Category Archives: Mysteries

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, but 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 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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MURDER AT THE BRIGHTWELL….by Ashley Weaver (Minotaur Books 2014)

brightwell

A MURDER MYSTERY

This is a delightful murder mystery reminiscent of the work of Agatha Christie and primarily set in an upscale British seaside resort during the 1930’s. Lots of fun characters (suspects?) and a dead body or two, along with some complicated relationships, amateur sleuthing and a few interesting subplots — what more could  a fan of the British cozy mystery want? The witty banter between husband and wife, Amory and Milo, is more Nick and Nora Charles than Christie but their relationship is a little more complicated. Five years earlier Amory chose to marry the cad over the gentleman– and wouldn’t you know it–both are at the Brightwell (one by design and one by surprise) I sincerely hope that this is the first in a series because I just want MORE. I am already casting the characters, in my head, for the film version. Wonderful book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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World War 1 Fiction…….continued

I still have a handful of WW1 fiction titles that I would like to introduce in my blog before I move away from this topic (for now but not forever) and again I will emphasize that these novels could be set during and/or after the war.

DEAFENING…….by Frances Itani (2003) It has been several years since I read this novel but I think of the story and the characters often. That has to be a sign of a good novel. It is primarily the story of a girl, Grania who becomes deaf at age five after a bout with scarlet fever. She lives in a small town in Canada.  The book addresses her education and her close family ties and much more as she is growing up. Eventually she meets a nice man and they marry but soon after the wedding, World War 1 breaks out and Grania’s dear husband signs up as a stretcher bearer with the Canadian army  and heads to France. I have written about this book in more detail in an earlier posting because this little blurb  could not possible do justice to such a special novel. A wonderful novel that just may send the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions. It was like that for me.

THE CRIMSON ROOMS….by Katharine McMahon (2009)  This is a novel that expertly illustrates that a war isn’t really over simply because the fighting has stopped. Evelyn Gifford is a young woman in her 30’s trying to become a lawyer at a time when women were not expected to be lawyers. She lives in a household of women (mostly relatives) and they are grieving for Evelyns’ brother–his hat still hangs on the hook near the door where he left it on his last leave.  Evelyn has some interesting cases including a war veteran who refuses to defend himself from a murder charge.I really like this novel and I think it tackles some issues that were in the forefront at the time. deafeningcrimson room It is a stand-alone and a mystery.More next blog.

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WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT…..by Mary Stewart (1956, Hodder and Stoughton. Ltd)

wilfireFiction novels set on Scottish Islands.

When I was googling and searching for fiction set on the Scottish Islands I came across this book by the famous writer Mary Stewart. I was very sure(kind of, sort of)  I had read it many years ago so I checked some review sites to see if it was indeed the very book I remembered. Then I made a BIG MISTAKE and I looked on that site that begins with a W and in two short paragraphs it revealed the plot –and the ending!  Definitely not a good idea for a whodunnit. It was the book I had read  maybe thirty years ago but I just couldn’t convince myself to read it again –  what with knowing the ending and all. Then fate jumped in. I was having dinner with a longtime friend and I mentioned my blog and my interest in Scottish Island fiction.  This was actually the same friend who  had travelled the Islands and Highlands of Scotland with me over twenty-five years ago (we actually had a rail/ferry pass called “The Island and Highland pass”). At the end of the evening she handed me her well-worn paperback copy of “Wildfire at Midnight” and suggested that it was worth reading again.  Apparently she too had originally read it many years ago and it had inspired her, during her travels on Skye, to find a place much like the lodge/hotel in the book (preferably without the murders) We stayed in an  establishment called  Flodigarry Hotel for a few days that she now says she chose because it reminded her of the Camas Fhionnaridh Hotel from “Wildfire at Midnight” (although it was on the northern part of the island and nowhere near the Cuillin). I remember eating strawberries and real cream in the beautiful lounge area. It was very lovely and made me think I was in an old black and white movie.

Back to the novel. Young, exhausted, divorcee(scandalous) Gianetta decides to  clear out of London shortly before the coronation (1953) , and  ends up at a very remote and isolated lodge on Skye. The cast of characters (including her ex-husband) staying at the lodge become a cast of suspects after a murder takes place. This is a great atmospheric whodunnit that may sound dated to modern audiences especially when Gianetta is trying to get her priorities straight—-

“Has no one ever told you that people mean more to women than principles? I’m a woman, Inspector Mackenzie!” (p. 178) Ah huh.

There are some great descriptions of the mountains and scenes of mountain climbing — made more timely since Hilary was about to conquer Everest. This paperback is only 224 pages so it is really a nice quick read.

Another  book by Mary Stewart is called “THE STORMY PETRELS” (Fawcett, 1995) and it takes place on a fictional Scottish Island  called Moila.  This book made me think of the plot diagrams my teacher would draw on the chalkboard when I was in primary school. It looked like a mountain . First the flat meadow (beginning/exposition) , then up the mountain (rising action), the mountain peak(climax), down the other side of the mountain (falling action), and then some more flat ground(resolution/ending)  Well if I had to plot this book it would be a flat line with a few ant hills and gopher holes. Nothing much happens.  I should state that I don’t usually write at all about books I haven’t enjoyed – I mean I have never written a book so who am I to judge – but I think it may be important for people who have read “Wildfire at Midnight” to know they are not getting the same goods with “The Stormy Petrels”.

Mary Stewart will be 97 next month.

Not sure is this qualifies as contemporary but–oh well.

P.S. Dear fans of Scottish Island fiction. Please read the comment left on this post by Linda Gillard. She is a very successful author (Emotional Geology, Star Gazing) and she has written about the Islands and lived on Scottish Islands.  Her recommendations are received with gratitude. (and maybe THE STORMY PETRELS is worth reading if only for the descriptions.)

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SACRIFICE …..by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur, 2008)

sacrificeAnother day, another blog about Scottish Islands in contemporary fiction. “Sacrifice” is an exciting suspense/mystery/thriller which is even more impressive because it is the author’s debut novel. It is a “stand alone” that was followed by two more “stand alones” and then a superb series (three entries so far). I’d say this author has a very bright future. Sacrifice takes place on the Shetland Islands. The main character is named Tora Hamilton and she has come to live on Shetland, the land of her husband’s birth. She is, of course, an outsider but even her husband has not been back for twenty years. In the beginning of the novel a grief-stricken Tora has rented a backhoe and is desperately (and illegally) trying to bury her beloved and recently departed horse. What she uncovers is a woman’s body. Bog bodies are not uncommon in these parts but this body was murdered with the heart cut out and buried for less than five years.
Bolton does a wonderful job of adding old legends into a modern story and she knows how to twist and turn a plot. She also vividly portrays the outsider vs. insider(local) aspect in the most compelling manner.
One of the “outsider” characters appears later in her “Lacey Flint” series – I won’t say a name because that would be telling.
When I say this book has everything I’m not kidding–there is even an appearance by the famous Shetland ponies.
Great book–watch for this author!

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THE BLACK HOUSE …….by Peter May (2011)

  • black houselewis manchess menTHE LEWIS MAN …. By Peter May (2012)
  • THE CHESS MEN….  By Peter May (2013)

THE LEWIS TRILOGY: three novels set against the backdrop of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

I’ve read all three of these novels and I just love them – all three of them – with no particular favourite. There are two main characters in “The Lewis Trilogy”: first there is a detective named Fin Macleod , and then there is the Island of Lewis itself.

 Fin Macleod is a native son, born on the Island where he spent the first eighteen years of his life before he transferred to the mainland of Scotland for university and eventually to join the police force.  As the first novel opens, almost twenty years after his departure, he is working as a detective in Edinburgh and coping with a ruined marriage and the grief and anger associated with his son’s hit and run death. He is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that is strikingly similar to an Edinburgh murder; his Island knowledge and command of the Gaelic are considered to be an advantage. What follows is an engaging novel with an interesting whodunnit and a fascinating insight into growing up in a remote and isolated environment. The novel expertly moves between the present murder and the life of Fin as he was coming of age  He is both an insider and an outsider. The moody, unpredictable atmosphere is aided by the unsettled climate that in turn mirrors Fin’s unsettled soul.

The second novel in the series (The Lewis Man) still features Fin but it is more focused on another character who, in the present, is battling with Alzheimer’s disease. It is this character’s past that makes up the majority of his story. And a bog body!!! Bog bodies can be 2000 years old or very recent since the temperature, acidity and lack of oxygen in the bogs acts as a preservative. I have talked, in previous blogs, about my fascination with bog bodies and I recommend the novels of Erin Hart to anyone who shares this interest. (A little aside but now back to “The Lewis Man” ) I cannot stress enough how the description of the Island, its inhabitants, and its culture enrich this novel.

The third novel in the series is called “The Chess  Men” ; a reference to the famous medieval chess pieces discovered in Lewis in 1831, and featured in this novel. The novel also discusses the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Iolaire on January 01,1919 which is a horrific moment in Lewis history.  The ship was carrying 280 passengers, mostly soldiers returning from WWI , when she hit a rock within view of Stornoway Harbour.  At least 205 of the 280 aboard perished.  It is somehow beyond sad that these soldiers should survive the war and die within view of their home. A young Fin is educated about this tragedy and learns how actions taken on that night could affect  life even 60 years later. This is the novel which probably illustrates the unpredictable nature of the Lewis weather the most and serves as a metaphor for life on the Isle of Lewis.

Did you know……?

Donald Trump is a son of a …..no not that….he is the son of a Lewis woman. His mother, Mary MacLeod was born just outside the capital city of Stornoway. Just a little fact you may need in a trivia contest.

I REALLY hope Peter May decides to make this trilogy a quartet (look to Ann Cleeves for inspiration ).

In conclusion,three novels that capture the atmosphere and details (lots of details) of the culture and atmosphere of the Isle of Lewis.  Lewis is the most northerly island (Part of Harris and Lewis) in the outer Hebrides. Known for its deeply religious inhabitants  (Sunday it closes down)  and for a deep adherence to the Gaelic language and traditions.

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Scottish Islands in Contemporary Fiction

scotlandMurder Mysteries;

In my next few blogs I will be discussing murder mysteries and thrillers that are set on various Islands in Scotland. It is hardly surprising to see authors setting their novels on Scottish Islands because it would be difficult to  find anywhere in the world that provided such a perfect atmosphere and backdrop.  The landscape can be austerely beautiful,  but it can also have a barren severe quality with sharp rocky outcrops and marshy peat bogs. The rainstorms can be unrelenting throughout the seasons  (and at times the storms can produce an angry sea), and clouds and mist can seriously affect visibility . Life can be very dangerous for the fisherman; and the crofters experience the often difficult task ,familiar to all farmers, of just scraping by during times of changing markets. These Islands are often remote and isolated and visitors are usually welcomed for the tourist trade but at times they may feel very much like outsiders. Let me assure you that I am making a generalization and I recognize the fact that all the Islands are different with their own culture and character.  The best books capture that culture and character along with providing an interesting plot.

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