20 September 2007

Mystery author #35: Ngaio Marsh (WARNING: Very long post)

It may well surprise some to discover that until last month I had not read a single book by this illustrious mystery author, whose name is often mentioned in the same sentence as those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but it is really not surprising when you consider that Marsh's books seem to be mostly out of print (which makes me wonder: if she is as good as Christie and Sayers, why are her books not in print? Perhaps they are between printing cycles?). It is to be hoped that they will be re-issued as the ones I read are quite entertaining and certainly better than some of the modern mysteries I have been reading lately.

The author review is based on the first five books in the series. It will be interesting to see if my opinions change with further reading.

I will only review the books briefly and rate them. I will discuss the things they have in common in the author review.

Series detective: Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Scotland Yard. In four of these early books he is assisted by journalist and murder magnet Nigel Bathgate.
Type of investigator: Police
Type of mystery: Murder

Title: A Man Lay Dead
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1934
Setting & time: An English country house and London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a man is murdered, stabbed with his own dagger, in the middle of a murder mystery game at a country house, several of those present are suspects (as per formula). It is up to Inspector Alleyn and the local police to solve the case, aided by journalist Nigel Bathgate, who is one of the few guests in the house who is not under suspicion. The solution depends on a very thorough investigation of alibis.

Review: This is a country house mystery that also features a secret society and mixes together two investigations, thus going somewhat against the formula for such mysteries, but not in a totally bad way. The secret society aspect is in fact quite entertaining. The the means of getting the murderer to confess are rather funny.

Rating: An interesting country house mystery and novel of manners with a touch of melodrama. 3 stars.

Title: Enter a Murderer
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: The Unicorn Theatre, London, UK; 1930s

Story: An unpopular actor is murdered on stage during a show, and Alleyn and Bathgate are in the audience. Several members of the company had reasons to want to harm the victim.

Review: While not a country house mystery, this story follows the same rules: a limited number of suspects within a limited space. As in the previous story, the solution depends on a careful investigation of the movements of the characters, and the solution will be a surprise to many readers.

Rating: A theatrical mystery with quite as many twists and turns as a good play. 4 stars.

Title: The Nursing Home Murder
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a government minister is murdered during surgery, several of those present in the operating room had reason to want him dead, including his jilted former lover, the young doctor who loves her, and a nurse who is a member of the Communist party. Alleyn solves the case, aided by Nigel and his girlfriend.

Review: I found this installation in the series rather melodramatic. The murderer was obvious from his first interview with Alleyn onwards, as was his motive but not his method, which was ingenious, although of a kind that stretches the reader's credulity a bit, but no more than some of the Sherlock Holmes plot devices.

Rating: One of the less entertaining books in the Alleyn series. 2+ stars.

Title: Death in Ecstacy
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1936
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: Nigel Bathgate gatecrashes a cult and witnesses a poison murder during a religious ceremony. He calls in Alleyn, and before long they are deep into an investigation where nearly all of the inner circle of the cult had reason to want the victim dead.

Review: This is an interesting look into cultism, with several interesting characters and explanations of why they joined, and a look at how a cult can as easily fall apart as any business venture. However, the murder method was such that it was quite uncertain that the poison would kill the right person and not the wrong person or indeed wipe out the whole inner circle of the cult (given how little of this particular poison is needed to kill someone), and so it was left to chance for the right person to ingest it. This I don't like in mysteries.

Rating: An interesting rather than entertaining story with a too risky murder method. 2+ stars.

Title: Vintage Murder
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1937
Setting & time: New Zealand; 1930s

Story: Alleyn is on holiday in New Zealand and has been travelling with a troupe of actors on tour. He is therefore present at a dinner to honour the leading lady, when a stunt goes seriously wrong and the company manager is killed. Alleyn discovers that the apparent accident was in fact a murder. The local police are thrilled to have the famous Alleyn in their midst, and he is invited to help with the investigation. This time, only two people seem to have had good reason to want the man dead, but both are unlikely killers and have solid alibis.

Review: Another theatrical mystery, and the first book in the series not to feature Nigel Bathgate. The murder method is ingenious and timing and minute examination of the witness statements are all important in solving the murder.

Rating: An entertaining puzzle plot. 4 stars.

Author review:
Based on my reading of these 5 books, I found Marsh to be a rather uneven author. Her writing in all 5 books is quite literary, her characters well written and believable for the most part and the dialogue often witty and clever. She reminds me of Georgette Heyer and Josephine Tey in that respect.
The unevenness is in the mystery plots, which sometimes stretch the imagination a bit too much, while at other times they are intricate and well thought out. All of the plots are puzzle plots where the events leading up to the murders are looked at, often from several different angles and with increasing exactness (tediously so at times), and the solutions depend on careful examination of facts, location, timing and alibis, with a touch of intuition.

Characterisation is one of Marsh's strong points.
Alleyn is charming, likable and sophisticated without being arrogant, with a tendency towards flippancy when least expected, that often completely takes people by surprise and puts them off their guard. I find the way he sometimes addresses his staff rather disrespectful, but the way Marsh writes it, they seem to accept the diminutives of their names he uses when speaking to them as being affectionate.
Nigel is a typical sidekick, i.e. a stand-in for a reader who is not stupid but gets carried away by red herrings and his feelings for the suspects. He also acts as someone for Alleyn to test his theories on.
The murderers, suspects and witnesses are mostly well-drawn and believable, and while one might confuse a character from one story with a character from another story if they are read too closely together, one is not likely to mix up characters within the same story.

Altogether, I think I will continue to read Marsh, only I am stalled right now as I want to read the books in order of publication, but I don't have the next two books and am waiting for them to pop up on either BookMooch or Ebay.

17 September 2007

Bibliophile reviews Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss

Year published: 1980
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Alaska, USA, late 1970s

McGinniss wanted to experience Alaska in all it's guises and seasons and went to live there for a year. The outcome was this report, often funny, sometimes sad or poignant, about a land and society during a period of rapid change. He takes a look at the problems facing the native communities, many of which were caused by the social-upheaval brought on by the arrival of the white man, and also at pioneers, oilmen, opportunists, politicians, scholars and ordinary people, all of them trying to make a living in the harsh environment of the USA's biggest state.

McGinniss does his best to avoid criticising the less savoury aspects of what he saw by trying to describe without judging, but one can not avoid noticing the subtle sarcasm that creeps into his prose whenever he mentions the oil pipeline, oilmen or oil-supporters and oil-supporting politicians, so his stance on that subject is rather obvious, but it is subtle enough that it will not overly bother anyone but the most militant pipeline supporter.

Rating: An interesting look at Alaska, both land and people. 4 stars.

15 September 2007

Mystery author #34: Nancy Martin

Series: The Blackbird sisters
Series detective: Nora Blackbird, aided by her sisters Libby and Emma and Michael Abruzzo whom she is sort of dating but afraid to commit to
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Philadelphia, PA, USA; modern timeless
Type of mystery: Murder

Title: How to Murder a Millionaire
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 2002

Story: When her parents flee the country and leave her with the family farm that has a 2 million dollar tax debt on it, recently widowed Nora Blackbird needs to find a job to pay the bills. A former debutante and society wife, all she really knows how to do is plan parties and be a hostess. This turns out to be the perfect background when she is hired as a society reporter by an old friend of the family who happens to own a newspaper. But then Nora finds him dead and it turns out he was murdered. The police ask for her help, as she knows everyone involved and knows how Philly high-society works. She becomes deeply involved in the investigation when a valuable antique is handed to her to return to the dead man's estate. But several people seem to be after the antique, and Nora doesn't really know whom to trust.
Then there is Michael Abruzzo who bought part of her farm, enabling her to pay off part of the tax debt. She really should hate him for setting up a tacky used car lot down the road from her venerable old farmhouse and distrust him because he is the son of a mafia boss, but the man is just so damn delicious…

Review: I enjoyed this story on several levels. The characterizations of the sisters deftly skirt the stereotypes I feared they would turn out to be and they become real, if sometimes a bit exaggerated, persons, and the descriptions of fine parties come across as genuine, as well they might, the author having been brought up in the kind of society she describes in the book. The murder mystery was an interesting puzzle plot, and while I did correctly detect the villain before Nora did, it was interesting to see the plot unravel towards the denouement.

Rating: A great start to a mystery series with a romantic twist. 3+ stars.

Title: Dead Girls Don't Wear Diamonds
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2003

Story: The wife of an old beau of Nora's is found murdered, and because the dead woman's father-in-law is slated as the next secretary of transportation, the FBI takes over the investigation. The local police are none too pleased, and one of them blackmails Nora into using her high-society connections to investigate the case. The dead woman had been a kleptomaniac and Nora gets into danger when she begins to investigate that as a possible motive for the woman's death. Meanwhile, her relationship with Michael Abruzzo is rocky. They are very attracted to each other, but Nora is still not ready to let got of the memory of her late husband, and Michael refuses to open up to her about his past and his family.

Review: While I did not quite enjoy this book as much as the previous one, I did like it and the mystery in this one was stronger. Too bad it had to be the same kind of killer as in the previous book. I still liked it.

Rating: Another good high-society mystery where Nora gets to use her connections to solve a murder mystery. 3 stars.

Author review: I like Martin's writing style and humour and the way she writes characters. I will definitely be on the look-out for more Blackbird sisters mysteries, if only to find out how things turn out between Nora and Michael.

07 September 2007

Reading report for August 2007

I finished 13 books in August, and added three new authors to my challenge (I am writing the last review). I managed to finish 4 books I had started some time ago and then stopped reading.

Laura Childs: Shades of Earl Grey
Deborah Crombie: A Share in Death

Leslie Carroll: Miss Match
Lorrain D'Essen: Kangaroos in the Kitchen
Barry Paris: Audrey Hepburn
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Georges Simenon: Maigret and the Toy Village
Paul Theroux, ed.: The Best American Travel Writing 2001

Reviews coming up:
Ngaio Marsh: A Man lay dead, Enter a murderer, The Nursing Home Murder, Death in Ecstacy
Nancy Martin: How to Murder a Millionnaire (I'm reading the second book in this series and will review them together)

03 September 2007

Mystery author #33: Laura Childs

Title: Shades of Earl Grey
Series detective: Theodosia ‘Theo’ Browning
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 2003
Type of mystery: Theft, possible manslaughter
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Charleston, SC, USA; modern timeless

Story: When a number of valuable antiques are stolen and a young groom is tragically killed in a possibly theft-related incident, Theodosia seems to be the only one who thinks there might be a cat burglar specialising in antiques at work in Charleston. Some speculation and a little investigation reveals three possible suspects, and she and her sidekick, Drayton, plan a trap to capture the thief.


Review: I love cozy mysteries and I had expectations of this book, but unfortunately it fell a long way from those expectations. It’s cozy all right, but the plotting is weak and the sleuthing consists mostly of conjecture and asking a friendly police officer some questions. Additionally, the sleuth commits what to me amounts to a crime: in a fit of TSTL she does something so incredibly stupid and dangerous that one can only assume her common sense has been surgically removed. I don’t care if the criminal was “only” a thief, she had no way of knowing that, and while she sensibly brought her attack-trained dog along, it was still stupid. I know we are supposed to suspend our disbelief when reading fiction, but in the face of something like this mine refuses to let itself be suspended.

The characters have little depth – as a matter of fact the author’s idea of describing a character’s personality seems to consist of describing that they are wearing. It gets repetitive after the second time for each character, as does the endless, pointless tea drinking. I know it’s supposed to create a cosy atmosphere, but one detailed description of tea drinking is enough, whereas there is one in almost every third chapter. (And I happen to be a tea drinker myself).

However, according to some reviews I found on the web, this book does not live up to the standard set by the previous two books in the series, so I am going to give Childs a second chance, but should I discover her sleuth being TSTL again, she will be going on my Do Not Read list.

As usual, there will be no author review until I have read a second book.

Rating: A cosy mystery that is more cosy than it is mysterious, with a clueless sleuth to boot. 2 stars.