Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Guardian's List of Best Mysteries for 2020

 The British newspaper, The Guardian, has put forth its list of best mysteries for 2020 (link):

"The Man on the Street," by Trevor Wood

"True Story," by Kate Reed Pettty

"The Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Black Rain Falling," by Jacob Ross

"Three-Fifths," by John Vercher

"The Thursday Murder Club," by Richard Osman (my review)

"Your House Will Pay," by Steph Cha

"When No One Is Watching," by Alyssa Cole (my review)

"Leave the World Behind," by Rumaan Alam

"Blacktop Wasteland," by S. A. Cosby

"Remain Silent," by Susie Steiner

"Broken," by Don Winslow

"Magpie Lane," by Lucy Atkins

"Our Fathers," by Rebecca Wait

"Summer of Reckoning," by Marion Brunet (translated from the French by Katherine Gregor)

"We Begin at the End," by Chris Whitaker

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"The Last Protector," by Andrew Taylor

"The Devil and the Dark Water," by Stuart Turton

"Bent," by Joe Thomas

"Cry Baby," by Mark Billingham

I do have a couple of these titles in my to-be-read pile. Hope springs eternal that I'll find enough time for them.

Washington Post List for Best Thrillers/Mysteries of 2020

The Washington Post listed these as their top ten thriller/mystery/crime books (link):

"City of Margins," by William Boyle

"Dead Land," by Sara Paretsky

"Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Long Bright River," by Liz Moore

"The Missing American," by Kwei Quartey

"One by One," by Ruth Ware (my review)

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"Squeeze Me," by Carl Hiaasen

"Three Hours in Paris," by Cara Black

"Trouble is What I Do," by Walter Mosley

I have several of these books on my to-be-read pile. But the heart wants to read what it wants to read.

One by One by Ruth Ware

Gallery/Scout Press, 384 pages, $27.99

Okay, I think I’ve already met my quota of locked-room/island/manor mysteries for the roaring 2020s. Most of them I didn’t finish. Oh, another locked-room mystery, I would say, and if it didn’t grab me within the first twenty to thirty pages, boom, reject pile.

I used to love this sort of mystery, the celebrated grand-progenitor of which is “And Then There Were None,” by Agatha Christie. Slowly each foolish or intrepid visitor to the isolated domain would get killed, narrowing the field of suspects … or so we are meant to believe. What isn’t deliciously appealing about that concept? Windswept, isolated, fog-shrouded locations; looming edifices; ominous bells or foghorns tolling the remaining time before the next death; smarmy, arrogant, snobby, quivering, avaricious, sociopathic, homicidal, warped characters from which to choose the most likely suspect, Or maybe it’s the everyday person, the one who could be like you or me, driven by exigent circumstances to break the Sixth Commandment.

One flourishing branch of his most royal root

Is crack’d, and all the precious liquor spilt;

Is hack’d down, and his summer leaves all faded,

By envy’s hand and murder’s bloody axe.

– Richard II

Maybe “envy’s hand,” maybe passion or cool calculation. Greed or compassion. Opportunity or accident. Methods and motives are not infinite, many are variations on what has come before. So, what can be new under the sun in the closed-castle, isolated-manor, storm-shut cottage sub-genre of crime? 

It turns out in “One by One” there is no new motive — this is not meant pejoratively, by the way. Other than a space alien coming down and death-raying the victims, there are a limited number of suspects who can be the fair-play murderer(s) in these books. The authors of this sub-genre define the mystery in their books within implicitly agreed upon boundaries. In many ways, this is the ultimate challenge for a mystery writer. Ruth Ware has answered this challenge many times. She is the current queen of the locked-room mystery.

What is the turn of plot the author employs then? In Ruth Ware’s case, perhaps it is not even so much that. (There is, of course, a turn in the plot in “One by One.”) There are some improbable things to be had before breakfast. But where Ware excels is in character development. We hear the thoughts of two of the people locked in the snowbound Swiss ski chalet where this locked-room mystery takes place. There are revelations that speak to motive. There are past events that speak to character failings. Ware supplies all the ingredients.

Erin is one of two people on-site assigned by the chalet rental company to serve the various groups that cycle through on skiing holidays. She serves as the clean-up crew, ski guide, English-to-French interpreter if needed, and kitchen assistant to Danny. Danny is the chef who is perhaps a bit too stereotypically temperamental. Erin is one of the narrators.

The group of visitors consists of members of Snoop, an online music service. Snoop is a way to listen to the same music that others are listening to. What is Beyoncé listening to (if she were a member)? If you know her user name, you can plug in to what she is hearing at that very moment.

The two big bosses, Topher and Eva, are there with their personal assistants, along with a code writer, an in-house accountant, and a couple of other people. Almost everyone has known each other a long time. Liz is the other narrator. She worked for Snoop when it first began. Because of this and that and the other thing, Liz owns some stock in the company, even though she no longer works there. She comes across as nervous, tense, lumpy, withdrawn, indecisive, a definite outsider. The perfect voice to comment on the actual Snoop people.

When one of the group dies, the chalet is not yet under siege. Shortly after an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the rest of the world.

Until the second death, it was possible to believe the first death was accidental. Now the remaining people believe the murderer lives among them. Maybe. Most likely. Probably.

Ware is very, very popular. This is only the second of her books I’ve finished. I started about two others and put them down. (I plan on trying “The Woman in Cabin 10” again.) There is something about this genre that makes me want the victims and suspects to be from a wider range of people. I want to hear the author voice different kinds of people. I want a vicar and a trollop. A wastrel and a stiff-necked butler. A sweet young thing and a demanding dowager. And these days, I want them from different cultures. I don’t ask for much. (Note: One of the visitors is a man of color, I think, but that doesn’t play into the story.)

I don’t actively seek to guess the murderer, but I did stumble upon this one. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I waited patiently for the motive. That part was pretty good but reliant, once again, on some stereotyping.

I expect this book to be wildly popular because it delivers what the author promises.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mortmain Hall, by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press, 368 pages, $15.99

I made the cardinal mistake of series readers: I read this book out of order. I frequently read series out of order. Usually, I am not punished. This time I was punished. In my defense, I think most writers want you to understand their characters and the circumstances that bring them to the beginning of the book you are reading, if you are not reading the first in the series, so they supply a little oblique précis for your elucidation.

Martin Edwards paints the background of “Mortmain Hall” with a dry brush, and I didn’t have the secret sauce to make the picture appear. Now, I confess I do own a copy of the first book, “Gallows Court,” but it lies unread. There was no reason not to read it first, except “Mortmain Hall” had come out recently, I read a good review of it, and I am an adult who takes responsibility for irresponsible actions. It is my own fault I enjoyed this less than I should have. Probably. Anyway.

This is what I eventually gathered. Rachel Savernake is a young woman. A rich young woman. Her crazysocks father, Judge Savernake, killed himself. She has no blood relations, but her family is comprised of the servants, the Truemans, of her father's mansion on the isle of Gaunt, where Rachel was raised. They are not mistress and servants; they are family. Together, they abandon the lonely, wild island and relocate to London. Rachel’s clear mind and observational skills indubitably mean she is destined for a life of crime … as a private investigator. Her inherited wealth means she doesn’t have to scrabble for a living and can take only the cases she wants.

Jacob Flint is a young reporter for a newspaper. He is the crime reporter, and his stories are sometimes at odds with the newspaper’s more respectable mission. Other London rags don’t have the same problem and consider the more lurid the story, the better. He met Rachel in the first (unread) book and has been secretly smitten with her. Not to give away the plot, but Jacob spends a lot of time smitten with all kinds of women, at least one of whom leads him into danger. Nevertheless, he and the Truemans are available to help Rachel with her current adventure.

The first half of the book builds excruciatingly slowly to the second half of the book, the part set on the lonely, windswept headland in a mansion in Yorkshire, not to be confused with the lonely, windswept island of Gaunt. There's a rising storm on the horizon. There are creepy, eccentric, or sinister characters sitting in the vast living room waiting for the murderer, if there is one, to be named.

The book begins in London after the First World War has ended. I’m certain there are clues thrown in to show when, but I couldn’t pinpoint the year if my pants were on fire. It is sometime after the Wall Street Crash, so after 1929, plus at least a few years. (Okay. If I hadn’t spent all my time rambling, I could have just looked on the back of the book. The time is 1930.)

In the first half of the book we are introduced to the characters who will eventually become the cast of suspects in the second half of the book set in Mortmain Hall. Through the ramblings of a gin-soaked young bureaucrat, Rachel knows the list of people to investigate. But investigate for what reason?

Does it help to know people are dropping like flies through the book?

First up, Gilbert Payne. Actually, Gilbert doesn’t manage to make it to the second half of the book, but he is prominent in his absence. 

Sylvia Gorrie was accused of murdering her husband, in cahoots with her lover. She was acquitted. Her lover killed himself in prison.

Henry Rolland fled the scene of his mistress’ murder and was later caught. He would have swung for it, but the woman’s dissolute husband proved a better suspect. Henry was freed and the husband died.

As a reporter, Jacob has been following the current trial of Clive Danskin, charged with murdering a stranger. Life’s financial burdens were proving too much for Clive, so he allegedly killed a man, put the body in his car, set the car on fire, and vanished. He was caught trying to leave the country. Clive’s alibi sounds outrageous: A man picked Clive up after his car broke down. Clive does not know how the body got into his car or who set the car on fire. The newspapers and authorities advertised for the mysterious man who picked Clive up and could provide an airtight alibi, but no one responded. Few thought that such a person actually existed. All hope had fled on the last day of the trial when, sure enough, a man of impeccable reputation arrived to say it was he who had given Clive the ride. Clive was found innocent.

These people have something in common, but what? With the help of the Truemans and Jacob, Rachel manages to meet Leonora Dobell, wife of the heir of the atmospheric Mortmain Hall. It becomes obvious that Leonora knows about Rachel's sleuthing, just as Rachel knows about Leonora's popular book on true crime cases. Their mutual interest in crime cements the last layer necessary for the denouement.

Finally, halfway through the book, the dramatis personae are gathered, the stage is set, and the house lights dim.

I read a few of Martin Edwards’ books in his Daniel Kind series, and especially liked “The Coffin Trail,” the first in the series. Those are books in the traditional, cozy British fashion. “Mortmain Hall” is as well to a large extent, but Rachel's series is a step into the past, with a female protagonist who has modern sensibilities, while the other series are set in the present day. 

I enjoyed the book, once I got past establishing who everyone was. Yes, the beginning was slow and rife with characters — Should I pay attention to this one? Or maybe that one? Rachel knows a police detective. Is he going to play a big part? — but ultimately entertaining. (Although cricket? It was a bit of a wicked googly for me.)

P.S. Edwards provides a “Cluefinder” listing at the end of the book. Apparently, many of the old classic mysteries had them. You can alternately berate and praise yourself for what hints you caught.

P.P.S. A lot of the men in this book are really creepy. I guess it reflects how women mostly were considered chattel, addenda, trophies, lineage keepers. I liked Leonora. I liked the makeshift daddy figure, Clifford Trueman.