The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

The Distant Echo cover

Strictly speaking I read most of this book in 2017, but it’s the first one I’ve finished in 2018.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid is the first in her Karen Pirie series, but she doesn’t turn up in this book until nearer the end of it when she’s been given the task of investigating a cold case going back 25 years or so to 1978.

The action begins in St Andrews, Fife, around the Christmas holidays where four male students are out celebrating at a local pub. It’s freezing and snowy and on the way home they stumble across a woman who is breathing her last in the snow. She has been stabbed and there’s blood everywhere.

The local police seem determined to pin the murder on the students who are almost locals and are known as ‘the lads fi’ Kirkcaldy’, another town in Fife about 20 miles from St Andrews. The ‘gentlemen’ of the press are quick to be judge and jury, so suddenly the four witnesses are suspects and everyone is turning against them.

The action moves on to 25 years later when the ‘lads’ have settled in their various occupations, but the past catches up with them unexpectedly and the nightmare begins again.

This is the first book by McDermid that I’ve read, apart from her Jane Austen re-write of Northanger Abbey. I was quite surprised by it, mainly because I had it in my mind that her writing would be a bit more cerebral – silly of me really as probably if it was then her books wouldn’t sell as well as they do.

I found this book to be just an okay read, I’ll probably give it three stars on Goodreads, but I suspect that most of my interest in it depended on me living close to all the locations and knowing the areas involved so well. McDermid even mentions a woman that I knew when I lived in Kirkaldy and she has her characters walking around so many of the local roads where I lived until recently.

I really had to suspend my disbelief towards the end of the book and I don’t think it’s fair when an author withholds information from the reader in the way that McDermid did – but maybe that’s just me being picky.

I’ll probably give the next one in the series a go to see if the Karen Pirie character grows on me, but so far McDermid has been a bit of a disappointment.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Glass Houses cover

I’ve been waiting for quite a wee while in a library queue to get my hands on Louise Penny’s new book Glass Houses, and it was worth the wait as it was another enjoyable trip to Quebec and the loveable village of Three Pines in particular. Armande Gamache had of course retired to the quaint and friendly village (despite the previous murders) it’s now home to him and his wife Reine-Marie. But he’s back at work now and having to testify in court in a homicide case where he was the arresting officer. It’s July and the heat is unbearable, especially for the judge and lawyers in their gowns and wigs. Everyone is fanning themselves with paper in a vain effort to get a waft of cool air, this part reminded me very much of the court case in To Kill a Mockingbird.

But the incidents that led to the court case took place in the freezing Quebec winter, and through the case we’re taken back to that time. Gamache has had some very difficult decisions to make, going against everything he has been taught about being a good Surete officer. There’s a massive drug ring bringing opioids through Canada and into the US and on top of that there’s been a murder in Three Pines.

It’s all very topical as opioids have in recent years caused havoc in the US but for me the murder/mystery aspect of this series isn’t necessarily the most important part. The close knit community of the villagers of Three Pines and their activities mean that reading these books is like being in the company of good friends. Everybody should have a Ruth and Rosa in their lives.

There was one thing that perplexed me, the nursery rhyme Ring a ring a’ roses which was apparently inspired by the Black Death/plague is mentioned quite a few times but where the words in the UK are ‘atishoo atishoo we all fall down’ – they’re written in this book as ‘ashes ashes we all fall down’

I’m left wondering if in Canada the word ‘ashes’ is used to denote a sneeze. I know that in Germany they say/write ‘atchi’ or hatchi’ for a sneeze, but ‘ashes’ seems strange to me. Can anyone enlighten me?

If you read this book make sure that you don’t skip the Author’s Note at the end where Louise Penny explains that her writing and Three Pines and its inhabitants helped her as her husband’s life was coming to an end, he had had dementia. It’s very moving.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

Envious Casca cover

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1941.

I’ve read almost all of Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels now and I’ve enjoyed them all although some more than others. I like the witty dialogue, especially between couples. Envious Casca is set at Christmas and features Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard as the investigator who is called in when a member of the household of Lexham, a large Tudor house, is discovered dead in a locked room. To begin with it’s thought that the death is from natural causes but it isn’t long before the truth is discovered.

The house is full of members of the Herriard family who are gathered together for Christmas, and a few of their friends. They’re a very argumentative bunch and Nathaniel, the owner of the Lexham estate holds the purse strings.

Despite the fact that the murder was a long time a-coming I really enjoyed this one. It was fairly predictable, the culprit was easy to spot AND none of the characters are particularly likeable, so by rights I should have disliked the book a lot, but the mystery lies in how the murder was carried out and that kept my interest. Heyer obviously meant it to be like that, especially given the title of the book. The characters are a quirky bunch so it all added up to a good read.

Landed Gently by Alan Hunter

Landed Gently cover

Landed Gently by Alan Hunter was first published in 1957, it’s the first book that I’ve read by the author, but it won’t be the last. It’s a really old fashioned big house murder mystery, complete with floor plan of the house. Like many books with that setting it features a railway journey early on and for me that all contributes to the atmosphere. I love those old railway carriages and I could see it clearly in my mind.

It begins with Chief Inspector George Gently of the C.I.D. preparing to travel to Northshire where he has been invited to spend Christmas. Settling down in his first class train carriage suddenly he has to get up to help a young man into the carriage, Lieutenant Earle is in the US airforce and he’s spending Christmas at Merely Park, another large house close to where Gently is going.

So far so traditional – but although it was fairly obvious to me what was going to happen from very early on, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment and with twists and turns it reached a satisfactory conclusion and I didn’t guess the perpetrator.

I’ve seen Alan Hunter’s books about for years but I’ve never bought any before as I knew that there was a TV series featuring George Gently, and I’ve never wanted to watch it, mainly because I’m not keen on the actor that plays George Gently. It turned out though that the TV series is really nothing like the books at all, they just borrowed the character it seems.

Our friend Eric Brown the writer of the Langham and Dupre crime mysteries gave me this book to read.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

 The Cheltenham Square Murder cover

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude was first published in 1937 but as you can see I read a British Library Crime Classics reprint. It has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

This is the second book by John Bude which I’ve read and I did enjoy it although it is a bit long-winded with all the possibilities gone into in depth. I’ve previously read his Cornish Coast Murder and you can read what I thought of that one here.

Cheltenham has a number of squares that are really cul-de-sacs with the houses only being on three sides and in Regency Square the inhabitants of the ten houses that it comprises are at loggerheads over whether a tree should be cut down or not. They are a disparate group of people ranging from well-heeled to just managing to scrape along financially. When one of the neighbours ends up being killed as he sat by a window Superintendent Meredith is asked to investigate. Was it an accident or murder?

I’ve found these British Library Crime Classic reprints to be a bit hit and miss, for me this one was a hit, although I still think that 1930s male crime writers in general concentrated too much on the minutiae of a mystery at the expense of the characters.

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote to Venom cover

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1938 but as you can see my copy is a British Library Classics one.

I quite enjoyed this one, but I felt that it dragged quite a bit in the middle, I seem to remember that I’ve felt the same about a few of his books.

George Surridge is the director of a zoo, it’s his dream job, and it comes with a comfortable house so he should be sitting pretty. Unfortunately he is married to a woman who is a social climber who had been spoiled by her parents and doesn’t seem to understand that George doesn’t have an endless supply of money for her to spend. The result is that George is always strapped for cash and is forever worried about it.

Clarissa’s attitude takes a toll on the marriage and when George meets a more sympathetic female he falls for her hard. This of course means that he gets into even deeper debt as he hires a flashy car to take her out and about – far away from his home. He dreams of getting free of his wife and so begins a convoluted murderous plan.

Unusually the author manages to make all of the main characters fairly likeable, so it’s quite a sad tale of broken lives due to bad decisions.

The covers of these British Library Crime Classics are usually quite stylish but I can’t say that I’m all that keen on this one.

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost cover

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was first published in 1934 and it’s the sixth Albert Campion murder mystery, so fairly early in his career and for me that’s the problem with this book. As he matured Allingham wrote Campion as a much more interesting character than he was in his early days, he’s just too shadowy and one dimensional, I much prefer the older married Campion.

John Lafcadio was a great artist and he decided that to keep his name going as long as possible after his death he would paint several pictures to be unveiled after his death – one a year, beginning ten years after his death. I have to say that that is a great idea.

It’s the eighth unveiling of one of those paintings, so eighteen years after his death, and there are lots of famous people at the party, suddenly the lights go out – a shilling is needed for the electricity meter, and there’s a murder!

So begins Campion’s investigation, aided by Stanislaus Oates, but for me there’s just not enough of Campion and it’s all a bit predictable.

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird

The Shrouded Way cover

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird was published in 1973 and it is one of the books that Peggy brought from the US for me. I have to admit that I had never heard of the author before Peggy started reading her books, which is strange as Caird was Scottish.

The Shrouded Way reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s writing, well of her adventure/mystery books, and I enjoyed the way the mystery started almost from the very beginning, with Elizabeth Cranston discovering a body in a tractor when she is driving to visit her Aunt Jenny who lives in the small Highland fishing village of Mourie.

There are some strangers in the village where over the years there has been a belief that there is a sunken boat containing treasure just off the coast of the village. The strangers include Crane Maclean, a wealthy American who is the new laird and he intends to finance the search for the treasure, promising that if they find it he will give it to the villagers for the good of the community.

All is not well though, and more villagers end up dead. Elizabeth has attracted the attentions of the laird and the school teacher who is also a new arrival in the village. But Elizabeth has her doubts about both of them.

I enjoyed this one although for me it somehow dragged a wee bit around the middle of the story, however that might just have been me rather than the fault of the book and I’ll definitely be looking out for more books by Janet Caird.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

The Gazebo by Patricia Wentworth

The Gazebo cover

The Gazebo by Patricia Wentworth was first published in 1958 and my copy was published that year and even has the dust jacket – what a find!

I really enjoyed this one although the murder does take quite a while to take place. Althea Graham is a woman in her mid twenties and she is at her ghastly mother’s beck and call all day every day. Her mother is supremely self-centred and is determined to keep her daughter at home running around after her mother who has a ‘heart attack’ every time it looks like she might not get her way about something.

Five years previously Althea had been all set to get married but her mother had put a stop to it. Now her ex-fiance is back, but it looks like life is never going to be easy for them, with murder and mystery blighting their future.

Luckily Althea is able to contact Miss Silver, they are connected loosely through an old friend. She’s the equivalent of the cavalry riding to your aid! AND she does it all whilst knitting a pink vest for a baby girl.

Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin

Crime at Christmas cover

Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin was first published in 1934. I had never read anything by this author before so had no idea what to expect. I ended up enjoying this book, the author is quite witty, but there is a real sense of deja vu and plus ca change as one of the main characters is a stockbroker and just as now stockbrokers and bankers weren’t exactly admired. Yes it seems that nothing ever does change for the better in this world of ours.

It’s a murder mystery set in a large house but not in the country, in fact Beresford Lodge backs on to Hampstead Heath in London, one of several large houses in the area although the nearest one is empty and derelict.

Malcolm Warren, a stockbroker, has been invited to spend Christmas there, it’s a party of close friends and relatives. During a silly party game Malcolm trips up and badly hurts an arm and wrist, the shock makes him sick and after being looked at by a doctor Malcolm takes to his bed.

He’s in for an even nastier shock though as during the night a body has landed on his room’s balcony and so begins the mystery.

I enjoyed this book although I think it did rely too much on coincidence. At the end of the story there is a question and answer section where the author explains any questions that a reader might have about it. It wraps up any loose ends.

The blurb on the back says:

‘Kitchin’s knowledge of the crevices of human nature lifts his crime fiction out of the category of puzzledom and into the realm of the detective novel. He was, in short, ahead of his time.’
H.R.F. Keating

I read this book for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.