Tuesday, September 25, 2012

S is for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (RIP #3)

“Apart from the soul, the brewing of tea is the only thing that sets us apart from the great apes.” 
 Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

From the review at Amazon...
It's the beginning of a lazy summer in 1950 at the sleepy English village of Bishop's Lacey. Up at the great house of Buckshaw, aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce passes the time tinkering in the laboratory she's inherited from her deceased mother and an eccentric great uncle. When Flavia discovers a murdered stranger in the cucumber patch outside her bedroom window early one morning, she decides to leave aside her flasks and Bunsen burners to solve the crime herself, much to the chagrin of the local authorities.

This was a fun mystery to read. After reading two very bleak books about the horror of life in Germany during and after World War II, I was ready for something lighter and less serious. This book was actually set at about the same time period, and does reflect some of the hardships of post-War Britain, but it is not nearly so grim.

The book did not interest me when it first came out. With a precocious 11-year-old as the detective, I thought it would be too cutesy. Plus, mysteries featuring amateur detectives are not my favorite type. But there are always exceptions.  I ran into a review at Stainless Steel Droppings which convinced me I had to try the book. I found an inexpensive copy at the book sale a year ago, but only read it just recently.

This book is my pick for the 2012 Crime Fiction Alphabet for the letter S. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise for other entries for this letter. 

This post is also my third for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery and suspense.

The setting was appealing. The story takes place in post World War II Britain, with the attendant scarcity of goods and families trying to make do with what is available. Set in an English village, this is the typical cozy with quirky characters and a kindly policeman. The only atypical element is Flavia de Luce, our charming protagonist. She lives in a decrepit old mansion with her father, her two sisters, and an old friend of her father’s, Dogger, who is now the gardener. Dogger and her father were both soldiers during the war, and Dogger came back with severe psychological problems.

Although the main character is very young, this is very definitely not a children’s or young adult book. It does have the cozy elements of little violence, no graphic killings, no explicit sex, and (mostly) clean language. It even reminds me a bit of the Harry Potter books. No magic or sorcery, but the same feel. Those books were written as young adult novels, although read by many adults. But in this novel, Flavia is the only child that has much of a role at all, and she interacts mainly with adults. And although there is some introspection on her lot in life, that is not a primary focus at all.

It is a bit unrealistic to have a murder solved by an 11-year-old child, but the author pulled it off to my satisfaction. The person who is inevitably suspected of the crime is her father, and naturally she wants to prove that he did not do it. And, being very intelligent, resourceful, and apparently fearless, she endeavors to do just that. Her relationship with the police inspector is charming. He plays a supportive role without seeming to be shown up by Flavia. Inspector Hewitt and Dogger are my favorite characters, after Flavia, of course.

It remains to be seen if the series can maintain my interest. The reason for Flavia’s involvement in this crime investigation is clear. In future books, will it be realistic for her to play a part in crime solving? I am quite willing to suspend disbelief, if the author can keep me interested in the story. I have a copy of the next book in the series, but that is partly because it has a skeleton on the cover.

Some quotes from this book:
I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me:
"If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!"
Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located.
I'd have to think of something else.
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie." When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to "Cyanide," I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one "Dearie."
 There was no way out; not, at least, in this direction. I was like a hamster that had climbed to the top of the ladder in its cage and found there was nowhere to go but down. But surely hamsters knew in their hamster hearts that escape was futile; it was only we humans who were incapable of accepting our own helplessness.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fall Into Reading 2012

I was visiting My Reader's Block this weekend, and saw that Bev had joined a Fall Reading Challenge. The Fall Into Reading Challenge over at Callapidderdays is designed to be a very low pressure challenge.

I decided this would be a great challenge for me to participate in because it will help me focus on what I want to read in the next three months to complete other challenges.

Extracting from the description of the rules for the challenge,  here’s what you need to do:
  • Create a list of books you’d like to read or finish this fall. This is the only real requirement for participating in the challenge.
  • Write a blog post that includes the list of books you want to read (and any additional goals you’ve set), and visit Callapidder Days on (or after) September 22nd to sign up for the challenge. 
  • Read! Work on your goals throughout Fall 2012.
  • Report your results. Write another blog post in December to let everyone know how you did. There will be an official wrap-up post to the challenge on December 22nd, where you’ll be able to share your results.
My Goals

These are the specific books I will be aiming at completing for this challenge.

I have seven books left to fill in for the A-Z Reading Challenge, and these are the ones I plan to read in the next few months.
V:   The Vault by Ruth Rendell
X:   XPD by Len Deighton
Y:   The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Z:   Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharon McCrumb
The other letters not yet completed are A, J, and K.

Zombies of the Gene Pool is a sequel to another book, that I will read before that one:  Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharon McCrumb

To read The Vault, I need to first read The Monster in the Box (2009) and A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998) by the same author. Although A Sight for Sore Eyes is not a book in the Inspector Wexford series, The Vault is a sequel to that story. When I complete those books, I will have finished one series for my Finishing a Series Challenge.

In addition to the Inspector Wexford series, there are three other series I want to finish this year for the Finishing a Series Challenge:

S. J. Rozan (Bill Smith, Lydia Chin Series) (one to finish)
11. Ghost Hero (2011)

Len Deighton (Bernard Samson Series) (3 remain)
7. Faith (1994)
8. Hope (1995)
9. Charity (1996)

Laurie R. King (Kate Martinelli series) (4 remain)
2. To Play the Fool (1995)
3. With Child (1996)
4. Night Work (2000)
5. The Art of Detection (2006)

There is only one other challenge that I have not completed AND that I know what I want to complete for the challenge. It is the Chunkster Challenge.

I am currently reading The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans for that challenge. This is a very long book, and I am a slow reader, especially non-fiction that is dense with information and ideas. It is going to take me a while to get through this one. I hope I finish it before the end of the year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quarterly Checkpoint #3 for Mt. TBR Challenge

This quarter I have read 17 books that count toward the 2012 Mt. TBR Reading Challenge. Combining that with the 22 books read for this challenge in March, April, May and June, I have completed a total of 39 books.

I completed this challenge on July 4, 2012, when I finished reading The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot. I will continue tracking novels I have read this year from my To Be Read stacks, because I want to know how well I have done in reducing my TBR stacks. Unfortunately I don't get rid of most of these books and I still don't have enough room to store all my book, read or unread.

Books I have read (with links to reviews):
  1. Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath
  2. The Information Officer by Mark Mills
  3. The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot 
  4. Flesh Wounds by John Lawton 
  5. Death of a Russian Priest by Stuart Kaminsky
  6. The Suspect by L. R. Wright 
  7. Under World by Reginald Hill 
  8. Bullet for a Star by Stuart Kaminsky 
  9. A Lily of the Field by John Lawton
  10. Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh
  11. The Property of a Lady by Anthony Oliver
  12. Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
  13. Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
  14. The One from the Other by Philip Kerr
  15. A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
  16. Lament for the Bride by Helen Reilly 
  17. Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
This challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block and it was the first challenge I ever joined. It has been a great motivator for me to really dig into my TBR stacks, shelves, and boxes, and I am looking forward to continuing it next year. Check out the fun at this post and the quarterly checkpoint post.

Answering two questions from Bev for this quarterly summary of progress...

Looking ahead to next year's challenge: Is there a level that you'd like to see added?  
I think a level at 30 or 35 books would be good (but I have no suggestions for names for those levels). I would probably challenge myself to 30 or 35, but I would not go as high as 40... even though I will surpass that level this year.
Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way?
I had two surprises. One was my reaction to Whiskey Sour. I expected to like it better. It was a quick read and enjoyable. But... I don't generally go for humor in mysteries, and there were creepy and graphic elements, and for me, they did not blend well. I liked the dynamic between the two partners, they reminded me of Jane Rizzoli and her partner in the Rizzoli & Isles TV show (not in the books). That part seemed very realistic, believable. If I read more books in a year, I would probably continue this series. As a slow reader, I have to pick and choose and I don't think I will find time to continue it.
I was also surprised by my reaction to the two Jacqueline Winspear books: Pardonable Lies and Birds of a Feather. On the one hand, I loved the setting and the theme. The novels are set in Europe in the time period following World War I and revolve around life following the war and the effects it had on people's lives. But I found the solution of the mystery to be less satisfying than the overall story in both books. I did not like the emphasis on Maisie's feelings or intuition. There were far too many coincidences. Usually I am not this picky with mysteries and I know there are other mysteries with these "problems" that I have enjoyed. So it is hard to figure out exactly why I was so critical of these.
This quarter I only read three books for the Vintage Mystery challenge (one was not from the TBR stacks), and I have to pick up my reading in that area. On the other hand, I read 5 books by authors I have never read before, so that is a boost to my progress on the New Authors Challenge.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

R is for Helen Reilly

Today I am featuring a vintage mystery author, Helen Reilly, for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

The following biographical overview was included in the Ace Double edition that includes two books: Not Me, Inspector and The Canvas Dagger (abridged). That edition was published "ca. 1965".
Mrs. Reilly grew up in New York City, where her father, Dr. James Michael Kieran, was president of Hunter College. She herself received her education there until she married the late Paul Reilly, artist-cartoonist. Her brother, John Kieran, is the distinguished sports writer and naturalist. Ursula Curtiss, the well-known mystery writer, is her daughter. Mrs. Reilly was an active member, and past president, of the Mystery Writers of America. In recent years she made her home in New Mexico.
Per Goodreads, she had another daughter who also wrote mystery and suspense novels: Mary Reilly Wilson wrote under the pseudonym Mary McMullen. 

There is an extensive article at Mystery*File written by Mike Grost which analyzes Reilly's writing style and the genres she fit into. What I gleaned from that article is that her novels were among the first to feature police procedures, and that later novels lean toward the Had I But Known sub-genre. Most of the novels featured New York City police Inspector Christopher McKee.

Earlier this month I read my first book by Helen Reilly. It was Lament for the Bride, and my review is here. See the lovely front and back cover art for this book at that post.

This book was one of her Inspector McKee novels. However, he is offstage in much of this book and the action does center around the bride of the title. I would call this more a "damsel in distress" story. Even though that type of book would not be high on my list of favorites, I found this book enjoyable and definitely want to sample more of her mysteries. This one was set in Florida. Most of the McKee books are set in New York and some of the later ones are set in New Mexico.


Many of Reilly's mysteries were published in beautiful paperback editions. This may have been how I first discovered her. I collect (on a very small scale) vintage paperbacks, usually mysteries. My favorites are Dell mapback editions, Pyramid Green Door mysteries, and any with a cover featuring a skull or skeleton. 

Per Wikipedia, here is a description of mapback editions from Dell:
Mapback is a term used by paperback collectors to refer to the earliest paperback books published by Dell Books, beginning in 1943. The books are known as mapbacks because the back cover of the book contains a map that illustrates the location of the action. Dell books were numbered in series. Mapbacks extend from #5 to at least #550; then maps became less of a fixed feature of the books and disappeared entirely in 1951.  
The first Helen Reilly mapback pictured above is the The Opening Door. The Mike Grost article mentioned earlier notes that this book is of the Had I But Known type, and discusses some of the characters in that novel. He rates that novel as one of Reilly's poorest works. But the cover is beautiful.

Another mapback edition I have is for Mourned on Sunday. See this review at Beneath the Stains of Time

Bev at My Reader's Block has reviewed several books by Helen Reilly. Check out this review of The Silver Leopard. There is a mapback edition for that one too and I hope to get that someday.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise for other entries for the letter R.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Q is for A Quiet Flame

The Bernie Gunther series, written by Philip Kerr, consists of eight historical mysteries set primarily in Germany in the years preceding and following World War II. The fifth book in this series is A Quiet Flame.  To this point in the series none of the action is set during the actual years of World War II, although there are references and flashbacks to that time.

Philip Kerr published his first novel, March Violets, in 1989. It is set in 1936 Berlin, just prior to the Winter Olympics. Two other books in the series followed in quick success, published in 1990, and 1991. The second, The Pale Criminal, is still set before the war. The third, A German Requiem, was set in Vienna in 1947.

Together they were republished as a trilogy: Berlin Noir. This description on the back of my copy of that volume is a good brief description of the three books:
Ex-policeman Bernie Gunther thought he'd seen everything on the streets of 1930's Berlin. But then he went freelance, and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture. And even after the war, amidst the decayed, imperial splendour of Vienna, Bernie uncovered a legacy that made the wartime atrocities look lily-white in comparison...
It was not until 15 years later that Kerr returned to this series with The One from the Other. As much as I enjoyed the first three novels, that fourth book is my favorite (so far). That book takes Bernie to 1949, continuing to try to survive in post-War Germany, but this time in Munich. My review for that book is here.

A Quiet Flame, published in 2008, is split between 1932 Germany and 1950 Argentina. I hate to tell much about the plot because it could reveal some of the important points of the previous book. And this series is really best read in order.

Bernie has arrived in Argentina with an assumed identity, along with a lot of other Germans seeking asylum there. He ends up investigating a young girl's death, which is possibly linked to murders he investigated in 1932. Bernie's past as a policemen is more fleshed out, but I did not enjoy the blending of the two story lines as much as I expected to. It may have been the complexities of both plots that seemed a bit much to me, and I sometimes got confused about where Bernie was.

I did like the portion of the story set in 1932, going back to the years he was a homicide cop in Berlin, the time right before Hitler became Chancellor. As a background to the investigation, we see the tensions between co-workers who were on opposite sides and Bernie's despair over the the direction the country is taking.

The sections set in Argentina were also good (but gruesome). I am interested in why that country welcomed Germans who were hoping to avoid punishment for war crimes, and what life was like there at that time. I knew very little about that. Having survived all the years leading up to the war and getting through the war, Bernie accepts his life as it is at this point, but is willing to look under the rocks to solve some mysteries relating to missing Jewish immigrants in Argentina.

I wish I could describe Bernie's character well enough to convey why I love these books. He has done things he is ashamed of, in order to survive. But even after all he has gone through, he has a conscience. He has standards, and he won't let others control his actions. I love this passage, toward the end of A Quiet Flame. Bernie is listing all the things that he blames for the horrible things the Nazis did.
I blame Himmler and Goering and Hitler and the SS and Weimar and the whores and the pimps. But most of all I blame myself. I blame myself for doing nothing. Which was less than I ought to have done. Which was all that was required for Nazism to succeed. I put my survival ahead of all other considerations.
As I said in my review of The One from the Other, I find these books difficult to read. They are not uplifting. But for all of that, they are among my favorite books and I would not have missed them. And I will be reading the next three in the series in the next few months.

This post is my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter Q.   Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lament for the Bride: Helen Reilly (RIP #2)

Lament for the Bride, published in 1951, is a vintage mystery novel, part of a long series featuring Inspector McKee of the Manhattan Homicide Squad. It is a hybrid, part romantic suspense, part police procedural.

The events unfold primarily from the point of view of the damsel in distress, a young woman (Judith Fescue) who has married a man she does not love (Horace Fescue) after losing the man she does love (Charles Darlington) to another woman. And this situation might not be so bad, except that her new husband is manipulative and controlling, and they keep running into the old love interest.

This book is almost equally divided into two parts: the first part leading up to the crime and the second part focusing on the detection of the crime.  This is similar to the structure I noticed in Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (review here).

In this case Inspector McKee, shows up at the beginning of the book, because the husband’s life has been threatened. To this point the story has taken place in New York, which is where McKee is based. The couple moves on to St. Augustine, Florida, in preparation for a cruise to “southern waters.” 

They end up at a "big white colonial house in the middle of the town that was as shut away as though it were on a desert island." And right next door is Horace's first wife and her entourage of relatives and friends. There is eventually a murder, and the death threats take on more gravity.

This is a story of its time -- the 1950’s. The characters are mostly rich and powerful, or once rich and powerful. People who are used to having money being about to do what they want. The bride is from outside of that world, a woman who worked for a company her husband owns.  A lot of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout also focused on the well to do, who could afford Wolfe's fees. In this case, McKee is following the case because the husband is an important New York financier.

Only the bride's motivations and character are fully fleshed out. The remaining characters are murky and threatening. The main suspense is in determining what is really going on with this group of people gathered in Florida, and discovering who is what they seem and who is not. I did not get a full sense of Inspector McKee... he is referred to as “the Scotsman,” and he is doggedly trying to solve the puzzle. 

This is the first Helen Reilly novel I have read. I would like to read some of the earlier mysteries that focus more on McKee and his police work.

I have started a 50 State Mystery Challenge at Goodreads, and this novel, set primarily in Florida, is my first book for that challenge.

This post is my second for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery and suspense.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The One from the Other: Philip Kerr (RIP #1)

This post is my first for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books ghastly or ghostly, and the book I am reviewing definitely has ghastly elements.

This book begins with a quote attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
And this describes Bernie Gunther’s journey. Accepting what he has to accept in life, trying to change what he can.

In The One from the Other, Bernie Gunther is a private detective in post-war Germany. He is a former policeman who was in the military in the Great War and in World War II. He takes on some missing person cases with connections to ex-Nazis. Bad things happen.

Gunther was the protagonist of three earlier books by Philip Kerr, published in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Together they were republished as a trilogy: Berlin Noir.  I read those books six years ago. They were powerful, compelling reads. 

From a review at Allintensivepurposes:
The first novel, March Violets, is set in 1936, and Gunther is retained by an industrialist to retrieve a stolen diamond necklace. I don't think I'm giving much away if I say that the investigation leads him into struggles between Nazi factions. The second, The Pale Criminal, is set two years later, and finds Gunther recalled to law enforcement by Reinhard Heydrich to the solve a string of murders of teenage girls. Here again, Gunther's investigation soon places him amidst political intrigue. The third, A German Requiem, finds Gunther summoned to Vienna in 1947 to assist with the defense of a pre-war colleague on trial for the murder of an American officer.
In The One from the Other, published in 2006, Gunther is now a private detective in Munich. Most of the work he finds is unappealing but he takes whatever jobs he can get to support himself. One of these jobs leads him into a situation where he is beaten severely. During his recovery, he is befriended by a doctor who allows him to recuperate in his home in Garmisch-Patenkirschen, a mountain resort town in Bavaria and home of the 1936 Winter Olympics. At this point things seem to get better, but not for long.

Like the first three books, The One from the Other is written in the hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler, told in first person narrative and loaded with similes. One reviewer noted that this lightens the tone of an otherwise very dark and gloomy novel, and I suppose it does, but not a lot. Germany before, during and after the war was a hard place to exist; it is difficult to read about the problems most people faced and the twisted, evil people who gained power in this environment.

I liked everything about this book. The story, the setting, the portrayal of the characters. The overall feeling of the book is gloomy and resigned; the picture of Germany at the time is depressing. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to read. The only thing I noticed is that for the first half of the book there is no murder and it seems more like a historical novel than a mystery. That would not be a problem for me anyway but the story definitely has mystery / thriller elements in the second half.

Post-World War II Germany is portrayed in a  very convincing way. The author has done thorough research in order to depict this time chillingly and authentically. This novel is more bleak than most I have read set in this period. As in many historical mysteries, the author inserts real characters from history: in this case Adolf Eichmann is the most prominent.

I think this book could easily be read as a standalone, but the reader would enjoy the book more and have more understanding of the protagonist if the series was read in order.

There are two reviews for this novel at Eurocrime. This one links to the second one.

This page at a fan site has more description of the first three books and links to reviews.

Monday, September 3, 2012

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII

Luckily, I stumbled upon the announcement of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event this weekend. And I am very excited about joining in. The event started seven years ago, but this is the first year I have been blogging, thus the first year I am participating. (You do not have to have a blog to participate.)

This event is hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. The event starts in September and goes through October and celebrates "all things ghastly and ghostly" as we move into Fall.

A description of the event:
The purpose of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII is to enjoy books and movies/television that could be classified (by you) as:
Dark Fantasy.
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.
There are two simple goals for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII
1. Have fun reading.
2. Share that fun with others.
See this post for specifics on how to join in on the fun. There are several levels of participation and several areas to participate in. In addition to books, movies, and television, you can post about short stories or join in group reads. There is a R.I.P. Review Site where participants may post links to any book or screen posts related to this event.

I love this event for so many reasons. Its flexibility. The art work. But most of all, the opportunity to see what others have read and reviewed, and visit new blogs.

I have chosen these perils:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.
Since almost all of my reading falls in the categories of mystery, crime fiction, espionage fiction, and the occasional thriller, this will not be too ambitious for me, even with all the other things going on in these two months. I do plan to pick some books and films from the more ghastly end of the spectrum, in order to stretch a bit.

I plan to include some of these books in my choices for this event, but I am remaining flexible:
Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharon McCrumb
A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell
Ghost Hero by S. J. Rozan
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler
The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe
The Coffin Dancer by Jeffery Deaver
Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver
The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville 
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

This is for those of us that like to watch suitably scary, eerie, mysterious gothic fare during this time of year. It may be something on the small screen or large. It might be a television show, like Dark Shadows or Midsomer Murders, or your favorite film.
For this one, my husband and I plan to view these films:
Shutter Island 
Description at Wikipedia:
Shutter Island is a 2010 American psychological thriller film directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name.
Rear Window
Description at Wikipedia:
Rear Window is a 1954 American suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes and based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder".

Sunday, September 2, 2012

P is for Pardonable Lies

The Maisie Dobbs series, written by Jacqueline Winspear, is set in England in the years following World War I. The focus is primarily on how much the Great War affected the lives of everyone in Europe. I enjoy reading about World War II in fiction. Recently, I have found that reading about the events of World War I and the intervening years between the two wars is also beneficial to gaining more understanding of the reasons for World War II.

I recently read one of the books in the series, Pardonable Lies. From the description of the book at the author's website:
In the third novel of this unique and masterly crime series, a deathbed plea from his wife leads Sir Cecil Lawton, KC, to seek the aid of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator. As Maisie soon learns, Agnes Lawton never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the Great War, a torment that led her not only to the edge of madness but also to the doors of those who practice the dark arts and commune with the spirit world. Determined to prove Ralph Lawton either dead or alive, Maisie is plunged into a case that tests her spiritual strength, as well as her regard for her mentor, Maurice Blanche.

I am in a quandary as I write this review. I did enjoy reading the book. I definitely plan to continue reading the series. But I have enough issues with the mystery plot and the way the book is written to find it hard to recommend this series.

I liked Maisie as a character and she is growing on me with each book I read. Her development from the lower classes (a maid) to a more elevated position in society is an example of how the class system was changed after World War I, although I would think it was unusual.

I find the portrayal of London, rural England, and other parts of Europe during the years following World War I to be interesting and well done. Maisie was a nurse during the war and suffered losses and experienced traumas that continue to haunt her. Almost everyone that Maisie encounters has been affected by the war. I learn new facts about World War I and Europe during that period with every book in the series. I believe that the author has done exhaustive research into the times.

In those areas, I want to keep coming back for more.

In my recent review of Birds of a Feather, I listed my reasons for finding the mystery plot unsatisfying.
  • Maisie has psychic gifts. Although she strives (at least in the books I have read) not to use them, she does use feelings and prickles on the back of her neck to guide her to the solution. 
  • The author withholds clues that Maisie has discovered. Some of my favorite mystery authors do that, but I found it very annoying in these books. 
And in Pardonable Lies, there are a lot of coincidences, way more than I am comfortable with. There are too many plot threads, some related to Maisie's cases, some related to her personal relationships.

My recommendation:
If you ignore the mystery aspects, and view this strictly as a historical novel, it is a good book.

If you are reading this for the mystery, maybe not. Depends on your tastes. Many mystery readers are not bothered by the issues I found to be negatives in a mystery, and it is a very popular series. I think it is definitely a series worth trying. I am usually in favor of reading a series in order, but I have found that to be less important in this series.

This post is my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter P.   Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

I also read this as part of my commitment for the World War I Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mysteries in August and Pick of the Month

I read seven books in August and all of them were mysteries.One of the things I noticed about my reading this month is that all of the books were set in earlier times. Three of them are historical mysteries, and the others were published in the 1980's or before. No contemporary fiction this month. I enjoyed all of the books I read this month, but it is easy for me to pick a clear favorite this month.

The mysteries I read this month were:
  1. A Lily of the Field by John Lawton
  2. Spy Sinker by Len Deighton
  3. The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry 
  4. Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh
  5. The Property of a Lady by Anthony Oliver
  6. Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
  7. Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Kerrie encourages bloggers to link summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month.

Birds of a Feather and Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear are part of the Maisie Dobbs series. The novels are set in Europe in the time period following World War I and revolve around life following the war and the effects it had on the people. In these books, Maisie's development from a servant in a rich household to an educated young woman with a career, and the relationships she has with friends and relatives, are just as important as the mystery.

The Property of a Lady is one of four books by Anthony Oliver. It was published (and set) in the early 1980's, and it is an English village mystery. I would describe it as a cozy with dark elements.

Night at the Vulcan (1951) is a very enjoyable vintage mystery novel by Ngaio Marsh. The story is set in the theater, and revolves around the arrival of a young, aspiring actress who is without funds and desperate for any job in the acting company. It was my only vintage mystery for this month.

The Miernik Dossier is the first novel in an espionage series by Charles McCarry. McCarry is one of my favorite authors and I love espionage fiction. This was not my favorite book in the series, but it is certainly a unique and entertaining novel. The story, set in the late 1950's, is told entirely through documents, including but not limited to transcripts of conversations and diary entries.

Len Deighton's Spy Sinker was another in an espionage series, the sixth of nine books. This is a favorite series of mine, and I am trying to get through all nine books by the end of the year. The series centers around Bernard Samson, an intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service. The first five books are told in first person, with Samson as narrator. This book is in third person narrative, focusing on Samson's wife, who is also an intelligence officer.

And now we come to my favorite book of this month... A Lily of the Field by John Lawton.

The Inspector Troy series by John Lawton is one of my favorite crime fiction series. Overall, the series provides a compelling picture of England before, during and after World War II. Most of the books are a combination of historical fiction, espionage fiction, and police procedural, although some of the books don't have a strong espionage element.

Like some other books in this series, A Lily of the Field covers a span of years. It starts in 1934, leading up to World War II, covers some events during World War II, and picks up again after the war is over. The first portion of the book is called "Audacity" and features Méret Voytek, a talented young cellist living in Vienna, who is not Jewish but ends up in Auschwitz; her teacher and friend, Viktor Rosen, who ends up interned in England on the Isle of Man; and Dr. Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist, who is involved in the development of the atomic bomb. The second part of the book, "Austerity," is set in 1948 London, and brings in Frederick Troy and his brother Rod, who was also interned on the Isle of Man due to issues with his citizenship. This is a longish book, and seems almost like two books, although there are definite links between the two stories.