First up, Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey.
Quiet, unassuming Miss Lucy Pym has become a minor celebrity by writing a no-nonsense book on psychology. A former school friend, Henrietta Hodge, is now headmistress of a college for the training of Physical Education, teachers, Leys, and invites Miss Pym to come to the school for a one-off lecture on psychology. Miss Pym finds herself very smitten by the college and its pupils. It's a new experience for her and she's astonished by how hard the students work, how committed they are to their studies and also how charming a bunch they are, especially in their dealings with her. It seems like a perfect, insular, little world, untouched by outside influences. When the course is over, the students are all placed in new, paid jobs. One girl in particular is destined to go far. But it doesn't happen and a nasty accident follows upon this disappointment, one which Miss Pym soon realises is possibly not an accident at all. She is forced to realise that Leys is not a miniature utopia at all, and the decision about whether or not the college can survive might well be hers.
Well, this is yet another little gem from the pen of Josephine Tey. After reading The Franchise Affair, which I felt was more of a standalone than an Alan Grant instalment, I wondered if any of her real standalones might be worth a read. Good decision because they absolutely *are*. It seems to me that Josephine Tey was very good on describing small, insular worlds, places where things hadn't changed much in donkey's years... small towns and villages for instance and, in this case, a college of further education. (She apparently worked in a college for physical education so presumably knew what she was writing about.) She knew too that things were not always as perfect as they seemed in these places, especially when it came to them being described as having no crime or bad behaviour. It was ironic too that Miss Pym, the writer of the book on psychology, turned out not to be that good a judge of human behaviour after all. Such is life sometimes. I enjoyed this lovely little book tremendously, the world Tey created was fascinating, the interactions of the students, teachers and Miss Pym, the more gentle and less hectic days of the 1940s and just the overall atmosphere of the book. As I said, a little gem.
Next, Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell.
Thomas De Quincey is the notorious 'opium eater' of the book, Confessions of an Opium Eater. A resident of Edinburgh, he travels to London with his daughter, Emily, and gets caught up in a mass murder investigation. Five members of the same family, adults and children, have been slaughtered and mutilated in their home. It mirrors a similar mass killing some years before, known as the Ratcliffe Highway killings, a real life event which De Quincey wrote about in some detail in one of his essays. As a consequence he comes under suspicion as the murderer because whoever did it knew about the other killings in fine detail. The newly formed detective unit arrest him but two of its officers RYan and Becker, are not convinced and, along with Emily, set out to prove his innocence. In order to do that they also need to find out who did actually do it, before the killer can replicate another mass killing which happened twelve days after the first event. What soon becomes very clear is how dangerous this killer is. It seems he will stop at nothing and no one in London is safe until he's been brought to justice.
What to say about this one other than, 'If you like Victorian crime stories with a Dickensian bent then this is for you'. It's a bit gory, I will say that, but it's not horribly so. David Morrell (he wrote Rambo apparently) is a very skilled writer and he brought Victorian life in all its poverty and seediness and dense fog to life for me. It's full of wonderful little history lessons about London, which might sound boring but it's really not. Why were certain streets named as they were? Well, Pall Mall is after a popular game apparently and Piccadily is something to do with someone who made lace collars. What was the connection between The British Empire and the opium trade? Well, it was all pretty murky and conniving and worth reading this book just to find out a lot more about it in my opinion. I liked the use of Emily De Quincey's diaries to enhance the story, I liked the fact that it wasn't necessary to have read Confessions of an Opium Eater in order to understand the story, as I have not (I plan to), and I liked the interactions of the two detectives, Ryan and Becker, as they go about their business on the crime ridden streets of Victorian London. All in all an excellent read, I already have book 2, Inspector of the Dead on my library pile and can't wait to read it.
Next, A Fatal Thaw by Dana Stabenow.
Spring is just beginning in Alaska, the thaw has started, and Kate Shugak is spring-cleaning after the long winter. Twenty miles away a mass murderer sets out on a killing spree and by the time he has finished nine people lie, shot dead, in the snow. His insanity, for that's what it is, shocks the entire local population but more shocks are to come. Ballistics reveal that one of the dead, Lisa Getty, was killed by a bullet that was different to the rest. The mass murderer did not kill Lisa, someone else did.
Having narrowly escaped being killed by the killer herself and being the one to eventually capture him, Kate feels this personally. She's a resident of the state park and thus the perfect person to investigate Lisa's murder, albeit rather reluctantly.
The big problem is that rather a lot of people had reason to do away with Lisa. She had slept with so many married or attached men that most of the women in the park are not at all upset about her death. It also turns out that Lisa was involved in some shady dealings and may have been killed in connection with those. It's a can of worms. When someone tries to kill Kate herself, and another body turns up, things turn even more ugly and it's a race against time to bring the culprit to justice or he/she could well escape forever.
Well, well, who'd have thought that my thinking on this series would have undergone such a radical transformation. I'd didn't dislike the first book at all, I was just a bit 'meh' about it, as Americans would say. But this was a different matter entirely, a truly excellent read. In truth, I whizzed through it, quite unable to put it down.
Of course it did no harm at all that it was set in the state of Alaska. I'm so fascinated by that place that I'll watch any documentary about it (Ben Fogle was there a few weeks back) or read anything set there. And Alaska is so beautifully portrayed in this book... unsurprisingly as I believe the author is from the state. A long scene towards the end appealed greatly to my love of mountains too and I thought that bit in particular was very well written and put over. It certainly thrilled my mountain-loving little heart. To be honest the whole book was beautifully written. This quote particularly struck me:
There is nothing tentative or uncertain about the coming of spring in the Arctic; it does not creep in unannounced. It marches in at the head of an invading army, all flags flying, brass band playing, soldiers at present arms and knee-deep in ticker tape and cheers.
I also the enjoyed the murder mystery aspect of the story. I had some idea of who had done the deed but wasn't sure. There were quite a few different characters who could've done it, all quirky and so well described that I found most of them easy to picture. Kate herself is an excellent main 'detective' character. Her Indian heritage makes for some fascinating insights and scenes that wouldn't appear in your run of the mill detective yarn! I like the romantic aspect, which never overwhelms the plot but fits in nicely, and am wondering where that's going... nowhere obvious I suspect.
It won't take a genius to guess that I now plan to read on in this series. Book 3, Dead in the Water, is already on my library pile (along with 10 other 'must read' books) and I honestly can't wait to read it.
Next, Slade House by David Mitchell
Slade Alley is dark and narrow and very easy to miss. Most people don't even know it exists and they certainly don't know of a certain Slade House. Unsurprisingly, as it was bombed out of existence during WW2 and shouldn't really be there. But every nine years on the 31st. of October it is for a chosen member of the public who is enticed inside. The problem for that person is not entering through the mysterious small iron gate, it's leaving... anyway at all. Someone inside the house wants something from each person they take captive. But what?
Well, this would be a perfect read for R.I.P. in the autumn. It's my first book by David Mitchell so I've no idea whether or not it's typical. I've always thought of his books as challenging but this was not, so perhaps it isn't like his other books? Regardless... this is basically a very well written supernatural story. It read to me like a Victorian or Edwardian ghost story but is actually set between 1979 and the present day. It also reads like series of short stories as it retells the experiences of each person who is kidnapped, I gather this has something to do with it being started on Twitter as an exercise. Whatever, it's very enjoyable ghost yarn which is nicely executed and quite scary... I enjoyed it a lot.
Next, Death of an Airman by the wonderfully named Christopher St. John Sprigg.
The bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, Dr. Marriot, is in England on leave and has decided to learn to fly, thus enabling him to get around his huge diocese more easily, back in his home country. He witnesses a crash at the airfield where his lessons are to take place, one, George Furnace, an experienced pilot, is killed on impact. But was he? Study of the dead body proves this was not the case, he was killed by other means. The problem is, it seems almost impossible for this to have happened. Two police detectives, Creighton and Bray, aided by the bishop, have their work cut out to discover, not only how the murder was done, but also exactly why someone wanted the pilot dead.
This is another of the splendid British Library Crime Classics, this one originally published in 1934. It's quite a complicated little story, lots of twists and turns with an unexpected back story for the age. At least I thought so. I won't say what but it's a problem I definitely associate more with our modern age. There's also a lot about planes and flying, a fair bit of which went right over my head but never mind. It wasn't necessary to understand it all in order to enjoy this very good crime yarn. I liked the fact that among the pilots there were a couple of competent females as well as males so that this did not just feel like a Boy's Own Adventure. Not bad at all. And I like the introductions that author, Martin Edwards, does for these BLCC reissues, although I have to say I read them when I've finished the book in case of spoilers.