“The Wimbledon Poisoner” by Nigel Williams (1990)

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“Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife.”

Wimbledon, to most people around the world, is simply the place where the tennis happens. If you’re of a certain age, you may also associate it with the Wombles, the rodent rubbish collectors of the common. This fairly affluent area of south London became central to three of Nigel Williams’ books, known as The Wimbledon Trilogy. This suburban murder mystery is the first.

Forty-year-old solicitor Henry Farr is having something of a mid-life crisis. He has realised that his life has devolved to containing nothing but an unhappy marriage, a demanding daughter, an unfulfilling job, and weekend visits to Waitrose. The only thing that makes him happy is writing his magnum opus, The Complete History of Wimbledon, and even that has lost some of its lustre after it was rejected by a publisher. He manages to put most of the fault on his wife, Elinor, and decides that he needs to kill her. He debates strangling, electrocution and pushing her off a cliff before realising that his method should be poison, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s bought some thallium from the chemist and is smearing it onto that evening’s chicken.

However, Elinor is in one of her “moods”, and rejects dinner after all, much to the annoyance of Henry. Unfortunately, friend and local doctor Donald has popped in for dinner and eats the chicken instead, which proves to be his last act. Furious that his murder attempt has failed – and saddened by the death of his friend – Henry decides to make a second attempt. Soon, his friends and neighbours begin falling like dominoes and things begin to get out of control as he continues to fail in killing his wife. He needs to stop, not least because DI Rush from over the road has begun hanging around more often than usual, and Henry is sure that his taciturn nature is just a front for what he really suspects is happening in their quiet neighbourhood…

Suburbia is broadly assumed to be a very boring place indeed. It is a place between the city and the country where people have gone to raise families and absolutely nothing exciting happens at all. Therefore, in fiction, the suburbs are incredibly thrilling places, with all sorts of things going on in them, from wizards and vampires hiding among the normal people, to every other resident being a murderer. Williams really plays up the smallness of the situation, with Henry knowing everyone in the street and discussing them only in terms of their nickname and house number. We all have people in the street that we don’t really know the names of, but refer to as things like Jungian Analyst with the Winebox or Unpublished Magical Realist. Some of the names are brilliantly obscure and make little sense, their reasoning lost to time which feels very real. I think all of the action takes place in Wimbledon and it becomes the key focus of the novel in many ways.

Henry isn’t especially unlikable, but then again, not many of the characters are. You don’t wish any of them dead, sure, so you still have some empathy as the list of the dead grows, but you’d also be hard-pushed to find a solid reason to bring them back again. Of their time, while some of the characters have embraced feminism and environmentalism, most of the others are still small-minded, racist, sexist and unwilling to engage with modern society. I’ve recently binge-watched the entire series of Ever Decreasing Circles, and you get the same feeling of a “little England”, where everyone should be obliged to be white, straight, in steady employment and part of the local cricket team. Of course, at least there none of them were trying to kill each other (as far as we know).

The ongoing madness and the escalation of murders is done very well, and in some ways the book is a classic farce. Yet, as it becomes more objectively ridiculous, it stays engaging and still feels real. It’s effortlessly funny and it doesn’t need to reach far for the jokes, simply relying on observation and the interaction between the characters. We definitely need more comedy novels these days and while the likes of Jasper Fforde and Stevyn Colgan are doing their best, the wider publishing world seems to have little interest. The British are obsessed with murder and we pride ourselves on our humour – why are books like this not held in higher esteem or considered “worthy”? A mystery for the ages.

In the meantime, I recommend this delightfully dark and silly comedy of manners.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“Death Of A Dentist” by M. C. Beaton (1997)

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“It was a chill autumn in the Highlands of Scotland when Police Constable Hamish Macbeth awoke in hell.”

I hate the dentist. Not my dentist himself, he’s a perfectly personable Greek chap who doesn’t make me feel guilty about not flossing, but the whole process in general. I guess I resent someone fiddle about with my mouth, take sharp implements to my teeth and gums and possibly make me bleed, only for me to then have to pay them for the privilege. Still, better than being toothless, I suppose. This mood is fresh as I had my check-up only this morning, and it’s sheer coincidence that I happened to be reading this book today, too. I still decided not to take it to the waiting room anyway, in case I looked suspicious.

Dr Frederick Gilchrist has a reputation has a terrible dentist, prone to pulling out any teeth that are causing problems rather than fixing them. Despite this, he’s also very cheap, so there are a lot of people going about the Highlands with not many teeth. When PC Hamish Macbeth wakes up one morning with unbearable toothache and no desire to drive to through terrible weather to his dentist, he instead decides to see Gilchrist. Unfortunately, the dentist is dead, poisoned in his chair with a hole drilled in every tooth. While no one seems too sorry to have seen him go, there’s apparently no one around who actively wanted him dead.

Elsewhere, things are becoming increasingly confusing. Hamish has heard rumours that two local brothers are running an illegal still. At a nearby hotel, thousands of pounds have been stolen from a safe. And a beautiful, charming woman has just arrived in the village and caught Hamish’s eye. It seems the village bobby has his work cut out for him.

I return to Lochdubh as recently promised and find myself charmed once more by Highland village life. The same problem exists here as does with Midsomer Murders and Murder She Wrote, simply that small places have crime rates higher than Chicago or New York. Nonetheless, you overlook this because of the sheer joy of the thing. The murder and the burglary are both set up in the first chapter, with the illegal still coming along not long after, so you’re trying to solve three crimes, none of which seem to have much evidence to help them along, and the cast of characters is as ever quite wide, although few of them seem to have any reason to commit any of the crimes, so I found myself left scratching my head and wondering who were actually meant to be the suspects. The subplot of Hamish finding another lovely lady to spend his time with also feels unfinished and ends too abruptly for me.

Otherwise, it’s a treat. Hamish is still one of the finest detectives in fiction, and the minutia of village life is played out well, with characters who all know one another and interact naturally, showing how villagers often end up living in one another’s pockets and no one’s business is safe for long. This is best shown by the local seer, Angus Macdonald, who claims to have a second sight but more than likely just has a very good ear for gossip. Fairly bloodless in the manner on a classic Christie, in fact the only bit that truly made me shudder was the fact that the body was found with all his teeth drilled. Makes my molars tingle at the very thought of it.

A quick, joyful read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Death Of A Celebrity” by M. C. Beaton (2002)

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“Hamish Macbeth did not like change, although this was something he would not even admit to himself, preferring to think of himself as a go-ahead, modern man.”

Four years ago, somehow, I read the second book in the Hamish Macbeth series. At the time, I heaped praise on the man, suggesting that he had been forgotten as one literary’s great detectives, and found the book fun and interesting. At the end, I made a promise to return soon. I did not return soon. My grandfather, however, recently discovered M. C. Beaton and Hamish’s world, and now whenever he finds one in a charity shop, buys it, reads it and passes it on to me. The stack is building, so it was time I returned to Lochdubh, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long.

The sleepy Scottish village of Lochdubh is rocked when TV reporter Crystal French turns up to record footage for her new show, Highland Life. Unfortunately for the locals, it seems to be less about what it’s like living in a remote crofter’s village and more about Crystal and her media team digging up every scandal for miles around. Within days she’s made plenty of enemies, not least Hamish Macbeth, the village constable, who tickets her for speeding and does not take kindly to a bribery attempt. In revenge, Crystal plans an episode dedicated to embarrassing Hamish.

It never comes to pass, however, as Crystal’s body is found out in the hills. It was apparently suicide, but the rest of the media team don’t seem so sure – someone that keen on the spotlight surely wouldn’t end their own life? Unfortunately, Crystal has made a lot of enemies in her short time in the Highlands, and so the list of suspects is long. Hamish must also do battle with his new superior, DCI Carson, who isn’t used to Hamish’s methods, and the potential affections of local journalist and astrologer, Elspeth Grant, if he is to solve the murder.

Hamish Macbeth remains a man with the most Scottish name in history and the most unorthodox policing methods. He has little interest in proper procedure if it interferes with solving a case, and as he is the only policeman in the village, it’s generally not a problem. He is, however, a great copper, and always solves the case due to his ability to notice things that others don’t. Being in a small community means he knows everybody and is well-liked, so people don’t tend to lie to him or withhold information. Like most detectives in fiction, he loves the job but has other interests too – in this case, fishing, caring for his animals and cooking. An interesting character thrown in to the mix is DCI Carson, who has never come across a man like Hamish (or a village like Lochdubh) and finds himself, against his will, charmed by both man and village. He has a grudging respect for Hamish, even though his superiors and colleagues often talk the man down. The relationship between the two men is lovely.

The plot is clever enough, but several parts hang on the psychic abilities of Elspeth Grant, and it’s never properly clarified whether there is genuinely something about the occult going on, or if she just knows more than she likes to reveal. If she is genuinely having psychic visions, it gives the book – and I suppose, series – a different tone, as adding supernatural elements to a murder mystery is a little like cheating. Nonetheless, it all holds together and the clues are all there, even if they’re perhaps a little more blatant than they were during the Golden Age. Beaton is still a brilliant writer though, and the story fizzes and pops with charm, humour and suspense.

Sorry, Hamish. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Whose Body?” by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)

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“‘Oh damn!’ said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.”

There were three personalities that really created and gave life to the Detective Club, which is ironic given they they dedicated the rest of their lives to ending lives. Anthony Berkeley, I’ve read a little of. Agatha Christie, I’ve read the lot. That leaves the third – Dorothy L. Sayers. Just as mysterious, macabre and magnificent as the others, Sayers was responsible for gifting the world Lord Peter Wimsey, so I felt it was about time I introduced myself.

Lord Peter Wimsey, aristocrat and detective, has been called to investigate the bathroom of Mr Alfred Thipps. It’s a pleasant room, except for the fact that there’s a dead body in the bath. Thipps has never seen the man before, and can’t explain how he ended up in his bath. The body is also, surprisingly, naked, save for a pair of pince-nez.

Elsewhere across town, Jewish financier Sir Reuben Levy has gone missing, last seen walking out of his house apparently without any clothes on. To Inspector Sugg, it seems an open and shut case – the body is clearly that of Levy. However, Wimsey is pretty sure that it isn’t and so begins a mission to find out where Levy went and whose body is in the bath…

As ever with the murder mysteries of the twenties, it’s a surprisingly modern and funny tale. Wimsey is a character I was immediately charmed by and find him silly and whimsical but immensely sharp and good company. It turns out that he saw active duty during World War One and Sayers does not shy away from this, as in one scene, Wimsey wakes up in the night convinced that he is still in the army. His butler calms him and returns him to bed. This is referred to as Wimsey’s “shell shock”, but of course we would know it better now as PTSD. It’s vital to remember that this book was published just five years after the war had ended, and there wasn’t a soul in the country who wasn’t cognisant of the effect it had had on the serving population.

Of course, the book is still somewhat bound to sensibilities of the time. The plot is actually based on a true case, but in that one, the corpse was identified as not being Jewish by the fact that it wasn’t circumcised. Sayers did not include this specific detail, instead having the identity hang on a couple of scars and some badly-bitten nails, but if Wimsey was any sort of detective, he would have spotted this immediately. Funny, certainly, but of its time. There are a couple of choice remarks relating to Jewish people, although none necessarily out-and-out offensive, just coming from clueless characters. The fact alone that Sayers named her character Reuben Levy seems to point out that she didn’t want you to forget at any moment that he was Jewish.

The plotting is clever and the solution immensely satisfying, even if Wimsey is sometimes prone to deductions that even Sherlock Holmes might find a bit fanciful. His butler, Mr Bunter, is also a great foil for his erratic behaviour, but I reserve a particular fondness already for Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, who seems just as insightful as her son and quite a force to be reckoned with. It’s a very sharp, tight story and has a really wonderful, easy structure that pulls you in and ensures you want to stay and find out what happens.

I’ll definitely be back here again. Sayers is clearly one of the Grand Dames of the Murder Mystery.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“A Morbid Taste For Bones” by Ellis Peters (1977)

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“On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensation affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime…”

Detectives seem to have it easy these days. CCTV, fingerprinting, banking data, DNA evidence, tracing of mobile phone locations … there are any number of ways they can reach their conclusions and solve crimes. We forget how recent a lot of this is. Miss Marple didn’t have any of it in the fifties. Sherlock Holmes would have dreamed of DNA testing in the Victorian era. Miss Gladden would have longed for GPS. So imagine now we strip this back even further. This book takes us back to the year of 1137. King Stephen is on the throne of England, and religion reigns supreme across the island. Things might look a bit different, but people are still people.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, responsible for running the herb garden. This is little about plants and their properties that the wise monk doesn’t know. There’s much more to him than life in the church however. Before he took up residence in the monastery, he travelled much of the known world and is very educated. When another of the monks has a vision that Saint Winifred has called for the Benedictine order to uncover her burial ground and move her bones to the safety of the abbey.

Convinced that this is the right thing to do, Prior Robert declares this to be a great idea and so sets off to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to ask for the relics of the long dead saint. They are met with suspicion and caution, with the Welsh not sure whether they are ready to sacrifice Winifred to the arriving Englishmen. Things become even more fraught when Prior Robert offers monetary compensation and it is taken as a bribe. With the Welsh villagers divided on what to do, tensions rise, and then it all comes to a head when the the leading opponent to the grave’s relocation is found dead. Some say that Winifred herself did it, but Cadfael is sure that there is a much more earthly solution. Using his intelligence and skills as a detective, he must solve the murder and restore trust and order to the community.

I had worried that a cast of monks would lead to a book that gave us a set of boring, pious characters, but fortunately twelfth century monks are still human and you can give them a habit and tonsure if you like, but they’re still going to express lust, pride and wrath. Cadfael is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of literary detectives and feels like a man out of time. He is cunning and clever, gentle with those he likes and impatient with big-headed superiors. Many of the other characters – and there seem to be a lot – bled into one another, however, and only the ones that were really pivotal to the story stood out to me. It took me a while to unpick who was who, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re trying to solve a murder.

Throughout history, death is often suggested to have been quick and cheap, so it’s actually nice to see someone caring about a specific death and realising that there’s something suspicious about it. Brother John, a fellow monk, seems at first to take on the role of his Watson, but by the end it seems more fulfilled by Sioned, the victim’s daughter. Naturally as a book centred around a Benedictine order, there are very few women in it – I think there are three with any dialogue – but she does good work and is a strong character. At one point, when someone comments on the weakness of women, Cadfael steps up to point out that there are just as many weak men and women are capable of great emotional strength. It’s a small touch, but it’s appreciated.

It’s an interesting concept for a novel and it’s definitely a unique motive for murder, but I can’t say I’m enthralled enough to continue with the series. The writing style doesn’t suit me, which is not to say that it’s bad. People may be people wherever they are in time or space, but this felt just a touch too removed for me.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Uncorking A Lie” by Nadine Nettmann (2017)

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“When bottles of wine are sold for large amounts of money, they end up in the news.”

A couple of years back I tried a novel about a sommelier who solves a murder at a vineyard thanks to her extensive knowledge of wines. I decided then it seemed a bit ridiculous, but I’ve drunk a lot more wine since then and the reduction in brain cells causes me to make many bad choices. So here we are again, reading the sequel, and while I’ve built that up to sound like I’m going to hate it, I don’t.

Katie Stillwell works as a sommelier at Trentino, a fashionable restaurant in Napa Valley and lives, works and breathes wine. There seems nothing that she doesn’t know about it, and she’s now in training for her Master Sommelier exams. One of her regular customers is Paul Rafferty, a wealthy lawyer who is throwing a party at his mansion to celebrate his purchase of a $19,000 bottle of wine and invites Katie along to the tasting. The fellow party guests might not care for Katie much, but they all adore wine. When the bottle is opened and at last tasted, however, only Katie realises that something is wrong. The wine is counterfeit and not at all what the label says it should be. Before she can get to the bottom of it however, Paul’s assistant is found dead in the cellar.

Convinced that someone at the party knows more than they’re letting on, Katie confesses all to Paul and he hires her to get to the bottom of how he came to possess fake wine. Katie finds herself thrown into the murky waters of counterfeit wine and before she knows it, she’s in danger herself. She’s got to use all her skills to solve the crime, but who can she trust, and who else will end up dead?

My primary issue with the book is the same as last time. While the plot itself is quite fun and I enjoy the concept of a detective sommelier (no matter how contrived things have to become for her to get a particular clue), it is the actual writing that lets the book down. I feel it just needed another couple of rounds with an editor to tidy it up and give it a polish. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and there is strange expostion that does nothing to further the story and doesn’t need to be there. One particularly stuck out for me when it’s mentioned what sandwich Katie buys and then specifies that they likes all the ingredients in it, like we couldn’t assume that entirely pointless detail without it being said.

Katie herself is also something of a Mary Sue, apparently never being wrong about wine. I’ve got friends in both the wine and whisky industries, so I know that expert tasters exist and I know enough myself to be able to tell major grapes apart, but narrowing down a specific year or vineyard is not an everyday ability. Granted, Katie has had years of training, but it still comes off a bit too convenient sometimes. The other characters, however, are interesting and obviously have more depth to them that we aren’t always allowed to see, and the plot itself is great. I’ve read books about counterfeit art and wills before, but wine is an unusual one, and there is indeed a burgeoning criminal industry of it.

It might not be an expensive Riesling of a book, but it’s still a pretty decent house white. Uncomplicated and unusual with a sickly sweet finish.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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