A CASUALTY OF WAR by Charles Todd 2017 … A Bess Crawford Mystery

World War 1 Fiction    Historical Mystery Fiction

casualty

 

The Bess Crawford mystery series follows the activities of a first world war British nursing sister, and in this entry – the ninth in the series – Bess is still at the front but it appears as though the war is coming to a close.  Shortly before the armistice, she encounters a British Captain during a rare tea break and he proceeds to tell her about the home he is dearly missing in Barbados.  It sounds idyllic.  He leaves in a hurry because he is anxious to return to his men.  Despite the rumours of peace, the fighting continues and Bess is dismayed to discover the Captain in her medical station being treated for a head wound.  He returns to the fighting but he is shot in the back.  Even more disturbing than the injuries is his insistence that he was shot twice by a British Lieutenant – a distant cousin no less.  The medical personnel quickly attribute his ravings to his head wound and he is sent to a clinic, in England, that specializes in “shell shock”.   He begs Bess for her assistance and she agrees to help him.  The war is now over but Bess – along with her close friend Simon Brandon – investigate the strange circumstances of his case.  

At this point the novel resembles a traditional English village mystery. There is the vicar, his wife, the country doctor, the pub owner, the solicitor, the village tea room hostess and the wealthy landowner.  The villagers are suspicious of outsiders and the outsiders (Bess and Simon) have difficulty unraveling their mystery because the townspeople circle their wagons and refuse to cooperate.  They are distrustful of strangers and protective of their “boys” who have perished in the war.

I have followed this series diligently since the first entry (A Duty to the Dead, 2009) and I hope it continues now that Bess Crawford’s WWI is finished.  Bess’s father has an undetermined role in the peace negotiations and it is clear that there will be many war-related messes that require attention.  I cannot help but to think of Maisie Dobbs (Jaqueline Winspear 2003) since her story began in 1929 but most of her early cases had roots in WW1. (She was also a battlefield nurse).  Bess is constantly sticking her nose in other people’s business so I imagine there could be many cases to come to keep her busy.

Now for a few notes on the author.  Charles Todd is actually the pen name for a mother/son writing team and they are also responsible for the Ian Rutledge mysteries.  I will confess that I have not yet read the Rutledge books but someday… The Bess Crawford books have an obvious lack of sex so – I don’t know – maybe it’s because of the mother/son thing or maybe it is by design. (When I say no sex I mean none – not real , not implied, not any).   I can’t say I mind much but I am a bit of an old fuddy-duddy. Bess has had a few kisses.

The novel addresses many issues of war but in the forefront is the matter of shell shock (battle fatigue, PTSD) . It is an issue that needs to be addressed more so everyone can have a better understanding.  The conditions that these men and woman endured are hard to imagine and we do owe them everything. Everything.

This is a terrific series that I hope will continue for many years.

A CASUALTY OF WAR  by Charles Todd (2017) Harper Collins 377 pages

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NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016)

Scottish Island Fiction

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Scottish islands – or really any islands – can provide the ideal setting for a murder/mystery/thriller novel, the remoteness and inaccessibility adding excitement and uncertainty to the overall suspense.  A brilliant storm can disconnect island inhabitants from the outside world by severing communication and prohibiting sea and air travel.  The local law enforcement officials may be dealing with a crisis, but sorry, reinforcements can’t reach you.  And, of course, they’re trapped on an island with the villain.  It is really sort of ideal in a world where just about everybody has a cell phone and are therefore “connected” at all times.  In most contemporary suspense novels there is usually a point in the climax where the protagonist is trying to elude some evil doer – they look  at their phone and – “oh no, no bars” or “damn, I forgot to charge it”, –  but someday we’ll have self-charging phones and network service everywhere.  What are writers going to do then?  Islands!  Yeah, just kidding.

NONE BUT THE DEAD is set on the island of Sanday – a real island in the Scottish Orkney Islands.  This novel gives mention to many historical landmarks that actually exist on this island.  I have read many books where the author has chosen to invent an island to provide a backdrop for evil, murder, and mayhem but this one is quite authentic.  

This is the twelve book in the “Rhona Macleod forensic scientist” series and I’ll admit right now that this is the first entry I have read.  Most of the series is set in Glasgow but the team is sent to Sanday when a construction project uncovers bones.  The owner of the project is converting an old schoolhouse into a home and he also finds strange fabric flowers in the attic.  The local historian takes one look at one of the flowers and becomes extremely distressed.  Vandalism at the dig site makes it apparent that someone doesn’t want the authorities digging into the past.  The police are already overwhelmed, but then a young girl goes missing and a huge storm hits the island.

The Orkney Islands (like the Shetland Islands) are north of Scotland and have a greater Scandinavian influence than the Hebrides.  The location made Sanday a good location for a military outpost during World War ll: the remains of the outpost figure in the story.

This novel has all the elements that make Scottish Island mysteries so effective and I was not disappointed.  The characters were fine but I wasn’t enthralled enough to be tempted by previous volumes.  There was also one coincidence in this novel that I found a little farfetched, but it is an excellent mystery/thriller especially for fans of Scottish Island books.

NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016), MacMillan, 419 pages

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THE WAGES OF SIN by Kaite Welsh 2017

Historical Fiction                Mystery Fiction

wages                                                                                                                         Pulchritudinous: physically beautiful. (Merriam-Webster).  Wow! I don’t think I have ever come across this word before.  Apparently it was one of the many words that Richard Burton used to describe Elizabeth Taylor when he first met her.  It is also a word used by the heroine of this novel – in a sentence no less.  It sounds like a medical condition but it is actually derived from the Latin root word “pulcher” meaning beautiful.  My spell-check doesn’t even want to let me use it – so wow!  So I read this entire book and this is all I took away from it. No, just kidding.

This is actually a compelling, but grim,  first novel by a Scottish author named Kaite Welsh.  The narrative is  drenched in misery,  and centers on a female medical student at an Edinburgh university in 1892.  Sarah Gilchrist had been a London debutante from a wealthy family when a single night changed the course of her life.  She was raped by the son a of a Lord and the response from her family and society was to blame her entirely and to send her to a sanitorium to be treated for hysterics and melancholy.  After she was  released from the sanitorium , she was ostracized by her immediate family and forced to reside with an Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh.

 She is one of a dozen female students admitted into medical school to the consternation of  – well – everyone.  She is determined to obtain her medical qualifications but she faces an uphill battle.  The Aunt and Uncle with whom she resides can barely hide their contempt for her unladylike obsession and she also receives opposition from the other female students.  Two nights a week she volunteers at a woman’s clinic in the poorest, and most downtrodden area of the city.  She administers to prostitutes, addicts, thieves, and runaways and begins to realize how grim life can be for a woman with few options in a male dominated world.  She has her “aha” moment when she realizes that their crummy life is worse than her crummy life. Eventually she discovers one of the prostitutes she had treated at the clinic, on the slab in her dissection class and she is sure the young lass has been murdered.  Sarah yearns to unravel the mystery surrounding this girl but she is hampered by restrictions too numerous to count until she finds an unlikely ally.

The author very successfully captures a sense of powerlessness  that would have defined a woman’s life in Scotland one-hundred and twenty-five years ago. The restrictive nature of women’s lives  comes through loud and (painfully) clear.  There are places in the world today where women live under conditions this prohibitive – or worse.  It is heartbreaking but it is something worth taking away from this novel – something to think about.

The Wages of Sin …by Kaite Welsh (2017) Pegasus Books 287 pages

 

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THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey (1952)

Scottish Island Fiction     Mystery Fiction

singing sands

This is Josephine Tey’s last novel, discovered in her papers after her death, and published posthumously.  She is probably better know for her 1951 novel THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, a  book that has graced a number of top ten mystery novel lists in the past sixty-five years not to mention some required reading lists for college courses (a friend of mine took such a course).  I read that novel over thirty years ago and, although I don’t agree with all the conclusions set forth in that book, I think it did open my eyes to the way history is recorded.

 But back to THE SINGING SANDS.  This is the oldest book I’ve included in my “Scottish Island” series but I think it has a lot to offer to anyone who enjoys reading novels about Scottish Islands.  Only part of the book takes place on the fictional island of Cladda but the character has  lots to say about the effects of visiting the Island.  

The novel opens with Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard enduring the overnight train ride to the Scottish Highlands.  I say “enduring” because Inspector Grant is suffering from  nervous disorders, including claustrophobia, and the small, enclosed sleeper car is agonizing for him.  He departs from the train, after a sleepless night, only to catch the porter trying to wake another passenger;  it’s not going to happen – the man is dead.  Later Grant realizes that he has somehow obtained a newspaper belonging to the dead man and it has a wee poem scribbled in the margins. The poem intrigues him  – so much so that he begins to obsess about it when he is supposed to be enjoying rest and relaxation with his cousin’s family.  The poem leads him im many directions as he tries to discover more about the dead man on the train.

The mystery is intriguing but there are other angles of this book that are also interesting.  Mental health issues are served up 1951 style.  He is on sabatical on the orders of his physician yet it is actually painful when he berates himself for being so “weak.”  His boss is not a supportive man but fortunately his family are quite supportive.

He spends some time on a Scottish Island and fans of these islands will enjoy his reaction to his temporary residence. That’s all I will say.

An excellent novel- even after 65 years.

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, 1952, Random House, 246 pages

Post Script

I need to quickly add something because I forgot to include Inspector Grant’s theory on vanity;  “Vanity.  The first requisite in wrong doing.  The constant factor in the criminal mind.” p. 195

“When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in.  But that is merely personal conceit.  Real vanity is quite different.  A matter not of person but of personality.  Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”.  It is a frightening thing because it is incurable.  You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about.  He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch”. p.200

Vanity – an interesting perspective.

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MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

m murders

Mystery Fiction

“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings, and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.” page 4

This is the quintessential quote about whodunnits and it expresses exactly how I feel.  They’re not just about reading; they’re a game, a puzzle, an experience. My adoration of whodunnits directed me to this novel because it promises, not one, but two whodunnits in a single book.  What could be better than that!  There has been a lot of buzz around this novel and it even made the list as one of Oprah’s favourites of the year.  That said, I typically don’t write about such “High profile” books, mostly because there are about a gazillion reviews out there already – do we really need another? No, yet here I go.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve never read an ANTHONY HOROWITZ book in my life until now,  but I am still a big fan of his.  But, how can that be?  Well, this talented man has written and/or created some of my favourite tv shows of all time. He wrote many of the scripts for the first year of “Poirot”, “Midsomer Murders” and “Foyles War.”  I am a Canadian but I  subscribe to a special channel so I can receive these  programs.  And isn’t it nice to watch a show where every single character does not look like a Barbie or a Ken Doll – yeah I’m talking about you American tv.  When you read this book you will notice that these shows are mentioned often.  The title of the book (within the book) is MAGPIE MURDERS but the publisher complains that it sounds too much like MIDSOMER MURDERS.  The novel even contains guest stars (yeah guest stars just like tv)  with Agatha Christie’s grandson making an appearance in a couple of the chapters.

The novel begins with Susan Ryeland, the editor of a small but successful publishing house, getting cozy with the intention of reading the first transcript of a novel from her most successful writer.  Then we are introduced to the novel – Magpie Murders – and the reader is transported to an English Village circa 1955, and an eccentric detective named Atticus Pünd.  This is classic English village mystery literature.  Just as the detective is about to gather his suspects and announce the murderer – the novel ends because the last chapters are missing.  And…the  second mystery begins.

This is certainly an homage to Dame Christie and the other writers of the golden age of mysteries.  A modern whodunnit in the old style – you know – no tracking people with cell phones or catching the murderer on cctv.  All the clues are there so just get comfortable and enjoy the experience- it really is a fun book.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 2016, HarperCollins Publishers, 236 pages

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THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers (2017)

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Historical Fiction

Mrs. Placidia Hockaday is barely a teenager when she comes to live with her new husband, Major Gryffith Hockaday, on his farm in rural South Carolina.  They spend two days and two nights together until the Major receives the news that he must immediately return to his regiment.  The American Civil war has already been raging for around two years when the Major leaves his inexperienced young bride in charge of his 300 acre farm, his young son, and the few slaves and workers still attached to the farm.  Two years later he returns.  The gossip mongers are anxious to share some news with him; during his absence his young wife conceived and bore a child.  Yet there is no evidence of a baby and she is unwilling to share any information with her husband or the authorities.

This novel is told through a series of letters, journal entries, and legal documents and the narrative that emerges is a harrowing tale of abuse, deprivation, loss and even some heroics.  The truth is unveiled  to the reader slowly until the full story is exposed – with its many tragedies and a few triumphs.  This book would never be classified as “a mystery”,  yet there is a profound mystery at its core that must be unravelled by the reader.

This novel highlights the strength of one woman, forced  to overcome an almost impossible situation.  It also broached the topic of future generations and how they are affected by the circumstances of a war.  I think an interesting thing about this novel for me was how I actually changed my mind about certain characters as the novel progressed.

The epistolary novel was common until the beginning of the 20th century but there has been a resurgence in its popularity.  Some novels that come to mind –

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

Letters From Skye by Jesssica Brockmole (2013)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers Algonquin Books (2017)

 

 

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GOOD TIME COMING … by C.S. Harris (2016)

goodtime

Historical Fiction … A Novel of the American Civil War

I killed a man the summer I turned thirteen.  Sometimes I still see him in my dreams, his eyes as blue  as the Gulf on a clear spring morning, his cheeks reddened by the hot Louisiana sun. ”  page 1.

This is a powerful and harrowing story about a young girl named Armie coming-of -age in Louisiana during the American Civil War.  While almost every able-bodied man from the area is north fighting for the confederates, the women and children remain at home trying to maintain their dwellings, families and businesses. Almost every family has already lost a son, father, or relative, and the ones who haven’t, live in fear of that awful news.  Armie’s situation is unusual because, although her father is a physician with the confederate army,  her parents were staunch abolitionists before the war.  This earns them the mistrust of several of their neighbours at a time when  mutual  support is a lifeline.  In the spring of 1862,  the union troops were beginning to steam up the Mississippi River and the citizens were besieged  by army raiding parties; stealing and killing their livestock, burning their properties, and violating the women.  The population was starving and disease was rampant while the union soldiers helped themselves to anything and everything they could find.  Some women choose not to live with the repercussions of rape,  they would rather die.

And young Armie tries to make sense of a situation that is senseless, to understand a world that is in chaos, to recognise and adapt to the villainy and evil that she sees in men’s souls through their actions.  Not always successfully.  She asks lots of questions about God and she doesn’t get answers that satisfy her.  The two wisest people in her life are her own mother and an old former slave and they are only partially able to answer her questions.

“Life is unfair” is a quote from John Kennedy…and probably every teenager that ever lived.  But there is unfair  (my parents won’t buy me a new bike like all my friends have) and there is unfair ( I live in fear everyday over the new atrocities tomorrow could bring, and I wonder if I will survive.)

The truth is a little sickening and certainly not unique to this particular war; that the murdering, pillaging  and rape of women and children IS a weapon of war. It is demoralizing for the citizens and their fighting soldiers.

At one point in this novel young Armie is put in a position that no 13-year- old should ever have to face.  There are strong women in her family and she has some good role models. In fact the village women’s’ strength can be a revelation at times especially since some of them had been Southern Belles in their former life.   

I never like to give away too much with a plot but this novel had me riveted to every page. It was engrossing, interesting and thought-provoking.  It was also heartbreaking, agonizing and tragic.  

Many readers will be familiar with  C. S. Harris, since she is the author of the very successful   “Sebastien St. Cyr” mystery series with eleven entries so far. I have read them all (love them) and I suppose that is how I found this novel. I am glad I did because this is a powerhouse.

I am not a huge fan of the title although I can understand why it was chosen. GOOD TIME COMING  is a line from a song poular before the war and it certainly speaks of hope. And sometimes hope is all you have to get through. It just doesn’t seem strong enough for this powerful novel.—just my opinion.

GOOD TIME COMING

C. S. Harris

Severn House Publishers

2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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THE CHALK PIT … by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Dr. Ruththe chalk pit Galloway Mystery  #9

 

 

 

This is the ninth entry in the Dr. Ruth Galloway mysteries and it is an impressive and multifaceted novel.   We were introduced to Ruth, a forensic archeologist, in THE CROSSING PLACES (2009) where she helped the police solve a very perplexing case involving a missing child.  Many of the characters, from that first entry, are still a part of Ruth’s world.  As an expert on bones, she is frequently asked to assist the police and she often works with DCI Harry Nelson.  They have a complicated relationship – — COMPLICATED!

When bones are found in an underground work site, Ruth is enlisted to determine their age.  She is horrified to report that the bones look as if they have been boiled  and they appear to be modern.  The investigation reveals a network of tunnels under the town – perhaps the remnants of old chalk mines.

At the same time, the police have a missing persons case involving a homeless lady but few people take notice until a new case develops where a middle class mother disappears after her school run.  Suddenly it’s big news.  The themes of underground societies and the plight of the homeless are consistent throughout the novel.

Ruth has some personal issues as well but I won’t discuss them here because it would be a spoiler for readers who want to start the series at book 1 (Crossing Places).  I always like to read a series in order, but of course , that is a personal choice.  The novel ends with some startling information about one of the characters.

THE CHALK PIT by Elly Griffiths (2017) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  358 pages

Elly Griffiths has a second series known as the Stephens and Mephesto Mysteries.  The third book is available in the U.K. but here (in Canada) we have to wait until September.

 

 

 

 

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June 5, 2017 · 1:35 pm

IN FARLEIGH FIELD … by Rhys Bowen (2017)

in farleigh field     Mystery Fiction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I have been a Rhys Bowen fan for years and I  await each installment of her two current series with eager anticipation.  The “Molly Murphy” mysteries feature a capable and enterprising young woman – an Irish immigrant with an unfortunate past – rebuilding her  life in early twentieth century New York City.  There have been 16 installments in this series, with a new adventure available later this year.  It is always nice to have something to anticipate.

 The “Royal Spyness” mysteries  are set in England between the wars, and feature a young lady who is 35th in line to the throne.  Lady Georgiana  is dirt poor but rich with connections and usually finds herself performing some favour or another to stay in the good graces of her royal family.  In the background, her cousin Edward is courting a certain Mrs. Simpson.  There are nine books and counting in this more lighthearted series.

As soon as I heard that Rhys Bowen had a new novel coming out I knew I had to read it.   I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  This is a World War ll era novel with great characters (and in my opinion Rhys Bowen writes great characters)

 Farleigh Place is the stately English manor of Lord Westerham, his wife, and five daughters.  England is at war with Germany and half the estate has been commandeered by the British army; meanwhile the family learns to live in more reduced circumstances.  Middle daughter Pamela has a position at Bletchley Park, although her family thinks she is doing secretarial work.  Another daughter, Margot, is living in Paris and refusing to return home to England.  Ben is the son of the village vicar, and Pamela’s childhood friend.  (of course he is secretly in love with her)  A recent accident has kept him from enlisting but he does undercover work for the government and receives a lot of flack for not doing his part.  Another childhood friend – dashing flying ace Jeremy Prescott- has joined the RAF.

One day, as youngest daughter Phoebe is crossing the estate on her pony, she comes across a battered body in soldier’s clothing.  He has fallen from the sky due to a failed parachute.  This sets off  an inquiry with lots of  questions and Ben is tasked with discretely finding some answers.

 Each daughter has her own story.  This is where I always admire Rhys Bowen; I think she is great at writing characters that the reader can care about.  And she excels at writing women with good minds and strong personalities.  This novel has been promoted as a “stand alone” but I , for one, would love to see it become a series.  I feel the author has only scratched to surface with these characters.

IN FARLEIGH FIELD is a novel about WW ll with great characters and an exciting plot;  espionage, secrets and alliances of all kind are all explored in this excellent book.

The reader may want to read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) as a companion book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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