Cold Earth – Ann Cleeves

During Magnus Tait’s funeral a landslide sweeps down the hill &, along with headstones & grave markers, destroys a nearby croft. Inspector Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral & decides to take a look at the seemingly abandoned croft. He’s surprised to find a woman’s body among the debris & even more surprised to discover that the forensic evidence points to murder rather than accidental death. The croft, Tain, had belonged to Minnie Laurenson &, after her death, her American niece had inherited the property. Apart from the occasional holiday let, the croft was empty & the identity of the woman proves hard to track down. The only clue is a letter addressed to Alis & a belt that may be the murder weapon. Local landowners Jane & Kevin Hay were Minnie’s closest neighbours but polytunnels & trees obscure their view. Perez calls in Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness to lead the investigation & the team’s first priority is to discover the identity of the victim.

Jimmy & Willow have worked together before & their friendship is tinged with a tentative attraction that both of them recognise but are unwilling to explore. Jimmy is still grieving for his fiancée, Fran, & he’s caring for Fran’s daughter, Cassie. He returned to Shetland some years before & knows the benefits & disadvantages of a tight-knit community when it comes to a murder investigation. The first clues to the victim’s identity point to a happy, attractive woman buying champagne for a special Valentine’s Day dinner but then another witness, Simon Agnew, comes forward & describes a visit from the same woman to his counselling drop-in service where she had been distraught & despairing. When the team discovers that the woman was using a false identity & that she had ties to Shetland going back some years, they need to find out who could have stayed in contact with her & what brought her back to the island. A second murder close to the scene of the first complicates the investigation & leads to suspicion & mistrust as the victim’s private life is exposed.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites (links to my previous reviews are here). Originally a quartet of novels – Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning – but the success of the quartet led to more Shetland novels – Dead Water, Thin Air & now Cold Earth. The Shetland setting is one of the strengths of the books. A remote, relatively closed community (although less so since the expansion of the oil & gas companies) is a classic setting for mystery novels & Ann Cleeves makes the most of the connections between families that result from living in such close proximity. Jimmy Perez is an enigmatic man who has had enough time away from Shetland to be mistrusted by some but it’s also given him perspective which is valuable in his work. In a way Jimmy is the typical loner detective, self-contained & melancholy, but he’s a more well-rounded character than the stereotype implies. Sergeant Sandy Wilson, who has lived on Shetland all his life, lacks confidence & looks to Jimmy for reassurance. His familiarity with the people & the place is both an asset & a burden but Jimmy has learnt how to work with Sandy to bring out the best in him.

All the characters are interesting & memorable, no matter how small a part they play in the story, like the observant young cashier at the supermarket who grabs any excuse for a cigarette & a coffee break to talk to Sandy to Rogerson’s business partner, Paul Taylor, with his frazzled wife & three small sons. Jane Hay is a recovering alcoholic who is starting to feel restless in her gratitude to her husband for supporting her & worried about her son, Andy, who has dropped out of university & is back home, silent & uncommunicative. Jane’s husband, Kevin, works hard but is unsettled by something or someone. Local councilor, solicitor Tom Rogerson seems successful but some of his decisions on the Council have upset locals & his family – wife Mavis & daughter Kathryn, the local schoolteacher – seem unaware of the rumours about his womanising.

I read Cold Earth so fast that, as usual, I had no idea about the identity of the murderer, even as Jimmy & Willow were racing towards the solution. I love a police procedural where all the steps of the investigation are laid out. There are flashes of intuition but most of the work is a hard slog, often frustrating but with enough clues to keep the detectives hoping & the readers reading along at a breakneck pace. I’m assuming that there will be a final novel in this second quartet with Fire in the title & I can’t wait!

Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

My first choice for the 1947 Club is Michael Gilbert’s first novel, Close Quarters. It’s an atmospheric murder mystery set in a cathedral close in the years before the Second World War.

The Dean of Melchester Cathedral is concerned about a campaign of anonymous letters targeting the senior verger, Daniel Appledown. Appledown is an elderly man who has held the post for many  years. The letters accuse him of being unfit for the job & of unspecified illicit activities with the wife of a fellow verger. When the incidents become more public – leaflets in the choristers’  music scores & accusations painted on the garden wall, the Dean decides that he needs to consult an expert. The earlier death of Canon Whyte, who fell from the Cathedral Tower a year earlier, is also playing on the Dean’s mind. His nephew, Bobby Pollock, is a Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard & the Dean decides to invite him down for a few days to look into the matter.

When Pollock arrives, the Dean fills him in & describes the residents of the Close. Canons Residentiary, Vicars Choral, Verger & the Choirmaster as well as the Dean, their wives, daughters & servants as well as a black cat called Benjamin Disraeli. There’s also Sergeant Brumfit, constable of the Close, who looks after the main gate assisted by his wife & seven children. Pollock begins his investigations, interviewing the other residents & discovering quite a bit about the rivalries & alliances of the inhabitants. Then, Appledown is found dead, murdered by a blow to the head, & Pollock calls in his boss, Inspector Hazlerigg, to assist the local police with the investigation.

The crucial time is around 8pm on the night before Appledown’s body is found. Everyone in the Close had a regular routine of Church services & duties with the Choir but there are some interesting anomalies on the night in question. Nosy Mrs Judd (widow of a former resident who has stayed on despite all attempts to move her out) sees everyone who comes & goes through one of the entrances to the Close but even she has to leave her vantage point to eat dinner. Rev Prynne was at the cinema; Rev Malthus was supposed to be visiting his ill sister but he couldn’t have caught the train back to Melchester that he claims to have caught; Choirmaster Mickie arrives home & tells his wife that he’s just seen a ghost; Appledown’s disreputable brother, who lived with him, was out with his Lodge on a regular outing & finished off the evening in the pub. Several members of the community claim to have been in the pub or working alone in their study or only have wives & daughters to give them an alibi. Hazlerigg & Pollock believe that the writer of the anonymous letters is also the murderer but what could be the motive?

There’s a mind behind this business, make no mistake about that. a very fine brain, cool, calculating, and deadly careful. every step, every single step, has been thought out beforehand. I have felt that once – twice – three times already today. … the calm and clever thoughts of a man confident in his own ability. … “Not madness but sanity – a sort of terrible sanity. Wne we discover the truth we shall find it as something simple and obvious. Its simplicity will be its strength. No elaboration – no frills – nothing to catch hold of.”

I enjoyed Close Quarters very much & it’s made me keen to read more of Gilbert’s work. This was his first novel & while there may be too many characters to comfortably keep track of (fifty people living in the Close alone although we don’t meet all of them), this is an exciting story with multiple red herrings & possible explanations. There are some great set pieces, especially a long chase by train & cab through London by Pollock following one character who, in turn, is following someone else & a long conversation between Hazlerigg & Pollock that lasts into the early hours of the morning as they work through the movements of their suspects. Gilbert’s style has plenty of humour & wit,

“Good gracious me, you don’t have to be invited. It’s a regular Thursday afternoon ‘do’. The Chapter take it in turns, and everyone in the Close rolls up and eats sandwiches and lacerates each other’s characters, and all in the most Christian way imaginable. You’ll regret it all your life if you miss it.”

There are definite echoes of Dorothy L Sayers in this mystery, from the elaborate working out of a crossword puzzle to the closed circle of suspects not unlike the similar setting of Gaudy Night. Actually it made me want to immediately reread Gaudy Night & I mean that as a compliment. This is a true mystery of the Golden Age, complete with maps of the Close & a handy list of the main characters. I have a couple of Gilbert’s other books on the tbr shelf (one in paper, Blood and Judgement, & the other, The Black Seraphim, an eBook I bought when Christine Poulson recommended Gilbert last year & again it in this great list of books set in Cathedrals). I’m very glad that the 1947 Club inspired me to get this book off the tbr shelves, it was a great mystery & a very enjoyable read. Thank you Simon & Karen.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family – twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice – & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother’s fortune after Patrick’s death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is not Patrick but an imposter. Brat Farrar was a foundling, brought up in an orphanage. When he runs into Alec Loding on a London street, Loding is overcome by the family resemblance to the Ashbys, mistaking Brat at first for Simon. Loding conceives a scheme to defraud the Ashbys & make his own life as an unsuccessful actor easier. Loding had grown up at the neighboring estate to Latchetts & knew the family intimately. He convinces Brat that the scheme can work & coaches him in the part. Brat soon finds himself enjoying the adrenaline &, in a short time, he has convinced the family lawyers & Bee that he is Patrick returned from the dead.

Brat’s own life has been anonymous enough that he can just tell his own story, apart from the motives for his disappearance & how he found himself in America. Brat had worked with horses there & loved it until an accident left him lame. The Latchetts is everything he had ever dreamt of & he soon finds himself in love with the house & everyone in it; everyone except Simon who curiously refuses to accept that Patrick has returned. Simon has been done out of the inheritance that for eight years he had confidently expected would be his. But, is there some other reason for his attitude than arrogance & bad temper? How long will Brat be able to keep up the pretence before someone or something trips him up?

This is such a wonderful book. I love Josephine Tey’s novels & I read them all many years ago. The Daughter of Time is the only one I regularly reread but I love them all. Tey is so good at the psychological motivations of her characters. We are aware of Brat’s emotions from the start –  suspicion of Loding’s motives, to the excitement of the game & deceiving people so successfully to the complications that arise when he is welcomed into the Ashby family & begins to feel ashamed at his deception of these people he has grown to love. There’s also his wariness of Simon as he tries to work out his feelings & account for his behaviour. Bee was my favourite character. She has given up her own life to care for her brother’s children (like Elizabeth Branwell, who left the warmth of Cornwall for Haworth after her sister’s death – I’m rereading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë) & has endured not only his loss but that of Patrick as well. She is kind, loving & principled, refusing to touch the trust money even when the stud was in trouble & she, along with Simon & Eleanor, have kept Latchetts going.

Patrick comes alive to us as a sensitive, kind boy, as is evident in the joy that neighbours & tenants show on his return. Bee has been haunted by the thought of his final moments, wondering whether, at the last minute, he regretted his actions. One of the stumbling blocks for Bee in Patrick’s return is why he should never have written to her to let her know that he was safe. The Patrick she knew would not have been so cruel. Still, she welcomes Brat wholeheartedly & never reproaches him. Simon is arrogant, privileged & unlikeable but still, it’s not difficult to understand his shock at the change in his fortunes & the future he thought he would enjoy.

Tey is also good at creating a world, in this case, a horse stud & riding school. I’m not interested in horses at all but she made that world, with its horse shows, racing, riding lessons for bored schoolchildren & the precariousness of success where a bad season could almost destroy the business, very real & interesting. The minor characters are also interesting – vicar George Peck & his beautiful wife, Nancy, who is Alec Loding’s sister & was once the belle of county society, shepherd Abel, fussy Mr Sandal the lawyer, Lana Adams, the “help” who epitomises the new breed of household help post WWII & Glaswegian Mr Macallan, the local reporter who hopes his story about the Ashby resurrection will get him onto the front pages of the London papers. I couldn’t help but think that Tey made him Scots because of her background. I must find out if there’s a model in her life for all the young American men who pop up in her books – Brat & Brent Carradine in The Daughter of Time & I’m sure there was one in The Singing Sands. I could always read the recent biography on the tbr shelves, I suppose!

I listened to Brat Farrar on audio, read by Carole Boyd, one of my favourite narrators.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of Brat Farrar available from Anglophile Books.

One Under – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I seem to be regaining my interest in detective fiction. I used to read a lot of series but I seem to have cut back to only a few favourites. It would be easier to keep up if I could stop myself becoming interested in new subjects. Ancient history is my latest interest. I read Mary Beard’s wonderful account of Roman history, SPQR, earlier this year & I’ve become fascinated by a period I know very little about. However, I’ve just finished watching Series 9 of Lewis & that reminded me that I hadn’t read the latest book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series.

Two deaths, seemingly unconnected. Jim Atherton is called to a death at an Underground station, known as a “one under”. It seems to be an uncomplicated suicide. CCTV shows the man jumping in front of the train. There’s no one near him, he wasn’t pushed, he didn’t trip. George Peloponnos was in his late forties, living with his elderly mother, & working for the North Kensington Regeneration Trust. There seemed to be no reason for him to kill himself. On the same day, DI Bill Slider & the rest of his team are at the funeral of another suicide, their colleague, Colin Hollis. The atmosphere of misery at the funeral suits Slider’s mood, the guilt he feels at not being able to help Hollis & also the unresolved feelings he has about the loss of the baby his wife, Joanna, was carrying. The baby would have been due around this time.

Slider goes to the scene of another death, on the patch of another station, because the dead girl, Kaylee Adams, lived on a housing estate in Shepherds Bush. Kaylee was found in a ditch by the side of a country road, apparently the victim of a hit & run driver. However, forensic pathologist Freddie Cameron isn’t happy with her injuries & doesn’t think she was hit by a car. Then there’s the absence of Kaylee’s bag & phone & why were her knickers on inside out & her shoes found some distance away? Kaylee lived with her younger sister & her mother, who was more concerned with her boyfriends & her next drink than caring for her daughters. When Slider discovers that Kaylee had known another girl, Tyler Vance, who was found drowned, he is determined to find out what happened to her & prevent her death becoming just another statistic.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series are terrific police procedurals. I love the way the reader follows the investigation step by step & makes the discoveries along with the investigating team. This is a long running series (no 19, Old Bones, is published early next year) & Slider’s team have become old friends. The painstaking investigation, with flashes of intuition & the odd hunch, draws me in & never lets go. The first death, the suicide of George Peloponnos, seems to be straightforward, but, as a seasoned reader of police procedurals, I knew there had to be a connection. When it was revealed, it was shocking but also incredibly sad. Slider is a decent man, caught between the dictates of his conscience & the struggle to justify a seemingly hopeless investigation when the powers that be control the funding. Even when he is explicitly warned off the investigation, he keeps plugging away, finding other ways to pursue the threads of the story, determined not to give up.

The other aspect of the series that I love is the humour & wit. The chapter headings are often puns & Slider’s boss, Porson, can’t open his mouth without uttering a malapropism. Slider’s personal life is as important as his work. His musician wife, Joanna, still recovering emotionally from the miscarriage but back at work & enjoying it. His father, living next door with his second wife & a willing babysitter for young George, his namesake. There was less emphasis on the personal in this book but I think Harrod-Eagles strikes the right balance. There’s even a further instalment of Atherton’s fraught love life as he tries to keep up the playboy facade after the departure of Emily, his most serious girlfriend. I read One Under in a weekend & I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. Now that I’m back on the mystery bandwagon, I wonder what will be next?

Murder of a Lady – Anthony Wynne

The murder of Mary Gregor shocks everyone who knew her. By all accounts she was a kind, gentle elderly lady, sister of the local Laird, Duchlan, & devoted to his son, her nephew, Eoghan.The circumstances of Mary’s death are also peculiar. She was found kneeling by her bed in a room with  door & windows locked. There seemed no way for the murderer to have left the room & there’s no murder weapon to be seen, just a jagged wound near her neck. The only clue is a silver herring scale found near the fatal wound. There was also the scar of a long-healed wound on the victim’s chest. How could Miss Gregor have inspired murderous rage not once but twice in her life?

While waiting for the arrival of the local police, the Procurator Fiscal, Mr McLeod, calls in Dr Eustace Hailey, a well-known amateur detective who happens to be staying nearby. Dr Hailey examines the murder scene & talks to Duchlan who speaks of his sister in glowing terms, of the devotion of her personal maid, Christina, & the piper, Angus, who performed some of the duties of a butler. His daughter-in-law, Oonagh, was also in the house but had retired early. Oonagh’s husband, Eoghan, arrived by motor boat that same evening from Ayrshire where his regiment was stationed. When Inspector Dundas arrives, he immediatly takes charge of the investigation & rejects Dr Hailey’s offer of help.

It soon becomes clear that Mary Gregor was a deceptively mild character. In reality, she ruled Duchlan Castle with an iron will & brooked no opposition from anyone. Her insinuating ways left her victims with no concrete action or word to complain of but the results of her poisonous tongue were very real. Oonagh had quarreled with her aunt about the care of her son & she had given Eoghan an ultimatum – give me a home of our own or I will leave you. Eoghan was on his way to Duchlan that night to ask his aunt for a loan to pay his gambling debts, a loan that his aunt was likely to refuse as her high moral standards disapproved of gambling. However, Eoghan would benefit greatly from Mary’s will as she was the only one of the family with money. Oonagh had become friends with the local doctor, MacDonald, & Mary Gregor believed they were having an affair. She had threatened to tell Eoghan about it, as she had continually sowed discord between Oonagh & Eoghan & interfered with the upbringing of their young son Hamish. As Dr MacDonald was in the house that night, attending Hamish who was prone to fits, he joins Inspector Dundas’s list of suspects.

However, the locked room & lack of a weapon baffle the Inspector & he eventually has to climb down & ask for Dr Hailey’s help with the investigation. Then, another murder takes place with a similar method to the first & the uncanny circumstances, including the discovery of more fish scales at the scene, lead to whispers about the strange creatures from nearby Loch Fyne that the fishermen believe bring bad luck & evil. Could the answer be supernatural after all?

Murder of a Lady is an ingeniously plotted locked room mystery in an atmospheric Highland setting. I love books set in Scotland & this one has everything – a castle by a loch with tales of a seal-like creature lurking in the depths; a respectable woman who rules her family with insinuating cruelty; a young woman at the end of her tether & an old man who turns his face from the truth & is completely under the sway of a stronger character. The murders are very puzzling & the fish scales (the book was originally published in 1931 as The Silver Scale Mystery) add a distinctive oddness to the investigation. I enjoyed the character of Dr Hailey. He’s kind, sympathetic, but determined to pursue the truth, no matter how much sympathy he may feel for the suspects. He prevents several crimes in the course of his investigation, including a suicide, but can’t stop the murderer striking again as he desperately tries to put together the clues.

Murder of a Lady is one of the very successful British Library Crime Classics series. I have lots of them on the tbr shelves (& there are more to be published later this year). It’s fascinating to have a chance to read these long-forgotten authors. I’d like to read more Anthony Wynne so I hope they choose another of his books to reprint in the future.

Knock, Murderer, Knock! – Harriet Rutland

Presteignton Hydro is not a fashionable, top class resort. The twenty or so permanent residents are retired people of the professional middle classes – widows, spinsters, military men. Run by Dr Williams & his staff, the Hydro caters for those with small private incomes & an infectious love of gossip & scandal. Like any closed community in a Golden Age murder mystery, the residents encompass many different but familiar types. Miss Astill, the sheltered spinster with religious leanings; Miss Brendon, the elderly invalid losing her sight but kept informed by her devoted companion, Miss Rogers; Mrs Napier, who pretends that she has lost the use of her legs although no one really believes this; snobbish Lady Warme, a widow who flaunts her love of opera on the strength of one visit to La Scala but whose husband made his money in groceries; Mrs Marston, who is at the Hydro with her irritable invalid husband & two young daughters & my favourite character, would-be detective novelist Mrs Dawson, who is trying to become a writer to make enough money for her son, Bobby’s education.

The male residents are less inclined to gossip but are just as eccentric. Admiral Unwin, who loves crosswords & Colonel Simcox, always needing help with his knitting. The Admiral is being pursued, if you believe the gossip, by Nurse Hawkins & the colonel is besotted with a newcomer, a beautiful young woman, Antonia Blake. Another new resident, Sir Humphrey Chervil, is also interested in Miss Blake & the gossips are enthralled by the potentialities of this love triangle. After a concert, organised by Lady Warme, where Miss Blake obligingly steps in at the last moment as accompanist, she & Sir Humphrey are observed lingering in the lounge. Next morning, Miss Blake is discovered in the lounge by the housemaid. She’s dead, with a steel knitting needle plunged into the back of her head.

Inspector Palk & Sergeant Jago take up the investigation & soon arrest Sir Humphrey when Miss Blake’s jewel box is found on the top of his wardrobe. However, when a second murder occurs, with the same modus operandi, the Inspector has to consider the possibility of a second murderer imitating the first or could he have arrested the wrong man? The investigation is very entertaining as almost every person he interviews accuses someone of the crime. The atmosphere of gossip & suspicion is very well observed & the claustrophobia that the Hydro induces, especially as the residents are forbidden to leave, creates tension. A new resident, Mr Winkley, who fancies himself as an amateur detective, upsets the residents with his blundering questions but the police seem to be no nearer a satisfactory solution. There are so many unanswered questions – why was Miss Blake at the Hydro at all when she never took any treatment? What connection could Miss Blake’s murder have with the second murder? If they were committed by the same person, then Sir Humphrey must be innocent & the murderer must still be at the Hydro but Inspector Palk believes the evidence against Sir Humphrey to be strong.

Mrs Dawson unfortunately seems to have plotted out Miss Blake’s murder in her notebook before it happened but she is more concerned about plotting the second & third murder for her novel because, of course, there must be more than one murder in a detective novel, the public expect it. Mrs Napier may just be a nutty old lady looking for sympathy or she may be cleverer than we think. Nurse Hawkins was left alone with the victim of the second murderer & seems to have something to hide. Inspector Palk approves of the doctor’s attractive secretary, Miss Lewis, but is she just a bit too clever? It proves difficult to discover the murder weapon when nearly all the women & the Colonel knit & there are knitting needles in every room in the place. The murder method demanded a certain amount of medical knowledge but as Dr Williams’ medical books lie scattered in every room, it would be easy enough for anyone to discover the vital information. Harriet Rutland manages to keep all her characters distinct in the reader’s mind which isn’t easy to do with a cast as big as this. Inspector Palk is a dogged detective who nevertheless needs a little help in coming to a solution but it’s all very satisfyingly wrapped up in the end.

This is an excellent mystery with a lot of humour & a satisfyingly convoluted plot. I also enjoyed the acute social commentary, that the retired middle classes tend to take people on trust & believe that they are who they say they are as they’re too polite to make enquiries. I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s similar point in her 1950 novel, A Murder is Announced, that no one produces letters of introduction anymore so how do you know who they really are? This is very convenient, of course, for a writer of mysteries & I was interested that, far from being a post-war phenomenon, it could be just as true in the late 1930s.

I was sent a review copy of Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Dean Street Press. As well as Knock, Murderer, Knock!, which was published in 1938 & therefore perfect reading for the 1938 Club, they’ve also published Rutland’s two other novels, Bleeding Hooks & Blue Murder.

The Woman in Blue – Elly Griffiths

Cathbad is house sitting for a friend, Justin, who lives in a house next to St Simeon’s in Walsingham. As well as the house, Cathbad is also looking after Justin’s cat, a defiant black tom called Chesterton. When Chesterton escapes one night, Cathbad follows him through the churchyard & sees a woman, dressed in white & wearing a blue cloak, standing next to a tombstone. As Walsingham has been a site of pilgrimage for worshippers of the Virgin Mary for centuries, & Cathbad is a druid, unfazed by spiritual experiences of any kind, Cathbad is not afraid but interested. Next morning, though, the body of a young woman, Chloe Jenkins, dressed in a white nightdress & blue dressing gown, is found carefully laid out in a nearby ditch with a rosary on her chest. Cathbad’s vision was all too real.

Chloe was a patient at The Sanctuary, a clinic for people with addictions. She was a beautiful, blonde young woman, a model who had become involved with drugs & spent several periods in clinics trying to overcome her problem. DCI Harry Nelson & his team soon discover that security at The Sanctuary wasn’t particularly rigorous & Chloe wasn’t the only patient who had slipped out that night. Harry is also disconcerted by the resemblance of Chloe to his wife, Michelle, & their daughters. Harry’s marriage had been shaky for a while when Michelle discovered that Harry had had a brief affair with archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway & that he was the father of her daughter, Kate. Harry wants to be part of Kate’s life & Michelle agrees that he should but her own unhappiness has become more apparent, especially as she has become emotionally involved with Tim Heathfield, one of Harry’s team.

Ruth is surprised to be contacted by Hilary Smithson, who she knew when they were both post-graduate archaeology students at Southampton. Hilary’s career has changed course & she is now a priest. She’s going to be in Walsingham at a course for women priests with ambitions to become bishops. Hilary has been receiving disturbing anonymous letters, addressing her as Jezebel & abusing her & all women priests as unnatural. Ruth convinces Hilary to show the letters to Nelson & soon there appears to be a link with the murder of Chloe Jenkins when one of the women on the course, Paula Moncrieff, is also murdered. Both Chloe & Paula were blonde & attractive, both killed in Walsingham. Could there be more of a connection? Could the same killer be responsible? There seems to be a religious theme – the rosary left on Chloe’s body & the fact that Paula was a priest. Nelson & his team find clues in the past & in the connection of both women to Walsingham. The action spans the weeks from early spring, when the snowdrops cover the ground in the ruins of Walsingham Abbey to the performance of the Passion Play on Good Friday when everything becomes clear.

I love this series. The relationship between Ruth & Nelson is just wonderful. Ruth has had several inconclusive relationships since Kate was born but she really seems to be in limbo, unable to forget Nelson, despite the tenuousness of their relationship. Nelson is also torn between Michelle & Ruth, wanting to do the right thing & not hurt anyone but continually wrong footed & mostly making himself miserable. Nelson discovers that Michelle has been seeing Tim in a very dramatic scene that results in a reconciliation of sorts with Michelle. Ruth’s life as a working mother isn’t easy. Her boss, Phil, is still irritating & she feels inadequate as a mother, although Kate is happy, healthy & has lots of friends. Cathbad & his partner, Judy, now have two children & are very content, although Judy is anxious to get back to work in Nelson’s team as soon as her maternity leave is over.

It’s so lovely to find out what’s been happening with Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad & their families. Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, is as enthusiastic & as clumsy as ever & there’s a new member of the team, Tanya Fuller, who tries a bit too hard & gets on Nelson’s nerves because she isn’t as empathetic as Judy. The suspects are a reliably creepy lot with potential motives all over the place. As in the best mysteries, hardly anyone is quite what they seem & everyone has secrets. The religious & historical themes are also fascinating & there’s even an archaeological angle as Ruth investigates the results & the finds from a couple of digs that took place at the abbey in the past, looking for the site of the holy house where pilgrims came to worship a phial containing the Virgin’s breast milk.

My only problem with this series is that I read them so fast (less than two days for this one) & then have to wait a year for the next book. I couldn’t even wait for my library copies to arrive & bought the eBook on the day it was published. It’s the mark of a great mystery if I read it that fast so I’ll just have to sit tight & wait for the next instalment.

The Religious Body – Catherine Aird

Sister Anne, of the Convent of St Anselm, has been found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps. The back of her head has been shattered by a heavy blow but there’s a curious absence of blood at the scene. What was meant to look like an accident is soon revealed to be murder. Inspector C D Sloan of Calleshire CID arrives, accompanied by his very raw constable, William Crosby. A convent is foreign territory to Sloan & his investigation isn’t helped by the unhelpfulness of witnesses who practice custody of the eyes & make a virtue of being unobservant. Sister Anne was seen at Vespers on the night of her death but, when forensic surgeon Dr Dabbe determines that she must have been dead at least two hours earlier, who was it who sat in her stall in Chapel? And where were Sister Anne’s glasses when she couldn’t see very far without them?

Before she entered the convent, Sister Anne had been Josephine Cartwright, a member of a wealthy family, who disowned her when she became a nun. That wealth was made in munitions during the Great War & Sister Anne is due to inherit a substantial amount of money which her disapproving family can’t prevent. She wants to use the money to build a cloister for the convent & to further the order’s work in the mission field but this plan would not please her cousin, Harold, the Managing Director of the firm which is just about to be listed as a public company.Why should Harold Cartwright have suddenly decided to visit his cousin after twenty years, on the very day she’s murdered? Could one of Sister Anne’s fellow nuns murdered her for the sake of the inheritance? Sloan must try to penetrate the bland courtesy & unvarying routines of the nuns to discover if any of the Sisters had a secret in their past that could have led to murder.

The investigation takes another turn when the students at the nearby Agricultural Institute dress their Bonfire Night Guy in a nun’s habit. After an anonymous tip off, Sloan arrives just in time to rescue the guy from the flames & discovers that it’s also wearing Sister Anne’s glasses. Three students confess to stealing the old habit from the convent on the night of the murder but deny knowing anything about the glasses. When one of the students is found dead, strangled in the Convent shrubbery, it seems that he must have seen something that was dangerous to the murderer, whether he realised it or not.

The Religious Body was the first of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan mysteries, published in 1966. I must have discovered them in the 1980s & I’ve read them all. I can’t resist a convent mystery (having recently reread Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun) & it’s been so many years since I read this that it was like reading a new novel. Open Road Media have released many of the Sloan series as eBooks & we’ve bought some for our eBook collection at work so I plan to read a few more of the early books. Reading The Religious Body reminded me of Catherine Aird’s only non-series mystery novel, A Most Contagious Game, which I’ve linked to in my featured post this week. I do like her writing style, her cool, dry humour & she has a real sense of atmosphere. Inspector Sloan is an engaging detective who has much to put up with the very inexperienced Crosby & his tetchy boss, Superintendent Leeyes.

Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Let Him Lie – Ianthe Jerrold

Jeanie Halliday has bought Yew Tree Cottage on impulse. A young artist, she bought the cottage because it was close to Agnes Drake, a former school teacher whom she admired. Jeanie thought that she & Agnes were friends but since Agnes’ marriage to Robert Molyneux, owner of Cleedons, an Elizabethan manor house & estate (including Jeanie’s cottage), their friendship has changed. Agnes is aloof, brittle, standoffish & Jeanie is also discovering that the delights of home ownership are more elusive than she hoped. When Robert Molyneux is shot dead in his orchard, the crime seems inexplicable. Soon, however, Jeanie finds herself at the centre of a group of people with secrets & motives galore.

Robert’s sister, Myfanwy Peel, arrives just before the murder to speak to Robert about her daughter, Susan, who lives at Cleedons. Myfanwy is a self-centred woman who didn’t want to be bothered with Susan but has suddenly decided to take her back. She arrives in a bit of a state, waving a pistol around in the driveway, accompanied by her man of the moment, Eustace Agatos. Robert has angered his neighbour, William Fone, a poet & antiquary, who is obsessed with archaeology, especially a Neolithic burial mound, known as Grim’s Grave. Robert wants to dig up the mound & Fone is bitterly opposed. Fone is disabled & his assistant, Barchard, agrees with Fone that the mound should be undisturbed. Barchard also owes money to Robert Molyneux & was unable to repay the loan.

Robert’s former assistant, Peter Johnson, was dismissed for stealing money from the safe. He was dismissed without a reference & is discovered in the vicinity of Cleedons when Robert is murdered. He claims to have come back to ask for a reference but he was also infatuated with Agnes. Susan’s governess, Tamsin Wills, was also obsessed with Agnes, who inspires hero worship but quickly becomes irritated by devotion. If Myfanwy takes Susan away, Tamsin will be out of a job. Then there’s Marjorie Dasent, a local woman who was in love with Robert & was seen by Tamsin in the stables with Robert as he tried to dismiss her.

When Superintendent Finister arrives to investigate, Agnes is unable to account for her time & takes refuge in hysterics. Several people were in a position to take a shot at Robert & there is at least one gun missing from the Cleedons tower gun room. Several of the suspects were seen in the tower or in the grounds at the crucial time & none of them have a satisfactory alibi. Then, there’s the mystery of the white kitten that was shot some days before & the discovery of a half string of pearls in the cupboard of Jeanie’s cottage. Did they belong to the previous tenant, Valentine Frazer, who had been living there with Fone’s assistant, Barchard, before she went off to London to work as an artist’s model? Are they connected to the murder or are they part of one of the many secrets hidden by all the suspects in the murder? Jeanie finds herself investigating the murder & in considerable danger before the murderer is discovered.

Let Him Lie is one of two mysteries written by Ianthe Jerrold under the pseudonym Geraldine Bridgman. It was written some years after her two novels featuring John Christmas, Dead Man’s Quarry & The Studio Crime. I enjoyed it very much. Jeanie is an engaging sleuth & the suspects have some real depth to them. The motives are various & quite tangled & the untangling takes some ingenuity. The final chapters are full of suspense & the feeling of dread was palpable. It was very effectively done. I was made very aware of how creepy a house could be with no electricity & only candles for lighting.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a copy of Let Him Lie for review.