Review: Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders

I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction but I just don’t read enough of it. Whenever I pick up well written book that transports me to8b25cfe8341ee30d995b241261c4df28 the period in question I’m always resolved to read more of the genre. I was inspired to try Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders when I met the author at CrimeFest this year. I had the book on my shelf and the writer, Kate Griffin’s account of how the character and name of Kitty Peck originated (she is based on Griffin’s grandmother) made me want to discover more.

Seventeen-year-old seamstress Kitty Peck is in the employment of Lady Ginger, the domineering owner of a string of music halls who has a ferocious reputation and is determined to discover why some of her girls keep disappearing. Kitty’s brother died the previous year and she is roped into a scheme to help Lady Ginger with the tantalising possibility that she might see her brother alive again. However Lady Ginger’s scheme involves using Kitty as bait to attract the potential kidnappers by dangling her over the audience every night on a makeshift trapeze.

The book’s greatest strength is its protagonist Kitty Peck. She’s both naive and brave and struggles to fulfil her mission while attempting to fly in an unsafe contraption every evening. The reader sees everything through Kitty’s eyes and, as a result, the narrative has an unworldly feel to it, reflecting the gullibility of the narrator.

The dialogue brings the book alive and Kitty’s use of the Victorian vernacular is often funny. The class divisions that were rife in the nineteenth century are mined by the writer to show the precarious lives of those involved in the music halls.

Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is a well-written debut and I’m sure the series is already developing a readership of fans who are interested to see what happens next.

Thanks to Faber for my copy of the book.

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Review: Mark Oldfield – The Sentinel

TSentinelThe Spanish Civil War and the subsequent thirty-six year rule of General Franco provides rich pickings for historical novelists. The turmoil of the times led to split allegiances across families and scope for advancement for those willing to undertake Franco’s dirty work. At first glance, Mark Oldfield’s debut novel might seem to be following a well trodden path but what distinguishes The Sentinel from other crime novels is the powerful central character. In Commandante Guzman, Oldfield has created a memorable anti-hero whose violent actions provide a disturbing metaphor for extreme violence that characterised the whole regime.

Dr Ana Maria Galindez is a forensic scientist employed by the guardia civil who is called to the site of a massacre in a disused mine. She discovers the role played Guzman in the killings and becomes drawn to his personality and his mysterious sudden disappearance at some point in the early 1950s. However, she and her lesbian partner come under the scrutiny of enemies who are obsessed by what the two women have uncovered. In 1953, we see Guzman head up Franco’s secret police and take sadistic delight in personally carrying out many of the punishments that he is ordered to supervise.

The book’s split narrative, oscillating mainly between 2009 and the early 1950s with some exceprts set in the 1930s, provides a tight structure for what is a pretty complex plot. By far the most interesting portions of the book are the sections set in the latter part of Franco’s government. Guzman dominates the narrative. Totally corrupt, he has little to redeem him for a reader. And yet he is a compelling read. Just when he is given some human qualities, such as his attraction to a young Republican widow, we find out he has a hand in her brutal humiliation at the hands of his guards. Part of the attraction is his enigmatic background that he spends most of the book trying to eradicate all traces of.

The modern day narrative is interesting and gives an insight into modern Spain’s attempts to document the atrocities of an earlier period, although I think more could have been made of this given recent court cases over the place of Franco in the country’s history. Nevertheless, it is a well plotted narrative with an surprising ending leaving the reader wanting more.

The Sentinel forms the first part of the Vengeance of Memory trilogy being written by Oldfield. Judging by the quality of writing in his debut novel, it promises to be a cracking series and, given the ending, it will be interesting to see how the other two books develop. We haven’t seen the back of Guzman, I’m sure.

Thanks to the author’s agent James Wills for sending me a copy of the book.

Review: Linda Stratmann – A Case of Doubtful Death

Doubtful DeathCrime fiction, a genre I read a lot of, has occasionally the tendency to feel a little ‘samey’. And I don’t just mean the plots. At some point, the consensus has become that books need to be dialogue heavy. Descriptive prose is out. And yet, it is this style of writing outside of crime fiction that I love. Colm Toibin, for example, writes beautiful dialogue sparsely. So I was delighted when I picked up the new latest book by Linda Stratmann to see that it contained paragraphs of description that related to both the setting and the plot.

In West London, a doctor has set up a hospital for the dead in response to the concerns of Victorian society that they might accidentally be buried alive. In the hospital, bodies are kept until putrefaction has set in thereby reassuring relatives that the dead are truly gone. When Doctor Mackenzie dies, his young assistant mysteriously disappears and Frances Doughty, a young detective with a reputation for perseverance, joins the hunt for the missing Henry Palmer.

A Case of Doubtful Death contains a huge amount period detail. The author has written a number of non-fiction books on past murders around the UK and clearly knows the period well. There is also a significant amount of forensic detail provided which I found fascinating in a historical setting. Victorian London, of course, is a gift of a setting for a writer, but we do get a different view of the period in this book. The description of the mortuary in Kensal Green, for example, is satisfyingly morbid and gives readers a flavour of things to come.

The character of Frances Doughty has a feel of some of the women we see in the stories of Sherlock Holmes: principled and redoubtable, she is the main driving force of the book. She is also a foretaste of the later suffragettes that play an important role in London’s history as she clearly upsets the men she meets with her no-nonsense questioning.

I met the author by chance at a crime fiction event and it goes to show how meeting fellow enthusiasts can lead to discovery of new books to read. A Case of Doubtful Death is the third book in the Frances Doughty series and I now hope to start at the beginning and carry on my enjoyable journey into London’s unsavoury past.

Thanks to the publisher, The Mystery Press, for sending me a copy of the book.

Review: William Ryan – The Twelfth Department

The Twelfth Department, William RyanWilliam Ryan’s historical mysteries featuring Captain Korolev, a Moscow Militia police investigator, are becoming another ‘must read’ for me. The books are packed with a wealth of period detail; set in the mid years of Stalin’s rule, the Terror is beginning to be felt collectively around the city and everyone fears the knock on the door in the middle of the night. There’s always a good mystery at the heart of Ryan’s books and The Twelfth Department is no exception.

Korolev is on holiday and intends to spend time with his young son Yuri, who has made the trip to Moscow by train. However, on the first day of Korolev’s leave he is asked to visit the apartment of an eminent scientist who has been shot dead. To his dismay, Korolev discovers that the ambitious and disliked scientist was undertaking research which is being monitored by those in power. He is taken off the case and travels with Yuri to the countryside, but during the trip his son disappears. After the death of another scientist, Korolev is seconded to State Security to investigate the killing and becomes embroiled in the political machinations between warring NKVD departments.

It’s usually around the third book in a series that familiar characters take on more substance and this is certainly the case with The Twelfth Department. Both Korolev and his sergeant, Slivka, have an interesting relationship, admiring each other’s capabilities but constricted by the roles in an increasingly paranoid department. The relationship between Korolev and Valentina, the woman he shares his apartment with, is also developed more and displays a softer side to the Captain. It also suggests an interesting sub-plot for the next book.

The Terror element isn’t overdone: it’s ever-present and pervades everyone’s decisions but the crime/mystery element is given space to flourish. Ryan always presents a solid police investigation and here, there are plenty of twists and turns until we reach the conclusion. The evocation of thirties Russia is excellent and even minor scenes, such as the description of the Moscow zoo and the delight that children take in watching the animals, bring the era to life.

Overall I think that this is the best book yet in a series that is going from strength to strength. The book isn’t published until the 23rd May but I was lucky enough to be sent a copy by Mantle, the publisher. And naturally I couldn’t resist reading it.

Review: D L Johnstone – Furies

furies-cover-low-resI’m not competing in any challenges this year as I want to concentrate on reading new books that come my way, catching up with series that I’ve fallen behind on and rediscovering old classics. However, given that Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go was in my top five reads of 2012, I’ve decided each month to read a book that is only available in e-format. Furies by D L Johnstone caught my attention because of its ancient Alexandrian setting. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I love historical mysteries but they have to be well written and this book has begun to garner some decent reviews.

The 36 AD Alexandria of Furies is part of the Roman Empire and a centre of trade and commerce. For some, it is a city of untold riches but the shifting fortunes of business can result in disastrous financial predicaments. Decimus Tarquitius Aculeo is a man who has been ruined by a calamitous investment.  The man responsible for his misfortune has disappeared leaving Aculeo penniless and deserted by family and friends. Aculeo is determined to trace the man, but his quest leads him into danger. A murderer is moving through the city, killing first a slave and then a courtesan, and his fate seems linked to that Aculeo.

This is an intelligently written thriller which comes across has having been very well researched. Alexandria is well portrayed as a city mirroring other outposts in the Roman Empire but with a greater sense of its own self-worth. It is a difficult balance when writing books set in this period to get the language just right. You need to avoid what Ariana Franklin used to term the ‘gadzooks’ style of narration where the language sounds unnaturally archaic. Johnstone has avoided this through the use of a contemporary sounding dialogue mixed with specific Alexandrian terminology, such as hetaira for a high-class courtesan. This works well. And, as an aside, there is a character in the book, a female doctor Sekhet in the mould of Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar who will appeal to fans of that series.

It was a complex plot but kept my attention throughout and had an unforeseen conclusion. I would also like to mention how impeccably formatted the book was. This is the benchmark which all e-books should look to emulate. I don’t think I saw a single typo or line or paragraph out of sync. It’s the first time that I felt like I was reading a paper edition of a book on my kindle.

I received a copy of the book from the author. It has also been reviewed at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Review: R N Morris – Summon up the Blood

One of the great things about living in central London is that books set in the city usually refer to streets and landmarks that are instantly familiar. Nicola Upson’s fictional policeman Archie Penrose lives on the same road as me and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London opens with a murder in my local churchyard. My latest read, Summon up the Blood by R N Morris is set around London’s West End, incorporating landmarks which will be instantly recognisable to most Londoners.

Set in 1914, the book opens with the murder of Jimmy, young male prostitute, by a clearly well-to-do killer. Responsibility for investigating the murder is given to Detective Inspector Silas Quinn of the Special Crimes Department who is plunged into the shadowy world of rent boys and the paying customers who prey on the poverty of those prepared to sell their bodies for money. As more young men are killed, Quinn and his team follow a trail of blood and vice which leads them to an exclusive gentlemen’s club in the heart of the West End.

This is the first book that I’ve read by R N Morris and I was particularly impressed by the cast of characters he created. Silas Quinn, we are told, has a history of violence towards suspects in his previous cases, but he doesn’t have the lack of complexity that we might associate with this type of policeman. Instead, he is confused and disturbed by the explicit images he finds in gay literature and possibly to counteract this, he alternately attracts and repels the amorous Miss Dillard, a fellow lodger in his boarding house. There is a moving scene when he recognises the slightly absurd Miss Dillard as a vulnerable human being like himself.  Other characters are also given substance, including the outspoken Detective Sergeant Inchball and his colleague DS Macadam whose pride and joy is the 1912 Ford Model T police car which he is allowed to drive.

I thought the book was forthright in its depiction of male prostitution and also recognised that in the hedonistic London lifestyle it was sometimes difficult to distinguish who was exploiting whom. The book also gave wonderfully evocative descriptions of London venues at that time, many of which are still going, including the Criterion bar/restaurant which was a meeting place for the gay community.

Although the book was set in 1914, it had a Victorian feel to it, despite the presence of  the model T Ford and other Edwardian inventions, which I liked. The blurb at the back of the book quoted the ‘turbulent months leading up to World War I’ which I thought was slightly misleading as there wasn’t a pre-war feel to the book. It was also possibly not the author’s intention as I thought the book cleverly created the atmosphere of a post-Victorian hangover.

Summon up the Blood was a very enjoyable read and I believe there is second book featuring Silas Quinn coming soon – I’m looking forward to it.

I borrowed this book from the library. The author’s website is here.

Review: Nicola Upson – Two for Sorrow

I like historical mysteries but don’t read enough of them. After enjoying Aly Monroe’s Icelight I was determined to read more of the genre. Nicola Upson’s Two for Sorrow is the third book in a series which has as its protagonist the writer Josphine Tey. I was initially sceptical about having a well known crime novelist as a character in a book. It could err on pastiche but I was pleasantly surprised by this well-written and cleverly plotted crime story and am looking forward to reading more in the series.

In its setting, the book contrasts the drab hospitals and prisons in the first part of the twentieth century with the glamour of West End theatreland. When writer Jospehine Tey visits London from her Inverness home, she stays at the Cowdray Club, a women’s institution associated with the adjacent teaching hospital for nurses. Josephine has begun a new book focusing on the story of the notorious Finchley ‘baby farmers’, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, who were hanged for their crimes in 1903. Celia Bannerman, who is involved in the management of the Cowdray Club, was a prison nurse at the time of the execution and Josephine hopes to get an insight into the conditions of Holloway prison to add authenticity to her manuscript. When Marjorie Baker, a young former inmate of the prison, is found cruelly killed in the run-up to a gala ball, police believe Marjorie may have discovered a secret the killer is desperate to remain concealed.

Although Josephine Tey has an important role in the developing narrative, I felt that Archie Penrose, Josephine’s old friend and police detective, was the pivotal character in the actual crime investigation. The story of the two baby killers is a fascinating one and although I often don’t like reading a novel within a novel, here I thought it worked very well indeed. In the extracts from Josephine’s manuscript, we get an insight into the state of Holloway prison at the beginning of the twentieth century and the horror of women’s executions that would take another sixty years to abolish. Cleverly, the author doesn’t have Josephine do much investigating – she’s no Miss Marple, instead she continues her research and writing which does eventually contribute to the police finding a solution to the case. There is also an interesting sub-plot involving Josephine’s love life which is based on real correspondence.

1930s London comes alive in this book, especially the areas around the West End and Covent Garden. The details given of the women’s clubs and theatre gatherings I found fascinating but it didn’t read like a period piece but a crime novel with a fresh engaging story. I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.

Thanks to Chris Simmons from crimesquad for giving me a copy of this book. The book has also been reviewed at Eurocrime,