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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Amsterdam, Norfolk , Devon – Three Mystery Novels


Every publishing season brings us new installments of favourite mystery series.

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This spring we had the publication of A Death in Rembrandt Square the 4th novel by Anja de Jager featuring Lotte Meerman. I like this series most for it’s Amsterdam setting, and though Lotte Meerman sometimes irritates me, I find I am always drawn into the story and glad I read the book. This time Lotte actually seems to take more control of her emotions and makes great strides in dealing with her personal demons and her relationship with her lover, in a much more sensible manner than she has in the past. The investigation involved is one that relates to a murder that took place ten years earlier. Some believe the man convicted and imprisoned, now released, was innocent. When he is killed the case is re-opened and all of those involved find themselves in a complicated investigation that makes for a very satisfying murder mystery novel!

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Elly Griffiths brings us the 11th in her Ruth Galloway Mystery series, The Stone Circle. I quite like Ruth and her circle of friends and colleagues, but I felt there was too much filling in of the background at the beginning of this novel, and I wondered if my days with Ruth were over – until I got into the current story. This installment has echoes of a past case – one that has haunted all of those involved for many years. The fear that, once again, a child will die is overwhelming for both Ruth and DCI Nelson. Anyone who reads a series of novels becomes attached in some way to the main characters, as we do with Ruth and Nelson, and of course their personal lives continue along with the investigation. This time, finally, perhaps, they will take some control over their future - together or apart.

Most readers of mystery novels are very familiar with Ann Cleeves and her series of books set in Shetland, featuring Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, and her series set in Northumberland with Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. In the last of the Jimmy Perez series, Wild Fire, we saw Jimmy heading off in a new direction where we hope he finds happiness. Readers will miss him! We’ve become very attached to the characters Ann Cleeves has created and made real, and I hope she continues to write more in the Vera series.

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In the meantime, Ann Cleeves is introducing a new character, Detective Matthew Venn, and the first book in a new series, The Long Call, was published this fall. As with any new series and new detective, the book begins with some chapters that give us a sense of the man himself and his background before the story really takes off. By the end of the novel you will be as attached to Matthew Venn as you are to Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope, and can now only wait for the next installment.

Ann Cleeves is a seasoned writer and knows well how to plot a mystery novel, and how to slowly but perfectly move the story forward, through confusion and danger, to a satisfactory conclusion with the bad guys apprehended and the good guys ready to move on to some quiet time at home before the next case comes along.

Enjoy the fall and all of the new books – including many mystery novels – being released at this time of year!

 

 

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

1899 is a year not forgotten by Mary Mallon. It was the year she was a cook for the Kirkenbauer family, the year their toddler son died of a fever. Typhoid fever.

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By 1907 Mary Mallon has been accused of being a carrier of typhoid and is arrested. The novel Fever by Mary Beth Keane is the story of Mary Mallon. Mary is an Irish immigrant to the United States, and her lover, Alfred, is a German immigrant. They live together in New York City, Mary moving in with Alfred after the death of her aunt. Living with a man without marriage regardless of what anyone thinks! Mary is a strong woman who knows her own mind, and works hard to support herself – and sometimes Alfred. Alfred also works hard but as time goes on he is more and more unable to find work, as drink has made him unreliable.

Work for Mary is cooking and baking – it is her passion and she is very good at it. “the rhythmic beat of her spoon against the bowl as she beat … Using her fingertips. She arranged blue-berries into a neat semi-circle … Quick as a blink she swiped her finger into the ice-cream bowl …she licked quickly from the mixing spoon, and then, without thinking, plunged it back in the bowl.” Of course, all the while, spreading disease. She had no idea – and it took some time before she was suspected of being a typhoid carrier. This is all in the very early 1900s and it was just discovered that there could be carriers who were never ill themselves – and most of those who ate the meals Mary prepared did not become ill.

The portrait of New York City at this time is fascinating – the crowds of immigrants of all nationalities, the crowded tenements, people renting rooms and renting out beds to make ends meet. Boarding houses with cots lined up – some who work in the day replacing those who work at night. A vibrant, teeming, and filthy city.

The relationship between Mary and Alfred is deep and strong, but they are separated when Mary is forced into isolation. She needs the support of her lover, support he does not know how to provide. Alfred is by far the weaker partner in this relationship.

“Toward the end of her life, when Mary had nothing to do except think about the things she’d done when she was still young … she wondered why she spent so much precious time trying to change things … especially the her years with Alfred.”

By the time he is a middle-aged man Alfred is an alcoholic. Eventually he manages to give up drinking, but by then he is experiencing so much pain from work related injuries that he is prescribed narcotics. We watch Alfred as he moves from pain management to addiction. Mary later wondering if she could have changed things for him, but the medicated Alfred was an easier man to live with than one desperate for a drink or drugs. I found this aspect of the story one that had an almost contemporary feel as we have see so many people in the present time become addicted to opiates.

Mary Beth Keane’s work came to my attention this summer with the publication of her most recent book Ask Again, Yes which I loved – and Fever is just as good.

 

Cover Her Face by P D James


Often, when I finish reading a really, really good novel, I have a hard time settling into another good, but not as good as the last, novel. That is when I turn to the cottage bookshelves – many of them packed full of slightly mildewed old mystery novels by our favourite authors of the past 30 years or more. This past summer it has been P D James my husband and I have been reading. The first in her series featuring Detective-Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is Cover Her Face, published in 1962.

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Cover Her Face is very much in the Agatha Christie style. We have the British country house, a family whose wealth has eroded, but is doing their best to keep up appearances – including hiring an unwed mother to help out. The head of the  Maxie family is Simon, now confined to bed, soon to die. The son, Stephen, the heir, is a surgeon, unreliable as a marriage prospect except for the name – he needs an heiress. The daughter, Deborah, is a widow, reluctant to look for love again. Hanging around are Felix, in love with Deborah, and Catherine, in love with Stephen. Mrs. Maxie nurses her husband with the help of Martha who has worked for the family most of her life – now assisted by Sally, the unwed mother – the very attractive unwed mother.

Into this mix is thrown a vicar, the local doctor, the woman who runs the home for unwed mothers, and various local dignitaries and scoundrels. Of course, one of them is our murderer, and one the victim. And, Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate. The household is interviewed and with many twists and turns the truth of the matter is found out – but not revealed to the reader until the final pages. A perfect murder mystery – and on to the next A Mind to Murder, published in 1963.

This time the action takes place at the Steen Clinic, a London psychiatric hospital. This is the sort of place that P D James knew well. Her own husband had returned from the war and been hospitalized with a mental illness. There is again a cast of characters who work at the clinic – one of whom is murdered. We get to know the many suspects – and the innocent red herrings – as the investigation progresses. It is 1963 and though electric shock therapy is still common, it is also the beginning of experimentation with LSD therapy, as well as consultation with the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts – many of who are very odd characters themselves. It is difficult for the investigators – and the reader – to know who might be the murderer. As always we have P D James keen observances of the human condition, and Dalgliesh’s own examination of it all, and the eventual conclusion with a twist and double twist.

Phyllis Dorothy James went on to write twelve novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, and several others, every year or two or three, until her death at the age of 94 in 2014. Now that so many of the new fall releases are arriving, I will have to put the rest of the series on hold. I will look forward to re-reading the rest next summer.

Lampedusa by Steven Price

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The Leopard, written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and published in 1958, a year after the author’s death, is considered a masterpiece of modern literature.

Steven Price has written his own novel, Lampedusa, about the man himself and his late in life desire to write a novel. And, it is a fascinating life – and a fascinating novel.

It mattered not to my enjoyment, that I have not yet read The Leopard. I have a copy of The Leopard that has spent many years on the bookshelf at our cottage – perhaps it came with the place when we bought it almost 30 years ago. Now, after reading the novel Lampedusa I would now like to read this novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and learn more about the author. Price’s book is a novel after all – historical fiction – so I am uncertain how much is fact, and how much is fiction.

Giuseppe, the last prince of Lampedusa, was a man who had travelled widely in Europe, loved London and Paris. Well educated and genteel, he is one of the last of a long line of aristocratic royalty. He has no children of his own but there are many cousins who hold various titles. 

The wealth and holdings of the Lampedusa family are greatly reduced after the Second World War, many palazzos simply ruins. The family home in Palermo bombed by the Americans. Giuseppe married Alessandra Wolff, already married when he first meets her, a Latvian who understood that she could not take him away from Sicily, and his home where they eventually live together.

They live in comfort in Palermo where Alessandra practices as a psychoanalyst and Giuseppe, in the last years of his life, decides he should write a novel. That his brother was a poet, published and lauded, gives him some encouragement - and a desire to best him.

When Giuseppe is diagnosed with lung disease he knows he will die first – the last of the line – no children – wealth gone – estate eroded – the “great palaces sold or reduced to rubble”.

Stendhal, who Giuseppe “admired above all others. He had written that a person, no matter how insignificant, ought to leave behind some chronicle of their time on this earth, some accretion of their collected memory and experience. That was the only eternity”. Realizing that all his own memories would vanish with him, that In fact, the world he had inherited and had grown up knowing, will vanish, Giuseppe begins to write. 

The novel moves seamlessly between the past and the present as Giuseppe thinks of the past and writes in the present. He writes about meeting his wife, in London in 1925. His own grand tour, the rise of Mussolini, and Europe between the world wars. He remembers the beloved palazzo on Via di Lampedusa, now only “crumbling plaster and stone” where his mother spent her final days in the winter of 1946.

Lampedusa is altogether an exceptional novel, sensitive to it’s subject, a man we come to care for as we follow his history from a childhood of luxury and love, to his old age and the knowledge that death will come soon.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason was published in 2002 and became an internationally best selling novel – the author only 26 years old. Daniel Mason had graduated from Harvard with a degree in biology and went off the Thai-Myanmar borderlands to study malaria. This became the setting for his novel The Piano Tuner and the beginning of a career as a writer, while still pursing a career in medicine. In fact he marries both occupations in the novel, with one of the main characters a doctor in the far reaches of Burma, and the other a more artistic sort, a piano tuner.

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The novel begins in London, England in the late1800s. We see the city through the eyes of Edgar Drake, a quiet but intelligent man, happily married, and happily tuning pianos. The author paints a vivid picture of London at that time, as Edgar walks in the fog along the embankment, listening to watermen on the Thames, tramps, and boys he cannot see. He walks through Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Fitzroy Square, and on to his home in the Franklin Mews where his wife awaits. She greets him with a letter from the war office, a letter about a commission for Edgar to tune the piano of a medical doctor, Surgeon-Major Carroll, in Burma. A commission Edgar will not refuse – because the piano is an Erard – and because he has never done anything in his life as adventurous as this. His wife supports his desire to go – and he is off on a ship, with transfers by train, and more ships until he eventually arrives in Rangoon. The journey is very much one of a transition from his rather predictable and settled life in London, to the exotic world of travellers and adventurers and soldiers and the east.

There is a helpful map in the front of the book for readers to keep track of the geography. There is war, and fear of war – alliances made and broken. I found the history interesting but sometimes confusing – though it did not matter to the story. There is a lot of discussion about the Erard piano and its history, and music and composers that gave depth to the passion, obsession, of the doctor and the piano tuner. It matters not a bit if you know anything about music, or Colonial England and all the various wars and skirmishes of the time, because the beauty and the power of this novel is in the writing and the story.

The attitudes of the doctor, and his beliefs about how to win the war are non-militaristic, “whole villages are dying … with food alone we wouldn’t have to worry about war”. He believes that music can bring people together as they share the beauty of the composition and the sound.

I found this a lovely book to read, really good writing, interesting and informative story, and engaging characters – I was anxious to return to it each day. There was an ending I did not expect, that left me wondering what was and was not true about the mission of the British Government and the Surgeon-Major.

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