Monday, September 30, 2019

Queen's Gambit, by Bradley Harper, new from Seventh Street Books

Seventh Street Books, 2019
282 pp


I'm reading more modern crime novels than I'd planned for this year, but in this case (and in another coming up shortly), it's all good. As with books from other genres I read,  I am all about supporting smaller indie presses whose work may go unnoticed in favor of the bigger guys  -- in this case it's Seventh Street Press, and I have another one of their books propped up on my bookstand waiting to be read.

Some time ago I read this author's A Knife in the Fog, and now he's back with book two in this historical crime series with Queen's Gambit.  In the meantime, Knife in the Fog was nominated as a finalist for the 2019 Edgar Award for best first novel. 

It's no secret (and I did say this when I posted about the author's earlier book) that I'm not in love with the idea of remaking historical figures into fictional ones, but I will say that in my case, at least Margaret Harkness is not so prominent a personage  that I can't live with her taking center stage in this novel.   Nine years have gone by since the case that introduced her in Knife in the Fog; during that time she's become a published author with books that are read widely.  It is in fact one woman's changed perception of Harkness that helps kick off this story. 

 In 1881, more than fifteen years prior to the time in which the bulk of the action takes place here, a young man found himself having to flee Imperial Russia after his mother was imprisoned for her role as a member of the group responsible for the assassination of Czar Alexander II.   Having been sent to Berlin to hide, young Viktor Zhelyabov became Herman Ott, married, and had a son.  He is living with his wife's family when he is offered electrical work that he can't refuse because the pay would be "a substantial increase" in his regular salary, needed for his "growing family." 

One month later, it seems that the "nest of traitors" that the German government has been trying to root out has somehow gotten wind about every plan made by  the Security Services, and government officials have no idea how this is happening.   An investigation is required, and it must be "someone from outside."   One official has just the right suggestion, to bring in Professor Joseph Bell, since he has helped the police in his own country a number of times.  Bell brings in Margaret Harkness because of her German language ability and because of their prior experiences together, and she is more than willing -- due to health reasons, she is planning to go to Australia for health reasons, and the fee and the bonus she would receive would allow her to pay for her passage.   The solution of the case will have a huge impact on both Ott and Margaret Harkness,  one that will play out on the streets of London. 

 Despite the subtitle that labels this "a mystery," it seems to read much more along the lines of a thriller, as time is ticking down here until the main event, the planned assassination of (as it says on the cover blurb so it's not a spoiler) "none other than Queen Victoria herself."  [As an aside, the front cover with her majesty's face in crosshairs also sort of gives away the plot even before you get to the back cover, but moving on...]    In fact, the only real mystery is solved early on by Bell and Harkness (and I will add that I figured it out long before they did); afterwards we already know the who, so as it turns out he's not really the "mysterious assassin" of the back cover blurb.    Let me also say that this story is what I call "thriller lite" as the author adds in various threads including a potential romance and a young female detective wannabe who is taken under Margaret's wing.   It's more the fare for readers of lighter crime, and to be very honest, my own feeling is that there is a lot of superfluous stuff that from time to time detracts from the suspense level -- for example, an entire chapter about Margaret's history with tarot cards as well as  reunions with Conan Doyle and Mark Twain (who were both in the first novel).  Then there's  Margaret herself -- while she's a very independent woman and has figured out that dressing like a man gets her into places a woman can't go, she seems a wee bit softer with less of an edge than she had in Knife in the Fog; she also makes some pretty bad mistakes during the course of the story that seem somewhat out of character.   Believe it or not, the character's point of view I cared about the most was that of the bad guy; the clue is in understanding how the titular "Queen's Gambit" works on the chessboard, and the author has explained all of that in the book. 

As I said in my post about Knife in the Fog, the author can definitely write, and I am very grateful to the powers that be at Seventh Street for my copy. While it was entertaining, and while I'll certainly be looking forward to book three,  I actually prefer  a more taut, edgy mystery, so I'm probably not the best or target audience for this book.   That is certainly not because of the author -- it's definitely a me thing.   At the same time,  that certainly doesn't mean that others aren't enjoying it, since reader ratings are for the most part consistently four and five stars both on Goodreads and Amazon.  I'd certainly recommend this novel to, as I said earlier, readers who like their crime on the lighter side and don't mind a few excursions elsewhere outside of the main plot thread. 


An article about The Queen's Gambit by Tom Williams at Historical Novel Society

Thursday, September 19, 2019

back through the time tunnel again with a classic: The House of the Arrow, by A.E.W. Mason, 1924

House of Stratus, 2012
originally published 1924
263 pp


"Did I not tell you, Monsieur, that we are all the servants of Chance?" 

Fourteen years prior to publishing The House of the Arrow, writer A.E.W. Mason had first introduced to the mystery/crime-reading world his somewhat eccentric detective Inspector  Hanaud of the Sûreté in his At the Villa Rose.  That one I just liked on an "okay" sort of level, mainly because of  Mason's proclivities toward what Martin Edwards refers to in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books a "lop-sided story structure," in which all too soon the culprit is made known and readers sit patiently (or not, depending on your makeup) waiting for the rest of the story to play out.    House of the Arrow thankfully poses a bit more of a challenge for the reader, so at least for me there was not one iota of frustration here.  This one I quite enjoyed, spending an entire day entranced with it and then finishing off the experience by watching the 1953 film (more on that later) before going on to order the next Hanaud novel, The Prisoner in the Opal (1928). 

just as an aside and an FYI,  while my copy is a hold-in-your-hands reprint edition, House of the Arrow is also available at Project Gutenberg if you lean toward the e-variety of reading:

Before this story moves on to Dijon, France, it begins in the London office of the firm of Messrs. Frobisher and Haslitt, solicitors,  on the east side of Russell Square.  Among the other letters in that day's batch of mail is one written in an unfamiliar, "spidery, uncontrolled hand" postmarked Dijon.  Haslitt has a client there, a Mrs. Harlowe, a widow whose health is not so great.  The letter is not from her however, but from someone by the name of Boris Waberski,  Mrs. Harlowe's brother-in-law, who has a "great necessity" of part of the "large share" of the fortune he is certain he will inherit upon her death.  The letter is ignored, and three weeks later, Mrs. Harlowe's death is announced in The Times. Haslitt knows he'll hear from Waberski again, and sure enough he does, except that this time the news comes that Waberski has levelled a charge of murder against Mrs. Harlowe's "husband's niece and adopted daughter" Betty Harlowe.  It seems that Waberski's expectations were all for naught, since Betty has inherited the entire estate, and now he claims that she poisoned the widow on the night of August 27th.  The news does not come from Waberski directly, but via a letter from a friend of young Betty, Ann Upcott.  Frobisher and Haslitt are further upset by a telegram coming from Betty herself, which informs the two attorneys that she needs help right away -- it seems that "The Prefect of Police has called in Hanaud, "  and that she believes "They must think me guilty."   Haslitt sends Jim Frobisher to Dijon to look into their client's situation, but before Frobisher leaves, Haslitt says something to him that quite succinctly and tantalizingly  summarizes the rest of the story: 
"...remember, there's something at the back of this which we here don't know."
Truer words were never spoken, as Jim will come to discover as he makes his way to France and meets up with Inspector Hanaud, who accompanies him to Dijon to work on a case of some serious poisoned-pen letters in the area.   

original cover, from Project Gutenberg

The House of the Arrow is by no means your average murder mystery. First, there is some question as whether or not a murder has even been committed; when that issue is settled, the question of who may be guilty takes on a life of its own.  While Frobisher is somewhat in awe of Hanaud, his own feelings about the matter and his own particular personal interests often pit him against the Inspector, even as they work together to get to the truth and as Hanaud's discoveries lead to even bigger questions that need further answers.  In short,  Mason is not (thankfully) going to let his readers off the hook by making it easy this time as he did in At the Villa Rose.  I will say that after finishing this novel I read a couple of posts about this book in which a few people had figured it out, but for  me the solution was a surprise; even better than finding out the who  though was the path to the why and especially the how.   Pardon me for rambling here for a moment,  but I was just talking to someone  the other day about how old school I am with mystery stories, preferring the journey much more than the solution itself;  House of the Arrow affords that very pleasure.  

The blogger at Vintage Pop Fictions notes that 
"This novel includes just about every ingredient that critics of golden age detective fiction love to mock... On the other hand, the ingredients that cause critics to gnash their teeth are exactly the ingredients that fans of golden age detection (like myself) adore. To a true fan the more outlandish these elements are the better and in this instance they're delightfully outlandish." 
I couldn't have said it better.   Count me as "a true fan," who thrives on the "delightfully outlandish."  

movie poster, 1953, from Rare Film

The film, on the other hand, was a bit of a puzzler.  The way the film is shot gives it a noirish vibe,  but having read the novel, it lacks the elements that make the book both mysterious and suspenseful.  I get creative license and all that it encompasses, and I did enjoy the film for what it was, but I was left with the feeling that there could have been much more to it than what I saw.  I will say though that I immediately checked to see if Oscar Homolka had reprised his role as M. Hanaud; like Bruno Cremer is for me the Maigret, Homolka is the perfect Hanaud, capturing Mason's character's eccentricities so well.  I can only imagine he'd read the novel beforehand to do it so well.  

Holmoka as Hanaud, on the left, from Mystery*File

This book runs rings around its predecessor and I recommend it to readers of Golden Age detective fiction, for readers who like puzzle-style mysteries in general, and to people like myself who enjoy a good yarn that is cleverly constructed, one that takes a number of twists and turns along the way.     Remember, though, it is a product of the early 1920s, so perhaps it may be a bit verbose for modern readers getting to it for the first time.  Then there's Hanaud himself -- he can be both annoying twit and genius crime solver at the same time, so it takes a patient reader at times to get over his personality.  It is, however,  perfect for someone like me who, as noted earlier, enjoys the path much more than the end of the journey.   

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur/St. Martin's Press
375 pp


"We all need secrets, just to keep sane, to feel that the world doesn't own us." 

Let me just say this:  I did not particularly care for the one book I've read by this author, Raven Black, and I never went on to read any of her other novels,  but for some weird reason when I first heard about The Long Call, I preordered it.  To this day I can't think why, but as it turns out, it was a good call.  I spent all of yesterday reading it, unable to put it down.

"... the cry of a herring gull, ... the long call, which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain."

 And indeed, the long call sounds throughout this novel, which takes place in a  small town in North Devon, centering on the murder of a man with an albatross tattooed on his neck. Given the nature of the tattoo, I immediately figured out that this must have been a person suffering under the weight of some heavy burdens, and as things begin to unfold, it turns out that I was right.   Investigating the crime is Detective Matthew Venn, who had once lived in the area and had broken from a particular religious group to which he and his family had belonged, estranging him from his parents.   Working with his colleagues Jen Rafferty and Ross May, he discovers that the victim is one Simon Walden, a man whose past had left him completely broken.  Walden had been living at the home of Caroline Preece, where he had rented a room along with Caroline's friend Gaby Henry; he had also been  involved as a volunteer at the Day Centre at the Woodyard, a sort of artistic safe place for people with learning and other disabilities, managed by Venn's husband Jonathan.  When a woman with Downs Syndrome goes missing from the Woodyard, Venn begins to surmise that the two cases are somehow connected, and that there is something just a bit off -- there  is "too much coincidence. Too many people circling round each other, without quite touching."   He also realizes that it is  quite possibly the Woodyard itself that is the connection,  putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether or not to withdraw himself from the case because of his personal ties. Before he can make that decision however, little by little the investigation begins to uncover hidden secrets from the past that just may have a direct bearing on the present.   To say any more would be to spoil, but the story revolves around unraveling those secrets to get to a solution.

And what a solution it is, a complete surprise (for the most part),  but it is the getting there that really matters.  The Long Call is refreshingly free of gratuitous violence or sex, affords the armchair detective  a solid mystery, and the author spends quite a lot of time on the main characters in terms of thoughts and backstories.   She also manages to weave in a number of social issues without being in your face about it, and above all, takes her time in allowing the story to unfold, allowing the questions and the suspense to accumulate  on the way to solving the mysteries in this novel.  As I looked through reader reviews after finishing it, I noticed a lot of people found it too slow (??)  but for me it was absolutely on point.  My only negative is that most of an entire chapter  could have been left out here (chapter 29, in which Caroline and her father do a bit of emotional sparring and then come to terms with each other)  that to me added nothing whatsoever to this story.

This book begins another series, evidently, given the blurb on the front that says "Introducing Detective Matthew Venn."  I was so impressed with The Long Call that I will be definitely be in line to buy Venn's next adventure.    I'm still not sure what prompted me to preorder this book (Twilight Zone music playing in my head here), but I'm happy I did.

A bit dark for cozy readers, and not quite as edgy a story that might be enjoyed by noir fans, I can recommend it for those who enjoy a good mystery without the clutter that is all too often included in a lot of modern crime fiction these days.