Saturday, November 10, 2018

A book for Patricia Wentworth Day: The Blind Side

I was trying to decide what to read next when I realized that Patricia Wentworth's day was coming up on Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I have a couple of the Miss Silver books left, among the last published. But I chose this one instead, from 1939. The cover of my Dean Street Press edition labels it "An Ernest Lamb Mystery." Inspector Lamb of Scotland Yard features in many of the Miss Silver books, generally in need of her wisdom and insight to solve the case, no matter how much he resists. He is usually paired with Detective Sergent Frank Abbott, a former pupil of Miss Silver's who has no hesitation in asking for her help or following her direction. As Jane commented once, how can they solve crimes without her? As it turns out, in this book at least, while Scotland Yard investigates a crime, it's the other characters who actually solve it for them - so par for the course.

The story opens up on a Victorian note, with a large house in Chelsea (re-made into flats) and four generations of the Craddock family who give the house its name. I made a family tree to keep them straight, only to find one in the book itself, to clear up Inspector Lamb's confusion. The current owner of the house, Ross Craddock, is shown to be a villain from the start. He is in the process of evicting his elderly cousin Lucinda from her flat next to his, just weeks after her sister Maud's death. He is also pursuing a young cousin (and Lucy's niece), Mavis Grey, to Lucy's distress. Lucy is persuaded to go away on a cruise, to recover after caring for her sister, and yet another cousin, Lee Fenton, comes to stay in her flat. Still another cousin, Peter Renshaw, is staying in the late Maud's flat, on the other side of Ross's, to deal with her estate. Most of the other residents are off on holiday, but the house's porter Rush is in residence in the basement with his bed-ridden wife, and a Miss Bingham is at home in the flat above Maud's. The daily cleaner Mrs. Green also comes in and out, moaning about her bad turns and hinting that a bit of brandy is just the thing to set her up again.

One hot evening, Peter meets Ross and Mavis at a nightclub. Later that night, he hears a crash in Ross's flat and finds Mavis fleeing from him, her dress torn. She has clipped Ross over the head with a decanter to escape, leaving him covered in blood. Peter gallantly allows her to sleep in Maud's bed, while he takes the uncomfortable sofa. He wakes to find that she has slipped out, claiming it's to look for her bag. She is trying to distract him from the blood on her dress, which wasn't there before. Over in the night, Lee wakes up in Lucy's bed to find her feet and nightgown red with blood, and a trail of bloody footprints leading to Ross's door.She immediately washes away all traces of the blood that she can reach. But in the morning, when Ross's man arrives to find him dead, shot through the head, she realizes her prints lead right up to the body.

All of this takes place in the first 50 pages - quite an elaborate set-up for the murder. When Inspector Lamb and DS Abbott arrive, the various members of the family do everything they can to confuse the case by concealing evidence and making ambiguous statements. Peter is trying to protect Lee, who has confessed her bloody state to him, and Mavis is out for herself. It turns out that Miss Bingham was creeping around the house in the middle of the night, and she has important information for the police. And then Mrs. Green calls in to say that she too has something vital to tell. (In Patricia Wentworth's stories, a character who hints that she knows something is usually doomed to be murdered before she can Reveal All.)

This story is packed with red herrings and blind alleys. The Scotland Yard detectives are headed in completely the wrong direction (as usual) when Peter finds the crucial evidence to solve the crime. I had an inkling of who the murderer might be, but I couldn't figure out how it was carried out. Everything is explained in detail in a death-bed confession (one I found a bit unlikely in the circumstances). I did enjoy this book, and I have another of the "Ernest Lamb" books on the TBR stacks, Pursuit of a Parcel from 1942 (war-time espionage, according to the cover blurb). Frank Abbott was rather subdued in this one, perhaps missing Miss Silver.

When I first discovered Patricia Wentworth, her books were hard to find, at least in the U.S. Now many have been re-issued, both the Miss Silver and the stand-alone books. I'm so glad that her books are more easily available, and I hope that more people come to appreciate her classic Golden Age stories. Thanks to Jane for celebrating her! Now I'm off to see what other people have been reading.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Blood on the Tracks, edited by Martin Edwards

This British Library Crime Classics volume of "Railway Mysteries" went on my list as soon as I saw the cover (on Twitter, as I remember). There was a delay before the North American edition came out, but it was well worth the wait. This may be my favorite of all the collections that I have read (even if it lacked a story by H.C. Bailey).

As usual, it presents an interesting variety of stories, arranged generally chronologically by publication date, with an informative preface by Martin Edwards and brief introductions of each author. Most of the collections that I've read open with a Sherlock Holmes story, as this one does, "The Man with the Watches." I was familiar with some of the authors that followed, from meeting them in the other collections. Some were new to me. I was particularly taken with Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, "who proceeded to create a whole family of detectives. He began with Paul Beck," who later married "Dora Myrl, Lady Detective," and their son Paul Junior went into the family business. Bodkin's story in this collection, "How He Cut His Stick," features Dora Myrl in her spinster detective days. She sounds like quite a character:
The daughter of a professor, Dora studied medicine at Cambridge, drifting from job to job (as a telegraph girl, a telephone girl, and a journalist) before turning to crime-solving while acting as a companion to an elderly woman who falls victim to a blackmailer. Dora's intelligence and flair for disguising herself make her an effective detective when she sets up her own agency. In this story, her ability as a cyclist also comes in handy.
I was reminded of Grant Allen's Miss Cayley, another cyclist who falls into a detective adventure.

This collection introduced me to another woman detective, F. Tennyson Jesse's Solange Fontaine. The story here, "The Railway Carriage," gave me chills, and sent me looking for more of her stories. I also learned that Jesse's best-known novel, A Pin to See the Peep-Show, is based on a notorious murder in 1922, and I have added that to my reading list.

One of Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey stories is included here, "The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face." I have the Lord Peter collection, but I don't read the short stories very often, and I had no memory of this one at all. It ends on an odd note, one that seems to me very out of character for Lord Peter.

The worst of these collections is that they always tempt me to look for more by the authors. In addition to F. Tennyson Jesse's Solange stories, I also found collections of the stories of Max Carrados (the blind detective created by Ernest Bramah) and Dr. Thorndyke (the scientific detective of R. Austin Freeman). I still have a couple of the Crime Classics collections on the TBR shelves as it is, and I'm hoping there are more to come. I'm eagerly awaiting the Golden Age of Detection Puzzle Book, which should be out next month in another gorgeous cover.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

I enjoyed Seanan McGuire's ghost stories so much that I couldn't wait to see what else she has written. This series caught my eye. The main character, October "Toby" Daye, is a changeling. From her faerie mother she has inherited certain skills that help her run her own detective agency, where she works with both humans and fae to pay the bills. (I'm not sure what if anything she carries from her human father.) This story opens on a stakeout: she is following someone who could lead her to the kidnapped wife and daughter of a high-ranking fae, one to whom Toby is pledged as her liege lord. A mother herself, Toby is all the more anxious to find the missing mother and daughter.

But then, just a few pages into the first chapter, the tables are turned. The man Toby is tracking leads her into a park and attacks her - turning her into a fish and trapping her in a pond. The story then jumps fourteen years and six months ahead. Toby has lost everything in those years, starting with her human family, who gave her up for dead. She is working any job she can find, just trying to find her way again after all those years. She wants nothing to do with the faerie world. But then an old friend binds a duty on her, one that Toby must complete or she will die. Recognizing that she can't do this on her own, she reluctantly turns back to the fae community for help.

I came late to the urban fantasy genre, through Patricia Briggs's books. Though I've tried quite a few authors since, I haven't found other series that work for me. This book certainly did, and I'm looking forward to the next. Toby is an interesting and sympathetic character, who doesn't fit fully into either the human or fae worlds. One of the things that sets her apart is that she is a knight of her liege's court, a rank she earned by service but one rarely granted to changelings. We learn a little of her backstory, and I'm guessing that we will meet her fae mother Amandine at some point. She sounds like a formidable character herself.

Seanan McGuire has created a complex faerie world around Toby, one which exists alongside (outside) San Francisco. I like those kinds of stories, where other worlds overlap with a recognizably human one. While the fae world is complex, with different types of creatures and various communities (courts), as well as Toby's allies and enemies, I had no trouble keeping them straight. It was interesting meeting fae and learning about their abilities and habits. I recognized some of the types from folklore. I think Ms. McGuire draws mainly on Celtic myths and lore. Thankfully, she doesn't overwhelm with details. Toby's task makes for quite a story, one that turns dark and violent at times (though not in gruesome detail). This is "fae noir," if there is such a category. Looking at the other books in the series (now up to twelve), I see they feature more cases and quests for Toby. I like detective stories almost as much as police procedurals.This is just the first I've read that includes faeries.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that going to a book signing always results in the purchase of more books. At least that is my experience at Murder by the Book. I get there well ahead of time, and then I wander through the shelves. Each visit, I check for new releases in the British Library Crime Classics series. I also check for Patricia Wentworth's books. There are some lovely new re-issues of the Miss Silver books, which I've managed to resist while I have my battered reading copies. The Dean Street Press re-issues of the stand-alone books, the ones without Miss Silver, are a different matter. Here, though, I have become selective. I've found that the earlier books, from the 1920s, are entertaining enough but sometimes a little thin for my tastes, sometimes verging on the silly. I think the books from the later 1930s and the 1940s are the best. This week I found two from 1938, Mr. Zero and Run! - the exclamation point in the title gives that one some urgency.

When I felt like a break from my recent science fiction diet, I chose Mr. Zero, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As much as I enjoy the period illustrations on the DSP editions, though, they don't usually relate to the book itself. The cover for this one is particularly misleading:

At no point does a character lounge around provocatively en deshabille, and to my mind that image looks more like the 1920s than a woman in 1938.

The "Mr. Zero" of the title is a blackmailer. His victim Sylvia Colesborough has lost £500 at cards and cannot confess the loss to her husband, who has forbidden her to play for money. Mr. Zero offers to make good her loss, on the condition that she steal a document from the Home Secretary during a weekend house party. Sylvia complies, but she is then met with a second demand, to extract more documents - from her own husband. At this point she panics, and with her sister enlists the reluctant help of their old school friend Gay Hardwicke. When Gay tries to confront the blackmailer, she walks instead on Sylvia holding a gun next to a dead body. But it is her escort Algy Sommers, a secretary to the Home Secretary, who becomes the prime suspect.

This is quite an exciting story, with a neat twist at the end. I guessed the identity of one of the villains, mainly because there was such a small cast to choose from, but I didn't expect the second to pop up. I must say that I have rarely met a stupider character than Sylvia Colesborough. Though fun to read about, she infuriated most of the others in the book. At one point the Chief Constable "Colonel Anstruther was given up to whole-hearted wonder as to why, if murder was the order of the day, Lady Colesborough had escaped."

Drawn into the case is the local doctor and coroner, Dr. Hammond. He is at home with his wife Judith, asleep next to him, when he recollects a vital clue. He wakes Judith from a dream about a child to tell her. "'What fellow?' said Judith, half cross and half forlorn. Perhaps she and Jim would never have a child. Perhaps -" I ended the book wondering if we might meet the Hammonds again, and if Judith ever had her baby. Miss Silver is always relaying news of marriages and births in her books, not to mention knitting for the babies. I don't remember any characters crossing over in the stand-alone books, though.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I was looking to add more science fiction to my reading, Mary Robinette Kowal's books came highly recommended. The Calculating Stars was the first that I found in the bookstore, and its back cover blurb sold me on the spot:
     Pilot, Physicist, Wife
    On a cold spring day in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to Earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
    Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a computer. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved in the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too.
    Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This is such a great story. I am not usually a fan of dystopian fiction, but there was a terrible fascination in reading about this cataclysm and watching its effects spread around the world. Elma and her husband Nathaniel, who were working together at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before the Meteor, quickly realize that this could be an extinction event for the Earth. However, they have a hard time convincing people that something even worse than the Meteor is coming. Luckily, the highest-ranking Cabinet member to survive, now the President, is the former Secretary of Agriculture. He knows enough about weather patterns to understand and accept their arguments.

Elma and Nathaniel, who lost almost all of their family in the catastrophe, throw themselves into their work. I loved their strong, supportive marriage. They are true partners, both in work and in their relationship. Elma needs Nathaniel's support, as they struggle against the conventional sexism of the International Aerospace Coalition, and she has it every step of the way. Her experience as a pilot in World War II, her work as a "computer" solving the complex equations that underlie their work, her advanced degrees - all are discounted because of her gender. And she is instantly dismissed when she raises the question of sending women into space, despite her argument that if the IAC intends to establish colonies and communities, women will have to be present. I shared Elma's frustration as she is dismissed and belittled, as men mock the very idea of "astronettes." That part of the story felt so very timely.

At the same time, Elma comes up against her own assumptions and prejudices when they are billeted with an African American couple (housing in the nation's new capitol is scarce). Raised in Charleston, she realizes that she has never been in a black person's home. She also comes to see that black men are excluded from the astronaut project. Trying to argue the case for women astronauts, she is introduced to a group of African American women pilots, who educate her on the discrimination they have faced. It was interesting watching Elma struggle with these new ideas, and work out relationships with potential allies, bonding in part over a shared love of flying. Ms. Kowal has talked about the push-back she has gotten from people for including one black character as a computer working with Elma's group. These people apparently missed Hidden Figures completely. Both the book and the film are included in a "Historical Note" at the end of this book. That and the bibliography that follows are adding to my reading list.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Robinette Kowal speak at Murder by the Book this week, at a shared event with Martha Wells. I was thrilled to get my "Lady Astronaut Club" membership card, though I can't bring myself to write my name on it yet.

Isn't that a gorgeous cover?

I already have the sequel, The Fated Sky, on the TBR stacks, and I was happy to hear there will be a third book. I also found a novella, "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," which if I understood correctly was written first. But even worse for my TBR stacks, I also found the Ms. Kowal has written a series set in the Regency, "in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality." John at Murder by the Book said they're Jane Austen with magic, and I was powerless to resist.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

This book set off my inner book evangelist. I had somehow gotten the impression that it was set in Edwardian England, but it is actually fantasy. It opens in a hospital, where Dr. Miles Singer has just gotten a memo ordering him to release sixteen of his patients by the end of the week, to make room for new admissions. Soldiers from his home country of Aeland will be returning victorious from the recently-ended war with Laneer, and many will need care. Miles, himself a veteran of the war, is concerned that the vets already under his care are experiencing fits of homicidal rage.

Then an emergency case arrives at the hospital's doors: a dying man who says his name is Nick Elliot. He tells Miles, "Help me, Starred One. I am murdered." Calling Miles "Sir Christopher," Elliot says that he was poisoned, he asks him to find his murderer, and he tells him "The soldiers . . .they deserve the truth." Miles, who has magical powers that can aid healing, sees that the man has a magical aura, a witch's aura, and before Elliot dies on the examining table, he passes power on to Miles. Watching everything from a corner of the room is the man who carried him into the hospital, who introduces himself as Tristan Hunter. When Miles realizes what Hunter has seen and heard, he panics. Accusations of witchcraft will get Miles sent to an asylum. But if he is outed as Christopher Hensley, his family will reclaim him. In the upper levels of society to which his family belongs, those with magic aren't sent to asylums, they are bound to another, who draws off the power to fuel their own. It was to escape life as a bound Secondary that Miles fled his family and changed his name, to study medicine and then join the army.

Tristan Hunter doesn't want to out Miles. He wants his help, to find out who murdered Nick Elliot and why. As a gesture of good faith, he shows Miles that he too has power, and Miles agrees to help him. Meanwhile, Miles is also trying to figure out why his veterans talk of someone inside their heads, inciting them to rage and violence. He can use his power to help them, but always at the risk of revealing himself. As the two investigations proceed, we learn more about Aeland, about Miles' world, about the war with Laneer, and about Tristan, who carries some deep secrets of his own. He and Miles form a partnership and a cautious friendship. And then Miles, forced to attend a hospital function, meets his sister Grace again. He fled his family to avoid being bound as her Secondary. Grace promises that she won't bind him against his will, but their father will not let him escape again.

I enjoyed this book so much. Miles is a very sympathetic character and also a complex one, carrying his multiple identities. He is fighting to care for his soldier patients, but he also wants the murderer of Nick Elliot brought to justice. He has spent years hiding, both his identity and his magic. He too is dealing with the effects of the war, on himself as well as his patients. It was lovely to see him slowly learn to trust Tristan, whom he finds devastatingly attractive. Their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, linked to the highest levels of the government as well as the asylums where suspected witches are confined. It's a very timely book, concerned with the use and abuse of power. Soldiers used by the government in its war, people with magic exploited by those who with greater power - and that exploitation runs deeper than Miles can imagine. It all builds to a shattering conclusion, one that seems to beg for a sequel. I hope C.L. Polk is writing one! I would love to meet Miles and Tristan again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

I have been collecting recommendations for science fiction and fantasy authors lately, beyond the favorites that I read and re-read. Martha Wells' "Murderbot Diaries" have come strongly recommended, and she will be signing in a couple of weeks at my beloved Murder by the Book. She will be there with Mary Robinette Kowal, whose "Lady Astronaut" books are already on the TBR stacks.

When I checked into Martha Wells' books, I saw that she has also written other series, and one about shifters immediately caught my eye. The Cloud Roads is the first. It is the story of Moon, who as the first chapter opens "had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans." He can pass as a "groundling," one of the many human types who inhabit the planet, and who come in a variety of forms and skin colors. But Moon has a second form that he can shift into at will, with scales, claws, a tail, and wide wings. He has to hide this form from the groundlings he lives among, because it resembles the Fell, a race of beings that attacks groundling settlements and kills all the inhabitants. Moon is himself that only survivor of an attack that killed his mother and siblings, when he was an adolescent. He has survived since by hiding his true self, earning a place among groundling groups by hard work (and sometimes a bit of trickery). But eventually something always goes wrong, someone decides he is too different, a threat, and he is driven out.

When it plays out yet again, among the Cordans, Moon is unexpectedly rescued by a being like himself, though much larger and older. From his rescuer, called Stone, he learns that he is a Raksura. Moon knows nothing about his people. They come in two types, the winged variety like Moon and Stone, also called Aeriat, and the Arbora, without wings. The Raksura live in communities called courts. Solitaries like Moon are rare, and Stone invites him to his home court, Indigo Cloud. They arrive only to discover that the court is under threat of attack from the Fell. Moon also learns to his shock that he has a special role to play in the court, one Stone recognized but chose not to tell him about.

I was drawn into this story from the first page. Moon is a very sympathetic character, an outsider in both the groundling and Raksuran worlds, simply trying to survive. We see the Raksura through his eyes, as he tries to find a place in yet another alien community, an outsider facing the same hostility he has met his whole life. At least he has Stone to support him, and he does form some alliances. But the threat of the Fell hangs over everything, threatening to bring down the court before Moon can even find his place in it.

I suppose that this series qualifies as fantasy, more than science fiction. I'm not always clear on the divide. I know it's too simplistic to say that "science fiction involves spaceships," but that's always in the back of my mind. Whichever category it falls into, I am enjoying this series very much. I already have the next books from the library, and I look forward to learning more about the Raksura and Moon's adventures with them.