Tag Archives for " Scotland Yard "
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
On a superficial level, A Banquet of Consequences is a simple whodunit. Inspector Thomas Lynley and his brilliant but exasperating sidekick, Sergeant Barbara Havers, must identify the murderer among several suspects. But the novel is anything but superficial. Author Elizabeth George, who earned a graduate degree in counseling and psychology and is a former teacher, has instead written a penetrating tale about relationships that sometimes defy simple logic — between husband and wife, mother and children, father and sons, and seemingly every other possible combination of human beings. It’s a fascinating tale that transcends the limitations of the conventional detective novel and explores the varieties of human experience in 21st-century Britain.
As Lynley opines in the story, “I find that people aren’t all one thing. One rather wishes they were for simplicity’s sake, but isn’t the truth that people are good and bad, simple and complicated, happy and sad, frightened and courageous? It’s all a mix. We learn to take in everything about a person as disparate parts to the whole, and it’s the whole that we love, even at moments when the other isn’t who we wish her to be.” That insight is well illustrated in this intelligently written novel.
In A Banquet of Consequences, the 19th installment in the Inspector Lynley series, the mystery swirls around the Goldacre family: Francis, Caroline, their two sons, William (Will) and Charlie, and the two daughters-in-law. The central event that triggers the action unfolding in the novel is Will’s suicide. The murders that follow — this book is, of course, a murder mystery — embroil Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers of New Scotland Yard in the lives of the famous feminist author who employs Caroline as her assistant, the author’s publisher, and the current spouses of the four Goldacres. While working the murder case that comes to light early in the story, Lynley and Havers wrestle with their own demons: Lynley is still reeling over the death of his wife, Helen, seventeen months previously, and Havers is struggling to escape from the straight-jacket of rules imposed on her by Lynley’s boss, who has gained a poisonous dislike of the younger woman.
Elizabeth George long ago established herself as one of the world’s most accomplished writers of detective fiction. Born in Ohio, she was educated in California and lives there now. Though her biography doesn’t mention it, she clearly spends a good deal of time in the UK. To understand this, all you have to do is note the peculiarly British vocabulary that leaps out of the pages in the dialogue among her characters: knickers, dogsbody, kip, cow, kit, and gash are just a few examples. If you can translate these terms into common American English, go to the head of the class. I’ve learned what they mean, but I would be hard-pressed to work them into intelligible dialogue.
Please check out my earlier post, “15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others),” which includes this book.
Half a Crown (Farthing Trilogy #3) by Jo Walton
Alternate history can illuminate the present.
Recently I reviewed the first two books in Jo Walton’s alternate history of England after World War II, the Farthing Trilogy, Farthing and Ha’penny. I found them to be both intriguing from an historical perspective and adeptly written as novels of suspense. Half a Crown, the concluding volume, is less satisfying, if only because the ending is contrived and entirely too neat. I expected better.
The premise of the Farthing Trilogy is disturbingly realistic: that Germany and England signed a peace agreement in the spring of 1941, before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the US entry into the war. Had it not been for Winston Churchill’s ability to bolster British morale, and the skill that Franklin Roosevelt displayed in steering aid to Great Britain while keeping America neutral, it’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine a scenario like the one in these novels.
In each of the first two books in the trilogy, the protagonist is a young woman from a famous aristocratic family who rebels against the strictures of her family and her caste. In Half a Crown, Elvira Royston is a clever young woman who has been adopted by lesser aristocrats and has learned to conceal her Cockney background. Each of these three comes face to face with the evil of England’s steady shift toward fascism and plays a pivotal role in resisting it. All three books work well both as thrillers and as speculation about an alternate past.
At eighteen, Elvira is preparing for her debut with the Queen along with Betsy Maynard, the natural daughter of the family that has taken her in. Both are preoccupied with dresses, dances, and boys, with no room for concern about politics. Then a handsome young man, Sir Alan Bellingham, the scion of a wealthy family and a dedicated fascist, persuades the two to join him at a pro-Government rally “for fun.” There, a riot breaks out. Nine people are killed, Betsy is wounded, and Elvira is dragged off to jail by unsympathetic and brutal police. Elvira manages to free herself from their clutches because she has an ace up her sleeve: her “Uncle Carmichael” is the head of the Watch, England’s Gestapo. And Carmichael, introduced in Farthing as a homicide inspector at New New Scotland Yard whose sidekick was Elvira’s late father, is both a closeted gay and a passionate anti-fascist who uses his position to smuggle thousands of Jews out of Britain.
What is most engaging about the Farthing Trilogy is its portrayal of the ease with which England slips into fascism, anti-Semitism, and official brutality. Given the rise of anti-immigrant movements in England (and all across the Continent), and the emergence of a rigid and intolerant Right in the US, it’s not difficult to imagine how this might have come about. When democracy comes under pressure, government creates scapegoats for its failures (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, immigrants), begins the march toward totalitarianism (mass surveillance in the US, ubiquitous CCTV cameras in England), and edges ever closer to a complete rejection of the values on which its Constitution is based.
You might also check out My 27 favorite science fiction novels, in which this trilogy is included. If you fancy looking on the dark side, you might like to check out My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series. My post 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era may also interest you.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Every five years now the former South African journalist Rennie Airth brings out another novel about John Madden, an English police detective whose life spans the two World Wars. In The Reckoning, Airth’s fourth book, Madden has long since retired to his farm in the south of England with Helen, his devoted physician wife. It’s 1947, with much of London still in ruins from the Blitz, rationing of food and gasoline remaining in place, and the new Labour government preparing legislation for the National Health Service.
Not for the first time, Madden is drawn out of retirement into a baffling new murder case in the countryside. His former protege, Billy Styles, now a Detective Inspector himself, has turned up a letter on the desk of the victim that mentions Madden for no discernible reason. Naturally, the reason lies hidden at the heart of the tale, slowly coming into focus as Styles, Madden, and their colleagues pursue the investigation. It soon becomes evident that a link exists between this and a homicide hundreds of miles to the north in Scotland, and, quickly thereafter, a third murder extends the pattern. As the inquiry unfolds, more and more police resources are brought into play, including not only Styles’ boss and his boss’ boss at Scotland Yard but Madden’s own former “guv’nor” and friend there, retired to a neighboring property.
The plot, with roots in both World Wars, is suspenseful and fascinating, but even greater rewards in The Reckoning are to be found in Airth’s meticulous description of the methods employed by the police in that era. Unlike so many police procedurals, which are typically written to lionize law enforcement, Airth describes the investigation, warts and all, with sometimes lazy and incompetent officers, weasel-like superiors, slow-moving bureaucracies, and other inevitable features of a complex, real-world case.
The Reckoning works as historical fiction, too. Airth, who lived through much of the time about which he writes — he was born in 1935 — succeeds in conjuring up the concerns and preoccupations of post-war England and of the wartime scenes that are central to the tale.
You might also like to take a look at 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others), of which this novel is one.Previously, I reviewed the first three books in the John Madden series at Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.
As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me. So, apart from Puri’s engaging series set in India, here are some of the other countries I’ve visited through the skills of mystery writers.
After excursions to Australia and Thailand, Jo Nesbo‘s brilliant, alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, sticks to home for most of his career, depicted in a series of masterful crime novels set in Oslo. To start with one of the best, read Nemesis.
Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war. The 14th novel in the series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, is an excellent effort.
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill introduces the first of the nine fascinating tales of the investigations undertaken by Dr. Siri Paiboun, the #1 (and only) coroner in the Communist government of the People’s Republic of Laos — in 1976.
To my mind, much of the best work from the popular thriller writer Olen Steinhauer appears in his five-novel cycle set in a mythical Eastern European country during the five decades of its life under Communism, with one book per decade. 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third in the series. They’re all great.
In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, you can view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment — noting in the process just how different is Scottish society from the English. Saints of the Shadow Bible is the most recent.
Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins. Start with the first in the series, Bangkok 8, which I read and enjoyed immensely before I bought a Kindle and began writing reviews for this blog.
Benjamin Black (in reality, the celebrated novelist Irish John Banville) made news recently with the publication of The Black-Eyed Blonde, bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, back to life. However, to date, his principal foray into crime fiction are the six books in his novels about Quirke, the coroner of Dublin in the 1950s. Check out Holy Orders to sample Black’s superlative prose and immerse yourself in the life on Dublin’s streets.
Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s superb and beautifully researched novels. To engage with Renko at his contemporary best, read Wolves Eat Dogs.
Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probes the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression. The Troubled Man was the tenth and last entry in this supremely satisfying series.
Elizabeth George’s series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases. Just One Evil Act is George’s latest effort in the series. It’s set in Tuscany as well as England.
Well, not present-day Turkey but one of its imperial predecessors, the Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century, the setting for Jason Goodwin’s award-winning series featuring Yashim the Eunuch. I started with The Bellini Card. Every one of these series of detective novels is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.
If, like me, you’re a big fan of detective fiction and other mysteries and thrillers, you might enjoy 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Picking up a new entry in the Inspector Thomas Lynley series is like revisiting an old friend — in fact, a whole coterie of old friends, with all their quirks and characteristics intact. In Just One Evil Act, the eighteenth novel in the series, Elizabeth George affords us a long yet none too leisurely visit with Lynley, but even more so with his long-lasting partner in crime investigation, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.
Havers is a piece of work. With a body shaped like a barrel, and a wardrobe that any self-respecting Salvation Army store would be likely to reject out of hand, Havers is anything but a typical police officer. She also swears freely and routinely disregards orders — not just those from Lynley, who has proven to be endlessly forgiving, but from Lynley’s boss, Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, who is decidedly less so.
Havers’ life revolves around her job with Lynley and, in any time that’s left over from work, a bright and charming nine-year-old girl named Hadiyyah Azhar, who lives with her father in an adjoining house. Now Hadiyyah has been spirited off by her mother to a place unknown, and Barbara is as frantic as the little girl’s father. Disregard for procedure leads to insubordination and ultimately to outright rebellion as Barbara enters upon a search for the girl that takes Lynley and later her to Lucca, a picture-book medieval town in Tuscany in northern Italy. Along the way she finds herself figuratively in bed with an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (is there any other kind?), an English private detective with the morals of a fruit fly, and a brilliant Italian police inspector.
Elizabeth George, who is after all a Texan and not English, does a terrific job conveying the way of life at New Scotland Yard. She appears to put on an equally creditable performance in showing how the very quirky Italian justice system works. But she uses Italian rather more freely than an English-speaker with no knowledge of Romance languages might like. My Spanish helped me some, but I found a lot of the dialogue in Italy just as confusing as it was for Barbara Havers.
Just One Evil Act isn’t the very best of George’s Inspector Lynley novels, but it’s a worthy addition to the series. The characters behave in believable ways, lending depth to what we’ve previously known about them, and the suspense holds until the end. It’s a good, solid read.
The Sound of Broken Glass (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James #15) by Deborah Crombie
@@@ (3 out of 5)
If you’ve ever contemplated writing a thriller, or even just a run-of-the-mill crime novel, you may have stopped in your tracks when you came to the point of coming up with a plot. It ain’t easy (at least for those of us who aren’t named James Patterson). Readers tend to demand stories that keep them puzzled right up to the end, surprise or shock them in the closing pages, and then leave them with a satisfied feeling that everything makes sense after all. All this requires that lots of loose ends need to be tied up tightly, shining a favorable light on the intrepid investigator who solves the case or the heroic action figure who forestalls disaster (usually something tantamount to destroying the planet we live on).
Sometimes coincidence plays a part in making all this work. And sometimes it plays much too big a part.
In her police procedurals set in England, Deborah Crombie has generally done an unusually good job of writing convincing and engaging mystery novels — despite the fact that she’s a native Texan and lives in a Texas town. On most of my previous excursions into the lives of Crombie’s protagonists, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely. (See my reviews of Now May You Weep, And Justice There Is None, and In a Dark House.) However, The Sound of Broken Glass is a disappointment, as was Crombie’s first effort, A Share in Death.
This time, the culprit is coincidence.
In Broken Glass, Kincaid and James are married and raising three children (one of hers, one of his, and one adopted), and in ways that are clearly less than satisfying or convenient for them, their lives now revolve around the kids. Kincaid, a Detective Superintendant, is playing house-husband while James, promoted to Detective Inspector, chases murderers through the streets of London. James’ sidekick, Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot, works closely with her on a case that seems to involve not just vicious murder but sexual perversion as well: a prominent barrister (a lawyer who argues cases in court) has been discovered in a cheap hotel, bound and gagged in bed in a way reminiscent of autoerotic play but strangled to death as well. As the investigation unfolds, much of the story revolves around Talbot, the upper-class daughter of one of London’s press lords. As time goes on, Talbot becomes romantically involved with a key witness in the case — and the slow, painful unraveling of his memory of a tragic childhood incident comes to figure as a central element in the resolution of the mystery.
All this might have been a lot of fun for the reader — if only Crombie hadn’t built her plot around an excess of coincidences. As it turns out, everybody involved in the case — police officer, victim, murderer, and witness alike — seems to have known just about everyone else at some time in the past. It’s really too much. I hope for better again from Deborah Crombie.
Believing the Lie (Inspector Lynley #17) by Elizabeth George
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
I’ve enjoyed most of Elizabeth George‘s 16 previous novels about the life and career of Thomas Lynley, an hereditary earl from Cornwall who has risen to the post of Detective Inspector in Scotland Yard. Like all of George’s characters, Lynley is a finely drawn and three-dimensional — likeable, without being the sort of person you’d expect to pal around with. Her settings, usually picturesque corners of rural England, are engaging in their own right. George clearly does her homework — she’s American, after all — so that her books are popular in the UK, not just the U.S.
Maybe what I most enjoy about Elizabeth George’s writing is the utter unpredictability of her stories. She consciously avoids working in the old Agatha Christie mode of murder tales. For example, consider this passage from Believing the Lie:
“For an utterly mad moment Lynley thought the woman was actually confessing to murdering her husband’s nephew. The setting, after all, was perfect for it, in the best tradition of more than one hundred years of tea-in-the-vicarage and murder-in-the-library paperback novels sold in railway stations. He couldn’t imagine why she might be confessing, but he’d also never been able to understand why the characters in those novels sat quietyly in the drawing room or the sitting room or the library while a detective laid out all the clues leading to the guilt of one of them. No one ever demanded a solicitor in the midst of the detective’s maundering. He’d never been able to sort that one out.”
So, if you pick up a copy of Believing the Lie, prepare yourself for a rollercoaster of a story, resplendent with more than its share of surprises. When Inspector Lynley is despatched to Cumbria to look into the murder of the nephew of a rich and powerful man, you might expect a straightforward tale of crime and punishment. What you’ll get instead is a complex tale of intrigue, adultery, family secrets, betrayal, and a host of other themes involving a wealthy manufacturing family, a tabloid reporter, a stunning Argentine woman, Lynley’s friends Deborah and Simon, and, of course, Lynley’s interior dialogue about his murdered wife. You’ll also witness the untimely deaths of two people. But don’t expect anything to go the way you think it will.
You might also enjoy “48 excellent mystery and thriller series.” This book is included.
In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Why read mystery stories? What is it about the experience that compels me to return, time after time, to the novels of Deborah Crombie, Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Michael Connolly, and a dozen others? After all, I read about as many novels about murder and mayhem as I do both nonfiction and “serious” fiction combined. Why?
This question comes to mind with special poignancy as I sit down to review one of Deborah Crombie’s finely wrought police procedurals, In a Dark House. Immediately beforehand, I read Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, his skillful recounting of the months-long policy-making process that led to President Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2010—and start withdrawing them in July 2011. And just after finishing In a Dark House, I devoured William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the inspirational tale of a seventh-grade dropout in Malawi who taught himself physics from an outdated textbook and constructed an operating windmill from scrapyard junk to produce electricity for his father’s farm.
It’s clear to me what I got from reading Woodward and Kamkwamba. The former illuminating the day-to-day reality of decision-making in the White House that resulted in one of the most significant U.S. foreign policy decisions in recent years. The latter helped me understand the crushing weight of poverty, famine, and ignorance—and how an exceptional individual can overcome them with dogged persistence, supportive friends, and a touch of genius.
So, what moved me to read In a Dark House when I might otherwise have turned to one of the dozens of highly acclaimed novels and nonfiction books in my reading queue? I can think of four reasons:
1. I’ve grown attracted to Crombie’s police duo, Inspector Gemma James and Superintendant Duncan Kincaid, both of Scotland Yard. Picking up another of Crombie’s novels is like reconnecting with old friends. I feel as though I’m getting to know them well. And I like them.
2. As a writer, I admire Deborah Crombie’s skill in character development, plotting, and scene-setting. And I’m in awe of a woman who lives in a small North Texas town who manages to write—apparently with ease—English police procedurals, some of which even win prizes in England!
3. The tension that builds within me as the plot unfolds in a skillful mystery story is pleasantly distracting. Reading one of these books is like losing myself in a great film, temporarily oblivious to the real world with its real problems and real annoyances.
4. A well-written mystery novel takes place in a world that’s new to me. It piques my curiosity. In a Dark House explores the realm of fire and arson. The details revealed in the story reflect the author’s careful research, and—for a brief time, at least, before the knowledge slips between the cracks of my memory—I understand a little more about this fascinating topic.
There’s nothing truly extraordinary about In a Dark House. I’m sure I’ll remember little or nothing about it six months or a year from now. But it was a rewarding experience while it lasted. And that’s probably enough.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
Now May You Weep (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James #9) by Deborah Crombie
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Go figure: one of my favorite English mystery writers is . . . a Texan? Yes, it’s true. The biographical blurbs in the back of Deborah Crombie‘s English mystery novels insist that she was born and lives in Texas. As an American myself, I can’t claim to be the final authority on the Englishness of Crombie’s narrative prose and dialogue, but I’ve spent enough time in the UK and with British friends not to be too easily fooled, and I’ll be damned if I can find any cultural or linguistic flaws in her writing. And I appear to be in good company, as Deborah Crombie has twice won the British mystery writers’ top award for her novels.
Now May You Weep is the ninth in a series of 13 novels Crombie has written since 1993 about the Scotland Yard duo of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. The two are sleuths who live together with his son, her son, two personable dogs, and an indifferent cat in a fashionable London neighborhood.
Like every other novel in its series, I found Now May You Weep to be engrossing and difficult to set aside. The scene is not England this time but Scotland, where Gemma James, recently promoted to Inspector and still recovering from an especially traumatic miscarriage, has gone for a long weekend for a cooking course at a rural bed-and-breakfast with her best bud, Hazel Cavendish. Hazel, long a rock of stability in Gemma’s topsy-turvy life, comes apart at the seams in the course of a weekend of shocking surprises and tragic events.
Crombie’s work is especially strong in painting a picture of the local scene — here, the Scottish highlands in all its stark, windswept glory. A major setting for the novel is an ancient distillery, which serves as the occasion for Crombie to explain in explicit and colorful detail how single-malt Scottish whiskey is made.
Now May You Weep is a stellar crime novel by a writer at the height of her powers. It’s an exceptionally fine read.
You might also enjoy “48 excellent mystery and thriller series.” This series is included.
River of Darkness (John Madden #1) by Rennie Airth
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In three suspenseful crime novels set in England between the two wars, South African writer Rennie Airth tells the story of Scotland Yard detective John Madden and his wife, nee Dr. Helen Blackwell. John is a veteran of the Great War, unhinged by his experiences in the bloodbath in France and by the deaths of his wife and daughter. Helen comes into his life just in time to help nurse him back to health.
They meet in the first book, River of Darkness (1999), set in the years following World War I, when John is assigned to an exceptionally brutal murder case in the countryside that taxes his skills and his already questionable emotional stability to the limit. Through an introduction from Helen, John enlists the help of a noted Viennese psychiatrist who assists him with an early version of what we now know as psychological profiling. The psychiatric insight eventually puts an end to a gruesome series of serial murders, leading John to the killer.
A decade later Germany is in the throes of a Nazi takeover, and England trembles. As we learn at the outset of The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2004), the second book in Airth’s series, John Madden is peacefully retired with Helen on a farm far from Scotland Yard. When he chances upon a brutally murdered corpse on a walk through the countryside, his yearning for action comes to life once again. The officer in charge of the investigation, an old friend in a senior post on the force, takes advantage of John’s eagerness to become involved again and seeks him out for advice. John circumvents his anxious wife’s efforts to keep him out of the investigation and eventually plays a key role in solving the perplexing case.
Set in 1944, a dozen years later, John is drawn into another murder case when a young Polish girl who helps out at his farm is mysteriously murdered as The Dead of Winter (2009) commences. The police assigned to the case are reluctant to see more than a chance act of violence, but John uncovers a complex back-story involving an aged German-Jewish neighbor, a French art dealer, Nazi atrocities, and a fortune in stolen diamonds.
The John Madden series continues after these first three novels with The Reckoning (2014) and The Death of Kings (2017).
Rennie Airth writes with consummate skill, unfolding his complex plots with ease and painting fully three-dimensional portraits of the characters in these three engaging novels. If you’re attracted to ably-written crime stories that bear no resemblance to the formulaic drawing-room whodunits of years past, you’ll enjoy these three books. Read them in chronological order, though. The reading experience deepens as you observe the aging protagonists live out their lives.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.