Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Return to Fourwinds by Elisabeth Gifford

I was impressed with Gifford's debut novel, Secrets of the Sea House, and was soon happily ensconced in this story about two families across two generations. It's another book about secrets - how we love those - and begins when the Donoghues and the Colchesters get together at the Colchester's home, Fourwinds, to celebrate the marriage of their children, Sarah and Nicky.
    There's a bit of a difference in class between the two families, so it's fortunate that Sarah and Nicky are so devoted to each other, and we are in the late twentieth century after all. Soon you learn that Alice Colchester's family briefly cared for Peter Donoghue as an evacuee during the war, but this fascinating tidbit is quickly put aside when Sarah suddenly loses her voice and does a bunk days before the wedding.
    If that isn't enough to get you interested, the plot sweeps you back fifty years to Ralph Colchester's childhood in Valencia, in the early 1930s, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Young Ralph misses his father, who has fallen out with his mother and taken up an engineering job in South America. Left with scarcely a bean to support herself and Ralph, Lily has found a home for them with English banker, Max Gardiner, working as his 'housekeeper'. Mr Gardiner is kindly to Ralph, and the three socialise with other emigres, while Spain shimmers in the heat and there's a wonderful exotic sensuality about it all.
    I would have been quite happy with just Ralph's story - there is such a lot to explore with his peculiar family arrangement and the political situation in the background. But all at once it's the war (the big one) and we meet Peter, growing up in poverty in Manchester, with a tubercular mother and a drunken Irishman for a father. When he and his brother are evacuated to the countryside, Peter is taken in by the Hanbury family and is given a glimpse of another life, one full of music and learning and plentiful rations.
    While Return to Fourwinds is certainly engrossing, there is maybe a little too much going on, as we have to catch up with Alice's story and later Patricia who meets Peter after the war when he goes to London to study divinity. And of course the novel is switching forward in time to tell us where Sarah gets to, and how Nicky and parents are coping at Fourwinds.
    We chug along, filling in gaps for all these characters, until finally towards the end, there are a couple of bombshells and some fascinating stuff about what people like Max Gardiner were really doing in Madrid during the war. There is so much to like about Return to Fourwinds - Gifford is an accomplished stylist, and she has done her research to create an interesting scenario. However I can't help feeling that maybe just one big secret would have sufficed.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Droitwich Deceivers by Kerry Tombs

Kerry Tombs writes refreshingly old-fashioned mystery novels set in the late Victorian era featuring no-nonsense, smart thinking Detective Inspector Ravenscroft and his side-kick Constable Crabbe. Samuel Ravenscroft is married to Lucy, who being warm-hearted and impulsive is quite willing to get involved in a bit of sleuthing as well.
    In this case Ravenscroft is called out to Hill Court, the stately home of Sir Charles Chilton, a salt baron whose nine-year-old daughter has been snatched while wandering through the nearby churchyard. Ravenscroft is at a loss to understand why Sir Charles didn't get the local police onto things straight away, as you usually do with missing persons cases, and there is nothing to suggest a kidnapping plot that would lead to a ransom demand.
    But Chilton is an unpleasant bully of a man, used to getting his own way, his wife banished to her room due to her fragile mental state. Ravenscroft is under orders not to talk to her and he can't help feeling there's something odd going on and Lady Chilton may know something useful. And why would the governess, supposedly there to to keep an eye on her charge, slip into the church for five minutes, leaving little Mildred on her own?
    Meanwhile a distraught young woman visits Lucy, asking for help regarding her missing baby.  Alice Corbett has given her baby up for adoption to a Mrs Huddlestone, who has promised Alice she may visit baby Lily in a few months' time. However, unable to wait that long, Alice has gone in search of the Huddlestones, only to discover that she has been given a false address. Because her husband is so busy with the case in Droitwich, Lucy decides to do a bit of investigating herself.
    With loads of dialogue, quaint characters and humour, The Droitwich Deceivers is a quick and easy read. While it sheds a light on the plight of poor, single women with no means to support their babies, and even the more well-to-do ones who find themselves in marriages where they have no control over their destinies, it doesn't preach or tax the brain too much. There's enough action and nail-biting tension to keep the reader eager to discover the outcome of the Ravenscrofts' investigations - two missing children and an astonishing secret give the plot plenty to work with. A diverting read, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I shall certainly be seeking out more in the Inspector Ravenscroft series.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith

The Forever Girl deals with unrequited love, an aching longing in the heart of its main character, Clover, which begins when she is around six years old. The story takes place on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman among the expat families who make comfortable livings in banking and property development. Clover's father, David, is Scottish, a banker who works long hours, while her expat American mother, Amanda, plays a lot of tennis and swims in their pool. Their Jamaican housekeeper, Margaret, looks after the house and takes Clover and her brother to school.
    This might make the lives of Clover's parents seem rather shallow, but McCall Smith is better than that. He doesn't take cheap shots at accountants or people with more money than they know what to do with. He is empathetic towards Amanda, who feels neglected by her hard working husband and has a brain she doesn't get to use. Her brief dalliance with another man is treated sensitively and with understanding.
    And all the while Clover is growing up, her childhood friendship with James evolving into a crush she doesn't know how to handle, just at an age when James would rather play with other boys. Amanda sympathises and sensibly tells Clover she will grow out of it and to move on. The shift to boarding school in Scotland will surely settle the matter, but through her secondary school years and even when she goes off to university in Edinburgh, there is a lingering sadness about Clover.
   While she makes friends easily and develops a relationship with another student, this sadness seems to put a wall around her - you feel she can never be really close to anyone else. And it shapes her decision making as well, causing her to do embarrassingly awful things, making up stories and even following the object of her affections, just so she can get that little bit closer to James.
    A plot like this could have turned this into a truly dreadful sort of book, unless leavened with slapstick comedy, a la Bridget Jones, which The Forever Girl is anything but. What rescues it is the wonderful wisdom that McCall Smith throws in and the fact that Clover is oddly likeable. The subplot around Amanda is interesting, and the portrayal of a marriage in difficulty sensitively done. And then there is the expat world of Cayman Island - languid and hot, and full of discontent. It is the perfect setting for unrequited love to begin, and contrasts brilliantly with the more serious yet creative city of Edinburgh. A sojourn in Australia livens things up towards the end.
    McCall Smith is always a breath of fresh air with his originality of storyline and the philosophical musings that come through his writing. While the story is still entertaining, you reach the end of The Forever Girl feeling a little wiser - surely the best reason for reading fiction.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Chessmen by Peter May

The Chessmen is the third of Peter May's Lewis trilogy featuring former Edinburgh detective, Fin McLeod. In the first book, The Blackhouse, Fin returned to the island of his childhood to investigate a murder - a crime that turns out to be deeply personal and helps him decide to return for good. Now living with Marsaili, the girl he loved as a lad and never really forgot, and trying to reconnect with the son he didn't know he had, he has plans to restore his parents' house.
    But you can never really leave the force it seems, and Peter May throws a new case his way when a freak storm causes a 'bog burst', draining one Lewis loch of its water. Now a security officer for a landowner whose livelihood is under threat by large-scale poaching, Fin has been caught in the storm along with a small-time poacher and boyhood friend, Whistler Macaskill.
    Having sheltered from the storm in a hut, the two are astonished to discover that the empty loch is the resting place of the long lost plane belonging to their old friend and Whistler's fellow band player, Roddy MacKenzie. Roddy had disappeared in his plane fifteen years ago, when his band was at the height of its success. It was assumed he was lost at sea. The discovery of the body inside means finally a chance to bury Roddy properly but what is it about the discovery that so shocks Whistler that he vanishes into the wilds of Lewis? And what is it about the body that convinces Fin that the plane wasn't just Roddy's underwater tomb, but also a crime scene?
    There is a lot of backstory here, which May fills in with flashbacks to Fin's growing up and his time at high school when he first met Whistler, a flute player with a school band. The brains behind the band are Roddy and Strings, who write the songs, while the music is enriched by Mairead's haunting voice. She's also a bit of a stunner and gives her boyfriends the run around - usually she's with Roddy, but sometimes it's Strings, so you can imagine how that affects the band's cohesion.
    There's a heap of teenage hanging around, rushing off on clapped out motorbikes, experimentation and desperation to leave the island for the thrills of Glasgow and the wider world. Only Whistler - the smartest boy of his year - decides to stay and live the simple life, hunting for food, carving and doing odd jobs, while the rest of the crowd head off to university and life with the band.
    The back story switches back to the present and illuminates issues that dog the remaining characters on the island. Why is Whistler so difficult? And why won't his daughter live with him, preferring to stay with Kenny, something of a hard man and the guy Whister's late wife ran off with?
    May does a great job of shining a light on the little corners of the character's lives, the past and the present, to finally uncover what might have really happened all those years ago to cause Roddy to fly off in his plane for the last time. There's a lot to take in, and in the background is the island - its  beautiful landscape and problematic weather, the big lonely skies and the hemmed in quality it brings to the islanders' lives.
   You get to know a lot about Lewis, and its Gaelic language - there is luckily a pronunciation guide at the back of the book - and May includes some interesting history, such as the wreck of the Iolaire, when over 200 lives were lost. May really knows how to spin a yarn, and builds sympathetic characters, whose crimes are rooted in poor decisions taken at crucial moments, rather than out and out wickedness. This makes The Chessmen all the more moving and interesting, but doesn't stop May from throwing in a couple of big plot twists near the end.
    It's the last book of the series, but I am happy to finally leave Fin to get on with his life on the island and rebuild his family. There is probably only so much crime you can throw at a small place like Lewis, after all.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

Published posthumously, I was quite prepared for Civil to Strangers to be somewhat ordinary, by Barbara Pym's standards, that is. It was her second novel, after Some Tame Gazelle had unsuccessfully gone the rounds of the publishers, and like this one, no doubt languished in the attic - until recently.
    Of course if you don't like Pym, this won't bother you at all, and if you do like Pym, then you have the pleasure of a new one, decades after her death. And also the sorrow of realising that she could never be aware of the success she would enjoy today.
    Civil to Strangers is wonderful in that it doesn't appear to have been written by someone still perfecting her style. The writing has all the features we recognise in Pym, the small village, in this case it is Up Callow, where a lot of the action is centred around the rectory and its clerical types. There's a lovely scene in church where the sermon about embroidery, of all things, is mulled over by various members of the congregation. And there is Pym's trademark irony and her likeable if rather silly village characters and their little concerns, all bound together in a light, elegant style.
    Mostly, this is the story of Cassandra, who is really nice. She's quite nice looking, does things properly without fuss and always manages to say the right thing. She's married to Adam Marsh-Gibbon, a writer of difficult to understand novels, and as such the couple are much admired because Adam gives their village a bit of fame in the broader world. But Cassandra worries that she loves her rather self-centred, artistic husband more than he loves her.
    When an exotic Hungarian stranger takes up residence in one of the village's more notable properties, the village is abuzz with gossip. Thirty-year-old Angela Gay, who fears she may be left on the shelf, has found charming the austere young curate, Mr Paladin, an uphill battle so she soon switches her attentions to Mr Tilos the Hungarian. Unfortunately, Tilos falls for Cassandra instead.
    In the background the village characters ponder and discuss these goings-on, particularly Mrs Gower, who as the widow of an academic enjoys a degree of prestige, and Angela's uncle, Mr Gay, a handsome man of sixty who never quite realised his dream of marrying for money. With characters like these it isn't surprising Pym is sometimes likened to a modern Jane Austen.
    The drama moves to Hungary and there are amusing scenes on a train when Cassandra befriends some churchly types in an attempt to avoid Mr Tilos's advances. There are misunderstandings, dawning realisations and reconciliations, while one or two new romantic attachments develop in the background. Who knew village life could be so dramatic?
    You come away from reading a Pym novel feeling warmed and amused without any affront to your intelligence - there's even a smattering of literary quotations for fans of the classics. And with Pym's lively dialogue and whimsical style you can happily reread a Pym novel because like Cassandra's embroidery, it is so much richer for the inclusion of plenty of stitches.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Corners of the Globe by Robbert Goddard

I could develop quite a taste for spy novels, having just finished the second in Robert Goddard's trilogy featuring James 'Max' Maxted, a returned POW and ex-Royal Flying Corps fighter pilot. We first met Max in The Ways of the World, when he rushes to Paris to uncover the facts behind his father's death. A member of a team of delegates sent to help broker a stable settlement after World War One, Sir Henry was pushed off a building, a death made to look like suicide. Sir Henry was obviously aware of secret and damaging information and had to be silenced.
    Everything seems to come back to one man - Fritz Lemmer, onetime spymaster for the Kaiser, and now apparently determined to turn events in favour of Germany and its allies. By the end of the first book, the only way Max can discover what's going on is to enlist as an agent with Lemmer's network, secretly aided by Horace Appleby, a top man in the British Secret Service.
    The Corners of the Globe starts out in the Orkney Isles, where Max is sent by Lemmer to retrieve a document held by a German battleship commander. If you know about this area of history, after the war, the German fleet of battleships was interned here at Scapa Flow.
     Max soon realises the importance of the document he has been sent to get, particularly when people around him begin to die. A cryptically encoded list of Lemmer's agents seems too good to hand over so Max decides to make a run for it and return the document to Appleby, if he can just get to London. There are some hair-raising scenes involving jumping on and off trains and dodging Lemmer's henchmen.
    Meanwhile back in Paris, Sam Twentyman, Max's old flight mechanic, is carrying on with his work maintaining the ambassadorial motor fleet, when a meeting with Sir Henry's Japanese policeman friend, Commissioner Kuroda, causes Sam grave concern. Kuroda warns him that Friz Lemmer believes certain documents are in possession of le Singe, an Algerian thief and seller of secrets. Sam's acquaintance with le Singe in the previous book surely puts him in danger.
    And then of all people, Max's Uncle George gets caught up in the action, when some ancient artefacts sold by Sir Henry to raise money in a hurry turn out to be fakes and the buyer wants his money back. George agrees to go to Paris to hunt out the dealer, Soutine, who wouldn't you know is a close pal of le Singe's. Could he be dealing in secrets too?
    There are some very embarrassing secrets worth protecting, and quite a few eager to use them to advantage, among whom are our three American friends, Travis Ireton, the mysterious trader in useful information, his able colleague Schools Morahan and their savvy secretary Malory.
    I  found the Malory/Morahan/Sam team a particularly engaging set of characters, caught up in some intense skullduggery at the hands of the Japanese contingent. Everything seems to go back to Sir Henry's time in Japan; even Lemmer was on the scene there. While Max is legging it around Britain, Sam and the Americans are holding the fort in Paris, discovering what le Singe has been hiding.
    Max is really put through the mill, as Lemmer's agents come out of the woodwork at every turn. If he is somewhat too much the perfect upper-class hero, he is easily forgiven for being a little two-dimensional when you see what Goddard throws at him in a sequence of thrilling action scenes, leading eventually to Marseilles. By the end, Max is up against the wall as we reach one of those agonising last pages that finishes with those dreaded words 'to be continued'. Although it might seem impossible, the reader can be sure things will turn out just fine for Max, but unfortunately, we will have to wait until some time next year to find out how.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Reckoning by Rennie Airth

The Reckoning is the fourth crime novel featuring John Madden, a retired policeman from Scotland Yard, happily ensconced in the country. It is 1947, and the National Health Scheme is imminent, a royal wedding is in the wings and England seems to be looking forward to a new post-war era, in spite of ongoing rationing.
    An execution style murder on the banks of a Sussex river has the local police stumped. The killer, a youngish man in a red sweater was spotted by a farmer so you'd expect he'd be easy to catch, and yet he seems to have vanished. His victim, retired deputy bank manager Oswald Gibson, was a quiet, inoffensive chap who enjoyed fishing and belonged a local music society. Who could possibly want to kill him?
    Scotland Yard is called in and Madden's former colleague, Billy Sykes, is just as perplexed although there are a couple of useful clues: the murder is oddly similar to the death of a Scottish doctor and so may be the work of the same killer.  The second clue is even more astonishing. It seems, Gibson was writing a letter, which he never posted, addressed to John Madden. He'd had something he wanted to discuss with the ex-detective, but Madden has no recollection of having met the man.
    The death of Tom Singleton in Oxford, with a similar shot to the neck, indicates a serial killer is at large, while the similarity of the victims' ages suggest that all of them may have served in the First World War, like Madden. He decides there must be a connection in their past and what that link is must be found quickly or very soon there are likely to be more deaths.
    Madden pops into London to help an elderly aunt with some renovations - also an excuse to check in with his old colleagues who are running the case. Airth has produced some terrific characters here - along with ex-army Sykes, there's DCS Chubb, a plain-spoken but endearing bulldog of a man, and stout hearted Lily Poole, recently plucked from uniform and with buckets of nous. But it's 1947 and an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a female detective.
   The Reckoning had me completely riveted - so fortunate to have a wet Sunday as I couldn't put the book down. Not only has Airth concocted a satisfying mystery, but there's a good supply of action and plot-twists to keep the reader hooked. What's more the writing is superb and there is plenty of thought given to the ongoing trauma created by the first war to end all wars, but this never bogs the story down.
    You can quite happily read The Reckoning as a stand alone novel, but it is a pleasure to know that there are several more books featuring John Madden and his smartly intuitive detective work.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin

I don't often pick up mystery novels involving organised crime or gangs of thieves, but I felt happy to make an exception with the third Jim Stringer railway detective novel by Andrew Martin. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed and I was right.
    Martin throws Jim in at the deep end when he turns up for his first day as a detective, having lost his one chance at his dream job as an engine driver because of a terrible blunder that wasn't his fault.   Lydia, 'the wife', is pleased about this as she is smart and she knows Jim has a good brain and thinks he should use it. She is ambitious and modern, a working woman in her own right and pregnant with their first child.
    But back to Jim's first day. Instead of getting to know the rest of the team of York railway police, Chief Inspector Weatherill, a large, messy looking cigar smoker, sends Jim off to buy a scruffy suit so he can go undercover. His brief is to ferret out criminals involved in a spate of burglaries at the station.
    Jim buys a tired old suit from a second hand dealer, as well as a pair of spectacles, and promptly pushes out the lenses. He plonks the glasses on and his disguise is complete. Which is just as well, because an incident the previous day, has shown Jim just where he can begin. This involved the lost luggage porter of the title, a pale, sickly creature named Lund. It was Lund who not only produced Jim's missing railway magazines, but alerted Jim to a pickpocketing duo he referred to as the Brains and the Blocker.
    Perhaps it should have been Lund who joined the detective ranks, as Lund also tells Jim the pub, the euphemistically named Garden Gate, where he would find them. Jim declares his eagerness to join the gang, and after proving himself as a willing if not skilful pickpocket is soon taken on.
    But Jim hasn't bargained on the ruthless nature of the gang's leader, one Valentine Sampson, who has boasted of killing two policemen. When the gang pulls off a heist at York station after dark, a piece of action that involves some shooting and two potential casualties, Jim is hauled off to Paris with the Brains and Sampson. It seems likely that one of the gang has betrayed them, and Jim is put on watch.
    How Jim attempts to make his escape and return home makes for some entertaining reading, and the story rollicks along nicely. But what makes this book work so well is the way Martin builds up his characters, Jim's perky narration, the smart dialogue laced with humour and the period detail which makes you really feel you are in a railway station in the north of England, circa 1905. It is all of this that makes the series such an absorbing read and utterly original.