Photo by Ignatiev
Artillery Row Books

Murders for February

Gripping books and the promise of another

The Paris Apartment, Lucy Foley (HarperCollins, £8.99)

Lucy Foley, the author of The Paris Apartment (HarperCollins, 2022, £8.99) has a high reputation and her books are selling well. It is always easiest and safest for the reviewer to join the crowd, but I have already expressed some caveats in my earlier review of The Guest List, and there is room for more here. The Paris Apartment is a good book, with a very satisfying twist at the end, and I enjoyed reading it. The setting and cast are of interest, but I found the sinister, well-connected, masked revellers in an underground Paris sex club not only ridiculous but also tiresomely similar to a theme and setting in other detective novels. For this section, I would have preferred more originality than this pastiche of a John Dickson Carr novel.

More positively, Foley offers a good read that improves as the novel proceeds, one that you will enjoy. Despite the standard blurb, she is not yet one of the greats and certainly not “the modern-day Agatha Christie”, but there is still the prospect of improvement, and I would recommend this novel to your attention.

Death and the Conjuror, Tom Mead (Head of Zeus, £20)

Death and the Conjuror (Head of Zeus, 2023, £20) is a debut novel by Tom Mead who has already published a number of well-regarded detective short stories. Set in London in 1936, this novel focuses on a locked-room mystery: the death of a prominent psychiatrist. Much of the action revolves around theatreland, and that permits the introduction of Joseph Spector, an expert on stage magic who comes to the aid of the police. A well-realised protagonist and the subject of earlier short stories, Spector offers a link between different milieux, as do the range of ably-developed suspects for what becomes two apparently inexplicable murders and an apparently impossible theft. Mead draws explicitly on John Dickson Carr and offers fair-play clues, with the solution footnoting their earlier appearance. There is only one very minor mistake or lack of clarity. On page 34, Olive the housekeeper places in front of Anselm Rees “a dish of steaming beef stew” in the dining room, but we are then told that he has his dinner brought to the study, where he is to die. The novel reads very well. There are some very fine descriptive images, a good pace, lots of variety and a skilful reveal. This is a most encouraging debut.

Devil’s Garden (2009, 2010 pb., Berkley, $16.00) by Ace Atkins uses the Fatty Arbuckle trial to throw murderous light on San Francisco in 1921. With the protagonist Dashiell Hammett, a Pinkerton man acting for the defence, this story “is a patchwork of the known, the unknown, and some pretty damn good intelligent hunches …” The author note explains, “My last two novels centred on real people and real events and took massive amounts of research to reconstruct as novels.” This novel is on the pattern of Atkins’ White Shadow, an account of the gangland slaying of retired kingpin Charlie Wall in Tampa in 1955; and of Wicked City, a presentation of organised crime in Phoenix City, Alabama. Like them, it works very well. Atkins is very clear on his preferences: “If I have to read another goddam story about English lords and little old ladies tracking down killers, I’m gonna shoot myself … The truth … Write about sweaty, greedy sonsabitches who’d kill their own mothers for some loot.” William Randolph Hearst emerges as a dangerous master manipulator of evil, a portrayal that takes into account the killing of Tom Ince on the Oneida in 1924, as well as earlier murder at the expense of Wobblies in 1917. An excellent novel.

Devil’s Garden, Ace Atkins (Berkley, $16.00)

Quality in contrast is one way to evaluate, offer judgement and counter the criticism of unreasoned subjectivity. Obviously, there is a measure of subjectivity in all assessments, but it helps readers to understand the basis for assessment. Each of these can be developed (or even qualified), but if you are looking at historical fiction for the Tudor period, C.J. Sansom is far better than Hilary Mantel, or for crime fiction just about everybody than Richard Osman. Today I mention two recent books, each of which I read from a library, which remain valued sources. The contrast is between Anthony Horowitz and Frank Muir. The latter, with his Detective Inspector Gilchrist series, is excellent, not only in plot but also characterisation. Set in and near St Andrews, these novels have the acute social observation of modern life that is emblematic of so much current Scottish detective fiction. The plotting is convincing rather than clever, with figures who span the social hierarchy. Dead Still (Constable, 2020) begins with the discovery of a body in a barrel of 25-year-old whisky, the corpse of the long-lost owner of the distillery. This touches off an exhilarating and engrossing discovery: of people, relationships, motive and means. First-rate.

In contrast, Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence Is Death (Century Random House, 2018) is disappointing. He has a high reputation and can turn in good books, as with his Moriarty/Holmes fiction, but putting himself in this story contributes to its somewhat precious and self-satisfied flavour. The Muir was a less than a day read, but this Horowitz led to passages of fatigue. Rather as with his Bond, which is simply not as good as that of William Boyd, there is with Horowitz a sense of competence (notably, able plotting) that is somewhat overrated. Worth reading, but not the best.

Marple: Twelve New Stories (2022) offers short stories by modern writers. They are variable, but the volume is well-worth reading. I was particularly impressed by the Lucy Foley and Val McDermid contributions. The collection takes Marple into a range of contexts, from a ducal drawing-room to, more arrestingly but unconvincingly, the world of New York alternative theatre. Plots tend to focus on long-lost secrets and crimes, not least with the possibility for blackmail. There are familiar characters, such as Dolly Bantry, Raymond West and Inspector Slack, and others who are new, such as Raymond’s granddaughter. Very good, but possibly best when not read in a sitting.

Railway to the Grave, Edward Marston (Allison and Busby, £7.99)

Janice Hallett’s The Twyford Code (2022) takes forward a theme seen in Arnold Bennett’s The Vatican Cellars. Misunderstanding is to the fore, in this case with reference to the conspiratorial clues in the novels of Enid Blighton. Richly rewarding, and brilliantly conceived, as audio recordings by an ex-con provide the text.

Set in Yorkshire in 1855, Edward Marston’s Railway to the Grave (Allison and Busby, 2010, £7.99) is an excellent instance of his Railway Detective series. At times, the writing could be better — “‘In one sense, I’m pleased,’ she said, biting her lip, ‘because we now know the truth of what happened to her … ’ like a blow from a sledgehammer” — but on the whole works really well, in plot, pace, interest and evocation.

As a reviewer, it always helps if you can suggest some ideas. My sister Vivienne asked if I had an idea for a murder story. Spun from the top, I replied “The Rose Lovers”: a group of five middle-aged ladies who run a large communal garden.

Part 1: Sets-Up

Narrator One, Lily: a difficult husband long past sell-by date. Mutual alibis cover his being pushed to his death down stone stairs from the third floor. Success. Two-years ago.

Narrator Two, Iris: wishes to dispose of hers. Alibied by others who stab him to death when he returns to the cul-de-sac after dark, and drop the body-topped plastic groundsheet into a lime-filled trench dug beneath the compost heap, throwing in some firelighters for good measure, before piling back the compost.

Narrator Three, Richard: DCI investigates disappearance. No body. Murder?

Part 2: Ravelling

We move beyond clear chapters, separately-presenting sympathetic narrators, to a jumble of viewpoints from the three. Becomes clear that Richard has been having an affair with Iris, realises she committed murder, but seeks to frame his wife, Hazel (not a rose-grower), to clear the path.

Iris does not want this, as she is getting bored with Richard who, anyway, is only a fling.

Part 3: Unravelling

Lily narrates a perspective on a rapidly-changing situation she does not understand as Iris tries to discredit Richard with his deputy. Citing the earlier murder, Iris blackmails Lily for help.

Part 4: Denouements

Richard is framed for the compost killing, but Lily realises that she will have to deal with Iris.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover