As we begin to emerge from covid-19 lockdown, I’m trying to take stock of the assorted books I’ve read over the last month or so. Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer over the last few months. Terrible timing but I’ve now, thankfully, finished treatment. My reading, we can safely say, has been spontaneous and comforting (even when it’s quite gory!)
First up is a non-fiction book I loved. One of the great things about interacting with readers on my Facebook author page has been some of the book recommendations I’ve received (good for my reading, bad for my bank balance). The Knife Man by Wendy Moore subtitled of “Blood, Body-Snatching and Birth of Modern Surgery” was impossible to resist. It charts the career of John Hunter who rose from humble Scottish origins to a residence in Leicester Square treating the great and good of Georgian London. Eschewing the leaching and blood letting of his peers, he used disection and the study of anatomy to advance medical practices such as removing cancerous tumours and innovative bypass procedures to avoid amputations.
While his experiments sometimes make for uncomfortable reading (especially when you’ve just had surgery yourself), many of his ideas became the cornerstone for modern medicine and Hunter is a wonderful maverick who deserves to be wider known. We see him from the fresh faced new arrival procuring bodies by dubious means for his physician brother’s lectures to an elderly man suffering from angina who refused to let his illness slow him down. I was entranced by the book and Moore’s writing.
I’ve been reading a fair amount of golden age detective fiction including books by Dorothy Sayers, Carol Carnac and Josephine Tey. Detective fiction set between the First and Second World Wars isn’t always just about the mystery. Some show interesting character development and a take on social issues of the time. Two contemporary writers who I love are Nicola Upson and Martin Edwards who’ve taken on golden age tropes and given then a modern twist.
Sorry for the Dead is the latest instalment in Nicola Upson’s excellent series featuring Josephine Tey as its protagonist. Jospehine revisits the summer of 1915 when, as a newly qualified teacher, she supervised students at a horticultural college set in the grounds of Charleston, later famous as the home of Vanessa Bell. When a student dies, the whole enterprise comes under scrutiny and prejudices move to the fore. In 1938, as a journalist attempts to resurrect the scandal. Reflecting on the incident invokes a mood of reassessment in Tey which is superbly handled by Upson. This series is marked by excellent writing and clever plotting and each book gets better and better.
Mortmain Hall is the latest book in Martin Edwards series of historical thrillers set in the 1930s. Rachel Savernake investigates a series of seemingly unconnected deaths not all of which have been concluded as murder. As Rachel travels around the country, she is occasionally perused and often aided by journalist Jacob Flint. The book is full of golden age references for aficionados to enjoy – a hanging judge, a stocking salesman – and there’s an air of fun about the book along with meticulous research and a killer protagonist.
Finally, two Nordic Noir novels I enjoyed. Fatal Isles is set in Doggerland, an island off Denmark, where Detective Inspector Karen Eiken Hornby wakes up after an oyster festival next to her boss. When his ex wife is found murdered that same day, Hornby takes charge of the investigation but must negotiate her own relationship with the chief suspect. I loved the Doggerland setting and the sense of an insular community holding on to its secrets. Not out until February 2021, this a crime novel to watch out for.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s books are particular favourites of mine. In her latest book, Gallow’s Rock, a man is found hanging from a rock once used as a place of execution. When the police break into the man’s appartment they discover a four year old boy with a complicated story about how he came to be in the building. The race is on to discover the fate of the child’s mother and the complex and violent relationship at the heart of the mystery, A satisfyingly twisty tale.
So that’s a selection of recent books I’ve read. I’ve also been immersing myself in the gothic, more of which in my next post….