Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Red Door by Charles Todd

I was drawn into this novel featuring beleaguered 1920s detective, Inspector Ian Rutledge, by the promise of a parrot being a key witness. The Red Door starts out with what looks like two crimes - the murder of a woman in a small Lancashire village, and the disappearance of one Walter Teller. Walter is a man of the church and before the war was a missionary, but has been having a crisis of faith. After a paralysing illness he makes a surprisingly rapid recovery and decamps from hospital, vanishing into what seems thin air.
    Rutledge interviews his family - his wife Jenny, and his two brothers, Peter and Edwin and their spouses, but nobody has any idea what has been troubling him or if they do they aren't letting on. They're the kind of well-to-do family where the three sons were earmarked from birth for the traditional careers - the eldest to inherit the land, the next in line was to go into the church and the youngest sent to the army. But did any of them feel a sense of vocation in what they had to do?
    Of all of them, only Peter seems to have had a career that suited him, in the military, but the war has left him crippled and in endless pain. So not a happy bunch then.
    When Walter suddenly turns up of his own accord, Rutledge's case seems to be at an end, until the widow of a Peter Teller is found murdered in her own home. A former schoolteacher, Florence Teller  lived a sad life, waiting for her army officer husband to return from the far-flung corners of the earth, and left alone to bear the grief when their young son died of typhoid fever. She had waited for Peter after the war, welcoming him by painting the door of her house red, but he never returned. Surely this Lieutenant Teller and Walter's brother are one and the same.
     But what about that parrot? Somehow Rutledge agrees to find a home for the much loved pet that the Lancashire Peter Teller had given his wife. Every night when a blanket is put over the cage the parrot says 'Goodnight Peter, wherever you are.' I had hoped for more revealing phrases, but the parrot's testimony while damning is quite subtle, and not likely to stand up in a court of law.
    Rutledge will have too look harder to find the real culprit. Meanwhile there are meetings with Meredith Channing, the attractive young woman Rutledge can't forget and his godfather, David Trevor, makes a surprise visit to London with his grandson, sparking Rutledge's ongoing guilt for not visiting in Scotland. And of course the voice of Hamish, the officer Rutledge had to shoot for disobeying an order, is always lurking in the back of Rutledge's mind.
    This is the usual layered and artfully put-together kind of mystery we have come to expect from Charles Todd, building up to a sudden showdown at the end involving a mad killer. Todd includes a lot about duty - the expectations placed on the wealthier classes, the endurance of those not so well off. I found lots to enjoy including a wonderful evocation of time and place - the grand houses, the charming gardens, the busy London streets all circa 1920. It all adds up to a wonderfully escapist read and a real page-turner, without being particularly demanding, in the classic Christie mould.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

After the Bombing by Clare Morrall

People struggling with events from the past often feature in Clare Morrall's subtly nuanced novels, and what could be more harrowing than losing your family in the blitz of World War Two. This is what happens to fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, Alma Braithwaite, when bombs rain down on Exeter in 1942. Her parents are doctors, killed when the hospital takes a direct hit, as does the boarders' house at Goldwyn's School.
    The girls have been chivvied out to the safety of their shelter to await the all clear, and the sound of the raid is truly terrifying. Fortunately Alma is in the company of her best friends, lanky Marjorie (Giraffe), brazen Natalie and Jane Curley (Curls) who has a prodigious talent for playing the piano with concerts and recordings already to her name.
    With nowhere else to go, the girls are eventually found billets throughout the town, and Alma and friends find themselves under the care of Robert Gunner, a junior lecturer at the university and warden of Mortimer Hall, the hostel for the small group of undergraduates who haven't been swallowed up by the war effort. Gunner himself is only twenty-seven, but with a serious limp has been turned down by the services. He does his bit with fire duty each night, and now has the care of four young girls on top of everything else.
    The novel switches between the spring of 1942 as the girls settle in at Mortimer Hall and the unsettled feelings that run between the various occupants there to twenty-one years later when a new headmistress is set to begin at Goldwyn's School. Wilhemina Yates is determined to shake things up and make improvements but comes into conflict with the music mistress, none other than Alma Braithwaite.
    Alma has never left Exeter, never left her parent's house, where she rattles around alone with total disregard for housework, and apart from her brief stint training to be a teacher, has never left her old school. As the new school year begins, she sees she is to have young Pippa Gunner in her form class. Could this be the daughter of Robert Gunner and will their paths cross again after all these years?
    When Robert learns who Pippa's form mistress is, he too is perturbed by the thought of past events flooding back from those weeks after the bombing. And even Miss Yates has her own secret that she fears could destroy her career, and her own post-bombing trauma.
    All three characters are on a collision course that forces them to relive what happened during the war, and if possible move on to a new future. Morrall has made them each well-rounded and difficult in their own way, enough to drive the plot towards its clever ending. For even though they are impelled by what happened over twenty years ago, their confrontation is set against a major event on world stage from the present - 1963, that is - not too hard to guess what that could be!
    Initially I had been deterred by the thought of yet another book about the war, but really I should have realised that this would be an original and engaging story, with an author like Morrall at the helm. One or two recurring themes here from previous books include the power of music to transform lives, as well the problems associated with reclusive and socially awkward personalities - themes that are well worth revisiting as they make Morrall's books so interesting.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

Everything seems to be going well for Maisie Dobbs in this latest instalment - she has plenty of money thanks to an inheritance from her former mentor Maurice Blanche, she has a wonderful relationship with James Compton, the son of her benefactor and her investigation business is going well with two loyal staff. But she is starting to develop itchy feet.
    Her new case is to look into the death two months before of an Indian woman, Usha Pramal, who was shot on the banks of the Camberwell canal. Her brother, a reasonably well-to-do engineer, has arrived from India, requesting the police reopen the case, and crusty old Inspector Caldwell has turned to Maisie to do the leg work.
    Maisie's investigations take her to a lodging house run by former missionaries, Mr and Mrs Paige. Here they offer accommodation to Indian ayahs who have been let go by their English families once their children have been packed off to boarding school. The Paiges seem altruistic, helping the woman find respectable work, mostly cleaning houses, and looking after their money until they have enough to return home. But how much money are they keeping for themselves and why are they reluctant to talk to Maisie? And why is their chum, the local vicar, so cagey about his time in India?
    Mr Pramal tells Maisie about an Englishman who formed an unsuitable passion for his sister - he was in fact the reason Usha agreed to go to England with the family who employed her. But no one knows the name of the Englishman or why Usha left her position so suddenly and needed rescuing by the Paiges.
    Many clues must lie in the character of Usha herself who, according to all who knew her, was a genuinely beautiful person, and who seemed to walk on air. When Maisie searches her room, she finds a large sum of money hidden in the mattress. Just when Maisie finds a witness who might have some information, - Usha's fellow inmate at the Paige's, Maya Patel -  the young woman is shot in the same way as Usha. The recent death gets the police back on the case, but the killer seems to have vanished without a trace.
     Meanwhile Billy is trying to find a missing person - in this instance a young lad who has absconded from Dulwich College (P G Wodehouse's alma mater in case you're interested). His father  has waited weeks before requesting help, hoping young Robert will come home, and while he seems genuinely concerned he isn't giving out much information.
     Of course, we all know that chances are the two cases will converge, but Billy seems to have lost his knack after almost losing his life in the previous book. Meanwhile James is pressing Maisie to make him an honest man and give up everything to travel with him to Canada, where he's going to help test some exciting new fighter planes. Hitler is rattling his sabre and there's sure to be another war - this is 1933 after all.
    Jacqueline Winspear has put together another nicely-turned mystery with her determined investigator, Maisie Dobbs, and doing her usual good stuff with her period setting. Her descriptions of the plight of unwanted ayahs adds a bit of historical interest too. And while the book keeps you interested with all its twists and turns, it does get a bit bogged down with Maisie's anguish over what to do next. It seems that change is in the air with the next book, due out later this year, and I'm pleased as Maisie was getting into a bit of rut. How she adapts to the coming storms of another war could be interesting.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Facts of Life and Death by Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer writes a stonkingly good murder/suspense story, and The Facts of Life and Death is no exception. Written partly from the point of view of ten-year-old Ruby Trick, it describes the activities of a serial killer in coastal Devon. Young women are abducted, often at night, told to strip and then to phone their mothers, who have to listen to their daughters' final moments of distress. It is a cruel and chilling M.O.
    While this is all going on, Ruby has problems of her own. Her parents live in a run-down cottage in the small hamlet of Lymeburn on the coast. The walls are damp and the cottage is in a woeful state of disrepair. John Trick has been unemployed for two years - while Ruby's mother, Alison works long hours as a chef for a restaurant in a nearby town.
    We learn that the two are from very different families - John from a broken home, while Alison was the very beautiful daughter of middle class parents. Ruby seems to have been the reason for their early marriage, but now cracks are appearing in their relationship and they scarcely have a kind word for each other.
    Meanwhile tubby Ruby hangs out with a small group of Lymeburn kids - among whom she has a bit of a crush on Adam - dreaming of owning a pony and eating cookies and chocolate at every opportunity.
    Bauer has a particular gift with characters, which come to the page vividly believable and full of the quirks that make them interesting. I particularly enjoyed DC Calvin Bridge, the young copper, who has become a detective to avoid the hassle of keeping his uniform neatly ironed.
    Calvin's life gets very complicated when he is flung in at the deep end partnering the attractive DCI King on a difficult murder case. He makes some shocking gaffes in her presence while at home he foolishly agrees to marry his girlfriend so that she won't interrupt the sport he's watching on TV with floods of tears. He manages to redeem himself by spotting one or two clues, but the body count continues to rise.
    Belinda Bauer has created another atmospheric south of England setting with the wind, rain and sea all adding to the tension of a town under siege. It is the site of a once profitable ship building industry - the source of John Trick's redundancy - plus there is the small town snobbery and the meanness of children at school. Ruby gets her fair share of this, but fortunately has a kindly teacher.
    It all adds up to a story that reels you in, while the tension of a killer who begins to take more and more risks makes the story hum along. The inevitable is put in motion and the book finishes on a high point with all the key players plus the weather on a collision course that you can't tear yourself away from. I am glad that Bauer doesn't pump out her fiction as I was completely exhausted by the end and will need time to recover before I tackle another on her list.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cicada by Moira McKinnon

Moira McKinnon's impressive first novel begins when Emily Lidscombe, a well-to-do English woman, gives birth to a black baby at Cicada Springs, the holding she runs with her husband in Western Australia.  This is a challenging situation to begin with and her husband, William, reacts with rage and vengeance. Set just a few years after First World War, this is a time when the relationship between white landowners and Aborigine people is difficult at best.
    Distraught, terrified and still recovering from the birth, Emily escapes into the wilderness on horseback, accompanied by her Aborigine maid, Wirritjil. Most of the rest of the book follows their escape and survival in the relentlessly hot and arid landscape, while William sends John, his stockman, and his war veteran brother, Trevor, to hunt them down and bring Emily back.
    The two women form an uneasy alliance, and gradually Emily begins to trust Wirritjil, though she is hampered by an injured foot that threatens to turn septic. Fortunately Wirritjil knows how to keep them both alive and her bush survival skills make for fascinating reading.
    By chance, Emily and Wirritjil meet a helpful herdsman who is part of a team taking their cattle to Broome on the coast. She asks him to send a telegraph to her sister in England as Kathryn Lidscombe is smart and will know what to do. But soon the story of the missing women is out and events call for a police contingent to search as well. The pace picks up and what starts out as a survival story becomes more nail-bitingly tense as the women's pursuers close in.
    Scenes showing the harsh treatment of Aborigine people, their marginalisation on their own land, and summary punishments for minor offences are vividly recounted. But they aren't the only victims. William is disturbed by feverish dreams and fears no doubt brought about by his tuberculosis. He has been rescued by Emily's mother from a poor family, educated and cared for as a kind of pet project. The farm is to be the making of him but it is all going wrong and he'd rather be a poet. Trevor, illiterate and haunted by what he had to do in the war is also struggling.
    In fact you are hard placed to find a white character with any dignity - most are brutalised by their attempts to make a living in such a harsh terrain and their dealings with the Aborigines, seen by the whites as inferior with a potential for mischief. Kathryn is a breath of fresh air, but the main heroes are the Aborigines Wirritjil and the tracker, Charcoal.
     Moira McKinnon has an academic background in indigenous health and has researched widely to paint a brilliant picture of Aboriginal folklore, language and their close connection with the land. She obviously has a barrow to push, but this doesn't make the book a simple exposition. The story is strong enough to sweep the reader along and her descriptions of the landscape, wildlife and weather are breathtakingly real. Cicada is altogether riveting.