Category Archives: mystery

“The Moving Toyshop” by Edmund Crispin

Do you like the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers? Then you should try Edmund Crispin’s work. Despite being a bit of a detective addict in my teens and keen reader of modern thrillers by authors like Deaver, Rankin, and Connolly I had never heard of the Oxford don called Genvase Fen until I read “The Moving Toyshop” for the 501 list.

First published in 1946 the book’s plot had plenty of red herrings and plot twists plus a satisfyingly logical conclusion. I certainly wasn’t expecting that when the poet Richard Cadogan found a murdered woman in a flat above a toyshop and then couldn’t find the toyshop again the next morning. I won’t spoil the solution by sharing it, but it is a good one.

The story is shot through with genuinely funny asides about Oxford life, publishing and writers. His one-liners are brilliant and the descriptions of characters are so cutting you’ll bleed.¬† In fact I couldn’t help being reminded of Jasper Fforde’s amazing literary detective books because they share a passion for literary wit. At one point, during a car chase (because of course, like Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Fen travels in a beautiful motor car), a character says they should go left because Gollanz is publishing the book and elsewhere Fen teases the author about his inability to create good titles. It’s a pacy detective book (205 pages), with plenty of brains, that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Edmund Crispin, real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, wrote nine novels and two collections of short fiction featuring Fen and I will now be looking for the rest of them. My only caveat is to have a good dictionary to hand as Crispin isn’t afraid to expand your vocabulary.

(read January 2013)

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“Vendetta” by Michael Dibdin

I love a good character name. I think English author Michael Dibdin was on fire the day he came up with a Venetian detective called Aurelio Zen.

In fact the character’s name was so striking, I’d forgotten the author’s name and that I’d already read an Inspector Zen mystery. As I’m currently reading my slow way through St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Duby’s “Age of Cathedrals” for the 501 List, I was delighted to find a quick read in “Vendetta” on my local library’s shelves.

The basic story is that Zen is given a case on Sardinia to re-investigate. A quadruple murder has taken place of a crooked property developer and friends, in his top security villa. Because of the victim’s political links, Zen needs to find a culprit that will keep the spin-doctors happy and him from being reassigned to potentially terminal Mafia territory. Meanwhile he’s being followed, a man he jailed incorrectly earlier in his career is out for blood, he’s struggling to deal with his cantankerous mother, and his growing romantic interest in a happily-married colleague isn’t making life easy.

There’s more than one vendetta at work during the plot and Dibdin does a great job of depicting the Sardinian small town attitudes towards revenge and the government. As someone who loves Italy I really enjoyed the details of Zen’s day – from his early morning coffees to the traffic in Rome. Zen’s methods, once the case¬† gathers momentum, are inspired. He goes undercover as a Swiss property agent, loses a tail in the maze under the Forum, and manages a slow-speed chase by using gravity, rather than an engine, when his car is disabled.

However, I can’t see why this book was included on the 501 List. I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and this one doesn’t stand out for me as “special”. It doesn’t introduce forensics like Cornwell or Deaver, sheer pace like Patterson, legal twists like Grisham, country house murders like Christie, or dark humour like Brookmyre. It’s a good mystery, don’t misunderstand me, but I can think of others who deserve a place on the list more.

Curious, I checked out Dibdin online and apparently he was known for revealing the corrupt underside of modern Italy and for Zen being an anti-hero. Perhaps that was fresh and new in 1990 when “Vendetta” was first published and explains his inclusion. Either way, “Vendetta” is a good read, perfect if you’re packing for an Italian holiday.

(read June 2012)

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“The Red House Mystery” by A.A.Milne

Alan Alexander Milne wrote the famous Winnie the Pooh books in the mid-1920s, but before that he was a successful editor, novelist, and playwright in other genres. His poor agent, according to Milne’s introduction, didn’t enjoy his best-selling humourous novellist moving into detective fiction, and could barely stand up when the same writer moved into children’s fiction. This shows me two things; 1) agents only like to bet on a “sure thing”, even today and 2) some authors are capable of writing well in many styles.

Because the most pleasant surprise after finding Pooh’s creator in the mystery fiction shelves, is finding that it’s a good yarn by any standards. Echoing the classic Agatha Christie’s work this story is set at a country house where a murder takes place in a locked room and all the guests are under suspicion. The amateur detective appoints himself Sherlock and his friend as Watson and dives into the pursuit of clues, secret tunnels, red herrings, and mysterious long-lost brothers. The reader is brought along at a fierce pace through the plot, complete with a few twists and lies, to a satisfying conclusion which an astute detective-reader may reach before the fictional detective.

If you like Christie, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you like Pooh, you probably won’t recognise the author here, but it’s a good read anyhow.

(read May 2011, thanks for the loan D)

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“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure who wrote the first ever twisty, scary, whodunnit, but it wasn’t Conan Doyle. I bet it was some innovative cave-dweller on a shadowy night around the fire. But I couldn’t help thinking about the influence Doyle had on thriller writers who followed him, as I read this classic tale. He pre-dates Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell (who introduced my edition of the story, published by Vintage), John Connolly, James Patterson etc.

Having read a few Sherlock Holmes stories in my teens, I knew what to expect from this book and it delivered. A good pacy story, alternating between Dr. Watson’s brave everyman and Holmes’ sheer brilliance, enough red herrings to make a large bowl of chowder, and a satisfying ending with a clear explanation of every clue and its meaning. I enjoyed it and was delighted to find that despite suspecting that I would know the ending from some half-forgotten black and white movie, I was as surprised as Watson at the solution. Which really is the core of why Holmes is good. All the clues are there in front of the reader and they make sense at the end, yet we don’t reach the correct answer until the final page.

Would I recommend this 169 page story of a spectral hound killing off all the heirs to the Baskerville fortune? Yes, to any reader who enjoys a twisty plot and especially to those who enjoy stories set in the Victorian era. If your mystery and thriller shelves only contain modern authors, then you’re in for a treat.

In an interesting side-note to existing fans of the man in the deer-stalker hat…Doyle got his character’s name from the surnames of two families he met – the Holmes and the Sherlocks. One of my closest friends is a descendent of the Sherlocks involved. She doesn’t call me Watson though, thank goodness.

(read September 2011)

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