The trouble with anthologies … and Charles Dickens

Great Stories of Crime and DetectionGreat Stories of Crime and Detection
by H.R.F. Keating, Various Authors
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2002
Pages: 1784
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Folio Society

I’ve accumulated a solid collection of thick crime anthologies over the years and I’ve really enjoyed all of them – I get the chance to find new authors, experience a wide variety of writing styles and have access to mysteries and authors I might not otherwise be able to find.

But the one problem I’ve had again and again is that I pick up one of the large anthologies and often can’t remember which stories I’ve read and which I haven’t.  While I appreciate the anthologies as a chance to expand my mystery horizons, I know I also tend to gravitate to the same types of stories – so when I see one that looks good I find myself double guessing myself: did I think that the last time and have I already read this?.  I know I could look up reviews, but that takes way too much time no matter how organised my online ‘bookkeeping’ is.

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that the simplest solution was the best: I had MT pick up a pack of index cards, and I started slipping on in the front of each anthology.  Now when I read a story, I jot in down on the index card, along with the date read and a quick rating.

This has been very handy, and I figure, if someday  my books travel beyond my library, maybe someone will get a kick out of finding my ‘ephemera’ and comparing notes with me.

All of which brings me to my mini-review of the first story I’ve read in Great Stories of Crime and Detection, V. I.  Volume I covers “The Beginning” up until 1920, and starts with the obvious, Murders in the Rue Morgue, which I’ve already read, so I chose the second story To Be Taken With a Grain of Salt by Charles Dickens.  Don’t ask me why, because, with the exception of A Christmas Carol I can’t tolerate Dickens’ paid-by-the-word writing style.  Maybe I felt the need to torture myself with mind-numbing prose?

If I did, I failed, because this story was delightful!  Written with an economy of style I can hardly credit to Dickens, but fully fleshed out and wonderfully creepy.  At 10 pages long it’s a compact ghost story about a man who sits on the jury of a murder trial, and how the victim sees to it that justice is done.  It’s an unconventional follow-up to the conventional starter, and it makes me eager to find out what’s to follow.  I doubt I’ll follow them in strict order, but I have high hopes that they’ll all be wroth reading, and I look forward to filling up my index card.

It has left me feeling completely flummoxed by Charles Dickens though.

Game On: Tempting Twenty-eight

Game On: Tempting Twenty-EightGame On: Tempting Twenty-Eight
by Janet Evanovich
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781398510128
Series: Stephanie Plum #28
Publication Date: November 17, 2021
Pages: 286
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

When Stephanie Plum is woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of footsteps in her apartment, she wishes she didn’t keep her gun in the cookie jar in her kitchen. And when she finds out the intruder is fellow apprehension agent Diesel, six feet of hard muscle and bad attitude whom she hasn’t seen in more than two years, she still thinks the gun might come in handy.

Turns out Diesel and Stephanie are on the trail of the same fugitive: Oswald Wednesday, an international computer hacker as brilliant as he is ruthless. Stephanie may not be the most technologically savvy sleuth, but she more than makes up for that with her dogged determination, her understanding of human nature, and her willingness to do just about anything to bring a fugitive to justice. Unsure if Diesel is her partner or her competition in this case, she’ll need to watch her back every step of the way as she sets the stage to draw Wednesday out from behind his computer and into the real world.


It’s another Stephanie Plum, and I wanted something easy that had a chance of making me laugh out loud.  I got it.

Evanovich appears to have needed a break from the Morelli vs. Ranger writing, and instead brought Diesel back for the pursuit of an internationally infamous computer hacker, lurking in the Berg, killing off rival hackers that managed to hack his system.  A nice change from the mobsters Stephanie is usually running from.  Also a nice change was the flip of luck between Stephanie and Lulu; it’s Lulu who now finds herself target of every embarrassing, messy happenstance that the two run into.

Mostly though, it’s just an enjoyable you-know-what-you’re-getting read.  It wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t bad either.

The Sanctuary Sparrow (Brother Cadfael, #7)

The Sanctuary SparrowThe Sanctuary Sparrow
by Ellis Peters
Rating: ★★★
Series: Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #7
Publication Date: January 1, 1996
Pages: 216
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Book of the Month Club, Inc.

In the gentle Shrewsbury spring of 1140, the midnight matins at the Benedictine abbey suddenly reverberate with an unholy sound- a hunt in full cry.

Persued by a drunken mob, the quarry is running for its life. When the frantic creature bursts into the nave to claim sanctuary, Brother Cadfael finds himself fighting off armed townsmen to save a terrified young man.

Accused of robbery and murder is Liliwin, a wandering minstrel who performed at the wedding of a local goldsmith's son. The cold light of morning, however, will show his supposed victim, the miserly craftsman, still lives, although a strongbox lies empty.

Brother Cadfael believes Liliwin is innocent, but finding the truth and the treasure before Liliwin's respite in sanctuary runs out may uncover a deadlier sin than thievery- a desperate love that nothing, not even the threat of hanging can stop.


 

Not the best one I’ve read so far.  My favourite part was Liliwin’s sanctuary, and the time he spent with the brothers.  I ended up skimming the whole scene between him and Rannlit because it was all too sweet and twee for me.  Peters seemed to spend a lot more time describing scenery and settings in exhaustive detail, and I’d catch myself half way through thinking alright already.  I was also certain as to who the killer was long before the half-way mark. Sometimes the biggest clue is the way the author draws the character, and such was the case in this book; in trying to write a nondescript character, Peters created the only plausible suspect.  There were details I did miss though that added to the complexity of the plot, and they were well crafted.  The ending was a little eye-rolling, but not so much as the ending of book 6, if I recall correctly.  Peters seemed to like daring escapes, for a bit, at least.

Not a bad book, but not the best of the 7 I’ve read either, by a long shot.

Lord Peter Whimsey: The Complete Short Stories

Lord Peter Wimsey: The Complete Short StoriesLord Peter Wimsey: The Complete Short Stories
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781473657632
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Pages: 437
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Hodder Paperback

Presented in chronological order, these short stories see Lord Peter Wimsey bringing his trademark wit and unique detection skills to all manner of mysteries. From poisoned port to murder in fancy dress, Wimsey draws on his many skills - including his expertise in fine wine and appreciation of fine art - to solve cases far and wide, some even taking him to foreign countries and unexpected hiding places in pursuit of miscreants and murderers.

Containing 21 stories taken from Lord Peter Views the Body, Hangman's Holiday, In the Teeth of the Evidence and Striding Folly, now published together for the first time in one volume, this is the ultimate collection for fans of classic detective fiction and Dorothy L. Sayers.


 

My current distal discomfort being what it is, I thought a book of short stories would work for me, and I’ve been in the mood for some Whimsey.

Of this entire collection, I think the only one I’d read previously was The Necklace of Pearls.  A few I didn’t much care for – The Queen’s Square pops immediately to mind, but that could be simply chalked up to my current attention span and the story being a fair-play mystery with maps are at odds.  I liked the logic behind how Whimsey solved it, I just found the process tedious.

My favourites are far and away the easiest to identify:

The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Mileage’s Will:  I loved this story and I think it’s a great example of superior writing, in that it was short but still contained all the suspense and entertainment many long stories struggle to achieve, and it was a nice departure from a ‘murder’ mystery.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head: Another ‘no-murder’ mystery; less suspense but still oodles of fun with old books, maps, and a treasure hunt.  Peter learning what happens when you poke a dragon in the eye was the cherry on top of this delightfully fun tale.

The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach: Probably my least fave of the 4 I’m listing, but there was a whimsy about it I enjoyed, if the premise itself wasn’t totally disgusting.

Talboys:  This one was just funny.  Sweet too, but mostly just funny.  The ending is sublime.

All in all a solid set of short stories, with very few disappointments.

The Newcomer

The NewcomerThe Newcomer
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250256966
Publication Date: May 4, 2021
Pages: 440
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

After she discovers her sister Tanya dead on the floor of her fashionable New York City townhouse, Letty Carnahan is certain she knows who did it: Tanya’s ex; sleazy real estate entrepreneur Evan Wingfield. Even in the grip of grief and panic Letty heeds her late sister’s warnings: “If anything bad happens to me—it’s Evan. Promise me you’ll take Maya and run. Promise me.”

So Letty grabs her sister’s Mercedes and hits the road with her wailing four-year-old niece Maya. Letty is determined to out-run Evan and the law, but run to where? Tanya, a woman with a past shrouded in secrets, left behind a “go-bag” of cash and a big honking diamond ring—but only one clue: a faded magazine story about a sleepy mom-and-pop motel in a Florida beach town with the improbable name of Treasure Island. She sheds her old life and checks into an uncertain future at The Murmuring Surf Motel.

And that’s the good news. Because The Surf, as the regulars call it, is the winter home of a close-knit flock of retirees and snowbirds who regard this odd-duck newcomer with suspicion and down-right hostility. As Letty settles into the motel’s former storage room, she tries to heal Maya’s heartache and unravel the key to her sister’s shady past, all while dodging the attention of the owner’s dangerously attractive son Joe, who just happens to be a local police detective. Can Letty find romance as well as a room at the inn—or will Joe betray her secrets and put her behind bars? With danger closing in, it’s a race to find the truth and right the wrongs of the past.


 

The absolute latest by Mary Kay Andrews (I told you I needed post-op easy reads), save for the somewhat disappointing novella The Santa Suit, and reading this I could almost believe Andrews has found her groove again.  It’s another mystery/romance in the same vein as The Weekenders but written a lot more smoothly with a much easier flow.  Andrews is still using multiple POVs, and they start off a bit clunky – this might be an editing issue, as I think bolder title timelines/location identifiers might have helped.  Once established though, the POVs worked smoothly, and Andrews played some small mind-games with the reader, introducing possibly unreliable narratives once or twice.  Again, a little clunky, but mostly effective.

The story is about the murder of the MC’s sister, which = mystery, but really, there’s no mystery about who killed her, just whether or not justice will be served.  That means that it’s less about investigating and more about case building, leading to some over-the-top antics that you’d like to believe are totally unrealistic, but just might not be.

I’ve read a lot of Andrews’ work now – not all of it, but enough to feel confident saying she really doesn’t write romance in the sense that the reader is swept away.  The male mc’s are mostly ‘good’ guys, but there’s not a one of them I can remember thinking I’d date him. At the end, I’m happy for the MC, but not bowled over by her HEA.

This is a beach-read worth reading; or, if you’re luck runs like mine does recently, a good solid yet light read to loll away the hours when confined to your bed.  Enough to keep you interested, not enough to tax your pain-meds-addled mind.

Death in Brittany (Brittany Mystery, #1)

Death in BrittanyDeath in Brittany
by Jean-Luc Bannalec
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250088437
Series: Brittany Mystery #1
Publication Date: May 31, 2016
Pages: 318
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Commissaire Georges Dupin, a cantankerous, Parisian-born caffeine junkie recently relocated from the glamour of Paris to the remote (if picturesque) Breton coast, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the scene of a curious murder. The local village of Pont-Aven—a sleepy community by the sea where everyone knows one other and nothing much seems to happen—is in shock. The legendary ninety-one-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec, owner of the Central Hotel, has been found dead.

A picture-perfect seaside village that played host to Gaugin in the nineteenth century, Pont-Aven is at the height of its tourist season and is immediately thrown into uproar. As Dupin delves into the lives of the victim and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence that belies the village's quaint image.


 

I’m pretty sure I have one of the books in this series floating around a TBR pile somewhere, but I couldn’t remember which one, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t the first one, so I checked it out from the library.  If I do have one of the series (and I didn’t give it away) it’s one that I’ve picked up and put right back down again for ages, but the titles always appeal to me, so I made myself read this one.

It was pretty good!  Not great, but entertaining, and a pretty solid mystery.  The writing style (3rd person) reminds me a little of the Provence mystery series written by M.L. Longworth, although I suspect that’s more just the power of suggestion (one series set in Provence, the other in Brittany) than any actual resemblance.  But I’d class these as traditional mysteries, not cozy; they’re all about the mystery plots and very little about the characters, although the descriptions of the countryside were a little eye glazing.

The main character of the book is an obvious tip of the hat to Poe, as his name is Dupin.  To my everlasting relief, however, he is as unlike his classic namesake as can be.  There’s no expounding, or soapbox monologues; the mystery plot spans 4 days and every one of them is non-stop showing and almost no telling.  A Gaugin masterpiece is at the centre of the murder plot, and mysteries about art are catnip for me, so when it felt slow going, the art kept me reading.  I say slow going, but that’s not really accurate; the book isn’t divided into chapters, but the 4 days of the investigation, and if you’re a stop-at-the-end-of-a-chapter reader like I am, discovering the first ‘chapter’ is 97 pages long makes it feel like it’s taking forever.  Once I figured that out, I adjusted my habits and the book and I got along much better.

I’m definitely interested in the rest of the series.  I need to figure out if I do, indeed, have a book and which one it is, and whether or not my library has the entire series or is going to torture me with random entries.  No matter though, I definitely have a new series to look forward to.

Recipes for Love and Murder (Tannie Maria Mystery, #1)

Recipes for Love and MurderRecipes for Love and Murder
by Sally Andrew
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781925240092
Series: Tannie Maria Mystery #1
Publication Date: September 23, 2015
Pages: 378
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Text Publishing

Tannie Maria used to write a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Then Head Office decided they wanted an advice column instead, so now she gives advice. In the form of recipes. Because, as she says, she may not know much about love, but food—that’s her life.

Everything has been going well. A tongue-tied mechanic wins his girl with text messages and Welsh rarebit. A frightened teenager gets some much-needed sex ed with her chocolate-coated bananas.

But then there is a letter from Martine, whose husband beats her, and Tannie Maria feels a pang of recognition and dread. This may be a problem that cooking can’t solve…


 

I found this at my local library and the synopsis had me excited to read it.  About 25% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it; at the end, I’m eager to get to the library and check out the second book, and likely buy them for my personal library.

The biggest hurdle for me with this book is my almost total ignorance about South Africa.  I know it’s in Africa; I know it’s in the south; I know it was colonised by the Dutch, and I know about apartheid and Nelson Mandela.  Oh, and they (and the rest of Africa) are tied with Australia for coolest animals.  Beyond that, I got nuthin’.  That made a lot of the cultural references a mystery to me and there was a time or two where I struggled to understand.  The list of things I need to research to cure just a tiny fraction of my ignorance is long.  I was helped a bit by a familiarity with Dutch, which allowed me to decipher some of the Afrikaans vocabulary that is liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The other hurdle I initially had with the book was understanding the MC, Tannie Maria.  I just couldn’t get a handle on what kind of character she was meant to be; a time or two she came across as slow of mind, but she’s not.  She’s got a tragic background she survived, but she has this kind of passive strength and spirit that frankly leaves me confused.  This could be fallout from my cultural ignorance in the same way that my BFF’s husband sometimes leaves me confused (he’s Dutch) and a few Aussies too.  Different environments influence different personalities.  I liked her; I just didn’t understand her.

I really waffled between 4 and 4.5 stars, but ultimately settled on 4 because of the above and because there was a bit too much sentiment about the power of love towards the end.  It’s beautifully written, but not the kind of thing that resonates with me.  The mystery itself was pretty good, though I’d argue it’s not strictly a fair-play plot.  The style is what I’d call a ‘gritty cozy’ if forced to describe it.  There’s a dark side to the crimes and spousal abuse is a strong theme, but the characters and mood are uplifting, with food playing a major role in the story.  There’s a side story that almost stole the show for me at the end, and there’s a low-key romance brewing between the mc and the detective that I have a hard time getting excited about because, frankly, he has a handlebar moustache and those things creep me out.

But what really makes the book is the atmosphere; the author brings the veldt to life on the pages in a way that kept me glued to the story when the language and cultural references left me floundering.  When I wasn’t sure I cared about the characters, the Klein Karoo kept me coming back for more.  By the end, it was the characters, the writing and the Karoo that makes me want to pick up the next book in the series, The Satanic Mechanic.

Locked Room Mysteries Omnibus

The Locked-Room MysteriesThe Locked-Room Mysteries
by Otto Penzler
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780307743961
Publication Date: October 28, 2014
Pages: 941
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard

In this definitive collection, Edgar Award-winning editor Otto Penzler selects a multifarious mix from across the entire history of the locked room story, which should form the cornerstone of any crime reader's library.

Virtually all of the great writers of detective fiction have produced masterpieces in this genre, including Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh and Stephen King.

The purest kind of detective story involves a crime solved by observation and deduction, rather than luck, coincidence or confession. The supreme form of detection involves the explanation of an impossible crime, whether the sort of vanishing act that would make Houdini proud, a murder that leaves no visible trace, or the most unlikely villain imaginable.


 

My last square on my bingo card this year that needed to be read for was Locked Room Mystery.  I had several books that qualified, but none that appealed, so it was time to pull out my trusty omnibus, Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler.  I chose two previously unread stories: one I was sure to like, featuring The Saint, and one completely unknown to me but considered to be a locked room classic up there with The Hollow Man.


The Man Who Liked Toys by Leslie Charteris: four-stars

I liked this one about as much as I expected to – maybe a little less.  And I probably should have given it 3.5 stars instead of 4 because at its core it’s more a snapshot of a story than an actual story.  But the method of murder is ingenious.  I have to say though, The Saint isn’t nearly as dashing on paper as he is when he looks like Val Kilmer.


The Two Bottles of Relish by Lord Dunsany: five-stars

Well, I can see why this is one of the most re-printed locked room stories.  It has a Poe-esque quality to it, as it starts out a very normal, even vanilla, narration by someone who considers himself a Watson, and rapidly escalates towards the end into a mini-horror story.  I saw where it was going but now quite, and the ending … ends perfectly.  Any more would have diluted the effect completely, even with the superbly done writing.

 

I read these for 2021 Halloween Bingo, specifically for the Locked Room Mystery square.

The Big Over Easy Re-read (Nursery Crimes, #1)

The Big Over EasyThe Big Over Easy
by Jasper Fforde
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Nursery Crimes #1
Publication Date: January 1, 2005
Pages: 398
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

 

My original review pretty much sums up my general feelings about this book.  I still think it’s the most highly quotable book I’ve read, I still think the satire is spot-on, both of the media and murder mysteries and I still think Prometheus adds just that little something of surprise depth to the narrative, if only briefly.

Re-reading it, it’s held up perfectly.  Fforde’s amazing at writing these intricate plots and clever dialog, but it’s all the small details that continue to leave me gobsmacked.  The excepts at the opening of each chapter, the small jokes and wordplays scattered in the text, and the “ads” at the back of the book all are unnecessary to the plot, but make the book all the richer for their inclusion.

Though I gave it, and stand by doing so, 5 stars, the heinous plot revealed in the mystery is gross in that way that British humor excels at.  Gross and sublimely silly.  Which makes the story better, in spite of the “UGH, yuck!” moments towards the end.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021’s Noir square.  It’s not a traditional fit, but there’s a clear argument that along with satirising mysteries and the press, there’s a very noir-satire vibe in the story,

Agnes and the Hitman re-read

Agnes and the HitmanAgnes and the Hitman
by Jennifer Crusie
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780312363048
Publication Date: August 21, 2007
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

 

I recently read Wild Ride by the same two authors for a Halloween Bingo square, and it made me want to re-read my very favorite Crusie of all time.  I reviewed it back in 2014, which can be found here, but even then it was a re-read and I don’t have any notes from my original reading.

But it really doesn’t matter, because this book is just as good the 5 or 6th time as it was the first time.  Hilarious, not at all realistic, yet believable, and at its heart, endearingly sweet in a way that only a mafia related killing spree can be.

Agnes is engaged and they’ve bought the house of her dreams from her BFF’s mother, where she and her soon-to-be are going to write cookbooks and cater fabulous events.  The first event is part of the mortgage contract: throw a fabulous wedding at the house for Agnes’ goddaughter and the previous owner’s grand-daughter in exchange for the first 3 months of payments.

Easy, until someone comes in one night to steal her dog at gunpoint.  Agnes, who has a history of anger management issues, hits him with a frying pan, knocking him through the wall into an unknown (to her) basement.  She calls her old friend Joey (the Gent) who, hearing what happened and seeing the basement, calls in his nephew, Shane, a government black-op.  He comes to protect Agnes and find out who wants the dog, and why.

Meanwhile, the bride’s grand-mother seems determined to relocate the wedding to the country club, and everything that can go wrong with the wedding preparations does.   Through it all Agnes just keeps cooking and planning and fixing, refusing to allow anything to stand in her way of having this wedding, not even the dead bodies.

It’s a fast paced read, with no slow spots.  It’s a huge amount of fun, and as I said before it’s not at all realistic, but the relationships are feel believable.  Even the instant attraction between Shane and Agnes.  I continue to absolutely love this book as one of the ultimate comfort reads on my shelves.

 

I re-read this just because I wanted to, but it fits for Halloween Bingo’s Terror in a Small Town square, so I’m going with that.  It’s set in Keyes, South Carolina a tiny (fictional) town that’s home to half the Jersey mob’s family (the retired half) and is beset with a string of murders that leaves a body count somewhere around 7.