Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim

Doubleday, 2019
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
292 pp

Expect the unexpected in this book, which is anything but your standard gun-for-hire novel.

Bumping off someone in the South Korea of this book is the domain of the titular (and anonymous) plotters, those behind the scenes hiding in the shadows. Everyone who is powerful enough has access to a plotter to take care of his or her business.  Once a hit is ordered, the plotters work out how the job will be done and then hire a contractor  to do the actual dirty work; the contractor then hands off the work to an assassin.  The person making the hit has absolutely no clue as to who's commissioning him  --  he does the job, picks up his money and waits for the next assignment.    That is, of course, if he follows instructions to the letter and doesn't mess things up. If that happens, well, let's just say that it's not a good thing.

The "assassination industry"  really came into its own after the overthrow of some thirty years of military dictatorship. As we're told, unlike those previously in power,
"...the newly democratic government couldn't use the basement on Nansan to beat the crap out of loudmouthed pains in the ass.  And so in order to avoid the eyes of the people and the press, to avoid generating evidence of their own complex chain of command and execution, and to avoid any future responsibility, they started doing business on the sly with contractors.  And thus began the age of outsourcing."
The Plotters follows the story of Reseng, whose adoptive father known as Old Raccoon,  is the head of one of these assassination syndicates.  Adopted at age four, Reseng was taken to live at his father's "labyrinthine" library, aka in the industry as "the Doghouse," which was always "crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters."  While the business was going on in the background, Reseng preferred to curl up in a chair and read, having taught himself early on to read by matching the Korean alphabet to pictures in books, since Old Racoon had decided he wouldn't learn anything by going to school.    It is notable that his hero was Achilles, and also notable that from his hero he learned that no matter what, you have to protect your weak spot, an idea which carries throughout this novel.    Eventually Reseng learns the assassin trade and becomes very efficient at his job, but after years in the profession, he comes to realize that he himself might be the target of someone who wants him dead.  That's enough about plot for now.

If you're thinking that this book is just another killer-becomes-prey sort of thing, so why read it, don't even go there. While there is plenty of action throughout the story that will make thriller readers happy, the main focus is really on Reseng, whose inner reflections offer more of a philosophical side to the man.  I only got through the first chapter and realized that this was no ordinary thriller, even as he has his victim in the crosshairs. As he watches the elderly man deep in the mountain woods, talking to his plants, playing with his dog, he stops for a moment to ask himself whether or not to pull the trigger, thinking about how once the job is done he might be able to "change his a pizza shop across from a high school, or sell cotton candy in the park."   But he doesn't shoot because "Now's not the right time."  He wasn't sure why it wasn't the right time, only that "there was a right time for everything,"  but this wasn't it.  Not only does he not pull the trigger, but he is actually invited inside by his victim to warm himself by the fire, shares a meal and listens to the old man's story about his grandfather before they both fell asleep.  It was this very scene that had me realizing that I had something very different in my hand, with worries about it being your standard hit man story all dissolved before I even got to the second chapter, and many more surprises were in store.

Aside from Reseng, there are a host of other unique characters all beset with very human problems, including a fellow assassin who didn't follow the plot, a quirky crematorium operator, a cross-eyed librarian, and a  woman who advocates for assassination in cases of abuse.  It's the kind of book where I was laughing one moment, horrified the next, but when all is said and done, the author remains primarily in the inner life of the main character.   It is, in fact, the people in this book who make it successful and to his great credit, the author rises well above mere genre (although some of the trappings are definitely there) to make this a very human story. And while not perfect (it starts to read like a movie in the last half or so) it is also one of the most literary crime thrillers I've read, complete with history and social issues, and despite its faults, it is nicely written.   I'd seriously read anything this author has written or will write in the future.

There are some great reviews out there with much more to say than I have here (listed below), but seriously, I've been up all night with no sleep so it's amazing I'm still coherent at the moment.  I will say that I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb because they gave away way more than I wanted to know before I'd even started the book, which was seriously disappointing.   Bottom line: it's a definite yes, and this is coming from someone who likely would not pick up a novel about a hit man by choice.   This one I'm recommending wholeheartedly.

from Criminal Element
from The Guardian
from Korean Literature Now

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

* A 1919 crime trio: Lee Thayer, Bernard Capes, and Isabel Ostrander

The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor, by Lee Thayer
The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes
Ashes to Ashes, by Isabel Ostrander

I am a very patient reader, but I must say that more than once while reading this crime/mystery trio of novels I felt like my tolerance was being tested.  Posted in order of annoyance (most to least), the main culprit here was Lee Thayer, whose book The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor was actually a bit of a trial to get through.  

Forgotten Books, 2012
393 pp

My version is from Forgotten Books, one of my go-to place for reprints, but this book was originally published by The Century Company in New York.  In case anyone decides they're brave enough to read this novel, there are also e-versions available at  

original Century edition, 1919, image from AbeBooks
I picked up this book because of my interest in more obscure women mystery writers of yesteryear.  Lee Thayer, full name Emma Redington Lee Thayer (1874-1973)  isn't exactly a household word in the genre, although she wrote some sixty books between 1919 and 1966.    The Thirteenth Floor is the first in her series featuring Detective Peter Clancy, who in this novel is but a mere teen,  but who will go on to solve several mysteries over the long span of his career.  Francis M. Nevins,  in Pronzini and Muller's  1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction  places him in fifty-nine out of Thayer's sixty books (780).   

The story focuses on the death of an attorney by the name of James Randolph Stone, whose death by stabbing occurs immediately after he has two of his employees witness the signing of his will.  The timing of the death and the fact that nobody could possibly have gotten into Stone's Manhattan office and fled (or hid him or herself)  in the scant amount of time before the discovery of his body lands this story in the impossible-crime zone.  When the will turns up missing, it seems that there are several people who are interested in retrieving it, and will (quite literally) stop at nothing to get it.  There is a police detective, and he latches onto the wrong person,  but detection isn't the actual focus here, as Thayer examines motives, character, and the past among her people as she takes us through the story to get to the answer of who killed Stone.  Now, that sounds pretty cut and dried, in typical whodunit fashion, but as it turns out, Thayer decided to take the longest way possible to get to that point, and in the meantime interjects romance, much melodrama, self-sacrificing (aka lying to protect someone else),  and memory musing to the tune of several pages that could have completely been left out or at least edited down to a few sentences to convey her point.  As far as the core mystery of this novel is concerned it was pretty good, and I really did want to know who killed old James Randolph Stone, but just as we're heading to the finish line, the author does something undeniably unforgivable in the form of what I'm sure was meant to be a last-minute showstopper.  Gah! I won't give it away but seriously -- this was beyond frustrating after putting up with all that came before. 

One more thing,  and that's  Nevins' warning in 1001 Midnights that 
"Thayer's novels move the speed of an arthritic snail trying to cross a piece of flypaper."
I couldn't have said it better.

 I'm happy to have read it, and to have discovered yet another more obscure woman author,  but unless I am running short on books someday, I'm not too sure I will be picking up another book by this author in the future.   Reader beware. Even my saintlike reading patience was not enough here.


Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2015
204 pp

Moving on to book two, which was much less frustrating and had a crazy twist that I didn't see coming, is The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes.  I know Capes as a writer of horror/pulpy-ish fiction but not as an author of mystery/crime fiction. Not only was this Capes' first mystery novel, but it was also the first in Collins' Detective Club series, many of which have been reprinted along with their great covers

A country house in Hampshire is the scene for this story, although it actually begins in France, where two of the main characters, Vivian Bickerdike and the Baron LeSage, meet for the first time at a sidewalk cafe in the Place du Palais Royal.  Although the Baron is helpful,  Bickerdike isn't quite sure about him, noticing that the Baron
"could not, or would not, answer a direct question directly; he seemed to love secrecy and evasion for the own sake, and for the opportunity they gave him for springing some valueless surprises on the unsuspecting."
Their paths will cross again as they find themselves on the same train heading for the same destination, Wildshott, the Hampshire country home of Sir Calvin Kennett, who lives there with his son Hugo (a friend of Bickerdike) and his daughter Audrey.  Hugo (also called Hugh) is in a strange state of mind -- Bickerdike senses there's something not quite right with his friend, and Hugo promises to tell all after the upcoming shooting party.  But there are more important things that will take precedence first, since during the shooting the young maid Annie Evans is shot, and it turns out not to have been an accident but rather a solid case of murder.    The police are called and a certain  Sergeant Ridgway ("a clever dog!") makes his way to the scene, where he immediately latches on to the men in the house as possible suspects. While Ridgway investigates, Bickerdike does some clandestine sleuthing, looking both at the case and at the Baron, whom he does not particularly trust and certainly dislikes.   After the coroner's inquest, a suspect is arrested, imprisoned and sent to trial, which should have been the end of things, but the Baron, it seems, has been doing some investigating of his own.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is definitely best read by people who are true-blue fans of British murder mysteries, especially those set in an English country home.  Frankly, it's a bit of a rough go at times,   because it has a tendency to be a slow-moving, overly-written and wordy story.  It has its moments, especially during the trial, but for the most part it can be a bit of a slog, if you're not used to this sort of thing. The ending, however, was a complete surprise that I never saw coming (and most ingenious, I must say); on the other hand there is absolutely no clue leading up to what is coming down the pike since the Baron is a detective figure who holds his cards quite close to his chest --  we really don't know until the very end exactly how  he put two and two together to actually solve the case. It's sort of unfair, really, and when Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder said of this book that Capes "infringed" on the rules governing detective stories, I can see why.  All in all it was the ending that made it an okay read for me.


Forgotten Books, 2017
333 pp
Last, but not least (and among the three the one I enjoyed the most) is Isabel Ostrander's (1883-1924)  Ashes to Ashes.  This may sound weird, but I first heard of Isabel Ostrander a few years back while reading a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.  There's a scene where Lord Peter is looking over some bookshelves in a murder suspect's studio, and after discovering R.Austin Freeman among the lot also finds
"Through the Wall -- that's a good 'tec story, Charles -- all about the third degree -- Isabel Ostrander --..." (Harper Paperbacks, 1995, 196)
I have this habit of writing down book titles and authors found in books for later perusal, and the rest is history.  Anyway, Ashes to Ashes is neither your average crime story of the time nor  a whodunit.  We already know who the killer is, an egotistical, "impulsive" and not-so-clever man of the country club set by the name of Norman Storm. 

The impetuous Storm has squandered away the better part of almost four hundred grand over the last decade in bad investments and speculation, and now his New York City attorney has just informed him he's "reached the bottom of the basket."   As the fuming Norman is leaving his lawyer's office, he sees his wife Leila coming out of a downtown office building.  Later, at home he asks her about it, and she denies having been there, claiming instead to have gone to lunch with a friend.   As little things begin to build up (an overheard telephone call, an envelope with the name of the building where he'd seen her in the city), he comes to believe that Leila has been unfaithful, and during a confrontation, picks up a golf club and beats her to death. An ungrieving Norman knows that if caught he'll face the death penalty, but he's more worried about the publicity and disgrace.  After ensuring that Leila's death will be ruled accidental (you can actually see the gears grinding in this man's head as he sets up his elaborate plan), he congratulates himself on winning a "supreme battle of wits, his against the rest," including his friends, who, not aware of what he's done and to Norman's dismay, will continue to stand by him.   After Norman Storm learns the truth about his wife's supposed infidelity, he finds that he has "descended to the nethermost depths," but trust me, he hasn't even started his descent as events will ultimately prove.

Smug, superior, rash -- these are just three milder words that describe Norman.  He believes himself to be
 "immune, invincible! He could "commit any crime on the calendar and get away with it! There wasn't a living soul clever enough to hunt him down! He was the greatest murderer of the age, the cleverest man in the world!"
but in reality he is weighed down by the "invisible, intangible" bonds from which he struggles to free himself;  he's also a "prisoner in these chains of his own forging."  Normally I can squeeze out some sympathy for someone like Norman, but not in this case.   There is no room for it here, and I don't know about anyone else who's read this novel, but based on his personality alone (never mind his horrific deeds), I couldn't wait for him to get cut down to size.

 Ashes to Ashes worked well for me, not just because it was the least annoying of a read among these three books, but because it was so different. In this book the action is focused on the machinations of one man's mind, rather than the investigation of a crime or the quest for a solution, making it much more personally  appealing.  The writing isn't as dense as was the case with the other two, making it much more reader friendly,  although I will say she must have had a thing about exclamation points because they're everywhere.  This one I can easily recommend for readers like myself who are more into character than plot.

I think I need a modern crime read now just to clear my head.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

another round of catch up: Night Has a Thousand Eyes, by Cornell Woolrich

Pegasus Crime, 2007
originally published 1945
344 pp

(read in December)

"Don't forget, we're fighting death itself."

 Francis M. Nevins, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, notes that a fragment left behind in his papers after the author's death "explained why he wrote as he did."   Woolrich wrote that
"I was only trying to cheat death...I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me."
As early as age eleven, he began to understand that death was unavoidable, noting that he had a "trapped feeling,
like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't and it can't, and it can't."
 Nevins also reveals that Woolrich was "haunted by a sense of doom that never left him."  For me, Night Has a Thousand Eyes most keenly conveys the author's angst regarding that inevitable "darkness,"  his "sense of doom," and his attempt through his writing to "cheat death,"  given that an obsession with death and an attempt to outmaneuver fate are key elements of this story. 

There is a short stretch at the beginning where the reader has no idea what he or she is about to be plunged into, since the story begins so normally after young detective Tom Shawn finishes his shift at the homicide department:
"Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one." 
It is his time to dream, to whistle,  to look at the stars, all things he couldn't do in a bus.  His routine sets him apart from his bus-riding colleagues; it's just a "minor defect," but it's what he does.  Tonight starts out as a "night like many others,"  but as he learns all too quickly,
"Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep on doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once." 
Tom's life is about to change, and it starts with the discovery of a five-dollar bill at his feet.  The owner of the money and the purse Tom eventually finds is  Jean Reid, who is on the verge of committing suicide.  He stops her, and in an all-night diner, she relates to him a bizarre story that begins with her father's business trip to San Francisco and ends with her father in a paralyzing state of trauma stemming from fear.   From there, Tom takes it upon himself to help Jean and her father, enlisting the help of his fellow detectives in an attempt to bring down what he believes is a con man preying on the Reids.  It seems that every prediction this man has made about the Reids has come true so far, so when death on a set date is next in the cards, Mr. Reid just folds. 

original 1945 cover; from Quill and Brush

The book carries with it,  as Jonathan Latimer wrote about his hopes for the film of the same name, "a real sense of terror that these things were coming true."   Woolrich does a beautiful job of making that sense of terror palpable, and in Mr. Reid, he gives us a character who is not only petrified of his own death, but one who begins to feel that he's completely lost any control over his destiny.  Reid, a successful businessman, is obviously someone used to calling the shots and taking the reins of his business to get where he is socially and economically.    However, as each prediction becomes reality, he seems to become increasingly aware that he is no longer in control, and that whatever power he thought he had offers him nothing in the face of the fate that he believes has been mapped out for him.   Being forewarned does not mean forearmed in this case, since it brings with it "a curious sort of clammy terror," a "nightmare feeling."

There's much more going on here underneath but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

Beware -- there is nothing happy going on here; then again it's noir so that should come as no surprise.  Where this book goes is captured by  Francis Nevins in the introduction, where he  acutely describes what's found in this novel as
"the kind of waking nightmare that lies at the heart of noir..." 
in which, as each of the characters in this book will ultimately discover,  what could be more nightmarish than the idea that there is no escape?

Recommended to serious readers of darker fiction or noir.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

also heading your way in February: Go Lovely Rose/The Evil Wish, by Jean Potts

Stark House Press, 2019
303 pp

paperback (my many, many thanks to Stark House for my copy)

When I opened the envelope and saw this book, my first thought was "who the hell is Jean Potts?"  while my second thought was "Cool! Another woman writer I've never heard of!" Rather than relegate it to the this-can-wait-a-while stack, I threw it into the suitcase to take with me on my second trip west last week.

As to my first reaction, Jean Potts was born in 1910 in Saint Paul Nebraska, and after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, she went on to work for The Phonograph newspaper in her home town before moving to New York.  Her first crime novel, Go Lovely Rose, published in 1954, won her an Edgar Award; she would go on to write thirteen more crime novels before her death in 1999, the last of which, My Brother's Killer, was written in 1975.  She also wrote
"several short stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Magazine and Women's Day to name a few." 
But who she is as a writer is much more interesting, and it didn't take me long to discover what makes these books work so very well for me personally.   In her New York Times Obituary,   Edward D. Hoch (former president of the Mystery Writers of America)  notes that perhaps her "strongest suit" was her characterizations, and I have to say that this is what I discovered in these books.   What hit me right away and continued to stay with me is how very flawed her characters are, and how they remain in many cases so locked inside of their own heads that for some of them, there is little chance of escape.   After finishing this two-in-one volume, I then turned to the introduction written by  J.F. Norris where he says it so much more eloquently, noting that in Potts' stories,  "Thoughts imprison her characters," to which I said out loud, "Yes, that's it. Spot on."

 As someone who normally reads less for plot than for what an author has to say about the human psyche and human nature in general,  I always have an inner eye open to how (or if)  an author incorporates an exploration into (quoting Norris again),  the "dark recesses of human imagination and its powerful hold."  Potts is deadly serious in this arena, and it begins to show not even five minutes into her first novel, Go Lovely Rose.   Neither of these books are in any shape or form what I'd call traditional whodunit or mystery stories -- in both, I think it is safe and accurate to say that Potts' genius as a writer is revealed via the slow unfolding of these  dark edges that reside within the minds of her characters. Along with a very keen, often delectable sense of irony in her writing, it's certainly enough to make me want to read more of her work. 

original edition cover, 1954. From Amazon

 Because I can't even begin to convey the psychological depths at work in either of these stories, I'll just offer a bit of basic appetite-whetting plot here with no spoilers. 

 Go Lovely Rose begins with the death of Mrs. Rose Henshaw,
"Fifty-six years of age ... For nineteen years housekeeper in the home of the late Dr. G.F. Buckmaster..."
who had fallen down the steps to the basement of the Buckmaster home in Coreyville and had broken her neck.  Rachel Buckmaster, who had left the family home for Chicago, returns home to sell the house so that her younger brother Hartley (19) can pay for college with his share; she's also disturbed after speaking to her brother and to a neighbor who tells her that Mrs. Henshaw's death was an accident, but that "people were talking."  There aren't many people in Coreyville who would actually mourn the loss of the Buckmaster's long-term housekeeper; she was an "evil" woman, even according to her ex-husband, and Rachel realizes that Hartley is  "free now, with Mrs. Henshaw dead."  Things may have worked out just fine for all had it not been for the appearance of Mrs. Henshaw's sister Mrs. Pierce, who insists that Rose was murdered and raises such a stink that Hartley is arrested.  Rachel and the local physician Dr. Craig, along with Hartley's girlfriend Bix Bovard and her father, newspaper editor Hugh Bovard, join together to prove Hartley is innocent, which isn't going to be easy for several reasons.  Trust me, this is not just another murder mystery. 

 1963 original cover, from Biblio

Moving from small midwest townville to New York City for The Evil Wish (1963),   Potts brings us the story of  two sisters who since childhood have grown up eavesdropping on their domineering father from the basement, and continuing the tradition into adulthood, one day discover that their dad has plans that would basically disinherit them in favor of his current girlfriend.  If Lucy and Marcia Knapp don't like it, he says, they can lump it.   The thought of losing their home is devastating, and Lucy can't stand the idea of being "abandoned" by her sister.  Even worse, they discover that they "don't matter to him" and that "he simply doesn't care."  They are savvy enough, however, to know that they have to keep the lid on the fact that they know what's about to happen; they are also irate enough to  decide to kill him.   Fate steps in however, when a car crash does the job, and while their problem has seemingly disappeared, they are left with the "evil wish" of his death, which as the epigraph by Hesiod reveals, is "most evil to the wisher."   As the blurb for this book asks, "what are they to do with their murder scheme and the residual guilt...," but really, reading this book as a story about a case of guilty consciences doesn't at all do it justice, because it's much, much more.   To her credit, Potts provides a hell of an answer to the question with ratcheting tension doled out in increments along the way toward some pretty horrific consequences. 

It is a true pity (she says once more in a familiar lament) that the work of Jean Potts is not more well known. She would be very much enjoyed by readers who enjoy the work of her contemporary Margaret Millar, who also wrote some psychologically-oriented novels, so hopefully the word will get out.  She may never become a household name, but she is definitely a writer whose work deserves the attention of not only serious aficionados of crime fiction of yesteryear,  but also of readers like myself on the lookout for relatively unknown women writers of the genre.     My thanks to J.F.  Norris for his insight into this writer in his introduction, and especially to the lovely people at Stark House for sending me a copy of this book.  I'm just blown away.

Friday, January 18, 2019

first book post of 2019: The Syndicate, by Guy Bolton

Point Blank/ Oneworld
(available February 2019 in the US)
400 pp

advanced reader copy (my thanks to the publishers!!)

The Syndicate is the second installment in Guy Bolton's series that begins with The Pictures, that (as the blurb says) centers around main character Jonathan Craine,
"a detective at LAPD who has spent his entire career as a studio 'fixer,' covering up crimes of the studio players to protect the billion-dollar industry that built Los Angeles."
 I haven't read that book, but evidently things got pretty bad for Craine in the city of Angels, and he is now living on a farm in Bridgeport.  It's 1947, and Craine reflects at the beginning on "all the changes that had happened" in the meantime -- leaving LAPD, moving away from the city, raising a son without his wife, the war "and all the death that had come to the world." Happy in his solitude, he's about to find his peace shattered by a murder in the city he'd left behind.  His help is needed to find the killer, but the people who want it aren't asking: if he doesn't fall in with the plan, he risks losing not only his own life, but more importantly, that of his son.  Faced with no choice in the matter, Craine makes his way first to Las Vegas to meet with the mob, and then back to his old stomping grounds and his past.  We're not talking about just any murder here -- the corpse belongs to mobster Bugsy Siegel, and it will be Craine's job to find out who did him in.  Let's just put it this way: his is not an easy task:  he  has just five days, and his only help is an older hit man who is sent to Los Angeles with him.  He figures out early on that he's going to need much more if he wants to save his son,  and targets an ambitious  crime reporter, Tilda Conroy,  from The Examiner as an asset. 

While this sort of book falls out of my range of normal reading fare (I'm generally a quieter, gentler reader not prone to violent stories and I'm not a fan of real-life people as fictional characters, preferring thinly-disguised replicas), the author has done so many things right here that I found myself enjoying it.    He not only made Craine's story a compelling read, but he moved it in unexpected directions -- it could have been a straight sweep completely focused on solving the murder itself, but it turns out that there's much more going on here: a peek at the darker story behind the growth of Las Vegas into what it eventually became, the  Red Scare in Hollywood, the blatant racism in the city (and the US) of the era, and the abuses of power by those whose job it is to protect not only the citizens of Los Angeles, but the citizens of the United States as well.  And while there's  enough happening to satisfy some readers' needs for fast-paced action, Mr. Bolton  never lets his audience forget how high the stakes are for Craine, who often turns inward to examine not only his current situation but also his past.  Finally, I have to say that I was highy impressed after reading a most interesting article at Shotsmag about how the author came up with the character of Tilda Conroy,   drawing on two real women reporters, Florabel Muir and Agness Underwood, who worked on the Black Dahlia murder and the murder of Bugsy Siegel, "two of the biggest stories of 1947..."   Kudos for that move, Mr. Bolton; it's nice to see women who might have otherwise been relegated to the back pages of history given their due both as an acknowledgment and in the form of one of the strongest characters in the novel.

The Syndicate isn't officially out until February (which is really just around the corner), but I see that early readers are already giving this novel very high marks.  It was much less about solving the crime for me than the factors I've already mentioned that gave me the most satisfaction (although really, I didn't see that ending coming, a definite plus); when an author can get as deeply into such a flawed character's psyche as Mr. Bolton has done here, well, let's just put it this way: anyone can write a murder mystery, but making it as psychologically intense as the author's done here is a job well done.

My thanks once again to Oneworld for my copy. 

happy new year, nearly three weeks late....

While I've been reading steadily over the last 3 weeks or so, time has not been my friend as far as posting goes.  First, it was off to Seattle for a week starting the 24th of December,

from (I'm not endorsing this website; it just had the right image)

then, one week after that, and  still suffering a severe case of west coast body clock syndrome (WCBCS), we made our way to Los Angeles for a week of catching up with friends and family, 

from (again, not an endorsement) -- and yes, I know the map shows San Diego, but whatever. 

arriving home this past Tuesday, with a bad cold and a  fresh case of WCBCS to add to my previous woes.

logo from

fLooking at the bigger picture that is 2019, I'll be making my way through mysteries and crime fiction from roughly 1919 through 1930, with a focus on more obscure titles, although since we're moving into the golden age here, there will probably  be quite a few which are recognizable by readers familiar with that period.  As usual, I'll throw in some contemporary titles here and there, and then it's just what ever happens to be on the shelves to balance things out in my crime-reading universe.  And that could be pretty much anything, so stay tuned. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O'Donnell

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2018
369 pp


"men don't need magic to do evil..."

With one of the best opening scenes I've come across in my reading lately, I knew that this book and I were going to get along just fine.  The House on Vesper Sands is  a good mix of historical crime fiction and Victorian sensation fiction with more than a slight supernatural edge -- in short, it hit all of my relax-time, escape reading buttons. I read like I do everything else, wholeheartedly, giving the book in front of me my undivided attention, but sometimes I just need a brain break, and this one fit the bill completely.  Unfortunately, US readers will have to do what I did and order it from elsewhere (in my case Book Depository), since it doesn't seem to be available here except through sellers in the UK or Ireland.

Set in England of the 1890s, the novel begins one snowy night as Esther Tull arrives at a house in Half-Moon street, where she is employed by Lord Strythe as a seamstress.  The first clue we have that this is no ordinary job is that she is locked in to the room where she sews, with the butler, Carew, stationed outside in the hallway reading The Illustrated London News. The second clue that something is not right is the fact that once inside, she proceeds carefully and most quietly to break into a strongbox and remove three crystal bottles that she puts inside a satchel before dropping them off a window ledge onto the ground below. It is all part of a "promise" she'd made and she "meant to keep it."  Finally, as the book blurb reveals, she climbs onto the ledge, and jumps.   When the police arrive to investigate, they find a strange message "embroidered on her body" (not a spoiler - it's on the dustjacket blurb).

 A case of mistaken identity puts young Gideon Bliss on the case along with Inspector Cutter of the Metropolitan Police, and together they work to solve not only this case, but the case of a missing young woman as well. At the same time, society columnist Octavia Hillingdon is looking for a good story outside of the social world, and the two threads link up as she hears an incredible story about a still-open case involving the death of yet another young woman.  In the meantime the newspapers are captivating readers with their headlines about "the Spiriters," who have once again cast "a pall of fear over Whitechapel and surrounding districts." 

That's more than enough about plot; to say more would just be a shame, since I think it's probably fair to say that this book revolves around plot much more than it does its characters.  Once I started reading I realized that some of these characters seemed familiar, albeit from other books I've read, but at the same time, there's something different going on here with these people.  There's great interplay between Inspector Cutter and Gideon Bliss, for example,  that provides a lot of humor that sort of balances out the more disturbing aspects of the novel.  And while the supernatural edge of this mystery might bother some people, one of the main ideas so nicely presented in this book is that "men don't need magic to do evil," as Mr. O'Donnell clearly shows, which also provides a more serious side to the story.

  The House on Vesper Sands is pure entertainment, and one that its author must have had a great deal of fun writing.  Every now and then reading for fun is a great thing, and I'm happy to have spent time with this story.  Recommended for lighter mystery readers who don't mind a bit o' the strange in their stories.  Now I think I have to go pick up his Maker of Swans to see what I've missed.  Relax, have fun, and enjoy the ride.