A Noël Killing (A Provençal Mystery, #8)

A Noël KillingA Noël Killing
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780143134060
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #8
Publication Date: November 12, 2019
Pages: 286
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Books

Just as the holiday cheer is in full swing, a man is poisoned, sending the community into a tailspin. The list of suspects, Verlaque and Bonnet quickly discover, almost fills the church itself, from the visiting vendors at the Christmas fair to the victim’s unhappy wife and his disgruntled business partner. In A Noël Killing, with the help of an ever-watchful young woman named France, the pair must solve the murder while the spirit of the season attempts to warm Verlaque’s stubborn heart.


In general, this series has been excellent in every way, but this one wasn’t its strongest entry.

The narrative meandered.  A lot.  It took several chapters to get a grip on what was going on, and who was doing what to whom.  There’s a slow build up to the crime, which I don’t mind, but because everything else was slow too, it was a battle to keep my attention on the book.

Once things did start moving, they felt scattered and disorganised, though this improved quite a bit as the story progressed.  Still, of the books I’ve read this month, this is the one I’m struggling most to remember anything about.  It wasn’t unpleasant or badly written, it just wasn’t a strong plot and it lacked the usual strong writing, or perhaps strong editing.

I’m happy to blame it on Covid and hope that the next one measures up to the first 7.

The Red Lamp

The Red LampThe Red Lamp
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: June 18, 2019
Pages: 289
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Penzler Publishing

William Porter has just inherited Twin Hollows, an isolated lakeside estate shrouded in mystery and doom. But William and his wife aren't easily swayed by ghost stories and whispered rumors. Until a shadowy apparition beckons to them from the undying glow of a red lamp. Is a stranger with a deadly purpose trying to frighten them away? Or are they being haunted by a chilling warning from the grave?


I knew this was a ghost story, of sorts, so I started it bright and early yesterday morning, and became so engrossed in the story that I almost, almost, finished it last night. leaving nothing but 3 of the last 4 conclusion chapters for me to read today.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was an excellent writer; that her genius has been so far forgotten today is a tragedy.  The Red Lamp was originally written in 1925, and putting aside the lack of technology and the beautifully elegant writing that today might be considered a tad verbose, the story holds up perfectly; it would take very little to make this story ‘modern’.

The Red Lamp is complex to the point of labyrinthine though.  Like the main character, I stumbled through the story in ignorance.  Some of this was by design, as the mc is meant to be a spectator not an active participant in solving the crimes, but some of it was because there was just so much going on and that beautifully elegant writing of Rinehart’s made for easy camouflage of any clues.

The book is, with the exception of the introductory and final 4 chapters, purely epistemological, with no chapters, just journal entries.  This style doesn’t always lend itself to a submersive experience for the reader, but these journal entries are detailed enough that it makes almost no difference from a first person narrative.

The ghostly part of the story, in spite of the enormous potential for scarring the spit out of me, were subdued enough that they never raised so much as a hair.  This was a wee bit disappointing, I admit, but it didn’t adversely affect the story; they were never the point of the book, it was always about the mysterious killings and there was never doubt that those killings were done by a very corporeal being.

All in all, this was an excellent mystery.  I’d recommend this to anyone curious about Golden Age Mysteries who might be hesitant fearing dry or dated story-telling.  While not perfect, The Red Lamp is most assuredly neither dry nor dated.

I read this for the Gothic square on my Halloween Bingo 2020 card.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries

Murder at the ManorMurder at the Manor
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780712309936
Publication Date: February 1, 2016
Pages: 384
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: The British Library

I read two stories from this anthology:  Gentleman and Players and The White Pillars Murder.  Both, it seems, stories I’ve already read elsewhere.  Luckily I only remembered enough to recognise I’d read them before, not enough to remember how they end.

Gentleman and Players is a Raffles short story deeply embedded in a country house cricket competition and is less a mystery than an adventure sort of story.  Mildly entertaining.

The White Pillars Murder is a G.K. Chesterton short mystery and it’s definitely a mystery, but the ending is beyond bizarre, and feels a bit like Chesterton is burning a bridge of sorts.  A bit preachy too. Not a fan.

I read these for the Country House Mystery square on my Halloween Bingo 2020 card.  Hopefully next time I pick up this book, I’ll remember I’ve already read these two stories.

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries

Capital Crimes: London MysteriesCapital Crimes: London Mysteries
by Martin Edwards
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780712357494
Publication Date: March 12, 2015
Pages: 319
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: The British Library

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known.

The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. Each story is introduced by the editor, Martin Edwards, who sheds light on the authors' lives and the background to their writing.


 

I’ve had this anthology on my shelves for a few years, always waiting.  Well, this year I needed to read a mystery set in London for 2020 Halloween Bingo and I finally remembered I had this wonderful stash of stories all in one spot.

For this year’s bingo, I chose – of course – Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox.  This is not a Sherlock Holmes story, in spite of the title, and it’s closer to horror than mystery.  It’s also classic Conan Doyle style.  As such, I guessed the twist at one point, when I read a specific sentence that reminded me of Holmes:

View Spoiler »

Don’t ask me why, but with that sentence I knew how the story would end.  And I was right, and it was horrifying.  Darkest London, indeed.

The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen ProblemsThe Thirteen Problems
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: The Agatha Christie Collection #
Publication Date: September 2, 2002
Pages: 201
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Agatha Christie Ltd/Planet Three Publishing

Thirteen short stories of unsolved crimes, solved by Miss Marple.


 

I (re)read this book for two reasons:  I belong to a group reading Agatha Christie’s oeuvre in order of publication, and it fit a Halloween Bingo prompt – 13.  Either one of those reasons would have been a good enough excuse to read this charming little collection of Miss Marple showing everyone up.

13 short stories: the first 6 of which share a common tie of being stories told at the Tuesday Night Club, an impromptu gathering where each person tells the tale of a mystery that went unsolved at the time.  The next 6 stories are tied together in a similar way, as stories all told around the dining table one evening.  The last story is a ‘stand-alone’ although it relies on the friendship established in the previous stories between Miss Marple and Sir Henry Clithering.

Without exception, each story is excellent.  Some are more excellent than others; in my opinion, The Blue Geranium is the absolute stand-out, though Motive vs Opportunity comes close.  The weakest was probably the last, for me, Death by Drowning.  It’s solid, but in comparison, duller than the previous 12 stories.

I have a confession to make about Agatha Christie’s books:  I dislike both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  I find that in the longer books Miss Marple tends to natter on a bit too much and plays the “old spinster” and “aww shucks” hands a little too strongly.  Hercule Poirot is just … an amalgamation of the worst traits of Holmes and Dupin is as close I can come to a description.  I don’t find him as comical as most.

However, these short stories offer the perfect dose of Miss Marple: for almost all the stories, her participation is relegated to the end, so the simpering is contained.  I also really tried, while reading these, to re-imagine Miss Marple in my mind by remembering the subjectivity of the descriptor ‘old’ and the stereotype of ‘spinster’.  Yes, Miss Marple has white hair and knits, but I know many a 50-60 year old that has white hair and knits.  I don’t recall her age ever being mentioned in the books I’ve read so far, so perhaps I dislike Miss Marple because of popular portrayals, combined with current attitudes about the adjectives that Christie used 100 years ago, when they covered broader spectrums.

I was partially successful; it was a struggle.  Ingrained conceptions die hard.  Fortunately I have a lot of books ahead of me to use for mental re-programming.  Now if only I could figure out a way to like Poirot…

As I mentioned, I read this for Halloween Bingo 2020 to fit the 13 square.

The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow

The Mystery of the Hasty ArrowThe Mystery of the Hasty Arrow
by Anna Katherine Green
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1917
Pages: 432
Publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company

Anna Katharine Green was noted for her scientific approach to the murder mystery. First published in 1917 The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow breaks more ground with her in-depth study in the psychological interplay between the murderer, the victim and the witnesses. Although more quietly paced, this mystery presents many elements of a current psychological thriller: blind ambition, narcissism, obsession and betrayal.


It’s a long-term goal of mine to read all of Anna Katherine Green’s mysteries and this one has been sitting on my shelves for awhile now.

AKG was, and is, considered a strong mystery writer, but as is true of most every writer, her work is sometimes better than others.  This was one of the ones that wasn’t quite so great, though still an enjoyable read.  I imagine Green was going for what we’d call today a police procedural, as the murderer isn’t kept a mystery; the reader is made privy to the information the same time Inspector Gryce first voices his suspicions.  I’m not a procedural fan, as it contains less puzzle than I prefer.  There was also a plot twist that was either poorly hidden, or I’m too jaded, but I called it from the first.  Her reveal of it, though, would have knocked my socks off if I hadn’t guessed early on.

Overall, I enjoyed it and look forward to acquiring more of her work.

 

Content copied over from: http://jenn.booklikes.com/post/2851626/the-mystery-of-the-hasty-arrow.

The Secrets of the Bastide Blanche (Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery, #7)

The Secrets of the Bastide BlancheThe Secrets of the Bastide Blanche
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780143131427
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #7
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Crime

A departure from the format of the first 6 mysteries, I had doubts at first (as always), but it’s possibly one of the best in the series.

Longworth tells this story from two angles, a few months apart.  One is set over a dinner in NYC, between an editor and a world famous, Nobel-level author, ostensibly discussing the possibility of the great man’s newest book, a memoir.  But over dinner, at the editor’s prompting, he tells the story of events that took place 3 months previously, in France.  The second angle is set 3 months back in time, focussing on Verlaque, Bonnet and Paulik as they find themselves in the middle of events as they unfolded.

The events surrounding the author’s purchase of the Bastide Blanche are the culmination of several past events and include haunting, gaslighting, kidnapping, and a missing woman.  Verlaque and Bonnet each delve into different parts of the house’s  – and the author’s – histories to try to untangle the mess of events.

Longworth created a story to get lost in; one of those where I should probably have liked some of the characters a lot less than I did.  It was well plotted, bringing an end that even though it was foreshadowed early on, was both unexpected and tragic for almost everyone.  My only complaint was a sketchy resolution concerning the house’s history; the reader gets enough to fill in the broad strokes, but I’d have liked to have known how much of the legend was real: was anyone buried in the basement?  (not a spoiler, btw)  But I did particularly like the ending, the editor’s advice to the author; yes, there was a mercenary aspect to it, but truth, redemption and justice won too.

An excellent traditional mystery series that isn’t anything like cute and fluffy, but rather intelligent and well-written, and one that seems to be getting better as it goes.

The Curse of La Fontaine (Verlaque and Bonnet Mysteries, #6)

The Curse of La FontaineThe Curse of La Fontaine
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780143110941
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #6
Publication Date: April 4, 2017
Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Crime

This one was better than #5, but not quite as compelling as the first few.  But I think that’s to be expected as a series progresses: familiarity with the characters and the storytelling creates a higher set of expectations.

Love has made Verlaque soft.  This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ll admit he’s slightly less interesting now that the sharp edges have been softened.  Marine had far fewer pages in this book, which was a little bit of a disappointment; I liked her presence and contributions to earlier cases in previous books.

There were several plots going at once, all interwoven together and delightfully – and believably – muddying each others’ waters.  Almost all of the stories were interesting (one was a bit meh) and the resolution concerning the murder victim’s drug usage/dealing was  so very cheeky; I loved it.  In the background runs the Curse of La Fontaine, adding a touch of atmosphere to everything.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and am very pleased there’s another one on its way; I’m really looking forward to its release.

 

This works for the Book themes for Advent: […] or a book featuring 4 siblings.   The murder victim is 1 of 4 brothers, and at least one of the other brothers plays a significant part in the book; the other two brothers appear frequently as well.

 

(With this cover, it also works for the Pancha Ganapati book theme: the cover is entirely yellow, with orange text and black illustrations.)

 

The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne (Verlaque and Bonnet, #5)

The Mystery of the Lost CezanneThe Mystery of the Lost Cezanne
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780143128076
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #5
Publication Date: September 15, 2015
Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Crime

Something went wrong somewhere in this book, and I don’t know what it was or where it happened.  Ok, yes, I know where part of it went wrong; I knew who the murderer was reaching page 80, but that shouldn’t have mattered much to my overall enjoyment.

The book is about the discovery of a lost painting of Cézanne’s, which right away I love; I even enjoy the flashback POV chapters, a device that I’m at best ambivalent about.  The setting is Aix en Provence and it sounds as wonderful as it always has in Longworth’s books, and Verlaque and Bonnet get more and more likeable with each book.

But at some point after about 2/3 of the way through, it fizzled.  I don’t like to say it’s because there was no perilous climax, but it might be.  Everything was tied up neatly at the end, but it still felt unfinished, or more accurately, un-satisfying.

Still an enjoyable read I always wanted to get back to, but not nearly as well constructed as the previous 4.

Murder on the Île Sordou (A Provençal Mystery, #4)

Murder on the Ile SordouMurder on the Ile Sordou
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780143125549
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #4
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Crime

I hovered over the 4.5 star mark for a second or two before settling on the 4 star.  This is a really good entry in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal series.

On holiday in a new resort 15 miles off the coast of Marseille, Verlaque and Bonnet are trying to keep a low profile, but the resort only has guests in 7 rooms and they all become friendly, until one morning after a storm, one of them is found dead on the shore.

Verlaque is definitely the main focus of this book; Marine Bonnet is there every step of the way but there’s very little told from her POV.  Verlaque has come a long way from the overly aloof, even arrogant, judge he was at the start and even he worries he is becoming too soft.  This is a relief, given that the reader spends most of the time with him.

In spite of the murder, Longworth made me wish I could be there with them; dead body aside it sounded divine:  great food, gorgeous setting, wonderful staff and friendly guests.  And the way she wraps up the mystery (which was heartbreaking), I wouldn’t have even minded sharing my week with the killer.

(This would qualify for a locked room type mystery, and at a stretch, a ‘country house’ mystery; only the guest and staff, and the old lighthouse keeper are on the island, with no access on or off, and no cell phone reception. This would also work just fine as a stand-alone.)