Books Read in 2015 – 36. Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

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Genre: Detective

Narrative style: third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2006raven-black

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When the body of a teenaged girl is found, the suspicion immediately falls on Magnus Tait, a strange and lonely old man. But as Jimmy Perez investigates, he finds that many Shetlanders have secrets they would like to protect. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf: About five years. I was going to start reading this series but then the TV series with Douglas Henshall started and I watched them instead. I wanted to put some space between myself and the TV program before I read them. 

I was looking forward to this after the slog that was June’s book (The Well of Loneliness) and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The story is sharp and the characters are well drawn and convincing. Unfortunately, I could remember who the killer was as it had been a surprise when I watched it on the TV. However, that is not Cleeves’ fault and I tried not to let it spoil my enjoyment.

The main thing that I found difficult was that I kept picturing Henshall when really, he didn’t fit the physical description in the book. (I’m sure it’s just a jarring for readers who see John Hannah play Rebus and then decide to read the books. It’s hard to shake off the TV image.) However, he did seem to capture the personality well. Perez was just what I like in a policeman, a little bit of an outsider, not an easy man to love but tenacious and determined to get to the bottom of the problem.

The death of Catherine Ross triggers a series of events that reminds Shetland residents of the death of an earlier child, Catriona. Magnus Tait was the main suspect then as well. Perez has to fight against the urge of other officers to simply accept the old man as suspect and close the case. Of course, nothing is ever simple in a detective novel and although there are a number of times when it seems it might have been Tait, the final answer is a lot more satisfying and complicated then that.

I was keen to read this and the pages turned fairly quickly. However, for all the quotes on the front and back cover claiming that this is a ground breaking detective novel, I didn’t think it did anything particularly different. However, this novel is almost 10 years old and it may be that it was more exceptional at the time. Certainly, it barely put a foot wrong in keeping its audience guessing and I will definitely read the next book in the series.

Books Read in 2015 26. Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham

Genre: Detective, Thriller

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of view, first person from the point of9780751531466_Z view of a surviving victim

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2001

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Three women are found dead, seemingly from strokes, when a pathologist spots that it may be murder. The next victim survives but is unable to communicate with anyone. Enter Tom Thorne, detective, who quickly realises that this victim is the killer’s one success. This is what he was aiming for all along. Equally quickly, he forms an idea of who the killer is and will not let it go even when the evidence is against him. 

I like to read detective fiction but I find I am often disappointed by it. The first series I liked was Ian Rankin’s Rebus books and they set a high standard, one that is rarely lived up to. I was pleased to discover that I loved Tom Thorne almost as much as I loved Rebus and I decided pretty quickly that I would be reading on.

There are a number of similarities. Thorne is equally unpredictable. He ploughed his own furrow and was not afraid of annoying his superiors. When he decided who he thought the killer was, there was no shaking his certainty. Even when this turned into obsession, the reader stayed with him and I desperately wanted him to be right, even while I knew he probably wouldn’t be. Like Rebus, he was a lone wolf and didn’t make friends easily. His relationship with Anne, his love interest in the novel, was equally complicated.

The plot was also strong. The idea of a killer aiming to leave people in a coma as they viewed this as the ultimate in freedom was as interesting as it was disturbing. Thorne’s unpredictability meant that it wasn’t always possible to spot what was going to happen next. And while I certainly put some of the clues together, I didn’t manage to come up with the whole picture which is always good.

The third person sections were written from a number of different viewpoints and often  used ‘he’ instead of immediately naming the character which added suspense and meant that the reader always had to work to understand who was being talked about. The first person sections from the point of view of Alison, the one surviving victim, were poignant and added emotional resonance to the story.

Overall, this kept me reading and I’m pleased to discover another series that I can really get my teeth into.

Books Read in 2015. 6. The Hell You Say – Josh Lanyon

Genre: Crime, GLBT

Narrative Style: First Person, Chronologicalhell_you_say_2011

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2006

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: This is the third book in the Adrien English series. Angus, Adrien’s assistant at his bookstore has been receiving threatening phone calls. Adrien foolishly loans him the money to disappear for a while. Foolish because it soon becomes apparent that Angus is involved in some sort of demonic cult and, as usual, Adrien feels compelled to investigate, getting himself into all sorts of trouble as a consequence. Adrien is still sort of involved with closeted cop Jake Riordan. Even Adrien isn’t exactly sure whether to call it a relationship and Jake certainly doesn’t. That word is reserved for the woman he is also involved with.

Although this was a really good read, it has probably been my least favourite so far. The main reason for this is that the romance between Adrien and Jake came to a dead end when Jake announces he had got his girlfriend pregnant. Maybe this is a good thing for Adrien in the long run but I was hoping that it would run the other way and he would realise that Adrien was who he really wanted. Of course, I am sure that Jake will still be involved in future books in the series but it would seem unlikely that his and Adrien’s relationship will ever be anything other than on again, off again which is a bit depressing.

The thriller elements were all in place and, as usual, Lanyon walks between sending up typical genre expectations and using them to fool the reader. There are a suitable number of red herrings and blind alleys and Adrien is always flying of on a whim which makes him an interesting narrator. The tension between the cold unemotional detecting of Jake and the police and Adrien’s more hysterical, intuitive style adds another element of tension to both the mystery and their romance.

Adrien is a sympathetic narrator. His voice is warm and funny as he sends himself up and over-dramatisises. He is easy to relate to and feel concerned for. As well as everything else he has to deal with, his mother announces that she is getting re-married and the descriptions of Adrien’s encounters with his three new step-sisters and ultra masculine new father are extremely amusing.

It was tempting, as always, to go to read the next instalment straightaway but I have a lot of other things to read for challenges. And I don’t want to hurry through them too quickly because then I’ll be at the end of the series. Besides, I need to have some books in reserve that I know are going to be good so that I can turn to them when I’ve read something not so great.

Books Read in 2014 – 59. The Leavenworth Case – Anne Katherine Green

Genre: Detective Fiction, Classics, 

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 2.5/5

Published: 1878

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Horatio Leavenworth is found dead at his writing desk in his library which is locked. He has been shot in the back of the head so suicide is quickly ruled out and a stranger could not have got into the house and no one suspicious was spotted. Eyes turn to the various members of his family and staff. 

I love a locked room mystery and as this was an early example, I expected that I would enjoy it. And in fact, it is not the mystery elements of the novel that caused me to feel irritated with it.

The story started well, with the appearance of Leavenworth’s personal secretary in the office of Everett Raymond, saying that his boss has been shot. Raymond rushes to the spot and along with superb detective Mt Gryce, they conclude that Leavenworth knew his killer as he did not even turn his head when he heard footsteps behind him. Clues point clearly towards one of Leavenworth’s nieces as she refuses to explain how she came into possession of the key to the library. Bryce, however, is unconvinced and sets about trying to out the actual murderer.

There is nothing really wrong with the ideas behind the story. Red herrings abound and even at the end, when Raymond thinks that the mystery has been solved, Gryce proves that he is the superior detective by tricking the real killer out into the open. However, from a modern perspective, schooled as I am in reading and watching detective fiction, it was hard to be surprised. I guess it’s unfair to judge a book in such a way. It is clear why this might have been so influential on writers such as Agatha Christie but it is difficult to read outside of your own time and this seemed a little clunky to me.

Even so, that is not what drove my rating down. That was due to the narrative voice of Mr Raymond which was given to exclamation and went running off up blind alleys. Of course, this was his role, to lead the reader in the wrong direction but because he was so excitable, I never really had any faith in him and assumed that his answer was the wrong one. This is another hangover from reading other detective fiction. No one is to be trusted to tell you the truth or get things right.

Really, I wish I had read this earlier in my reading career as I’m sure I would have liked it more. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the very books, it likely influenced.

Books Read in 2014 – 55. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Genre: Detective Fiction, Historical Fictiondownload (15)

Narrative Structure: First Person Narrative, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: New York is overrun with Irish immigrants and bad feelings towards Catholics are running high. Timothy Wilde has lost everything in the Great New York Fire so he reluctantly agrees when his older brother, Valentine, gets him a position as one of New York’s newly appointed police officers. When it appears that someone is murdering Irish children and leaving them with their chest opened like a cross, Timothy is determined to solve the mystery even if it puts his life in danger. 

I’m not sure what is was about Timothy Wilde’s first person narrative but from the very first I found it difficult to get on with. It wasn’t difficult to read and the use of Flash – the criminal slang of the era – gave it authenticity. Maybe I just prefer my detectives a little more hard-boiled and edgy. Timothy just wasn’t a very interesting character while all others around him shone a bit more brightly – particularly his brother.

The story is exciting and that carried me through. In the beginning, Timothy finds Bird Daly, covered in blood and clearly frightened. He begins slowly to unravel her lies and is led to the madam, Silkie Marsh and her child prostitutes. When his investigations lead him to a mass grave of nineteen children, it seems that a serial killer is on the loose. With anti-catholic feeling running high, New York becomes volatile and rioters take to the streets.

Timothy proves himself to be an excellent policeman, sharp eyed and persistent, putting clues together and following leads that no one else has spotted. This contrasts with his stupidity in other areas, particularly his personal life. He completely misunderstands both his brother, Valentine, and his love-interest, Mercy Underhill so much so that he is in danger of ruining Mercy’s life. I’m not entirely sure that I was convinced by the character of Mercy either but she did at least have more than one side to her personality.

The story twists and turns and in the end, nothing is as you might have expected. I liked the ending and the way that it was worked out, using the then new techniques of forensic detective work. The historical detail was believable and helped create a New York that was dark and disturbing. However, I was pleased to be rid of Timothy Wilde, particularly when he is so drippy over Mercy even though it is likely his love will never be returned. It is a shame. I’m sure there is interest to be had in the books that follow but I wouldn’t want to spend another minute in his company.

Books Read in 2014 – 53. The Distant Echo – Val McDermid

2014tbrbuttonGenre: Detective
Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of viewpoints
Rating: 5/5
Published: 2003
Format: paperback
Synopsis: Four students find a girl, bleeding and almost dead, in a park on the way home from a party. A lack of any other suspects puts them in the firing line with the police and destroys their friendship. When twenty five years later, someone starts to kill them off, they feel they are back in the firing line. Will the real killer ever be found?
Reading Challenge: The TBR Challenge
Time on shelf: About three years. Not sure why. I guess, I forgot it.

This gripped me from the very first. I was convinced by the friendship between the four students – Alex, Ziggy, Weird and Mondo – by the end of the first chapter. I enjoyed the way that McDermid used their different viewpoints to add details to the story. They were all strong characters, some more likeable than others. There were many viewpoints – the police running the case, for example which gave the reader sympathy for them as they were unable to find the killer.
The pressure of being murder suspects takes its toll. The friendship – which has lasted since school – begins to break apart. The police investigation brings to light the fact that Ziggy is gay, which some of the group find hard to deal with. Then Weird finds God and the others wonder if that is a sign of guilt which further drives a wedge between them.
Twenty five years later and the first of the four is murdered. I won’t reveal who was killed but I will say that I was devastated as it was my favourite character. I was both surprised and impressed by McDermid killing of a character that I assume would be loved by most readers.
There are a number of red herrings in the second half of the book. McDermid gives just enough information to point you in the wrong direction while cleverly dropping hints as to who the real killer is. Once I realised who it was, the facts quickly fell into place and I realised what a master of the detective art McDermid really is. I will certainly be reading more.

Books read in 2014 – 51. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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Genre: cosy mystery fiction 

Narrative style: third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5

five red herringsPublished: 1931

Format: paperback

Reading challenges: Eclectic reader challenge 2014 genre cosy mystery 

Synopsis: Campbell was not popular among his fellow artists so when his body is discovered in suspicious circumstances, there is no shortage of suspects. Lord Peter Wimsey has his work cut out working out truth from lies as all of the suspects seem to have something to hide. 

I bought this quite a while ago when I first started to read detective fiction and then just didn’t get round to it. I knew that it was going to a little old fashioned and safe and I like a fair bit of blood and gore in my detective fiction so it languished on the shelf until this year’s eclectic reader challenge. I’d never even heard of the genre of cosy mystery and had to look it up. I was pleased though that it would mean I would read Five Red Herrings at long last.

I did bring quite high expectations to the book. After all, Sayers is considered a master of the detective art. And in fact, I would have to say that was true. There was nothing wrong with the tightness of the plot. If anything it was too tight.

The first thing that irritated me was Lord Peter Wimsey himself. Of course, I knew he was going to be posh but he was just too jolly hockey sticks for me. If I’d been a character in this book, I’d have been tempted to off him the minute he called me “Old Horse”. Still that was a minor quibble and one that was down to my prejudices rather than Sayers’ writing. At the beginning, I was still enjoying the story and wondering who was the guilty one.

However, the plot soon became bogged down in train schedules and timetables of the murderers actions which were tedious to read. I also found it difficult to separate the artists from each other and couldn’t remember which alibi belonged to which artist.

At the beginning of the novel, Wimsey spots something that lets him know it’s murder. Instead of telling the reader, Sayers says in an aside that she won’t say what it is because the intelligent reader will know what it is. This annoyed me as I consider myself an intelligent reader but I couldn’t figure out what it could be. I felt that she was suggesting I was too stupid to work it out. When it was finally revealed, I felt better as it was not at all obvious.

In fact, I really had no clue about who did it. The various possibilities are outlined in the final chapters by various policemen and all are plausible enough. Unlike, the actual solution. maybe, I’m just peeved because I didn’t work it out but this was so ridiculously convoluted, I’m really not sure how Wimsey could have spotted it. In the end, it seemed like a detective novel solution rather than a real life solution.

This isn’t to say that the novel isn’t well written and it does all hang together, it’s just that the solution wasn’t satisfying for me and I can’t see me reading anymore of the Wimsey mysteries.