Posts Tagged ‘Severn House’

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson

August 2, 2014 1 comment

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson (Severn House, 2014) starts off with a well-tried ploy. In 1981, three boys of fourteen summers have an experience (in the woods of Oregon) which shapes them. Then with the flick of the author’s pen, thirty years pass and we find one of the victims, Tommy Devereaux, has contrived to become a bestselling author of thrillers. This would have been a good place for him to sit quietly, but he decides he should exorcise the ghosts of his past by writing fact as fiction. Yes, he’s decided to blow the whistle on what happened when he was fourteen-years old and witnessed a murder. This would have been a great idea if he’d taken the time and trouble to conceal vital details, but the girl who committed the murder finds the sample chapter published as a teaser all too clear and lets our author know it. Now our “happily” married man has to contend with a psychopathic serial killer who has a story to tell. Needless to say, the events of the past were not quite as clear cut as the prefatory description suggested. Tommy with Mark Singletary and Jason Covington were more thoroughly involved than it first appears. This creates the irony of Tommy being in the position of many of the “victims” in his own books. It also helps to explain a little of Tommy’s psychology because all his books have featured female villains. In a way, he’s been using his books as a form of therapy to accommodate his feeling of horror over what happened.

As a protagonist, Tommy is the perfect victim for blackmail. He’s already in trouble in his marriage because he had an affair and then told his wife about it (but not the identity of the woman involved—she still works for him). Because of that confession, he’s on probation and continues to feel guilty. That he’s keeping an older and darker secret adds to the pressure since he does not want to lose his wife and family. His professional reputation as an author could also evaporate if it was suggested he’d participated in a murder thirty years ago. Similarly, Mark Singletary has gone on to great things as Republican State Senator in South Carolina. The only one who appears safe is Jason Covington. He’s reported as having committed suicide twenty years ago. That would make Jason the weak and cowardly one. Mark was excited by the experience and Tommy. . . Well, he was defiant and, perhaps by some standards, the strong one.

Carter Wilson

Carter Wilson

So what does this killer want? Well apart from having a little fun at Tommy’s expense and adding a few more deaths to keep up her batting average, she wants Tommy to understand the mind of a killer. Although she thinks his books to date have been reasonably good, he’s never really communicated a clear understanding of how and why people kill. Now he’s started to write her story, she wants it told right. This means Tommy’s about to get a crash course in how to commit a murder and get away with it. No wait, he’s already done that! Thirty years ago, he could have told his own parents, or the parents of the dead boy, or the police what happened. But he became complicit through his silence. The book then describes the game between Tommy and Elizabeth (or perhaps that should be the other way round since she’s the one who thinks she’s in control).

The story is told in a taut and economical style with short chapters maintaining a good pace as the plot unwinds. As a plot, this has a rather pleasing surprise towards the end. If nothing else, it shows how little young boys know of the world around them. This gives the book the best possible chance to succeed as a thriller with a faint horror edge (the initial murder is of a young boy and there’s an element dealing with child abuse). But the book lacks a certain edge because our protagonist Tommy is not wholly likeable. Although the character is reasonably plausible, reacting to events in ways which are moderately credible, it’s difficult to get behind him as a classic thriller victim and root for him to emerge the winner at the end. This is not to say the psychopathic Elizabeth is anything but a monster. But when a “hero” turns out to have more than just feet of clay, my reaction as a reader is to observe dispassionately to see whether I think the author’s resolution gives the interested parties their just deserts. In this case, only one character gets anything approximating justice, albeit many years delayed. Thus, The Boy is the Woods is good of its type with something of an antihero reacting to threats and struggling to keep his lifestyle together, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson

June 26, 2014 2 comments


Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson (Severn House, 2014) sees the eleventh outing for Detective Inspector Andy Horton as he makes a guest appearance in the courts on the Isle of Wight and reviews the state of his ignorance as to what happened to his mother thirty years ago. A newspaper article read while waiting for the case to be called suggests he should try contacting Lord Eames again. Although the man has denied knowledge of his mother’s disappearance, Horton does not believe him. He therefore decides to make an unannounced visit at his estate on the coast. He’s been quietly investigating an old photograph which shows a group of six young men. Three are dead. Apart from Lord Eames, he’s not been able to track down the other two even though he has names for them: Anthony Dormand and Rory Mortimer. When he walks along the beach outside the estate, he meets an interesting man. With no-one apparently at home, he returns to base in Portsmouth, where he’s given a missing persons case. It seems a private investigator has gone AWOL. That his body later turns up on the beach outside Lord Eames’ estate on the Isle of Wight is not the kind of coincidence our hero likes. Particularly when the fact of his visit to the fringe of the estate has been recorded by surveillance cameras but not reported to the police. It seems everyone has complicated motives in play.

Which leads to a more general structural point about how best to plot a long-running series. Obviously, the first books can be introductory as to characterisation and be more-or-less standalone as police procedural cases to investigate. But there comes a point when the broader narrative arcs of who these people are and how they relate to each other comes to the fore. This will tend to be when the author has begun to make decisions about how some of the plot lines are going to be resolved. There’s just one problem. Unless the main series character is going to quit his or her job and devote all available resources to solving the key personal mystery, we’re left with an uneasy balance between the cases that come along for investigation and the steps necessary to move the metanarrative along.

Pauline Rowson

Pauline Rowson

So here we have Horton beginning to make progress in the investigation of his mother’s disappearance but, for now, Rowson wants to keep him in the Portsmouth CID. This is a convenient vehicle for providing him with appropriate resources and some degree of cover for his activities. But this also requires a series of coincidences to enable him to meet the people he needs to meet to acquire the next pieces of the puzzle. I’m not raising this issue as a complaint. In fact, this book is a very fine example of a series character making significant discoveries. The emerging backstory and explanations feel credible. For these purposes, there’s also a clever justification for there being a Portsmouth connection both when his mother disappeared and now. So I’m still impressed by this series and it’s left in a very interesting position at the end of this episode.

As to the actual murder to be investigated, this has everything going for it. The murder method is unusual. Where death occurred is uncertain. The disposition of the body in an old sail as a shroud is intriguing. And there’s a serious problem in understanding the character of the victim and precisely what work he was doing. Although there seems be a reasonably clear private investigation in progress to determine whether a husband is cheating on his wife, it’s going to be a stretch to tie the potentially errant husband to the killing. Despite the links to him, he looks to have an alibi for the time the killing is likely to have taken place. This leads to the general conclusion Shroud of Evil is an excellent continuation of the series but, to get the best out of it, you must have read some of the previous books. Knowing who everyone is helps give the book added value. So there you have it. We continue to edge slowly towards a thriller or possibly MI5, more political scenario giving the broader narrative considerably more heft.

For a review of another book by Pauline Rowson, see Death Surge.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

June 23, 2014 4 comments

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2014) the fifteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery, sees the process for appointing a new bishop rudely interrupted by the death of one of the four on the shortlist. By virtue of his long-term involvement in church affairs and his status as a retired senior police office, Alan Martin has been made a member of the Crown Appointments Commission and is at the heart of the appointments process. Dorothy as an ex-pat American can’t formally be a part of the process but, as a disinterested observer, she can play a part in untangling the web, particularly because, as one of those responsible for making the appointment, Alan is a potential suspect. Despite Alan’s retired status, the Dean of the cathedral asks our dynamic duo to do what they do, which is to investigate quietly. The selection of the candidates has been bad-tempered and, once the shortlist was announced, the anger has grown.

It’s a sad fact of life in an increasingly secular society that the minority Christians feel more under pressure. In this case, there’s a significant political element involved as conservatives (with both big and little cs) despise and agitate against reformist and socialist candidates. Meanwhile, women campaign with placards proclaiming a sexist church that refuses to consider appointing a woman to the position of bishop. There are also problems with the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. The Commission meetings have been acrimonious with passions high on the extremes, and the moderates trying to hold the balance of rational debate in the centre. This identifies several on the Commission itself who might have a motive for eliminating this particular candidate. The remaining three on the shortlist might also be suspect. Our duo set off for London where one of the shortlisted candidates has his parish. There are dark mutterings about him being a man who misuses his charisma to extract money from susceptible women in the congregation and then pockets some of the money. The candidate from Birmingham is a social agitator who has been arrested on demonstrations against local factories for polluting the landscape and employers for their poor pay and bad working practices. Then off to Rotherford, near Oxford, for the final candidate. And then, to add a little spice to the somewhat staid proceedings up to this point, a man goes missing.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

The problem for solution in this book is somewhat diffuse. There’s a death which may or may not be a homicide. Because our couple are not official investigators and, by virtue of his membership of the Commission, Alan may be on the list of possible suspects, there’s no access to the police forensic reports. With an inquest there would have been public information, but we and our investigators are left to get into investigative mode on the assumption someone has rid the cathedral of a turbulent priest. If this was a Golden Age novel, there would be a way in which the number of possible suspects could be kept within reasonable bounds. But the moment you start thinking seriously about who might have had motive and opportunity, there’s a potential country full of suspects who would have to be investigated. Obviously, despite their prowess, our couple don’t have the time or resources to do anything more than commute between the three parishes in which the other three candidates hold sway. By necessity, therefore, we readers know we must meet the probable murderer at some point. For this reason, I’m not entirely sure the author is playing fair with us. A lot of what happens is interesting, but not really moving us forward. It’s local colour or scenes of life in the different parishes. Yes the couple are investigating, but so little of what they see and hear is ultimately relevant to explaining what has happened.

For me as an atheist, the book is a sober warning about many of the types of people who become involved in church affairs. As skeletons come out of cupboards, we’re allowed to see how bigoted, prejudiced, criminal, or just plain awful some of the people holding positions of power and influence can be. This is not to say society would become a better, safer place if full secularisation were to be achieved. I’m not so naive. Human nature produces some terrible behaviour no matter what the belief systems. But if the veneer of respectability was to be stripped away and society allowed fewer roles through which such people can exercise power over others, we might see some improvement. All forms of politics are better when there are fewer opportunities for self-righteousness and hypocrisy around.

As to the content, I confess to finding the exploration of the way in which different belief sets influenced preaching styles and the management of parishes deeply boring. That some parishioners were gulls and played as suckers was depressing. It reflects the general rule that vulnerable people who come under the sway of charismatic individuals, are more easily led astray. Taking the overview, Day of Vengeance has an interesting plot underpinning the investigation of the initial death and all that follows. But, in parallel, there’s a more literary intent to consider the weaknesses of many who are involved in the management of this religion. Yes, some are sincere and a force for good, but this book is a disturbing exposé of distinctly unhealthy forces within this particular denomination. That this church fails to be self-policing completes the more pervasive sense of despair. It seems the few men who could take action to root out the evil do nothing. A more complete condemnation would be hard to find.

For a review of the preceding book in the series, see Shadows of Death.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett

June 7, 2014 6 comments


In The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2014) our heroic actor and sleuth, Charles Paris, treads the boards for the nineteen time. As it’s coming up to Christmas, Paris is fortunate to be offered work in Pantoland, better known as Eastbourne. The producers are cooking up a traditional offering of celebrities and people who appear on television as the headliners. Ignoring the presence of the real members of the acting profession, these tent-poles proceed to make a meal of theatrical conventions. Indeed, on the first day of rehearsal, Paris gets to tell the ex-television star sojourning from America, all he needs to know about British pantomime. For reasons unclear at the outset, our renegade from the Colonies has beaten a retreat from America to play the part of Baron Hardup in Cinderella. He seems not to have been aware of the precise nature of the role before accepting the part. But this is not really a concern. He’s being well-paid to allow his name to appear outside the theatre and as the top name on the billing. Kenny Polizzi is in lights to encourage fans of his now cancelled show to buy tickets and ogle him in the flesh. Surprisingly, he throws himself into the role with something approximating enthusiasm, particularly when he gets to reinvent the story to include an acting style with which he’s familiar.

We’re also treated to a nicely catty television interview with our fallen star which indicates where the feet of clay may be buried (forgive the mixed metaphors). As the introductory sequence proceeds, we meet the rather cosmopolitan cast (including both actors in fact and from television, a stand-up comedian, boxers, and those who dance). Kenny’s agent who may be giving his client some protection, enters from stage lefty, and not so all-righty, we hear news that Kenny’s current wife may may also be about to put in an appearance (Oh, no she isn’t! Oh, yes she is! Repeat for effect as required).

Simon Brett

Simon Brett

As you would expect in a Simon Brett novel, some of the jokes are excellent. I particularly like the change in punctuation and spelling for the couplet from the Broker’s Men. Overall there’s a quietly pleasing wryness to the descriptions of the theatrical world and of Charles Paris as he charts an unsteady progress through it. The social problems of the acting community, in the case of our hero, aggravated by his taste for Bells, are sharply exposed. This time with illumination shed on the travails of those who work on the other side of the Pond. Kenny has a past, goes through big-money divorces when he can afford them, and has his very own stalker. It’s tough having a face that’s launched a thousand episodes of a long-running television series. So it no doubt comes as a shock to him that someone might actually want to kill him (although the expression on the body found under the pier appears slightly more calm than shocked). So now all our hero has to do is pick one of the many possible suspects who might have done the dirty deed, all the while coping with the emotions he feels after his wife announces she might have cancer. Indeed, this time around, what with it being Christmas and a time when the loneliness of a B&B makes a man look back on a wasted life as an actor with a tear in his eye, he does wonder whether he might try to resurrect his marriage to the long-suffering Frances. Quite whether she would tolerate the idea is left nicely ambiguous.

The mystery itself is elegantly structured with our bloodhound following the trail from one body to the next with unerring accuracy. The police are intrigued by him happening to find two dead people. Three would be stretching credibility just a little. The only minor complaint is the element of coincidence as we come into the final stretch, but it’s something I can note and pass on by. I mellow as I grow older. Really the case all depends on the order in which things happen. It’s one of these plots that flirts with the obvious but plays the game of bluff and double-bluff so well, it doesn’t really matter whether you got the right answer or not. It’s fun arriving at the end. So I recommend this book to anyone who knows a little about pantomime and wants all the inside dope on how these productions are put together in rehearsal and emerge fully fledged on to stage in time for the Christmas season. The Cinderella Killer is knowingly precise and engagingly amusing on its way to solving the odd murder or two.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
A Decent Interval
The Strangling on the Stage.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow

May 24, 2014 2 comments

Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow


Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow (Severn House, 2014) continues the series of historical mysteries and espionage thrillers featuring Christopher Marlowe. This time, we’ve arrived at the month of May, 1588. In terms of productions at the Rose, we’re up to the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd which is rather convenient given that King Philip of Spain is now more seriously planning an attack on Britain even though we have a rather good navy and well-trained gunners (if the reports from their spies are to be believed). On the other side of the Channel, Sir Francis Walsingham is worried he’s not had word from Harry Hasler, one of his spies, who had been sent to the Isle of Wight — one of the more likely places upon which an invading Spanish fleet might disembark its beachhead troops. So he decides to send Marlowe to find out what’s what. After minor diversions to find a suitable conveyance to the island, Marlowe is welcomed by the discovery of a body. Instead of the missing spy, the deceased proves to be a local landowner or gentleman farmer. He’s been found dead, lying head-first in a culvert. After dancing the night away, our heroic scribbler does his CSI thing on the body and concludes the victim was out to meet a lady and was murdered for giving attention to the wrong place (husbands having a tendency to kill off anyone who engages in a criminal conversation with their wives).


There’s not a little humour in the description of England’s state of readiness to repel the predicted invasion force. This is the Tudor version of Dad’s Army with few locals having any interest in developing military skills, and the usual petty divisions and jealousies among the senior officers of the Crown actually charged with the task of mounting a defence. At the heart of the book, therefore, we have Spain with ambition and a fleet, but no patience to wait for the weather to calm down. While Britain is following the model laid down by Ethelred who wasn’t quite ready to be King at the first time of asking so had two goes at the job. All of this leads people in the know to focus on the Isle of Wight because, if taken by the Spanish, it would make a very good base from which to disrupt British naval dominance of the Channel and a logistics hub from which to invade the mainland. In theory the Crown has done the right thing by putting a relative of the Queen in command of the local garrison. Unfortunately, the locals are more interested in maintaining good communication with the continent for smuggling in all the good food and wine they have come to enjoy. So patriotism be damned when money’s at stake.

M J Trow

M J Trow


So if it’s to be war, we’ve already lost which leaves Marlowe with the tasks of finding the missing spy (whose loss may be due to action by Spanish agents) and solving the murder of this landowning Lothario. When a second body appears, there may be a hint of a motive but, without more evidence, it’s rather difficult to say. So, to pass the time, our scribbler is prevailed on to write a short masque. This will take everyone’s mind off the threat. He therefore summons his trusty stage manager from London and this sparks the smugglers into life. They fear an investigation of their activities is underway and kidnap the incoming stage hand to determine if Marlowe is a threat.


So there you have it. The Armada is just over the horizon where the wind is getting up. Drake is stuck in port. There may be a Spanish cuckoo in the Isle of Wight nest. And the smugglers are up in arms against the British no matter what the Spanish may be doing. Against this background, Marlowe works his way steadily around the Island, exchanging gossip with locals as to who is sleeping with whom (which ironically includes Hasler who’s know for sowing a few oats, wild and otherwise) and, dashing off the odd speech which might even sound good on the lips of the Queen. The resolution of the historical events is well-known (my Spanish accent does not show through the written form of English) and the solution of the criminal and espionage matters proves reasonably engaging. For those who prefer their historical mysteries to err on the slightly more humorous than gritty side of the line, Traitor’s Storm is just the teacup in which to arrange a storm of enjoyment.


For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Crimson Rose


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


A Matter of Breeding by J Sydney Jones

April 2, 2014 1 comment

A Matter of Breeding

History in its more passive form is little more than a factual recital of what we know about events in the past. But, of course, we are always free to reinterpret events to create different sets of meanings for different purposes. So, for example, we might want to inspire a new sense of patriotism, so resurrect stories of glorious victories while suppressing stories of the more disreputable shenanigans. Or it might be convenient to scapegoat particular groups to divert blame. Or to maintain someone’s high status by concealing the fact of an illegitimate birth. Or to protect a nation’s investment in an iconic product by concealing evidence of possible defects in the product. Manipulated information can be used for so many different purposes. Once those in power can control access to information or plant new information in the discourse, factual reality becomes mutable to fit the exigent circumstances.

A Matter of Breeding by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is the fifth in the Viennese Mysteries series and sees us back with the same core of characters who must investigate a murder or two, and navigate much political intrigue to arrive at outcomes satisfactory to those in power. Karl Werthen, a lawyer in Vienna, has worked with his wife, Berthe Meisner, on a number of criminal investigations. She’s now feeling despondent. She might have expected Karl to stay by her side after she lost their second child in a miscarriage, particularly because it’s possible she may not be able to conceive again. But the loss may be driving them apart.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones

In fact, Karl has gone off to Styria with Bram Stoker, some author fellow who’s visiting to promote his books. It seems vampires are at large and an expert’s help is called for. Three mutilated bodies have been found, one of which may have been drained of her blood. In the other two cases, there were other signs suggesting a possible supernatural element. When they arrive, they find the “criminalist” Doktor Hanns Gross already called in. He’s trying to introduce the scientific method to the investigation of crime, but struggling against the prejudice against intellectualism. Common sense police officers and magistrates prefer the traditional methods. However, Gross has also received what may be a note from the murderer challenging him to find out whodunnit. The vampirism and other elements are therefore probably only window dressing, designed to confuse and deflect attention. The most recent victim worked for Christian von Hobarty — the surname is actually an anagram of Bathory, the family of the Blood Countess in the sixteenth century. As the investigation proceeds, Werthen and Stoker interview the families and others who have have information about the women killed. There’s nothing conclusive, all three girls seeming well-liked. The only hint of possible difficulty is the unannounced pregnancy of the most recent victim. No-one knows who the father might have been, although there’s a suspicion. . . Then the police arrest Gross. . . It’s a matter of professional jealousy getting in the way of the facts. Fortunately another murder occurs while our good Doktor is behind bars. This rather excludes him from suspicion.

As to Berthe, an independent challenge arises to help relieve her sadness (and her jealousy that Karl gets all the best cases). Karl’s father, Emile von Werthen, may be caught up in a scandal. It’s being suggested the bloodline of the Lipizzaner horses may have been compromised by a fraudulent stud line. If this proves true, Emile may be disgraced and financially ruined because he’s an investor in the breeding firm accused. Interestingly, the body of Captain Putter is found at the Lipizzaner stables on Stallburggasse. The authorities are keen to write the death of this riding master at the Spanish Court Riding School as a suicide. But Berthe never likes coincidences, so she goes to find the journalist who’s investigating the possible fraud. Having found a connection with the Captain’s death, she’s then contacted by Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a “delicate” matter. Yes, it’s the horses. The dead Captain left a brief note implying his honour could not stand the shame of the looming scandal.

At one level, the book is dealing with universals. When a child in utero is lost, the pressure on a couple can lead to destructive emotions. They must grapple with the truth of their relationship and decide whether they want to save it. When a man’s honour is impugned at a time and in a culture where some levels of personal shame cannot be tolerated, decisions must be made on how to react. If questions of honour are scaled up, this may affect the status and reputation of royalty or the nobility. It may even affect the integrity of the nation itself. At another level, this is an historical mystery in which our team of three (plus visiting author) must untangle a complicated plot involving murder, and possible fraud, corruption, and political manipulation. It’s all presented in a rather delightful package. Even the subtext of the deeply rooted sexism and racism that permeated the age is understated, making its point without dominating the work — although there are a couple of jokes at the expense of some of the dinosaur males we encounter. Altogether, A Matter of Breeding is a thoughtful but entertaining mystery.

For reviews of other books by J Sydney Jones, see:
The German Agent
The Keeper of Hands
Ruin Value.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Way You Die Tonight by Robert J Randisi

February 6, 2014 Leave a comment


The Way You Die Tonight by Robert J Randisi (Severn House, 2013) is the ninth Rat Pack Mystery featuring the fictitious Eddie Gianelli — a man who’s completely at home in Las Vegas of the 1960s — and, not surprisingly, walk-on and cameo roles for the usual cast of Rat Pack characters. This time around the stalwarts are joined by Edward G Robinson and Howard Hughes. The series therefore fits into a rather pleasing historical mystery cum PI style with almost every page featuring some snippet of detail about the music or movie industry of the time set against a background of casino life. This time, people are starting to talk about a proposed movie called The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen, Edward G Robinson and Ann-Margaret. Some of the supposedly smart money thinks Robinson is over the hill and a film about poker will never make money. Others are not so sure. The book then hinges on Eddie showing Edward G around the Vegas poker scene so he can get into character for the movie. In the meantime, our hero foils an attempt to rob a high-stakes game and gets asked to call a PI who represents Howard Hughes. Once we find out what Hughes seems to want, we’re distracted by the death of Helen Simms, the woman who worked as secretary to Jack Entratter, the boss of the Sands. Eddie’s first reaction to the “crime scene” is that we’re looking at a murder and not a suicide. He’s therefore not surprised when his enemy on the police force announces his verdict as suicide.

This means Eddie picks up a commission from the Sands to find out who killed Helen. Even though she was more or less universally disliked, she was family and the Sands looks after its own. With the arrival of Jerry Epstein from Brooklyn to supply the muscle and the help of long-time friend and now a local PI, Danny Bardini, to add his experience as an investigator, we’re off on a chase around Vegas to work out who might have had motive and opportunity to kill Helen. This proves to be illuminating as we delve into the first signs of drug dealing coming to Vegas and see a slightly seamy side with a sex club with “vague” mob connections. The innocence of the era waiting to be punctured is beautifully caught. The fact no-one thinks the distribution of drugs that serious a problem even though the mob is beginning to take an interest in building the market is revealing. Indeed, several of the characters prefer sex as their drug of choice, remaining benignly indifferent to the offer of heroin and other substances in their immediate environment.

Robert J Randisi

Robert J Randisi

Showing some callous indifference to the potential damage to others, Eddie and his team did not call in the police or immediately do anything to disrupt the small trade in drugs. They are happy to let everyone find his or her own poison and take it. Their way of relaxing is to consume vast quantities of food and alcohol and, if necessary, beating people to get answers or taking lumps from people asking them questions. They can fit in a show with Dean Martin or one of the other Pack members but that’s really only an excuse to eat and drink some more before, during, and after the singing. In the midst of all the excitement, Edward G Robinson gets to learn all he needs about how to play poker. He may lose money in the process but, if you’ve seen the resulting film, it was money well spent. Eddie also wins points with the dealing staff at the Sands because they get to meet with the movie star. Indeed, there’s every sign Eddie will be promoted to a new role as a kind of super concierge or host to the celebrities and whales now coming to gamble at the Sands and wanting other services thrown in. Meanwhile Howard Hughes is doing the preliminary reconnoitre for the big move into Vegas which occurred in 1966. Eddie gets to meet the man and also experience some degree of pain because he’s less than inclined to help the eccentric billionaire to make his first purchase. Hughes was not a man who liked anyone to say “no”.

In the end, Eddie solves the murder case and makes a friend in the local police force. The reason I like this type of book is the wonderfully easy reading experience. It’s jam-packed with fascinating historical factoids and fictionalised encounters between well-known people, but this is never overdone. The Way You Die Tonight just comes out as a highly entertaining, albeit slightly lightweight, mystery with a richly imagined historical overlay.

For another review of a book by Robert J Randisi, see You Make Me Feel So Dead.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) is one of the Fethering Mysteries and it contains one of “those” lines guaranteed to upset a moderate slice of the male population. As a man who, for many years, played cricket on a regular basis, I am doing my best not to be outraged by the suggestion cricketers are the most misogynist of sportsmen. Given the time commitment at weekends, when partners might expect joint activities like shopping, I might admit some degree of selfishness in treating standing solitary on the boundary of a field with a gale blowing and the prospect of rain imminent as preferable to standing in a queue at a checkout. But such solipsism does not inherently betoken hatred for the opposite sex. Indeed, how can one not value the fair sex even more when they cluster together to give us warmth when we come in from the rain, and supply restorative tea and limp sandwiches between innings?

Perhaps I should explain that this “throwaway” dismissal of a sporting fraternity is germane to the resolution of the plot. Indeed, the entire book is a kind of excoriation of the pretentiousness of the English middle class (although one Scottish engineer does come in for a real bashing as well — unfortunately, there’s no-one to complete the joke, “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walked into The Cricketers and. . .”). So we’re deep into the world of amateur dramatics which, for better or worse, is the preserve of young aspirants and ageing performers with invincible egos. This time Jude and Carole, our pair of lady sleuths, get caught up in the investigation of a death by stage prop.

Simin Brett

Simon Brett

The retired Scottish engineer passes the time by “inventing” interesting devices for stage productions. For The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw, he builds a gallows which, to the surprise of the leading man, proves unexpectedly effective. Indeed, everyone seems completely amazed. There was supposed to be a trick to it all. The engineer had produced a noose that was held together only by a sliver of velcro. The moment any weight was applied to the noose, it should have sprung apart, releasing the victim before even the slightest physical inconvenience could be caused. But someone seems to have substituted a real noose for the “stage” version. Hence the dead man hanging centre stage.

So our dedicated team in their fifteenth outing take up new roles. Jude is recruited into the cast while Carole finds her true vocation as the prompter who notices every mistake and is not afraid to call out corrections during rehearsals. Between them they contrive to talk to everyone who might be able to shed light on the sad loss of such an acting talent. The most unusual conversation is with the deceased’s wife who registers strongly on the weirdometer (as do all collectors, of course — did I mention I also collect books, but not on cricket which would be obsessional?). But, not to put too fine a point on it, none of the actors or the stage crew come over as entirely normal. Or perhaps the other way of viewing the book is that when an author launches into an examination of stereotypical middle class behaviour, he’s not short of likely targets from which to choose his victims. This is not to characterise the book as a satire on south coast village lifestyles. Although there are some pleasingly sharp observations and smile-inducing moments, the book lacks the savagery required to make it genuinely satirical. For better or worse, Simon Brett likes his cast of characters too much to completely dismantle them. This leaves the book in a slightly uncomfortable hinterland. It’s not even remotely a “cozy mystery” in the emerging American style, but it’s equally not a tough-minded, take-no-prisoners book that skewers all-comers. This leaves me placing the tone as probably adjacent to Alan Ayckbourn in some of his studies of the existential despair that afflicts many in apparently normal relationships and roles.

Truth-be-told, The Strangling on the Stage is just another highly enjoyable read from Simon Brett. The puzzle for us to solve depends on who had access to the prop at the relevant time, and who would have had the motive to execute the leading man. As is required, we have a limited cast of suspects, and more or less everyone would have had a motive to execute this Lothario whether it’s the women spurned or their “cuckolded” husbands. In fact, the theme of the solution turns out to be inherently historical and subsequently theatrical, as one might expect in a book such as this. The combination of interesting murder and social commentary provides good value for those who have the proverbial eyes to see and then look away when it comes to holding the guilty to account.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
The Cinderella Killer
A Decent Interval.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment


A Price to Pay by Chris Simms (Severn House, 2013) is the second book in the series featuring Detective Constable Iona Khan, and it strikes out as if it’s going in an interestingly cosmopolitan direction. The protagonist has a Scottish mother and a Pakistani father, perhaps appropriately being named Iona Khan, drawing names from both cultures. In the real world, mixed-race couples often face active discrimination from both side of the family and from the community in which they establish their home. For the child of such a marriage to be the hero of a contemporary police procedural is a brave decision. Not only is this a woman as a detective in a police force known to be institutionally sexist, it’s a mixed race individual in a force known to be institutionally racist — a double whammy for our hero to duck and weave her way around. Add in the fact she’s a maths graduate and her capacity for a different way of thinking is also clearly staked out. She’s going to run into all kinds of problems simply because she’s a graduate — with the fast-track career structure, many direct entrants face considerable discrimination regardless of race. But here we come to the essential paradox in mixed-race characters.

For her to be acceptable as the protagonist, she can’t be too “foreign”. In effect, she must be British in almost everything she says and does (since there are no illustrations of her, readers probably don’t discriminate against her on the basis of her appearance, but some of her colleagues and random people she encounters may well react adversely to her skin tone and physical difference. Indeed, in some books of this type, the protagonist’s character almost becomes a walking stereotype of what it means to be British (whatever that does mean). In other words, the contribution of the non-British parent is rather more theoretical in the face of the socialisation the child has received by going through the British education system. The fact our hero has ended up in a counter-terrorism unit adds to the potential for mistrust. Some will inevitably question whose side she is on if those to be investigated are Pakistani.

Chris Sims

Chris Sims

The perennial problem when writing books with a female protagonist in police procedurals is how strong to make her. Since we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain norms to observe if the author is to produce what might be described as a mainstream book. Recently, I’ve been reading about a fourth wave of feminism building on support generated online. It’s stating the obvious that the previous three waves have been less than successful in disturbing the tranquility of the male-induced power structures. Hence, books like this can show a woman doing her limited best in the face of male obstruction. Often this will mean her brains and enthusiasm are ruthlessly exploited so that, if she happens to come up with the right answers, her male bosses can take the credit. Should the investigation take a wrong turn, she will be a convenient scapegoat. If there’s physical danger, there should always be men around to rescue her and so emphasise her essential weakness.

On the other side of the fence, a fourth wave book might have the woman solve the case that has defeated all the less than competent men around her, beat any criminals who attack her with cool judo moves, and be rewarded with a commendation and a promotion by a grateful nation (it’s a terrorism case so the Queen would have to give her a gong for preserving world peace). Depending on the model to be adopted, this woman might be able to drink all her male colleagues under the table, love them and leave them in the sack, or swagger with that indefinable quality that marks her out as an instinctive leader. In short, she would be an inspirational role model for all women readers, showing them that any glass ceiling would shatter the moment she happened to catch sight of it and that she would rise to the top, often with the support of the men who realise submissiveness is required when they are in the presence of a superior being. She will become a focus for individual and group action to call out men who are sexist and misogynistic, and challenge the assumptions underpinning patriarchalism. She will lead a vanguard of women towards a future of greater gender equality in a more global community. Yes, well you know the type of book I mean. Both patriarchalists and feminists can write propaganda.

I’ve diverted myself in this way because the book proves to be unadventurous in its gender politics. Ms Khan actually proves to be intelligent but perhaps necessarily rather paranoid. She’s competitive and suspicious of others which prevents her from being a real team player. Thus, even if the men around her were actually well-intentioned and trying to make her feel one of “them”, she would be unco-operative. This weakness makes her a less than engaging protagonist. Indeed, she proves to be somewhat reckless and has to be rescued. Even at the end when what’s probably an olive branch is extended in her direction, we’re left uncertain whether she’s capable of grasping it. This is a clear signal to women readers. The entire investigation was hurtling in the wrong direction, yet she did not have the self-confidence to open her mouth and insist on being heard. Indeed, when she did talk to a colleague and he passed on her ideas to their boss, she assumed he was her enemy and ceased co-operating. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. Women react differently in such situations of institutionalised racism and sexism. But her performance is less than stellar. In the end, she does “solve” the case but it’s only by accident, and because she didn’t follow protocol and tell people where she was going and why, she had to be rescued. This is embarrassing and not a little sexist.

I wanted to like A Price to Pay. The basic plot idea is sound and the reason why the investigation hares off down the wrong track is nicely worked out. But putting aside the slightly horrendous coincidence that kicks into operation as a plot dynamic about halfway through, I couldn’t warm up to Ms Khan at all. The fact I might understand the reasons for the protagonist’s actions does not make her likeable. Worse, almost all the women who appear in the pages of this book are victims in one way or another. Even the protagonist’s mother who had shown such good judgement in marrying for love, is shown completely misjudging the man who had been in her daughter’s life. And that’s quite fatal to enjoyment. So even though it works as a police procedural with an international dimension giving it contemporary relevance, I was disappointed.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment


Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2013) is the fourteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery. She’s from Indiana but has married an Englishman (well Cornishman which is not at all the same thing) who, conveniently, used to be a policeman (well, Chief Constable), and she’s now gone as native as any willing American can. For those of you less clued into the mysteries of the north of Scotland in general and Orkney in particular, it tends to be quite cold (even in summer) and there are many sites to interest archaeologists. Indeed, with the type of perversity usually reserved to the young of our day, it seems the first people to enter this island of ours came from the north. Yes, I know most people would imagine they crossed over on one of the ferries from France (avoiding King Harold with the arrow sticking out of his eye), but the oldest evidence of human occupation in Britain is in Orkney. When it comes to watching people dig up the evidence of this first batch of illegal immigrants, the first step is to journey north having made arrangements for the cats — the dog is expected to rough it with the humans as they first drive and then fly their way towards the Pole.

When installed in Stromness, they meet up with a local potter called Andrew and, with a minor delay to fit in more local colour including Roadkill, the local feline who’s master of all he surveys, we can get on with the mystery. Yes, everyone has their own irons in the archaeological fire and disagreements over how best to proceed with the dig are growing ever more acrimonious. Now with the death of the American who was funding the excavation, it’s time for our sleuths to get to work (did I mention her dog is called Watson?). When public opinion and some conveniently damning evidence combine, the police arrest the local farmer who had been loudly broadcasting his intention to rid the earth of Americans in general and this man in particular. This, of course, is the signal for our investigative duo (plus Watson) to get started. And then all we need is for the local police to be called away to deal with a major terrorist threat (a very British phenomenon) which leaves our investigators without portfolio to work out whodunnit.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

The problem, of course, conforms to the Golden Age formula. We’re stuck on an island with a limited pool of suspects. When we further analyse the situation, there’s motive and opportunity aplenty. Better still, none of the most obvious candidates has a complete alibi. So now it comes down to the core problem. No-one needs to talk to either of our heroes. He’s long retired and she’s, well, American and with the exception of “Mac” Macintyre, all foreigners in the northern reaches of Scotland are sassenach and worse, and so condemned to be ignored. Her status shades even more into despicable territory when Roadkill goes missing and the rumour mill thinks shedunnit. Fortunately, one or two women who are plugged into the innocent until proved guilty mode prevail over the no smoke without fire brigade. With alcohol flowing, communications can be restored. Still the gossip very specifically alleges Roadkill was sacrificed in a ritual. The ladies of the village remember another ritual sacrifice where the one blamed mistook a hen for a cockerel which, no doubt, cocked up the sacrifice when the blood was spilled.

At this point, I need a brief moment to think about classifying this book. Arising on the other side of the Pond, the cozy mystery is selling strongly. This almost always features an intelligent woman as an amateur sleuth who uses her life’s experience to unravel whatever puzzles are thrown into her path. As with the Golden Age format, the setting tends to be a village. That’s why the majority of the key characters already know each other and, exploiting her natural wit and charm, our protagonist infiltrates the gossip circle and roots out the facts necessary to solve the crime. In this case, our stereotypical heroine is married to an ex-policeman whose past record opens doors that would usually be closed to an amateur. Finally, most would characterise this subgenre as being “gentle”. The victim is usually portrayed as seriously unpleasant and deserving to die and, as in this book, the murder method is made to look like an accident. This avoids any real unpleasantness and leaves the readers to focus on the quality of the plot and the development of the characters.

So, for better or worse, Shadows of Death is an English (tea) cozy with a pleasing ramble through village life in the Scottish Islands as our duo filter fact from fiction in the local gossip, excavate the truth from the mass of conflicting evidence, and arrive at the solution to the problem. I suspect I’m not in the target readership for a book of this type. I appreciate it but leave it to female readers to genuinely enjoy the exploration of the relationship between the couple as they navigate the tricky waters of Scottish culture in pursuit of a killer.

For a review of the next book in the series, see Day of Vengeance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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