - discovers that his father has died suddenly in suspicious circumstances, he and his brother, Ashley, journey to Paris to bring the body home. Sir Henry, a minor diplomat, had fallen from the top of a building in Montmartre, upstairs from the apartment where he would visit his mistress, Corinne Dombreux. They'd met in Russia prior to the revolution, and Sir Henry, stationed in St Petersburg, had been a shoulder to cry on when Corinne's late husband had been unmasked as a traitor.
    Ashley, heir to the Maxted fortune, is happy to hush the incident up as an unfortunate accident and return their father for a quick and discreet burial. But James is determined to discover what really happened - he suspects foul play - and stays in Paris to avenge his father's death.
   It seems Sir Henry had contacts with a Russian organisation hoping to overturn the Bolsheviks and was in touch with an American seller of secrets, Travis Ireton. Also on the scene is Lionel Brigham, another diplomat who happens to be the lover of Max's mother. There are loads of suspects plus a cryptic document that would indicate Sir Henry was trying to raise some money. A quick search of his hotel room reveals a small key - the kind that is used for a safety deposit box - but what has happened to his diary? Max is up against the French police and the British Secret Service who don't want to cause any diplomatic upset that could stall the peace talks.
   Fortunately for us Max is determined, smart and fairly fit, in spite of his time as a POW - he'll need to be, particularly when up against Fritz Lemmer, former spymaster to the Kaiser, and Tarn, a particularly ruthless assassin who can kill and vanish into the night. It's also good news that Max has his old flight mechanic mate, Sam Twentyman, on hand to help out when things get tight.
   The two make a great team - Max, a man of action, has a privileged background, so he knows how to talk to the diplomatic lot. Sam comes from a family of bakers - he hopes he and Max will realise their dream of starting a flying school so he doesn't have to join the family shop - and he's a lot more down to earth and good fun, though smart too.
   But The Ways of the World is really too busy delivering a ripping yarn to worry much about its characters, which are interesting enough, but not particularly complex. It is a story loaded with atmosphere both of the post WWI period and the setting of Paris during a not very warm spring. It also gives quite a good picture of the sort of diplomatic wheelings and dealings, the favours and bargaining that underpinned the Treaty of Versailles. A quick and diverting read, this is the first in a trilogy, which is good news and better still, the second book, The Corners of the Globe, has been recently released.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Mercy by Jussie Adler-Olsen

What is it about maverick Scandinavian detectives that we like so much? Eager to read beyond Nesbo and Mankell, I took a punt on Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen, and read the first in his Department Q series.  Mercy introduces us to his taciturn, difficult detective, Carl Morck. Of course we expect him to be taciturn and difficult (aren't they all?), but this guy is verging on antisocial, and who can blame him?
    Morck has just come back from extended leave, after a shooting which left him wounded, one fellow officer dead and another paralysed for life. He is bitter and burdened by guilt when he turns up at work, where he discovers he is to be in charge of Department Q. The government wants some high profile cold cases solved, and are happy to throw money at a police force which is critically under resourced, while Morck's boss is happy to siphon off a chunk of the funding to other departments.
    Morck's new office is in the basement and his only staff will be a kind of janitor dogsbody, a Syrian refugee named Assad. This is fortunate, as Assad is everything his boss isn't: willing, cheerful and polite. Assad is also smart, methodical and has contacts who know about forged documents. Somehow this comes in handy later on. Clearly he's a character full of mysterious potential that will slowly unfold as the series progresses.
    The two make up one of those oddball couples which detective fiction is peppered with, going back to Holmes and Watson. And it works really well, giving a potentially harrowing story a bit of light relief.
    By chance, one of the first cases that interests them is the disappearance of prominent young politician and party hopeful, Merete Lynggaard, assumed drowned. This is just as well, as all the while we have been getting to know Morck and his new set-up, Adler-Olsen has been feeding us scenes from Merete's imprisonment. For five years Merete has been locked in an underground bunker, which her captors leave in darkness, unless they feel like turning the lights on 24/7. You can imagine what that does for Merete's body-clock.
    Her captivity is lacking in basic sanitation, she's on minimal rations, and there is periodically an increase in the air pressure. Meanwhile she is left to try and figure out why she is being punished in this way. The reader is soon aware of two possibilities. In her political career Merete seems to have annoyed quite a few people and stirred up some potential jealousy. Or does the reason go back to her teens, when she was involved in a terrible car crash which destroyed two families? Her private life has been secretive, revolving around caring for her younger brother, whose mind was destroyed by the accident - a situation she tells no one.
    Whatever the reason, Merete's time is running out, and what seems to be a cold case has a sudden urgency which Morck and Assad take time to discover. There's nothing like a dose of dramatic irony to ramp up the tension in a story and it certainly delivers the goods in Mercy. The plot surges towards a dramatic showdown that makes the shooting described at the beginning of the book seem like a minor scuffle.
    Mercy is a brilliant opening to a very promising series, with enough page-turning action and nail-biting suspense to keep you interested, nicely balanced with interesting characterisation and wry humour. It is as well that the story tends to sweep you along, because I found some of the writing a little clunky - probably due to the translation into English - something I've never experienced reading Mankell. It won't stop me picking up the next books in the series though.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes writes the Richard Jury detective novels, which regularly see its charismatic Scotland Yard detective sort out a complicated murder mystery, the plotting of which would have done Agatha Christie proud (high praise from me indeed!), aided by his good friend, the reluctant peer Melrose Plant, and set around a quaint English hostelry which also lends its name to the title. Somewhere in the mix there is often an intelligent and quirky kid.
    When Grimes decided to write Hotel Paradise, she began a series of novels where the kid is the sleuth, in this case the quirky and intelligent Emma Graham. Emma is twelve, and lives in an old hotel at Spirit Lake, once the site of several hotels that have long since closed up shop, as holiday makers found other, brighter spots to visit instead.
    The Hotel Paradise is still hanging in there, with Emma's mother running the kitchen, her wonderful cooking its main attraction. Her business partner manages drinks and accounts, but mostly drinks, while her ditzy daughter swans around as if she owns the place, much to the disgust of  Emma's great aunt Aurora Paradise.
     Aunt Paradise lives on the top floor, drinking cocktails and reliving the past, which comes in handy when Emma begins to look into a forty-year-old tragedy, the drowning of another twelve year old girl, Mary-Evelyn Devereau. Brought up by aunts, it has long been a mystery why Mary-Evelyn took a leaky boat out onto the lake one evening, her disappearance not noticed or ignored until it was too late.
    Emma is similarly ignored by her own family, her mother too busy with the hotel, her brother and his pal writing and performing plays, so that apart from her regular stints waiting tables, she has a lot of free time. No one knows what she gets up to or where she goes, which is convenient for investigating a possible murder. Her friendship with the local police chief, the handsome, dependable Sheriff DeGheyn also comes in handy as well as her talent for cultivating friendships with older people. When another mysterious death occurs which is connected to Mary Evelyn's family, it seems even more likely that Emma is on to something.
   Emma is a wonderful narrator, who never gives up, telling the most outrageous porkies to worm out the information she needs. She is so solitary, and put-upon at home, she has the reader's sympathy in spades - it just well people around town look out for her.
   Grimes has created some terrific small town characters, too: the speech impaired brothers, Ubub and Ulub, and their fellow bench mate Mr Root, who is always happy to translate. There's Maud at the Rainbow Cafe who would be perfect for the sheriff, if he wasn't already married. There are the elderly shopkeepers, Miss Flyte who designs spectacular candle arrangements and her neighbour Miss Flager who provides wonderful morning teas at the back of her gift shop, to say nothing of  the butterfly collector, Dr McCoomb who signed Mary Evelyn's death certificate all those years ago.
    The plot meanders through numerous amusing conversations and richly described meals as Emma slowly gets closer to what happened to the drowned girl. As a child of the same age, the reader is only too aware that Emma could also be in danger, and more than one character is a little sinister. This gives the book just enough tension to keep the reader up at night.
    When it comes to wry characters, droll observations, and the recreation of a place where time seems to have stood still, Grimes is second to none. By the end Emma has made some stunning discoveries that the police are not even close to finding, while there is still plenty of backstory to develop in the next book, Cold Flat Junction. What a joy!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Turning the Stones by Debra Daley

Turning the Stones could so easily have become an overwrought melodrama with its much thwarted but beautiful young heroine, a family that will do anything for easy money, a blackguardly smuggler with a heart of gold, a witch-like curse maker and a particularly nasty villain. But somehow Debra Daley's latest novel rises above all this to provide a stonking-good read.
   The reason for this is her writing style is brisk yet evocative, plus it has that slightly Irish lyricism that can be so appealing, all of which comes through the voice of Em, its much put-upon heroine. Em wakes up groggily in a man's Mayfair house, bloodstained and wearing only her shift, having lost her memory of how she got there. Soon she discovers that she is locked in and that the only other occupant of the bedroom has had his throat slashed.
    This is 1766, and Em will surely hang if she is caught, so hastily dressing she jumps out the window and flees, hoping to buy herself a passage to France with the purse she has found on the dead man's floor. Her escape and eventual rescue on the ship of Irish smuggler, Captain McDonagh, makes for a nail-biting bit of storytelling, which could have come out of a Stevenson novel.
    Interwoven with the escape story however is that of Em's background. It takes you back to Sedge Court, the Cheshire home of the Waterlands, a snootily gentile family desperate to cling to a fortune that is ebbing away as Mr Waterland takes up one hopeless scheme after another. His bitter yet beautiful wife soon realises that she needs to ensure a good marriage for her dull and graceless  daughter Eliza. But Eliza is obviously overshadowed by smart, lovely Em, the foundling she has taken care of and raised as a daughter/companion for Eliza.
    In a cruel twist of fate, Em is dumped into the servants quarters, and there is no more tutoring from the governess she has become attached to, just endless needlework and chores. Eliza's rakish brother, Johnny, has also noticed Em's obvious charms and makes plans to put them to good use. Everything is set on a collision course for the scene that Em wakes up to at the start of the book.
    But we don't only have the two story threads of Em's past and her precarious future to keep track of, however. There's also the occasional visit to the house of Kitty Conneely in Connemara, who with her witch-like incantations - the turning the stones of the title - is determined to bring Nora's daughter home, whoever Nora might be. And it is no coincidence that the ship on board which Em has found a temporary respite is headed not for France, but disappointedly for Ireland.
    Turning the Stones is a well-paced novel, full of dramatic scenes, nail-biting action and buried secrets, just as you'd expect, with shades of those early novels, Clarissa or Pamela (though I have read neither) by Samuel Richardson. The nicely turned writing balances out any tendency towards melodrama and its main character, Em, is superb - smart, witty and determined - as all good heroines should be. A surprisingly terrific read.