“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

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“Dead Man’s Time” by Peter James (2013)

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“The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.”

It’s not been long since my last visit to the criminal underbelly of Brighton, but the next visit is never all that far away. I’m going to crack on, but there may be spoilers here if you’ve not read the rest of the series and are bothered about having aspects of the ongoing plot revealed too soon. If not, press on.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace hopes that work might give him a bit of a break and let him enjoy some time with Cleo and the new baby. Brighton, on the other hand, has other ideas. There’s been a burglary in a wealthy part of the city that’s left an elderly woman fighting for her life after being tortured, and millions of pounds worth of antiques smuggled off to the black market. The woman’s brother, Gavin Daly may be ninety-five, but when he discovers that a particular item of enormous sentimental value was also taken, he vows at nothing to get it back.

As Roy Grace and his team try to stop Daly and his son from taking matters into their own hands, a story unfolds that reveals a familial promise almost a century old. The race is on to get hold of the missing antiques and bring the villains to justice. Elsewhere, however, unwelcome faces from Grace’s past are closing in, and they’re not coming for a pleasant reunion and catch up over coffee.

As ever when I review a lot of books by the same person, particularly when they’re in the same series or on a similar theme, it’s difficult to keep knowing what to say. This it the ninth novel in the Roy Grace series, and it remains as interesting and captivating as ever. However, the books are beginning to spend more and more time away from Brighton – the reason I became interested in them in the first place – and in other countries, usually the USA. I do miss the simpler times of them being set in locations I know, and while much of the book still is, James appears to be stretching the net wider now. It’s not really a complaint – I enjoy the books and the characters a lot – but just a note that if you came here for the same reason as me, you may be disappointed.

As ever, more layers are added to the characters and they continue to be some of the most three-dimensional and realistic people to ever populate a fictional world. There are a couple of bigger developments here, too, while other aspects have been forgone. More than any other, it feels like a sequel and while there are still introductions to every character, they’re noticeably shorter and some prior knowledge is required. Previous threads – such as the constant leaks to the local press – have by now been resolved, but new sub-plots are emerging. There is the real sense that no one in the story is entirely independent. Every character, no matter how small, has a fully developed life of which we only see a little.

The actual criminal activity in the book is also incredibly dark, but then most of James’s books seem to follow that line. Not for the very faint of heart, this book dabbles in topics of torture and attacks on the weakest members of society, but there is also much about loyalty, familial love, and letting go. There even seem to be more red herrings than usual here, with you never being quite sure how everything links up and what exactly is going to happen. Nonetheless, it all does, and James even provides a surprising final chapter that in the hands of a lesser author might seem cheesy.

Roy Grace and Peter James continue to dazzle, and long may they do so.

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“Not Dead Yet” by Peter James (2012)

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“I am warning you, and I won’t repeat this warning.”

I’ve been working my way through Peter James’ series for a few years now, slowly but surely. If you want reviews for the previous ones in the series, then they’re here, and because they’re a continuation, there may be some spoilers here regarding the series as a whole. If you’re not interested in the underlying plot – and the books are enjoyable enough without it – then feel free to carry on, but you have been warned.

In the eighth installment of the series, we meet another collection of colourful characters all involved in a series of plots that, at first glance, have very little to do with one another. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace has found himself leading a new case wherein a body has been found on a chicken farm, missing its head and limbs. The police are struggling to identify the body, with little to go on but a swatch of a very unusually patterned fabric. Elsewhere, Brighton is preparing to host a film crew ready to shoot their new movie about King George IV and his mistress Maria Fitzherbert, but the producer Larry Brooker is facing difficulties from a man who claims that Larry stole the script from him, and his temperamental lead actress, the pop star Gaia Lafayette.

Gaia herself has some problems, as one of her assistants has just been murdered outside her Bel Air home, and the police there believe that the perpetrator was intending to kill the star. And this is still all before we’ve got to Gaia’s number one fan, Anna, who has convinced herself that Gaia is communicating secretly with her; Eric, the strange and insular auditor who is beginning to rub the police up the wrong way; and two figures from Roy’s past that are back on the streets of Brighton, each with their own reasons for keeping an eye on Sussex Police’s golden boy.

As ever, James makes good use of the environment of Brighton and Hove, one of my favourite cities. His attention to detail is brilliant and his research is meticulous. He manages to combine a very rigorously described police inquiry with genuinely sympathetic characters who we grow to care about. After eight books now with many of the same faces, each of them develops more and more depth. Although they all could easily be written off with a singular defining trait – Glenn is a movie buff, Bella is consigned to a life looking after her mother, Norman is an old-fashioned copper with old-fashioned ideas – each of them has three very remarkably played out dimensions, and very little in this world is black and white. Some of the new characters are great too, including Gaia, a global icon in the vein of Lady Gaga, who shows real humanity beneath her public persona, and Larry Brooker, the Hollywood producer who can’t see why a dead body should hold up his production schedule. He’s so oblivious, but you just know that there are people out there like that. The kind of people who say “time is money” without irony.

Eight books in, we also begin to see some old plot threads begin to weave themselves together. Kevin Spinella, the ruthless and slimy journalist who always seems to immediately know what the police know, finally meets his match. There are unexpected relationships slowly being exposed, thus bringing about more depth and character development, and some long-held secrets from early in the series are finally revealed to the reader, but they only further some mysteries and don’t necessarily wrap things up as neatly as you’d hope. Fortunately, I’m not bothered – it just makes me even more intrigued.

The crime story is wrapped up well with a reminder to never ignore coincidences, but the ending itself is really rather sinister, but definitely builds up the interest for carrying on, which I undoubtedly will be.

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“The Twitch” by Kevin Parr (2013)

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“I’m not certain whose head I can see the top of, bobbing rhythmically into view about the low brick wall by the potting shed.”

I like a bit of nature spotting, and there is something particularly endearing about watching birds. I’m not someone who’s going to be haring up to some remote coast to get a glimpse of a curlew, but I’m quite happy to sit and watch them in the garden. Our garden isn’t particularly big and we only really get collared doves, jackdaws and blackbirds popping in. My grandparents have a plethora of feathered visitors from blue tits to woodpeckers in their garden, and when I was at university, I lived not far from a colony of wild parakeets. It’s the birds of prey that really do it for me though. I still get a lurch of excitement when I catch sight of a kestrel or a buzzard. For some people, however, this is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Edward Banger took up twitching a couple of years ago under the tutelage of his friend Mick. It’s January and time for the annual competition to see who in the club can spot the most birds in the coming year. Edward is determined to break the record and be crowned the champion, but he’s got some stiff competition from rivals who have been doing this a lot longer than him and seem to be using knowledge granted to only the group’s “inner circle” to bump up their tick lists.

After a couple of his rivals die in strange circumstances that Edward may or may not have been intentionally responsible for, he begins to realise that the best way to win would be to bump off the others and make sure they won’t be around to compete. Becoming obsessed with ticking off every bird on the list, he begins to spend his life on the road, letting his job fall by the wayside and ignoring his home life with his wife and two daughters. Around him, he cannot see what is happening to his life as he’s a man on a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of him achieving his goal. Nothing.

Edward is an appalling human being, and steadily gets worse as the novel progresses. He has such little interest in his family that when one of his daughter’s mentions she can drive, he admits he didn’t even know she’d had a test. The obsession that consumes him is one that is probably a genuine issue for some people, but I can’t imagine being this enamoured by anything. While everything does crumble around him, it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for him as he’s pretty much brought on all of his issues himself. He’s not entirely irredeemable, though, despite being a murderer. He has a sweet – but increasingly strained – relationship with his younger daughter Nicola, and he’s portrayed as having a good turn of phrase, meaning he’s quite a funny man. But he’s selfish beyond all sanity, and his friends are hardly the most pleasant company.

I also found it odd that, despite many high-profile members of his twitching club all dying in strange circumstances, the finger of suspicion never seems to point at him, and indeed, no one ever seems to find it particularly odd, giving the impression that this competition is such a big deal that it’s quite common for three or four of the twitchers to die every year. There are also a few plot threads that seem to be leading somewhere and then never do. For example, Edward says he is terrified of gulls, and yet we never really find out why and nor is there any payoff to this.

It ends rather abruptly with a lot of unanswered questions and I’d certainly be intrigued to find out quite how he managed to restore order to his life and what happened, but I guess he’ll just continue being an obnoxious git until he’s snuffed out in a tent. It’s darkly funny and quite interesting, but there’s only so many bird names I can read before they all start merging into one. A nice concept though, and a great look at how obsession can make anyone do things they never thought they could do.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Surfeit Of Lampreys” by Ngaio Marsh (1941)

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“Roberta Grey first met the Lampreys in New Zealand.”

With no Agatha Christie mysteries to fill my brain with, I have turned my attention to others from the Golden Age to find another author I can indulge myself with. My exploration somehow took me to the other side of the world with the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh.

The Lampreys are a large, sprawling family noted for being mildly eccentric but generally harmless. Their ignorance regarding the worth of money, however, comes to be an issue when they find themselves approaching bankruptcy once more. Head of the family Charles Lamprey intends to ask his miserly, rude brother Gabriel for a loan, but the evening doesn’t go to plan and before the night is out, Gabriel has been killed.

The police are called and begin to question everyone who was in the house, including Charles and his wife, the six children, the victim’s widow, the servants and Roberta Grey, a family friend who has only just arrived from New Zealand to spend some time with the Lampreys. With apparently everyone as a potential suspect with much to gain from the death of the old man, Inspector Alleyn must conduct his interviews and work out who is telling the truth and who is manipulating the facts to protect themselves – or maybe someone else.

Given this is only my first dip into Marsh’s oeuvre, it’s hard to say quite how she compares to others of her generation, but she’s certainly got something. The book does take a little while to get going but the language isn’t particularly florid or difficult. The main focus is given over to the solving of the crime, though, and while there are a couple of subplots regarding how some of the characters feel about one another, they don’t really come to the forefront and overshadow the primary story. I can’t say if I would have benefited from reading earlier novels featuring Inspector Alleyn, as he seems quite established here already, but I like him as a detective. He seems capable, able to think laterally and adjust his method of questioning depending on who he’s interviewing, be it the young son, or the unbalanced widow.

Like in many novels, the children don’t always speak like children, but then again it was a different time and around this era children seemed to have to grow up faster. Plus it’s a high-class family, so things are always different among the aristocracy – as a working class chap myself, I can only imagine. On the whole though, it’s a sharp, funny, tightly-plotted novel and I shall definitely be returning.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over 90% funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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