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.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

*in which two very independent women embark on two very different paths: Miss Ferriby's Clients, by Florence Warden and The Green Jacket, by Jennette Lee

From different sides of the Atlantic come two very different stories involving two very different women.  The first of these is Miss Ferriby's Clients, written by a highly prolific Florence Warden (neé Florence Alice Price) whose biography  remains somewhat elusive.  There's a bit about her at Furrowed Middlebrow which notes that she was a
"Playwright, actress, and author of more than 150 novels which, .... 'specialized in courtship and marital dilemmas.'  She once bragged that she wrote more than a million words a year, and she routinely published 2 -4 books per year throught her career."
 The blogger at The Androom Archives adds that she
"was born in Hanworth as the daughter of a stockbroker. She was educated in Brighton and in France... In 1887 she married Edward George James. She wrote many more novels, but ... she received little money from her work and her financial situation became more difficult."
Fantastic Fiction offers a list of many of her books, as does The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography, and trust me, I've noted the ones that look like possible mystery novels for future reading.    For right now though, it's all about this book, Miss Ferriby's Clients.

North View Publishing, 2010
Kindle Version
originally published 1910

Young Welton Keynes and his brother Basil  had been brought up enjoying "every luxury" until the day that their father "found himself one morning a ruined man."  While nobody actually knew what had happened to dad,  it was believed that he'd offed himself while crossing from Dover from Ostend on a boat.   Basil was 18, and while he was supposed to have been on his way to Cambridge just after leaving Eton, he had to get a job as a bank clerk, while Welton, 24, found the job market tough.  Three weeks of looking brought nothing until one day he saw an advertisement for a secretary:
"...not over twenty-fve, University man preferred, by elderly lady engaged in philanthropic work.  Salary 500 pounds per annum."
Off to Chiswick he goes, where he gets directions to the elderly lady's home from a younger woman who a bit later talks young Walton into walking to her home, where her mother dishes out the dirt on Miss Ferriby.  She lets him know that "Miss Ferriby changes secretaries very often, and ... and nobody seems to know what becomes of them."  Mind you, this should have been Welton's  clue to walk completely away from this job,  but everything changes when he rescues an old woman "most opportunely" from an attack.  This second strange happening in the neighborhood makes him even more curious, and he returns to Miss Ferriby's residence the next day where he was "not in the least surprised" to find that the woman he'd rescue was Miss Ferriby herself.  He gets the job, but it doesn't take long for him to wish he hadn't. 

What's notable here isn't so much the mystery itself, but rather how the main criminal is portrayed. It's not a spoiler to let on that Miss Ferriby isn't the nicest of elderly women (in fact, she is one of the most brutal women villains in fiction of this era that I've read so far), and the first thing we learn about her is that she is "deformed and stunted," with an "enormous head."  She has "features large enough for those of a man." Her main "deformity", a "hunchback," is mentioned 21 times throughout the novel, and in describing this book, the publishers have noted that often "the main villain" in books of this era (as was the case in the Victorian era as well) was "physically disabled or disfigured ... to make him or her appear more villainous."  There are more than a few surprises in store for the reader of this novel, and seriously, by the time I finished it my head was spinning from all of the twists.

Kessinger Legacy Reprints
originally published 1917
331 pp

Next up is American author Jennette Lee's The Green Jacket. Jennette Lee (1860-1951) went to school at Smith, married in 1886, and then went back Smith in 1901 where she became an associate professor of English in 1904.  Bob Schneider at Women Detectives notes that she left academia in 1913 to become a full-time writer, with 22 books published between 1900 and 1926, and that "less than 15% of her output seems to be in the mystery/detective genre."   The Green Jacket is the first of a series of three novels to feature Miss Millicent Newberry, quite likely, as stated at Women Detectives, the first woman detective who actually owned her own detective agency.  Newberry is also notable in that she feels that she ought to have say in what happens with the criminals she's caught.  She doesn't believe that prison is always the right decision; as she tells her former mentor Tom Corbin, she "couldn't sleep nights, thinking of men in prison that never would have been there," if it hadn't been for her,
"Men that I knew weren't really bad -- drunk or mad or something!"
As she says, "I made up my mind that if I did the catching, I was going to have something to say about the punishment."  Indeed, some of the visitors to her office are former offenders she's caught, including women, who come and check in on a regular schedule much as if she were a probation officer. 

 The Green Jacket begins as Tom Corbin tells Milly he wants to partner with her. Her business is highly successful, and typical male that he is, he talks about how they are made to "work together."  As he says, Milly has the "good mind for details," but she needs him "to handle the case as a whole." He wants her to take on the case of the Mason emeralds, which he never solved when he was called in two years earlier "after some of the hardest work the office ever put in on anything."  It all came back to him that very morning when he saw a clipping about the death of a woman Corbin's detectives had suspected in the case, and now he tells Milly that she'll "never solve the case."  Milly needs time to think it over, changing her mind when a heavily-veiled woman walks into her office and asks her to take up the same case.  It seems that Mrs. Oswald Mason had gotten Milly's name from her now dead adopted daughter (Corbin's suspect), and they make plans for Milly to stay at the Mason home in the guise of a seamstress so that Milly can make some headway on discovering who stole the jewels.   The title refers to a piece of knitting that Milly works on as she works on the case.  It seems that she has a habit of starting something new for every case that she keeps up as long as it takes her to come to a solution.  She's also sort of a detective Madame Defarge -- reverse stitches in her work here and there are used as reminders of specific things she wants to remember.

I think it's just great that we have a woman writer creating an incredibly independent female detective whose business is going gangbusters, but if I never read another book by this author I'll be perfectly okay with that.  First of all, I don't even see a point to this detective story, something anyone who reads this will completely understand when all is said and done, because really, the only thing that happens is that Milly's on hand at casa de Mason to act as a soundboard for everyone's problems.  A few family secrets come out that have some sort of bearing on the theft of the emeralds, but when it comes right down to it, the whole story is just plain lackluster with much wringing of hands in the process.  Second, the coincidence of Mrs. Mason walking into the Newberry Detective Agency just after Milly and Corbin have their little talk about that very same case he couldn't ever solve is just too much.  And finally, really, this entire book could have been half of its size -- it made me so frustrated I just wanted to scream through most of it.

Truth be told, between these very independent women, I'll take the villain any time -- at least she was much more interesting than the crime solver.  So it's  definitely thumbs up for Miss Ferriby's Clients and a big thumbs down on The Green Jacket. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

a thriller with serious bite: The Monsoon Ghost Image, by Tom Vater

Kindle Version,
October 2018
Crime Wave Press

I would like to thank Henry at Crime Wave Press for my copy of this book.    I didn't use it, because silly me, I failed to see the pdf file he'd included in the email he sent, so I bought a kindle version  But thanks all the same.
Aside from having a cool logo, Crime Wave Press 
"publishes a range of crime fiction -- from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring the world's dark underbelly."
My first experience with this small indie press was, coincidentally, a book by the author of the book featured in today's post, Tom Vater.  The title was The Devil's Road to Kathmandu,  and it was a hell of a story that I remember not wanting to put down, so naturally I said yes when asked if I'd consider reading another one by the same writer.   This time around the action takes place in Thailand, and The Monsoon Ghost Image is the end of a trio of books featuring Detective Maier after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind.   

Former war correspondent, after years in the field and the death of a friend from Cambodia, Maier no longer wants nothing at all to do with war.  He now (2002) works  in "Hamburg's most prestigious detective agency,"and as the story begins, his boss Sundermann hands him a strange case.  It seems that he has had a call from an Emilie Ritter, a woman whose famous photo journalist husband Martin Ritter is missing, presumed dead, with a funeral scheduled for the following Tuesday in Berlin.  Maier knows this already, but he gets a gut punch when Sundermann reveals that Ritter was seen in Bangkok just a couple of days earlier.  Emilie shows Maier and his partner Mikhail an email from someone with the enigmatic name of the "Wicked Witch of the East" confirming that Ritter is not only still alive, but is also "involved in the crime of the century."  Emilie needs to know whether Ritter is dead or alive, so Maier and Mikhail are off to Thailand to try and track him down.  They're there a month with no sign either way, the calm before the storm after which all hell breaks loose, centering around "the world's most wanted photograph, the 21st century's Zapruder document."

As with most thriller novels, while reading The Monsoon Ghost Image  on one level I'd advise a complete suspension of disbelief, as the story explodes into seriously crazy, over-the-top territory.  Our detective friends find themselves caught up in some of the most bizarre situations imaginable (and I'm not joking here).  The story outdarks dark  -- there are at least two psychopaths whose actions will likely keep readers on the edges of their chairs, and knowing who to trust becomes downright impossible through the many twists and turns taken by this story.   Having said that, let me also say that underneath this craziness runs an undeniable grain of truth -- in the war on terror, there are certain agencies that will go to any lengths to get results, all "authorized at the highest levels of the world's most open and egalitarian society."  In the process, sometimes the line between good guys and bad guys becomes unrecognizable, and things get worse as they attempt a cover up in an effort to ensure that  their dirty secrets will never be revealed. And then, of course, there are others who just want to exploit those secrets for their own gain -- in short, as someone notes in this book,  "it's about money."

I am not normally a reader of thrillers, and while this one is, as I said, way over the top, I actually got caught up in it because I had to know what happened next.  Each time I thought things couldn't get any worse, they did, and it was a hair-raising ride to the finish.  It is not at all for the squeamish (I found myself reading quickly through some of the many gruesome scenes, the equivalent of covering my eyes while watching the same on television), and it is not for people who freak out over the use of profanity or violence.  In the end though, what made this book work well for me was a) the focus on that underlying grain of truth mentioned above combined with the author's out-there imagination  in telling that story (!)   and b) the author's depiction of Maier as a man who through it all tries to retain his humanity while others lose theirs by the wayside.  Throw in the exotic locations throughout Thailand and well, it becomes the stuff of a tv miniseries I would definitely watch.

I'd read anything written by Tom Vater -- his mind works in strange and mysterious ways, a quality I genuinely appreciate in the crime fiction universe. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

still catching up here: The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Stark House, 2018
305 pp

paperback (read earlier)

While The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories is not at all connected with crime, I'm posting about it here because Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of my favorite mystery writers of yesteryear and people who know her work in that genre might just be interested in seeing another side of the author.   This book includes not only her novel, The Unlit Lamp (1922),  but also six other stories originally published in Munsey's from 1921 to 1923.  It's a wonderful collection of tales, and my thanks go to Stark House for sending me a copy and along with that, apologies for taking forever to post about it.

 The Unlit Lamp is only one of twenty-five novels this author wrote over her lifetime; the last one, Widow's Mite (1953, which I can highly recommend), was published only two years before her death.  My guess would be that her most popular novel was her The Blank Wall (1947) followed by her earlier The Innocent Mrs. Duff  (1946), both of which are outstanding. At the same time, that leaves twenty-three more novels and a large number of short stories by this author to rediscover and to celebrate.   And while The Unlit Lamp doesn't fall into the crime/mystery category, it's still very much worth reading.  As the blurb says, it is an
"emotionally charged social drama from 1922, filled with the issues that burned so bright during the Roaring 20s as changing morals began to break down the tradition family structures of the past." 
She does in this book what she does so well in her others, as Sarah Weinman notes in the introduction to Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car" in her Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, painting
"psychologically nuanced portraits of women making sense of troubled marriages, conflicted relationships with children, or intrigue thrown up by the larger world." (195)
That, in a nutshell, could be the overall description of  The Unlit Lamp, which is one of the author's romantic novels.  It is the story of Claudine, who really wants to marry Gilbert Vincelle, and eventually does so even though her mother tells her that he will never make her happy and vice versa.  Gilbert has quite a high opinion of himself, and bases much of his worldview around that of mother's, with whom he still lives at home. As it turns out Claudine's mother was spot on in her judgment, as Gilbert takes Claudine to his mother's house immediately after their honeymoon.  It isn't at all the life Claudine imagines as a married woman, as her life becomes constricted by the expectations of her mother-in-law as to what a wife should be, as well as her husband's refusal to take her side.    By the end of three months she's ready to chuck it all but is advised not to when a family member considers (but leaves unspoken) the pariah she would become in society.  Everything that Claudine is becomes submerged, and she finds herself taking refuge in her children, in whom later she sees the cycle beginning to repeat. 

There are six "selected stories," many of which run on the same themes expressed in The Unlit Lamp: "Hanging's Too Good for Him," "A Hesitating Cinderella," "Like a Leopard," "The Aforementioned Infant," "Old Dog Tray," and "The Married Man."  The last two of these were my favorites in this group, with  "The Married Man" coming out on top of them all.  It is an excellent satire on a man's viewpoint of marriage, in which the husband decides that he can't "live any more" unless he has his freedom.  There's no one else, he  doesn't want a divorce, he doesn't want to lose his wife; he just wants to be free from marriage's "petty restrictions and obligations."  The fun begins when his wife decides to go visit her mother, sans children.   It was seriously hard not to laugh while reading this story, and I can't help but think that in many cases, this one is as just as relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1920s. Absolutely delightful.

In Sanxay Holding's crime novels, she builds her stories around the psychological; the same is true here in both The Unlit Lamp and the shorter tales, which makes this a must read for fans of this author.  Even though this book is not part of the crime/mystery genre, many of the ideas that will come out in Sanxay Holding's later novels are very much present here.  And don't miss the lovely, poignant, and insightful introduction to this book by Judith Rose Ardron, the author's granddaughter.

I just want to say that Elisabeth Sanxay Holding should hold a very special place in the history of women authors of crime, and that it is such a pity that she is not more widely read.  And once again, as I find myself doing every time I read one of her novels, I can honestly say that  I loved this book.