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The Book Trail: From ‘The Quickening’ to ‘The Lamplighters’

I have chosen to begin this particular addition to The Book Trail with an historical fiction tome which I have had my eye on for quite some time. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know which of these books you have read, and whether any of them also take your fancy.

1. The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

‘England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married to a war-traumatised husband and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction.

She learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, and that the lady of the house has asked those who gathered back then to come together once more to recreate the evening. When a mysterious child appears on the grounds, Louisa finds herself compelled to investigate and becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house. Gradually, she unravels the long-held secrets of the inhabitants and what really happened thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with that of Clewer Hall’s.’

2. The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

‘As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another… Why is the killer seemingly targeting her business?

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them.

But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…’

3. A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this gripping dark novel based on the true scandal of two women determined to create their own fates in the Jacobean court.

When Frances Howard, beautiful but unhappy wife of the Earl of Essex, meets the talented Anne Turner, the two strike up an unlikely, yet powerful, friendship. Frances makes Anne her confidante, sweeping her into a glamorous and extravagant world, riven with bitter rivalry.

As the women grow closer, each hopes to change her circumstances. Frances is trapped in a miserable marriage while loving another, and newly-widowed Anne struggles to keep herself and her six children alive as she waits for a promised proposal. A desperate plan to change their fortunes is hatched. But navigating the Jacobean court is a dangerous game and one misstep could cost them everything.’

4. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

‘From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, a mesmerizing and boldly inventive novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the life arcs of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory and expectation, and the preciousness of life.’

5. Lightseekers by Femi Kadoye

‘When Dr. Philip Taiwo is called on by a powerful Nigerian politician to investigate the public torture and murder of three university students in remote Port Harcourt, he has no idea that he’s about to be enveloped by a perilous case that is far from cold.
 
Philip is not a detective. He’s an investigative psychologist, an academic more interested in figuring out the why of a crime than actually solving it. But when he steps off the plane and into the dizzying frenzy of the provincial airport, he soon realizes that the murder of the Okriki Three isn’t as straightforward as he thought. With the help of his loyal and streetwise personal driver, Chika, Philip must work against those actively conspiring against him to parse together the truth of what happened to these students.
 
A thrilling and atmospheric mystery, and an unforgettable portrait of the contemporary Nigerian sociopolitical landscape, Lightseekers is a wrenching novel tackling the porousness between the first and third worlds, the enduring strength of tribalism and homeland identity, and the human need for connection in the face of isolation.’

6. Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

‘A twisty, whip-smart debut thriller, as electrifying as the #1 New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train, about impending motherhood, unreliable friendship, and the high price of keeping secrets.

Helen’s idyllic life—handsome architect husband, gorgeous Victorian house, and cherished baby on the way (after years of trying)—begins to change the day she attends her first prenatal class and meets Rachel, an unpredictable single mother-to-be. Rachel doesn’t seem very maternal: she smokes, drinks, and professes little interest in parenthood. Still, Helen is drawn to her. Maybe Rachel just needs a friend. And to be honest, Helen’s a bit lonely herself. At least Rachel is fun to be with. She makes Helen laugh, invites her confidences, and distracts her from her fears.

But her increasingly erratic behavior is unsettling. And Helen’s not the only one who’s noticed. Her friends and family begin to suspect that her strange new friend may be linked to their shared history in unexpected ways. When Rachel threatens to expose a past crime that could destroy all of their lives, it becomes clear that there are more than a few secrets laying beneath the broad-leaved trees and warm lamplight of Greenwich Park.’

7. Another Life by Jodie Chapman

‘Nick and Anna work the same summer job at their local cinema. Anna is mysterious, beautiful, and from a very different world to Nick.

She’s grown up preparing for the end of days, in a tightly-controlled existence where Christmas, getting drunk and sex before marriage are all off-limits.

So when Nick comes into her life, Anna falls passionately in love. Their shared world burns with poetry and music, cigarettes and conversation – hints of the people they hope to become.

But Anna, on the cusp of adulthood, is afraid to give up everything she’s ever believed in, and everyone she’s ever loved. She walks away, and Nick doesn’t stop her.

Years later, a tragedy draws Anna back into Nick’s life.’

8. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

‘Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .

The Lamplighters is a heart-stopping mystery rich with the salty air of the Cornish coast, and an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.’

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‘The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin’ by Éric Faye (20 Books of Summer #1)

Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.

The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.

This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?

The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.

Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.

“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.

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Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.

Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.

This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips ****

Julia Phillips’ debut novel, Disappearing Earth, has been hovering close to the top of my to-read list since its publication in 2019. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in its publication year, and reviewers have called it, variously, ‘mesmerising’, ‘a riveting page-turner’, ‘immensely moving’, and ‘a genuine masterpiece’.

Disappearing Earth opens on an August afternoon in Kamchatka, an isolated peninsula in northeastern Siberia. The region is ‘as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.’ To give one an idea of the isolation of the region, Phillips writes: ‘To the south west, and west was only ocean… Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken; some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.’ From here, it would take nine hours to fly to Moscow, Russia’s capital city.

In the biggest city on the Kamchatka peninsula, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, two young sisters are abducted; a subsequent police search finds nothing of their whereabouts. Their disappearance shocks the whole community, ‘with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.’ Phillips’ entire cast of characters are connected by this ‘unfathomable crime’. The sisters are Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, just eleven and eight years old respectively. From the first chapter, which details their disappearance, we learn of their close relationship, and the way in which they have spent the entire summer with one another. The man who takes them, feigning a sore ankle so that they will see him back to his car, ‘looked carved out of fresh butter’.

The strong sense of place which suffuses the novel – it is almost a character in itself – is immediately apparent. Of the sisters, Phillips writes: ‘They sat under the peak of St. Nicholas Hill. If they had kept walking along the shoreline today, they would have seen the stony side of the hill eventually lower, exposing the stacked squares of a neighbourhood overhead. Five-story Soviet apartment buildings covered in patchwork concrete. The wooden frames of collapsed houses… the last bit of land before the sea.’

Following the abduction, each chapter focuses upon a different character, and details how they have been affected by the story of the Golosovskaya sisters. Each chapter also takes place in a subsequent month, so we move through an entire calendar year in the space of the novel. We meet, for instance, a teenage girl named Olya, who loses her best friend when she expresses her belief that is completely safe to be alone in the city. We also learn of a young indigenous woman, who disappeared some time before the sisters, and who was never searched for properly due to police bias. As Phillips writes: ‘Reporters behaved as though the sisters from this summer invented the act of vanishing.’ The relationships which are imagined between characters are complex, and tautly drawn.

Aside from the disappearance, Phillips deals with some very important issues, including corruption; poverty; media bias and propaganda; racism against indigenous peoples; separation; isolation and solitude; and the way in which so many things have changed since the collapse of the USSR. The many and varied concerns of the characters feel realistic, as does the search for the ‘two small white bodies’, which ‘served as a good excuse to ignore the city’s other corruptions…’.

I was so interested to read about Kamchatka, where few novels are set, and Phillips held my interest throughout. It feels as though Phillips knows the places and spaces which she writes about intimately. Although there is a lot of darkness within this novel, I would still like to visit the tundras and vast wildernesses of Russia, to see how they compare to Moscow and St Petersburg, which I am lucky enough to have visited.

Given its structure, Disappearing Earth is almost a short story collection, which is connected by a single, pivotal event. I really enjoyed the simple yet effective approach which Phillips has taken, focusing as she does on so many individuals, all of whom the reader gets to know very well. There are a lot of layers within this debut novel, and I very much look forward to reading whatever Phillips brings out next.

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‘The Majesties’ by Tiffany Tsao (20 Books of Summer)

Ever since I first heard of The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao, I’ve been intrigued by the novel’s plot and underlying mystery. Published by Pushkin Press and characterised as a ‘riveting tale’ of betrayal, revenge and family bonds, The Majesties is a haunting read about the dark side of wealth and the lengths people with power are willing to go to maintain what they have.

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The plot follows two sisters, Gwendolyn and Estella, heiresses to the Sulinados, a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family and their journey to unravel the deep-seated secrets that their family harbours. The novel begins in quite an eventful and shocking manner, as the entire family has just been poisoned by Estella while attending a wedding. Gwendolyn (affectionately called ‘Doll’ by her older sister) is the sole survivor of this incident and she is currently in a coma, trying to piece together the events that led her sister to commit such a heinous act.

As Gwendolyn lies in the hospital bed, unable to move or speak, she delves deep into her memories taking the reader along, recounting various events such as their university days, her sister’s meeting with her future husband, their aunt’s sudden disappearance, while attempting to understand and reveal Estella’s breaking point that led to this tragedy. Although seemingly perfect and superficial, the sisters’ lives are filled with deception, lies and abuse, and the novel depicts this slow escalation of the events until we reach the day of the incident.

Tsao has managed to build her plot masterfully and create a steady pace that gradually intensifies as more and more secrets are revealed and the Sulinados’ entire life is being deconstructed. The story starts with the mystery of finding out the reason why Estella resorted to poisoning the nearly 300 members of her family, yet the suspense keeps on building up as we discover more and more about this rich but deeply problematic family. Gwendolyn’s own narration of her recollections start as very simple, coherent and clear, but as the plot moves forward they culminate in a hazy and feverish recounting of the last conversations she had with Estella before the poisoning.

The Majesties combines the elements of a psychological mystery with a literary style, and, along with its fast-paced plot and suspense, it manages to keep the reader at the edge of their seat until the very last page. What initially appears like ‘rich people problems’, superficial worries about mundane things, quickly escalates to much more serious themes of abuse, both physical and psychological, deception, loss of freedom and, eventually, loss of identity.

The premise of two sisters, one of which ends up killing their family (and herself in the process in the case of The Majesties) initially reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle. Although they are two very different books in their respective plots and eventual execution, Tsao has crafted an equally intriguing psychological mystery, exploring the darkness that resides in one’s heart and the lengths certain people are willing to go to in order to keep up appearances and preserve their supposed image.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed The Majesties and Tsao’s portrayal of the seemingly ideal yet corrupt world of this Asian family, as well as exploring the psychology of both sisters and their attempt to cope with a reality that seems to increasingly suffocate them and entrap them.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows’ by Edogawa Rampo

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) is a much revered and even more referenced era for all lovers of detective and mystery fiction. Although the writers whose seminal works we identify with the Golden Age are predominantly Anglophone or European (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon etc), this flourishing of detective fiction took place even outside these continents, reaching as far as East Asia.

Edogawa Rampo was one of the most influential writers in early 20th century Japan, as his works helped establish the detective and mystery genre in modern Japanese literature. With a pseudonym that is basically inspired by the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo developed what is frequently referenced as the “Japanese gothic mystery”, managing to introduce the Western elements of mystery fiction to the Japanese audience, while adding an inherently Japanese flavour.196151

Published in 2006 by Kurodahan Press and translated by Ian Hughes, the tome I am writing about today features two of Rampo’s novellas, “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows”, as well as a very enlightening introduction by Mark Schreiber that helps even those readers who are unfamiliar become acquainted with this era of Japanese mystery fiction.

“The Black Lizard” is the longest of the two novellas (174 pages), and it uses many familiar tropes of the genre. The Black Lizard of the title is none other than our female criminal (it is revealed in the very first chapter, so this is hardly a spoiler), a femme fatale who stirs a lot of trouble for our seemingly clueless male detective. While the story starts off with the talk of abduction of a young heiress, characters disguising themselves oh so successfully and fooling everyone around them, as well as many other familiar plot devices and tropes, it’s not long before it takes a rather gruesome turn. I will not go into more details here, but I’m sure readers who are expecting an Agatha Christie type of story will be wildly surprised by the grim and macabre turn of events.

As a novella, “The Black Lizard” comprises 29 short chapters (most are less than 10 pages), while there are some pages interspersed with drawings of certain scenes and characters. Rampo’s writing style in this novella might seem a bit peculiar and outdated to most readers, since he tends to address the reader quite often and provide explanations as to what has taken place in the story. This reminded me a little of the mystery novels I used to read as a child (Enid Blyton etc.), although Rampo’s content is far from appropriate for children.

The second novella, “Beast in the Shadows” was my personal favourite out of the two. Consisting of merely 12 chapters and 102 pages, our protagonist turns into a detective as he tries to solve the mystery of a stalker that harasses his recently widowed love interest. Rampo isn’t afraid to delve deep into the psychology of his characters and bring even their darkest side into light, and that is what makes “Beast in the Shadows” so engrossing, in my opinion.

As an avid fan of mystery/detective/crime fiction, I was delighted that I finally got the chance to read more of Japan’s leading writer of this genre. It’s always very fascinating to me to see how certain genres, themes or tropes that are familiar to us in a certain way are employed and even subverted by other cultures. Even if you end up not finding yourself mesmerised by Rampo’s writing style, I believe both “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows” are very worth your time, even if just to become acquainted with the origins if I may say of the Japanese mystery genre.

Have you read these novellas or any other work by Edogawa Rampo? Who is your favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writer? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Many, many thanks to Kurodahan Press for providing me with a copy of this book.

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‘A Midsummer’s Equation’ by Keigo Higashino

As I have said in previous posts, Higashino Keigo is one of my favourite contemporary Japanese authors and I will faithfully devour any book of his that falls into my hands. Most of his books combine mystery and crime plots with social issues, and I like how his prose is easy to read and yet really thought provoking. A Midsummer’s Equation is the sixth book in the Detective Galileo series, but only the third one translated into English (the other two being The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of Saint, both of which I’ve read and enjoyed).

23847971This novel is set in Hari Cove, a beautiful but rather neglected and now forgotten seaside resort area of Japan, where a conference regarding the town’s underwater mining operations is taking place. Our favourite physicist, Manabu Yukawa, otherwise known as Detective Galileo, has been invited to speak at this conference, which has apparently divided the town into two sides, as some people want to protect and preserve the natural beauty of their town, while the others support that going forward with the mining operation will open up new possibilities for this neglected by tourists town.

On the train to Hari Cove, Yukawa meets a little boy, Kyohei, who has been sent to spend the summer holidays at his uncle and aunt’s hotel, once bustling with tourists and visitors. However, during the very first night there, a body is discovered, that of a former policeman, who also happened to be a guest at Kyohei’s family’s hotel. As investigations around this death begin, many secrets and interreleated events start being uncovered, making this case much more complicated than it initially seems.

Like with Higashino’s other books that I’ve read, I really like how easy and fast to read his writing is, as it sucks the reader right inside the story and keeps them at the edge of their seat for what is still to come. In a way, this novel is very unlike the typical Japanese mystery/crime novels, in the sense that the culprit isn’t given from the outset, but instead we don’t get to know what truly happened until the very last pages.

Although I really enjoyed this intricate mystery and how many characters and events from their past became connected, I have to admit I got a little tired of the scientific talks (being a physicist, Yukawa loves giving those). I understand they were important to piecing together parts of the mystery, but since I can’t say I’m very interested in science itself, those passages were sort of a bore for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how Higashino poses so many environmental questions and whether profit or preserving one’s natural treasures is truly the winner in the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, though it wasn’t one of my favourites by this author. I am really looking forward to reading more of his books in the future (and even in Japanese, as they say his prose isn’t particularly difficult – I can’t even imagine the scientific vocabulary that will be included though!).

I read this book as part of Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

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Two Reviews

2017 might not have been my most productive reading year (in terms of pleasure reading at least), but I did manage to read some wonderful books that will remain with me for a good while. I will talk to you about two of them today, a Japanese “classic” crime novel and an American collection of short stories, both of which I immensely enjoyed and made my 2017 a bit more tolerable.

The Master Key by Togawa Masako **** 36396709

A very well-crafted and quirky mystery novel which hooked me from the very beginning. I really enjoyed how the different stories of each character all came together in the end and the mystery kept being unveiled until the very last page. All the characters were so unique and well-rounded and the story of each individual was also compelling on its own. It was definitely refreshing, a mystery very unlike the usual ones and definitely one which deserves everyone’s attention.

Although there was not a main detective in charge of solving the case and the structure of the novel is vastly different from similar Western crime novels of the time (this one was published in 1962 in Japanese), there is something about this mystery that strongly reminds me of Agatha Christie. I can’t say if Togawa is Christie’s Japanese equivalent, or even if such an assumption is fair, but I enjoyed reading The Master Key tremendously and I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks ****

35011288I usually am very cautious and shy away from books written by celebrities – no matter how much I like or admire the celebrity, more often than not the books they publish are yet another publicity stunt to make the number in their bank account even bigger. Needless to say I was taken aback when I heard Tom Hanks, one of my most respected actors, was releasing a short story collection.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit I truly enjoyed this collection. While not all stories were my cup of tea, and some felt rather dull or without a specific point (as it happens with most short story collections), the vast majority were stories that made me smile, brought tears to my eyes and offered me a wonderful experience. Tom Hanks is a truly gifted writer and I didn’t expect his prose to feel so natural and adeptly crafted.

The tone and voice of the stories were inherently American and the characters and plots felt like they jumped out of Tom Hanks’s most successful ’90s films. Although I’m not American, they managed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era well gone and for a certain innocence and naivete of people which is scarcely found today. I also enjoyed the fact that some characters were recurring in later stories, which made them feel even more realistic to the reader, as a different aspect of their lives or perspective was offered in each story they appeared. Overall, a wonderful collection of stories which made me wish there will be more to come.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? 🙂

Both books were provided to me by their respective publishers via NetGalley.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Crime at Black Dudley’ by Margery Allingham ****

First published in May 2015

Vintage Crime Classics have just republished Margery Allingham’s first Albert Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley.  Published in 1929, the novel has not been printed in an English edition for over thirty years.  Queen of crime Agatha Christie says that Allingham ‘stands out like a shining light’, and one cannot help but feel that her work is certainly due a resurgence.

The premise of The Crime at Black Dudley is sure to appeal to lovers of crime, particularly those with a penchant for the more old-fashioned or ‘cosy’ mysteries.  In the novel, a group of London’s ‘brightest young things’ accept an invitation to the Black Dudley mansion.  ‘Skulduggery is most certainly afoot, and the party-goers soon realise that they’re trapped in the secluded house’.  Albert Campion, one of the trapped, is on hand to assist the others in unravelling ‘the villainous plots behind their incarceration’.

The way in which Allingham describes the house adds a feeling of foreboding almost immediately.  She writes that, ‘Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond…  In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress’.

The novel opens with the character of Dr George Abbershaw, a ‘minor celebrity’, who soon becomes one of the story’s protagonists.  Whilst on holiday at Black Dudley, ‘Much to his own surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love’ with a young woman named Margaret Oliphant.  The weekend is being hosted by the owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, ‘an old invalid who liked the society of young people so much that he persuaded his nephew to bring a houseful of young folk down to the gloomy old mansion at least half a dozen times a year’.

Centuries past at Black Dudley, a murder was committed with the house’s revered Dagger, which is still kept in pride of place.  It is this ritual of sorts which is recreated by the characters on the first night.  Of this act, Campion says, ‘”All this running about in the dark with daggers doesn’t seem to me healthy”‘, thus creating fissures within the body of the protagonists.  Further peculiar goings-on such as this soon ensue, and serve to both deepen the mystery and add texture to the plot.

One of the main points comes at the instance in which Colonel Coombe dies after a supposed heart attack.  Questions about the situation being ‘fishy’ are almost immediately raised by many of the guests.  As a doctor, Abbershaw goes to view the body under the guise of signing the cremation certificate.  After doing so, ‘The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful.  There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain.  Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease’.  Moreover, Abbershaw becomes ‘convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known.  Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light’.

Throughout, Allingham is both witty and amusing, whilst being rather to the point.  Of Abbershaw’s falling in love, for example, she writes the following: ‘He recognised the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage’.  The perceptions which Allingham gives of her characters too are very shrewd: ‘The man was an arresting type.  He was white-haired, very small and delicately made…  Under the sleek white hair which waved straight back from a high forehead his face was grey, vivacious, and peculiarly wicked’.  The author is also a master at piecing together places and scenes, and second to none at building moments of tension or shifting experiences in just a single sentence: ‘The house-party which had seemed as large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room’.

With The Crime at Black Dudley, one has the feeling of being in the company of a very skilled writer.  The plot has been well constructed to the extent that not a dull page exists within the novel, the character development is wonderful, and the dialogue is never staid or predictable.  The only thing which does not quite ring true is the speed at which relationships between characters are declared; thankfully, though, such instances are few and far between.  On reading The Crime at Black Dudley, it is clear to see why Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and other such writers so admire Allingham.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Mini Reviews: ‘Fantastic Night’ and ‘The Lightkeepers’

Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig ****
9781782271482I purchased Fantastic Night as part of Oxfam’s wonderful 2016 Scorching Summer Reads campaign.  I was already familiar with Zweig’s work, and remember how enraptured I was when reading the excellent The Post Office Girl some years ago.  Fantastic Night provides a mixture of novellas and short stories, many of which I hadn’t come across before.

As with all of the Pushkin Press titles which I have had the pleasure of reading thus far, the translation here is seamless. There were a couple of tales I wasn’t that enamoured with, but those which I loved or very much admired greatly outweighed these. Zweig is a masterfully perceptive author, and there was such a difference to every one of the stories here. ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is stunning. Fantastic Night is a real joy to read.

 

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni ***** 9781619026001
Before gushing uncontrollably about Abby Geni’s masterful The Lightkeepers, I shall just copy the blurb so that you get some context about the story: ‘In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion. The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel –an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action –while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery.’

I very much enjoyed Geni’s short story collection, The Last Animal, and couldn’t wait to read her debut novel.  My parents scoured The Strand for me on a recent trip to New York, and I couldn’t have been happier when they presented me with it (and three other equally wonderful tomes).  Geni’s novel explores similar themes to those in her story collection – nature, humans, and the effects of one upon the other.

Geni’s writing is electric.  Such emphasis has been placed upon every single sense that the whole springs to life immediately.  You can almost smell the salt on the breeze, taste the stale crackers and tuna macaroni, and, despite living on an isolated island with just a few others, feel their eyes on you as you read.  Geni uses both the first and third person perspectives effortlessly, and even the more simplistic or mundane elements of life on the Farallon Islands feel extremely creative due to the way in which she presents them.  Everything here feels original.  The Lightkeepers has been so well researched, particularly with regard to the nature around Miranda, and the photography techniques which she utilises.  The Lightkeepers is exquisite.

 

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‘Points and Lines’ by Seicho Matsumoto ****

Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines was first published in 1958 in Japanese and it became an instant bestseller and a favourite among mystery/crime literature enthusiasts. Having sold millions of copies worldwide, this book managed to establish Matsumoto as one of the most important post-war Japanese mystery writers.

I had purchased this book years ago, in a very old Greek translation (which I doubt was done directly from Japanese) and I finally got around to reading it last month.

The plot of this book revolves around the mysterious death of a man and a woman in a rather secluded Japanese shore, which, after some initial investigations, is rendered as a couple’s double suicide. However, the protagonist, Detective Mihara, suspects that something of much bigger importance is hidden behind those deaths and begins a more thorough investigation. Could this double suicide be somehow connected to a pretty dark political scandal?

I did enjoy reading this, and, being a rather short read of approximately 200 pages (depending on your edition) it did manage to capture my interest until the final revelation. The whole mystery exuded the feeling and atmosphere of a traditional cosy mystery novel, which felt both nostalgic and outdated at the same time. There were some passages that were a bit tiring and overwhelming, particularly where the author cumulated too much information in too small a space, such as the train schedules and timetables. I found myself skimming through those, not really being able to combine the knowledge of the facts surrounding the deaths with the information about the trains in order to reach a conclusion.

Apart from that, it was pretty fast-paced and the solution at the end left me satisfied. It was really interesting reading such a pioneer novel for the mystery genre in Japan, and especially seeing how literature started to develop in Japan after the war and its dire consequences. One could say that both the atmosphere and the events that take place in this book, all this chaos and disorder that is described, could be a reflection of the general situation as well as of the Japanese psyche in the aftermath of the war.

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