With its eye-catching cover, Victorian setting and promise of "a labyrinth of unfolding secrets", Claire Evans' debut novel The Fourteenth Letter sounWith its eye-catching cover, Victorian setting and promise of "a labyrinth of unfolding secrets", Claire Evans' debut novel The Fourteenth Letter sounded like a book I really needed to read!
The novel opens in June 1881 with the murder of Phoebe Stanbury at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benjamin Raycraft, son of the wealthy Sir Jasper. The killer, a naked man covered in mud with a strange design tattooed on his chest, disappears after committing the crime and it seems that nobody is able to shed any light on his identity or why he may have wanted to kill an innocent young woman. Detective Harry Treadway is given the job of investigating the murder, but the deeper he delves into the mystery, the more bizarre and complex it becomes.
Meanwhile, William Lamb, an inexperienced, timid young lawyer, goes to visit an eccentric client in his partner’s absence – and ends up in possession of a casket of old papers written in Latin and a cryptic message which means nothing to him. His visit is witnessed by Savannah Shelton, an American woman who has been paid to watch the house, but who is employing her and what do they want? At another house in London, Mildred is applying for a position as governess, then changes her mind when the interview doesn’t go as planned. How are all of these events connected? There are no obvious links at first, but slowly the truth is revealed as the story begins to unfold.
When I first started to read The Fourteenth Letter, I was fascinated. There were so many intriguing characters and so many strange things happening all at once. However, the constant switching from one storyline to another made it difficult for me to settle into the story and after a few chapters I began to wish we could spend a little bit longer with one character before moving on to the next. As I’ve said, the various strands of the plot do start to come together eventually but I would have liked it to have happened more quickly.
Being set in the 1880s, the story takes place during an exciting time in history, a time of great advances in science and technology. Sir Jasper Raycraft’s house, Ridgeside, is described as a famous residence with all the latest scientific developments such as electric light. I immediately recognised this as a description of Cragside in Northumberland, a National Trust property I have visited several times, and I was pleased to have this confirmed when I reached the author’s note!
However, for a novel set in Victorian London, I thought there was very little sense of time and place. Although there are references to historical and political events of the period, I never felt fully immersed in the world Claire Evans had created and it didn’t help that I couldn’t quite manage to believe in Savannah Shelton as a convincing character. William Lamb, though, is a great character – not a typical hero at all – and it was interesting to watch him develop and grow as a person over the course of the story.
Although this is certainly a very unusual and imaginative novel, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to. Maybe I was just not the right reader for this particular book; that happens sometimes and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good book. ...more
I found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19thI found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19th century Dublin; and a twisting, turning mystery to keep me guessing. Just like Andrew Hughes’ first novel The Convictions of John Delahunt, which I read and loved a few years ago, this is another great book which manages to be both highly entertaining and darkly atmospheric.
The story takes place in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The city of Dublin is shrouded in fog and when a frosty July is followed by snow in August, people are at a loss to explain what is going on. Eighteen-year-old Abigail Lawless, however, has conducted her own research into the phenomenon, linking the unseasonable weather to a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. As the coroner’s daughter, Abigail has always possessed a natural curiosity for anything scientific – and is particularly interested in her father’s work, performing autopsies to establish the cause of death.
When a young servant in a neighbouring household is accused of murdering her newborn baby – and is found dead before the inquest can be held – Abigail is sure there is more going on than meets the eye. She easily discovers the identity of the maid’s lover, but this is only the beginning. The strict religious sect known as the Brethren has been increasing in size and power since their influential leader, Mr Darby, arrived in Dublin the previous year. As she continues to investigate, assisted by her father’s young Scottish apprentice, Ewan Weir, Abigail becomes convinced that the Brethren are connected with the death of the maid and her baby. But who else might be involved? And if Abigail becomes too deeply involved herself, could she be putting her own life in danger?
I really enjoyed The Coroner’s Daughter. I think I preferred John Delahunt as the plot seemed more original and unusual, but this book is excellent too. I loved following Abigail around the Dublin of 1816 which, thanks to the gloomy and oppressive weather, is a very atmospheric setting. Our heroine’s investigations take her to a variety of locations from the Lying-In Hospital at the Rotunda to the smart terraced houses of Fitzwilliam Square and a clockmaker’s workshop on Abbey Street – and all of these are vividly described. Although it’s quite a dark story, it’s written with a lot of humour, which was obvious from the very first sentence: For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar. First sentences can be so important and that one captured my attention immediately!
I found the scientific aspect of the novel particularly interesting. The story takes place at a time when the fanatical religious views of groups such as the Brethren are coming into conflict with the work of scientists such as the astronomer Professor Reeves, a friend of Abigail’s father. As a woman, Abigail faces additional obstacles, as is seen when she is forced to submit one of her reports to a scientific journal under her father’s name in order to get published, and again when she is the only female member of the audience at an astronomy lecture given by Professor Reeves. Mr Lawless does try to encourage his daughter to be more ‘feminine’ but at the same time, not having any sons, there’s the sense that he is only too pleased to have someone to share his knowledge and passion with!
Now I’m hoping Andrew Hughes will write more books about Abigail Lawless. She’s a great character and the way the novel ended makes me think that she could easily be brought back for a sequel. If not, I will look forward to reading whatever he writes next....more
This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mysterThis book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!
So, who came to Baghdad? Well, first of all there’s our heroine, Victoria Jones, a young woman with a vivid imagination and a gift for coming up with creative yet convincing lies. Having just lost her job as a typist, Victoria takes a walk in a London park where she meets Edward, a charming, handsome young man with whom she falls in love at first sight. When, to her disappointment, Edward tells her that he’ll be leaving the next day to go and work in Baghdad, Victoria decides that she must follow him there…the only problem is, she has no money to pay for the flight. As luck would have it, she then discovers that an American lady, Mrs Hamilton-Clipp, will be flying to Baghdad three days later and requires a companion for the journey. It seems that Victoria’s problem is solved.
Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of other people are beginning to converge upon Baghdad, including the flamboyant explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee; the eccentric archaeologist Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation of Victoria’s, although she’s quite willing to pretend that he is); Anna Scheele, a clever and elusive young woman; and the mysterious Carmichael, whom we first meet in the British Consulate wearing Arab dress and trying to convey an important message to a fellow visitor. And why have all of these people come to Baghdad? It will spoil the story if I go into too much detail, but it’s probably enough to say that an international plot is brewing and Victoria Jones is about to become caught up in it.
What a great book this is! The story is a bit far-fetched and silly at times, but it was so entertaining I didn’t mind at all. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not really a mystery novel, there are still puzzles to be solved (I particularly loved the way one of my favourite Dickens novels provides Victoria with a vital clue) and there are plenty of plot twists too – I had my suspicions about some of them, but others took me by surprise. The setting is wonderful as well, with lots of colourful descriptions of Baghdad capturing a time and place that has changed forever. While it was easy enough for Victoria to travel to Baghdad (once she’d found a way to pay for it), for most of us Iraq is sadly no longer a place that we will have the opportunity to visit, apart from through fiction.
Much as I enjoy Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Victoria Jones is such an engaging heroine that it didn’t bother me that there’s no Poirot or Marple in this one. If you’re looking for something slightly different from Christie, I would definitely recommend trying They Came to Baghdad! ...more
It’s been nearly a week since I finished reading the wonderful Magpie Murders, but it wasn’t until this morning that I felt able to start writing my rIt’s been nearly a week since I finished reading the wonderful Magpie Murders, but it wasn’t until this morning that I felt able to start writing my review. I loved it – it’s one of my books of the year, without a doubt – but I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a blank screen wondering what I could possibly say about it that would explain exactly why I loved it without spoiling things for future readers in the process. The reason I’ve found this such a difficult book to write about is because it’s a mystery novel which contains not just one mystery, but two – and part of the fun was in not only trying to solve each one, but also in discovering the connections between the two.
The novel opens with Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, a small, independent publisher, settling down to read the latest manuscript from bestselling author, Alan Conway. Conway has achieved enormous success with his series of Golden-Age-style crime novels featuring the detective Atticus Pünd. Susan has never liked the author but she loves his books and has high hopes for his new one, Magpie Murders.
We are then given the privilege of reading the manuscript of Magpie Murders in – almost, but not quite – its entirety. This story-within-a-story is set in the 1950s in the little English village of Saxby-on-Avon. One of the villagers, Mary Blakiston, has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Pye Hall, where she worked as a cleaner, and Pünd has been called in to investigate. The story has everything you would expect from a classic whodunnit – plenty of red herrings, some intriguing clues, a long list of suspects all with secrets to hide, an eccentric detective and his hapless sidekick. It’s a real treat for anyone who enjoys reading Agatha Christie!
Eventually the manuscript comes to an end and we return to the present day, where a second mystery, every bit as perplexing as the one we have just been reading, is beginning to take shape. As Susan tries to draw parallels between the fictional world of Saxby-on-Avon and the private life of its creator, Alan Conway, she finds that Magpie Murders really is one of those life-changing books which, until now, she thought were just a cliché.
This is one of the most compelling mystery novels I’ve read for a long time. Both the fictional story and the ‘real life’ one had me completely gripped, trying to figure out which clues were important and which were designed to mislead us, who had a valid alibi and who didn’t...needless to say, I failed to solve either of the mysteries and fell into most of the traps that had been set for the reader. I didn’t mind, though – I was happy just to watch everything unfold as more information came to light and secrets were revealed.
There were so many other things to enjoy...the insights into the publishing world, the little puzzles and word games woven into the plot, even the chapter titles based on the One for Sorrow nursery rhyme. My only disappointment is that the rest of the Atticus Pünd mysteries referred to in the novel don’t really exist. I loved Alan Conway's Magpie Murders so much I’m now desperate to read Atticus Pünd Investigates, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, Gin & Cyanide, and all of the others – apart from maybe Night Comes Calling, but I’m not telling you why! ...more
Having read all of Dorothy Dunnett's six-volume Lymond Chronicles, eight-volume House of Niccolo series and her standalone novel, King Hereafter, I suHaving read all of Dorothy Dunnett's six-volume Lymond Chronicles, eight-volume House of Niccolo series and her standalone novel, King Hereafter, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I picked up one of her Johnson Johnson mystery novels. I wasn't entirely sure that I was starting with the right book, as Tropical Issue (originally titled Dolly and the Bird of Paradise – Dolly being the name of Johnson's yacht and the 'bird' being the female narrator of the story) was actually the sixth to be published. I had discovered, though, that it is also the first chronologically, so it seemed like a good place to start.
Our narrator is Rita Geddes, a Scottish make-up artist with a punk hairstyle (the book was published in 1983 and I should point out here that unlike the rest of Dunnett's books, these were contemporary novels rather than historical ones). Rita's latest client is the journalist and celebrity Natalie Sheridan and at the beginning of the novel Rita is in London preparing Natalie for a photo shoot with the photographer, Ferdy Braithwaite. Ferdy has borrowed his friend Johnson Johnson's studio flat to use for the session and in this way, Rita meets Johnson for the first time. Not that she learns much about Johnson during this first meeting, other than that he is recuperating after being seriously injured in a plane crash – and that he is a portrait painter, has black hair and wears bifocal glasses.
Joining Natalie for another job on the island of Madeira, Rita learns that the life of her friend and fellow make-up artist Kim-Jim Curtis could be in danger. And when Johnson and his yacht, Dolly, also arrive in Madeira, a mystery unfolds which is complex, surprising and takes the reader through a range of exotic locations from the banana plantations of Barbados to the volcanic craters of St Lucia. As with all good mystery novels, you'll need to pay attention as things which may seem irrelevant at first turn out to be important later in the book.
I liked the character of Rita from the beginning. She has a very distinctive narrative voice, with her strong personality coming across in every sentence – how can you not love a character who thinks, when disturbed by an intruder in the night, "I rather wished I was wearing something handier than a quilt, but if all else failed, I could smother the guy if I caught him"? As for Johnson, it was difficult not to want to make comparisons with Dunnett's other heroes, Lymond, Nicholas and Thorfinn, but really, while they do all share some characteristics, there are also some big differences between them. However, I do think there were a lot of similarities in the way Dunnett introduces his character to us – viewing him only through the eyes of other people (in this case Rita), with his true thoughts and motives often being obscured and misinterpreted.
While I love all of Dorothy Dunnett's other books, I can't really say that I loved this one – but I did enjoy it. It took me a while to really get into the story, but after a few chapters I was won over by a wild and wonderful sledge race to rival the ostrich ride in Niccolo Rising. It made a nice change, in a way, to be able to read a Dunnett novel without becoming too emotionally involved in the lives of the characters! I don't feel the same compulsion to immediately read the rest of the series as I did with Lymond and Niccolo, but it's good to know that there are still another six books to look forward to. ...more
This is a murder mystery with a difference, being set almost entirely within the confines of an eighteenth century debtors' prison. Our narrator, TomThis is a murder mystery with a difference, being set almost entirely within the confines of an eighteenth century debtors' prison. Our narrator, Tom Hawkins, is a young man who has rebelled against his clergyman father's plans for his future and is enjoying himself in London, spending all his money on drinking and gambling. After a big win at the card tables one night, Tom is attacked on his way home and his winnings are stolen, leaving him unable to pay his debts. Taken to the notorious Marshalsea Prison, he is horrified to discover that the last occupant of his cell, Captain Roberts, was murdered. The killer has never been caught, but Tom's new roommate, the charismatic and mysterious Samuel Fleet, is the man most people believe to be the murderer.
The Marshalea is privately run for profit, so it's not surprising that the prison governors want the killer identified as quickly as possible to avoid any further scandal. Told that his only chance of being released depends on whether or not he can solve the mystery of Roberts' death, Tom agrees to investigate. Unsure who can be trusted and beginning to wonder whether such things as truth and justice even exist in a place as corrupt as the Marshalsea, Tom eventually uncovers a web of betrayal and deception on a scale he could never have imagined.
Other authors have written about the Marshalsea, most famously Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, but Dickens' Marshalsea was a newer building on a site further down the road; set in 1727, Antonia Hodgson's novel refers to the original prison. Not knowing anything at all about the Marshalsea, this was quite an eye-opening book for me. I was aware that prisoners were often able to offer bribes in return for better living conditions and privileges, but I hadn't realised there was such a great disparity between the fate of those who could afford to pay and those who couldn't.
The prison was divided into two sections. The prisoners who had some money to spend or who had influential friends, lived on the Master's Side, which was almost like a complete town in itself, with coffee houses, bars, restaurants and even a barber. They had the freedom to move around and in some cases were even given permission to go out into London during the day. For the poor people on the Common Side, things were much worse. Crammed into tiny cells and suffering from starvation, disease and overcrowding, they died at a rate of up to twelve a day. Tom Hawkins, whose best friend happens to work for Sir Philip Meadows, Knight Marshal of the Marshalsea, is lucky enough to find himself on the Master's Side but with the knowledge that if his luck should run out, he could find himself thrown into the Common Side to meet his death with the others.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted as there are some horrible descriptions of sickness, torture and brutality, not to mention the dirty, squalid conditions the unfortunate inmates of the Common Side were forced to endure. Knowing that this was an experience many people really did have to go through makes it even more horrific. Despite this, I found The Devil in the Marshalsea very entertaining and fun to read. The book is filled with larger than life characters and I was surprised to find, when I read the notes at the end of the book, that many of these people really existed and were mentioned in the diary of John Grano, a debtor who spent a year in the prison from 1728-1729.
As a mystery novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea kept me guessing right until the end. I did not work out who the murderer was and even after the truth was revealed there were still more plot twists and revelations to come. As a work of historical fiction it's equally impressive; I loved the portrayal of eighteenth century London both inside and outside the Marshalsea. I was so pleased to find that there's going to be a sequel to this book and I'm already looking forward to meeting Tom Hawkins again! ...more
One of the most surprising books I read last year was The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. Surprising because it didn't really sound like my type of boOne of the most surprising books I read last year was The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. Surprising because it didn't really sound like my type of book, yet once I started reading I loved it from the first page. Seven for a Secret is the second in the series and just as good as the first. While I like discovering new authors and meeting new characters, there is something comforting about reading a book that is the second or subsequent in a series and returning to a world you're familiar with and characters you already know.
This series is set in 19th century New York and follows the adventures of Timothy Wilde, a 'copper star' with the newly formed New York Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers are required to wear for identification). After Timothy's crime-solving skills in The Gods of Gotham brought him to the attention of Chief George Washington Matsell, he has now been given a special position as one of the department's first detectives. In Seven for a Secret, Timothy is on the trail of a gang of 'blackbirders' (people employed to catch runaway slaves and return them to slavery in the South). The gang have captured the family of Lucy Adams, who insists that they are free New Yorkers and not slaves. Timothy promises to help and with the assistance of his brother Valentine sets out to investigate the crime.
Some of the characters we met in the previous novel are back again in this one including Julius Carpenter, Gentle Jim, Bird Daly and Silkie Marsh, but there are plenty of new characters too, from six-year-old chimney sweeps to corrupt Democratic Party members. But one of my favourite things about this series is the relationship between the two Wilde brothers, Timothy and Valentine. Tim continues to be torn between admiration for Val and disgust with his less savoury habits; Val continues to be the exasperated but protective older brother. I love them both, but I have to say I think Val is a wonderful creation and the more interesting character of the two.
The thing that really sets this series apart from other historical mystery novels I've read is the setting and the plots that arise from that setting. Before discovering these books I had virtually no knowledge at all of the early days of policing in New York or the work of the 'copper stars'. And although I have read quite a lot of novels that deal with the subject of slavery, I hadn't read anything that looked at this particular aspect of slavery. But much as I love Timothy Wilde and think he's a great narrator, I did sometimes feel that his attitudes towards slavery and other issues raised in this book seemed more like the reactions of someone living in 2013 rather than the 1840s. Other than that, the atmosphere of 19th century New York is completely believable; as in the first novel, the feeling of authenticity is enhanced by the inclusion of 'flash', a sort of slang used mainly by criminals but also spoken by both Wildes. There's a useful flash dictionary at the front of the book to help translate any unfamiliar words, but in most cases it's easy enough to work out what is being said.
If you're new to this series you could certainly enjoy Seven for a Secret without having read The Gods of Gotham first, but I would still recommend reading them in the correct order if you can. And really, they are both so good I'm sure whichever one you read first you will want to read the other anyway. I really hope there are going to be more books in this series as I can't wait to see what the future has in store for Tim and Val! ...more