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Murders for November

Gripping plots and dodgy prose for the autumn months

Blackstone Fell by Martin Edwards (Head of Zeus, 2022, £20) is first-rate and a must-read for this month. There are of course faults: the book is almost ludicrously crowded, as is the grim Pennine landscape at Blackstone. There are any number of clichés, from the fake spiritualist, to the doctor, the major and the forbidding, mysterious Sanatorium. The pace is too fast, and there are too many murders. The plot is tremendous, however, the cross-currents brilliant, the writing pithy, the characters well-realised and the piling up and switches between possible solutions excellent, with “more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti”. The Cluefinder at the end, the “selection of pointers to the solution of the various mysteries”, serves to demonstrate how far Edwards, the President of the Detection Club, has played fair. Set in 1930, but with echoes of the Baskerville Dartmoor-London interplay, Blackstone “makes Wuthering Heights look like Blackpool beach” and includes “an abandoned cave dwelling, a dangerous stretch of river, a sinister tower, an asylum on the moors, and deadly marshland. Not to mention a history of mysterious vanishings from a Jacobean gatehouse”.

Blackstone Fell, Martin Edwards (Head of Zeus, £20)

There is some humour — “He allowed his gaze to linger on the barmaid’s figure. She still hadn’t mastered the knack of buttoning her blouse properly” — whilst many academics will recognise this description of a professor: “He still thinks he’s in his prime, though he does nothing all day but rewrite lectures he gave thirty years ago.”

Good length. Rachel Savernake makes an impressive modern Holmes, plus Jacob Flint and Nell Fagan are interesting entrees to Fleet Street with the nature of justice ably to the fore at the end. One to read and enjoy. 

Different in style and setting, Anne Cleeves’ The Rising Tide (Pan Macmillan, 2022, £20), is the latest Vera Stanhope novel, one set this time on Holy Island/Lindisfarne. The theme is scarcely unfamiliar — reunion brings to surface long-held tensions and sets murder to the fore — but it is handled ably and the characters, though lacking in subtlety, are clearly-drawn. Ken for example is “steady in his happiness”, or Charlotte “painting her toenails with a focus that made that act the most important thing in the universe. More important, certainly, than any abstract notion”. Louisa is “one of those women protected by certainty”. Sal “liked the idea of letting the kids run wild, but wasn’t so struck by the reality”. Some of the comments do not quite get it right: “Phil asked if anyone wanted a herbal tea before they turned in. Rick thought that summed him up. Phil might live in London, but he was hardly cosmopolitan.”

There are some in-jokes: “Joanna wrote crime fiction and sometimes she picked Vera’s brains, though when the books appeared they had nothing to do with reality. Vera enjoyed reading them for the escape they provided, the joy of loose ends tied up.” The regular causeway floods provide the theme of a closed community. 

Death and Croissants, Ian Moore (Farrago, £8.99)

Death and Croissants by Ian Moore (Farrago, 2022, £8.99) is the first Follet Valley Mystery, which is to be a series in which Richard Ainsworth is a somewhat hapless middle-aged film noir buff who runs a bed and breakfast in his adopted Loire Valley. He gets involved in murder with the dynamic Valérie d’Orçay, a figure reminiscent of 1950s’ fast-car heroines, playing the key role in sorting out the bizarre goings on. This one has a hen-killer, Mafia assassins, a devious former judge, expatriate swingers and a general air of mayhem. No real attempt at plausibility in what is a comic take on mystery. A very pleasant, light read or total tosh. You decide. It helped a long flight pass. 

My favourite westward Atlantic crossing detective novel is Peter Lovesey’s The Fake Inspector Dew (1981), but A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle (Penguin, 2022, £7.99) is a first-rate addition to the corpus. There is humour, but the general tone becomes sombre. The interplay between the two inspectors — Timothy Birch, a ship’s officer, and James Temple, a difficult Scotland Yard inspector — is fraught; the world of artists and patrons handled well; and the Endeavour, the liner, provides a well-observed setting. A very good debut novel. 

A different, more sombre and troubling debut, but also highly effective, is Sofia Slater’s Auld Acquaintance (Swift Press, 2022, £12.99), which takes the theme of a party on an isolated island and does particularly well with it. This is a strongly atmospheric book, with echoes of the conventions of the past, back beyond Christie: “even with my glancing knowledge of the horror film and the Gothic novel, I can tell you that if this place is haunted, going off alone to investigate is a murderously bad idea.” Very well constructed, set, peopled and written. 

Death on the Down Beat: An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection, Sebastian Farr (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

Death on the Down Beat. An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection (1941; British Library Crime Classics, 2022, £9.99) is a one-off novel by Sebastian Farr, the pseudonym of the Swiss-born music writer Eric Walter Blom (1988-1959). A version of the death before many spectators, as in Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel (1948), this concerns the shooting of flamboyant conductor Sir Noel Grampian in the midst of a concert in Maningpool Civic Hall. Told largely through letters, this novel has a strong start and gets better. The music score provides some of the clues, but character and detection are key elements. There is much humour in the rivalry between music critics and in the tensions of an orchestra. Excellent. 

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware (Vintage, 2021, £8.99) is an impressive novel that works well in providing a sense of menace that matches the comic frenzy. Harriet Westaway is a young pier-side tarot card reader in Brighton, heavily indebted and chased by a vicious loan shark who is realised all-too-well. She receives a letter that invites her to the reading of the will of a Cornish grandmother. Her real grandparents are dead, but she sets out to try to ease her immediate problems, only to discover that she has a significant inheritance and a curious family. There is also the puzzle of the inheritance. The cold, poverty and menace at the beginning are not comfortable, so this is not Richard Osman territory, but a first-rate novel. 

The Invisible, Peter Papathanasiou (MacLehose, £16.99)

Peter Papathanasiou’s The Invisible (MacLehose, 2022, £16.99) has a good setting in remote inland Greece, ably realised in very fine descriptive writing. The slow-burn plot is suitably complex and with an excellent misdirection, although a somewhat rushed conclusion. If the politics are naïve, Papathanasiou is scarcely alone in this, but his account of a former Greek resistance uniquely victimised post-1945 would seem ridiculous to any Pole, Lithuanian et al, whilst the discussion of the Greek Civil War is flawed. Still, this is not a history book. Some of the writing is interesting, as when a reconnection “with the electronic world … felt like a disgusting cigarette in a moment of weakness after he’d worked hard to quit”. Much of the writing badly needs editing, however. There is dialogue that would have been redundant (“All young Greek men have to do two years of compulsory service in the Hellenic Army”), comments that are out of character (“He’d always seen Greek villages as serene and tranquil”) and description that is far-fetched (“The trees swayed and whispered prayers into the stillness as if summoning the long-forgotten voices of seasons past”). Towards the end, Papathanasiou gives up bothering: 

The restaurant was owned by a friend of Stavros’s who said the food was organic and sourced from the region. The meals were uncomplicated, vibrant and delicious, and would not have been out of place in a big, metropolitan city, though here they cost a fraction of the price. It was Greek food with a modern and creative twist, and Manolis felt right at home.

“‘It’s good to see that Greece isn’t just tavernas,’ Roze said with a smile.” Red pencil the lot. And increasingly so: “The Prespes region had proven to be a uniquely picturesque location and interesting mix of personalities and wildlife.”

His The Stoning, the first in the Manolis series, was highly praised in 2021, so maybe those critics can group together and send this able plotsmith on a writing course.

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