Tag Archives: Cosy Crime

The Great Crime Read: The Day of The Three Reviews

Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass - cartoon.You’ve heard of the Year of the Four Emperors?  This is the Day of the Three Reviews of three crime novels by three different authors.

‘Last Seen Alive’ by Claire Douglas

The title is apt and intriguing.  This psychological thriller starts with mc murdering her husband.

Libby and her lovely, cuddly husband, Jamie, have taken a holiday cottage in Cornwall in an informal house-swap arrangement.  Libby, a teacher, has recently achieved fame in the press by rescuing children from a fire and the Cornish holiday is to aid her recovery.  But they can’t understand why the Heywoods would why anyone would want to exchange the Hideaway, their beautiful Cornish holiday home in Cornwall, for their poky little flat in Bath.  Strange things happen, such as their finding a taxidermy workshop in the cellar, but surely this is because Libby is overwrought after the fire incident and a miscarriage shortly afterwards?

This novel has one of the most complex and complicated plots I have ever read, with several twists and changes of pov.  Congratulations to author Claire Douglas for devising such an intricate storyline and keeping it together.  The action alternates between Cornwall, Bath and Thailand and she writes with confidence about all three settings.

***  So why am I awarding it only three stars?  It’s a strong three stars, I’ll grant, but I couldn’t take a liking to any of the major characters and the crime story-line was slow to get going.

‘Beware the Past’ by Joy Ellis

By one of my favourite crime authors, and with a draw-me-in title if ever there was on, Amazon cites this as a Noir thriller, so this must be right.

The story starts in the 1990s with Matt Ballard as a rookie police officer discovering the body of an eleven year old boy in the Fens, the last murder by a serial killer, whose identity the police think they know but who was never charged because he died in a motor accident.  What Matt sees will haunt him for ever.  Move on several decades, to him being Detective Chief Inspector Matt Ballard, in charge of a team and on the point of retirement, and another eleven year old boy is murdered… and a further one kidnapped.  The case has not waited for Matt Ballard.  In fact, the killer seems to be pulling all the strings, leaving messages for the police and having Matt and his team running around and getting nowhere.   Moreover, the killer seems to possess a lot of information about Matt and his team, where Matt took a respite break in Greece many years ago, for instance, and the names of Jason, his assistant’s, children.  Matt is a troubled man;  his wife died and his only other serious girlfriend disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  The killer knows all this and is probing deep into police lives.

Joy Ellis has two series on the go, both police procedural and set in the Fens (the Nikki Galena series and the DI Jackman and DS Marie Evans series), this book is a stand-alone, and, seeing as Matt Ballard is about to retire, will probably remain so.   Any novel which features murder and torture of eleven year old boys is going to be gruesome and there were elements that made me gulp, although Joy Ellis knows when to back off and move on to content more readable.   A very complex plot – again – and a very exciting read, with characters I could like and emphasise with.   One of Joy Ellis’s best.

**** Four stars.

‘PorterGirl:  First Lady of the Keys’ by Lucy Brazier

A non-police-procedural crime story at last.  Bliss?  Maybe.

This novel arose out of a blog which, in itself, arose out of the author’s private diary of her career as a porter at an illustrious Cambridge college.  We are invited into the archaic world of Oxbridge, to admire its quaintness and laugh at the foibles of academics, and so we do, but the main thrust of the crime plot begins very very late in, at about 50% on my Kindle.  The reader gets the feeling that the detective bit is secondary to depicting a word photograph of college life.

The author’s tone is sardonic, bringing up some useful turns of phrase.  My favourite is:

‘Not quite a pregnant pause, but certainly a pause that is “late” and is considering weeing on a stick.’

Some threads were left unresolved, such as the progress of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour.

‘Portergirl’ is written in the first person, present tense.  Most characters are referred to, in the narrative, by their office (Deputy Head Porter, Head Porter, Junior Bursar, Head of Housekeeping) and also in conversation, when characters are addressing each other.   Professors and other academics are identified by initials, as in Professor K.  Towards the end of the book, mc (Deputy Head Porter herself) invites Head Porter to call her by her first name, but he declines.  At the very end, Professor Fox (the only person given his full name) does ask her what her real name is:  it turns out to be Lucy, the same as the author.

Characters are well-drawn and distinct, although Head Porter wobbles precariously between goody and baddy, without any real substantiation.   Mc herself has two unladylike traits:  a voracious appetite (She’s greedy!) and a liking for the bottle, both easily accommodated in a college environment.  To my mind Professor Horatio Fox, supposedly Amercian, was an enigma;  his manner of speech was very stilted and certainly did not belong on the other side of the pond and the attraction between him and mc fades into nothing, despite her being all over him like a rash in the first chapters.

*** An enjoyable read, definitely, but rambling, even for cosy crime.

So where is that nice reviewer who will only give good reviews, and pass over what she can’t review nicely?  The truth is many books are curates’ eggs, good in parts, and, as writers, we learn by looking at ‘all kinds of everything’ (to quote Dana inappropriately).  What is very evident is that all three of these books were written out of love and for the enjoyment of the reader – and that is the way I like it.









‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’ by James Runcie

Attrib Wikimedia Commons

After the funeral of a Cambridge solicitor. who has, apparently, committed suicide, his mistress claims he was murdered.  An engagement ring, worth £350, goes missing and the intended bride, having been reminded of its cost too many times, goes off the groom.  The daughter of a ex-con, turned jazz club owner, is murdered.  An aristocrat, reluctant to share his art collection with the National Trust, is murdered during a stage production of Julius Caesar.  These are just some of the six longish short stories, set in 1953 and 1954, featuring Canon Sidney Chambers,  vicar of Grantchester, and reluctant detective.

Serious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, in every way ‘vicarious’, Sidney rides a bicycle and enjoys cricket.  When his friend, Amanda, arranges for him to be given a Labrador puppy, he is concerned about never having looked after a dog before, that it will needs walks, inconvenience his cleaner and upset the precarious equilibrium between his clerical calling and the outside world.  He worries that his crime-solving is getting in the way of his proper job.  He won’t do it anymore… but then his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, whom he meets weekly to play backgammon in the pub finds him another case.  A reluctant detective, he considers himself to be a poor priest, despite being very conscientious in his parish and giving a lot of thought to he will preach about next.

Sidney Chambers believes it is his duty always to think the best of people.   People will talk to him, because he is so gentle and non-judgmental.   This is what makes him so useful in crime-solving.  Eminently likable.  His love-interest is the wealthy socialite and art historian, Amanda, but he doesn’t wish to impose upon her because, really, when he thinks about it, being a clergy wife probably wouldn’t suit her.  He has a sort of posh(ish) family in London, a sensible sister, Jennifer, and a brother, Matt, who is a jazz musician.  Sidney is also passionately fond of jazz, and, when asked, can’t explain why, the sign of a real aficionado.

The setting is comfortable, enjoyable and beguiling.  I want to be there in Grantchester in 1953 with him.  The only flaw in the scenario, to my mind, is that Geordie Keating uses Sidney’s skills and time too freely, ordering him about as if he were a paid employee of the police force.   Sidney is not a pushover, and certainly believes in putting his God and his church first, so, for me, that aspect doesn’t work too well.

Read  Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (non-Amazon link).  This book, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2012, and is the first in the Grantchester Mysteries series.  James Runcie, the son of Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also written many other works, including Canvey Island and the Discovery of Chocolate.  The Shadow of Death is the first one I’ve read.  Will I read more in this series?  Oh yes, Dear Reader.

Rating:  4/5.

‘An Insubstantial Death’ by Hilary Creed

Beachy Head, Sussex - well-known place for committing suicide.

‘There is nothing so greedy as the grave’ reads the strapline.  This novel grabbed me on the first page and held my attention all the way through.  (OK, I’m a glutton for cosy crime.)

What makes a good cosy crime novel?  Good atmosphere, good plot and distinct and well-defined characters – in that order.  Apart from her detectives, which appeared repeatedly, Agatha Christie always faltered at the ‘well-defined characters’ point, although she mostly made you like the murderer.  Hilary Creed, on the other hand, got me wishing and hoping, that one particular character would be dispatched.  And so he/she (no spoilers here!) was.

Dame Emily Hatherley-Browne has recently, very reluctantly, had to sell Seascape House, her family home, an Elizabethan mansion on Beachy Head, Sussex, to bombastic James Wedderburn, of Wedderburn’s Pork Sausage Company.   Emily has just moved into the Lodge, but, as the electricity isn’t properly installed, she has been invited to take her meals in the main house.   (Do you already see conflict?  Yes, I do.  Brilliant.)

In classic cosy crime fashion, we meet James’s family as they travel to Sussex, to see his new acquisition: his wife; his son and wife; his daughter and husband; his brother.   Later, we meet the staff, secretary Martin, lawyer George, housekeeper Stella, gym supervisor Ian, cook Grace and her granddaughter assistant Jayne.  Although all family members played an active part in the story, the story concentrated on brother Edward and daughter-in-law Samantha; other family members were shadowy.  The staff were more distinct and had better documented histories.  However, the person we get to know better and better as the novel progresses is the dead man/woman.

Of course, what happened could’ve been an accident, or, bearing in mind that we’re at Beachy Head, suicide.  This is one of the conundrums.  And, if it was murder – something the family struggle with –  how did the murderer manage to move the body to the cliff at Beachy Head, so as to be able to throw it on to the beach?  Moreover, how did the murderer manage to move the body silently?   And, of course, there’s a will, and an unexpected beneficiary.  Cosy crime genre novels should ask many questions and this one did.

Dame Emily, a not-so-modern Miss Marple, beavers away at both these problems and, in the final denouement when all characters are gathered together, Chief Inspector Drummond allows her the floor.  The reveal took me by surprise (and I can usually guess most).  The book should’ve stopped there, but, unfortunately, we moved on to a chapter which suddenly brought in a lot of new characters.  I can see that it tidied up the thread about Emily’s feelings about her house, but the story lost umph at the end.

Dame Emily’s character is well-written and we are on her side throughout, but, although she’s clearly elderly, there are questions unanswered, particularly what she did as a career, and why she’s a dame.  Maybe we will discover this in sequel.

Descriptions, especially of Beachy Head, were excellent.  Her depictions of rooms were also very good, especially of where characters were positioned, where and how.  The story is written in the third person and past tense.

Thoroughly recommended.

An Insubstantial Death can be found through Instant Apostle.

Review of 'In the Kitchen With a Knife' by Susan Wright

Available from Alfie Dog Fiction here.  This is a repeat of a review I’ve posted on Goodreads and Amazon, as a member of the Reading Panel for Alfie Dog Fiction.

Caroline rents a Riverbank Cottage in a Sussex village with no thought of ‘getting involved’ with the neighbours. On the run from an abusive husband, Caroline just wants to get on with writing her erotic novels, but, as everybody in the village rushes to tell her, many years ago A Murder took place in Riverside Cottage – in the kitchen with a knife. No one had been convicted of the crime, nor was there anyone with an obvious motive. Some people think it must be the victim’s husband, others her rather fit son, Toby… or any number of other people. Oh, and by the way, the little house is haunted, although this turns out to be more of a plumbing issue.

When Caroline discovers that her erotic novels are not selling as well as before, she considers writing a book about the Riverside Cottage murders. However, as soon as she announces this intention, the village clams up on her, poison pen letters plop on to her doormat and her agent refuses to continue to represent her. Caroline, however, soldiers on with her combined sleuthing cum novel research, with the help of her good-natured and indefatigable neighbour, Maggie Clements. The story ends with a twist that I certainly didn’t anticipate, but, like all the best twists, hints, which the reader only recognises after the reveal, were dropped earlier in the text.

Caroline herself was a companionable sort of main character, although not particularly distinctive. Susan might have developed a point she made early on, that Caroline was actually quite ‘straitlaced’, unsuited to writing erotica, and what brought her into this genre. She might also have made more of the abusive husband; the reader is told repeatedly that Caroline is terrified of him finding her, but, when he does appear, he is despatched very quickly, and not mentioned again. The most effective character in the book is the neighbour, Maggie Clements, locked in a dysfunctional marriage, fat, slovenly, and obsessed with her two enormous dogs. Kind and obviously fond of mc, she also takes advantage of Caroline. Maggie’s reaction, when she finds out what her husband is really getting up to, is from the gut and totally believable, but she moves on, with the help of Caroline and others.

‘In the Kitchen With a Knife’ was an enjoyable, easy read – ‘cosy crime’, of the sort Caroline intended to write, with a love interest. Do I recommend it? Yes, definitely.  Dagger, possible murder weapon

What I did not include on my Amazon and Goodreads reviews was that this novel was what kept me going during one of the most demanding and exhausting periods of my working life.  As you will have become aware, Dear Reader, I have not done ANY writing at all over the last few months, except for occasional blog posts here.  Never believe it when people tell you that teachers get long holidays and generally don’t do anything.  Last weekend, I marked ALL weekend, except for a few hours when my husband dragged me away for a drive out in the country and a cream tea.  This week, I have marked every evening and all day Saturday.  I am still not out of the heat yet.  When I return to college tomorrow morning, I will once again find myself rushing around marking, organising students and speaking to/emailing parents whose kids are suffering understandable mental stress caused by an extremely poorly designed and managed qualification (by the awarding body, not our college).  I am so tired I don’t feel like writing at all.  I have to get this lot sorted out by 15 July, when I go on leave.  Many of you are having successes, with stories placed and published.  Well done, all of you.  I long to be up there with you.