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Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?

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‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry **

The intriguing premise of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood is as follows: ‘What if you walked out of your life only to find another one was already waiting for you?’   Heralded ‘elegant, gently sinister and psychologically complex’, the novel holds instant appeal for fans of books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and of authors such as Sarah Waters.

The protagonist of the piece is John Cole, a lonely man who decides to leave his life behind him and join his brother at his secluded house in rural Norfolk.  Whilst driving away from the neglected bookshop which he owns in London, his car – rather predictably, one may think – breaks down, and he finds himself lost.  Searching for help, he stumbles upon a grand house: ‘It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat’.  John is soon welcomed with opened arms by the odd community of people within, who seem to have been expecting him all along: ‘I ought really to have been afraid of the strangeness and the dark and the insistent child, and those appalling meat hooks hanging from their chains, but instead it all seemed so absurd, and so like something in a novel, that I began to laugh’.

Throughout, Perry uses two differing voices – the first person perspective of John, who is writing an account of his time in his house, and an omniscient third person narrative.  John’s voice drawns one in from the outset: ‘I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair at an old school desk.  The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still’.  He goes on to say, ‘I wish I could use some other voice to write this story down.  I wish I could take all the books that I’ve loved best and borrow better words than these, but I’ve got to make do with an empty notebook and a man who never had a tale to tell and doesn’t know how to begin except for the beginning’.

Perry manages to set the oppressive tone of the book almost as soon as it begins: ‘I’ve been listening for footsteps on the stairs or voices in the garden, but there’s only the sound of a household keeping quiet.  They gave me too much drink – there’s a kind of buzzing in my ears and if I close my eyes they sting’.  On the whole, After Me Came the Flood is very well written, and the descriptions which Perry gives of her characters are particularly striking.  Hester, for example, the woman who appears to be in charge of the house, ‘seemed poorly assembled, as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces – her eyes set under a deeply lined forehead, her nose crooked like a child’s drawing of a witch, her skin thick and coarse’.

After Me Came the Flood becomes unsettling rather quickly, and at times it takes quite unexpected turns.  A real sense of place is built, and the first half of the multi-layered novel is very engrossing indeed.  At around this point, however, the religious elements which have previously been touched upon serve only to saturate the entire plot, and cause the whole to become rather plodding in its pace.  The suspense is lost altogether, and it never really picks up again.  The denouement is also rather predictable.  All of these elements sadly add an unfortunate stain to what would otherwise be an intriguing and well driven novel.

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Abandoned Books

Sadly, these Abandoned Books posts are becoming more and more frequent, as I begin novels which look wonderful but which I am so disappointed by that I cannot bear to continue reading.  The two books which I have recently started and read rather a lot of, but which I’ve not finished, are The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

'The Goose Girl' by Shannon Hale

‘The Goose Girl’ by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl had been on my wishlist for such a long time, and when I finally got my hands on a Kindle copy, and I was eager to begin.  I loved the fairytale structure of the novel, which was present from the very first page.  I did feel that it sadly dissipated after a while however, and when this happened, the entire story just fell apart for me.  It seemed as though I was constantly distanced from the characters, and as a result I was rather detached from the storyline as it unfolded.  I know that this is a much loved book for many people, but I really struggled to get into it.  If it had been a paperback copy which I’d read, I would have undoubtedly used Nancy Pearl’s fifty-page-rule which I stick to, and given up by that point.  As it was, I struggled through about half of it before I realised that it wasn’t going to appeal to me any more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
I did not even know of this book’s existence until I found myself randomly browsing through Netgalley.  I began it almost immediately because I very much enjoyed Setterfield’s debut, the marvellously Gothic The Thirteenth Tale, but I surprisingly did not make it to the end of the story.  The prologue – in which three young boys watch as their friend, William Bellman, kills a rook resting in a faraway tree – was relatively intriguing, but I found it to be another of those novels which slips into boredom and stolid prose as soon as the main body of text begins.  There was very little beauty or intrigue in the writing, as I remember there being in The Thirteenth Tale.  Despite this, I carried on reading because the novel is marketed as a ghost story (a genre which I am rather partial to), but I found that it did not pick up, even when I had read over a third of it.  Bellman and Black, in this reviewer’s eyes, is dull, underwhelming and ultimately disappointing.