When Sheila Malloy learns her second cousin, Bernard Malloy, is doing the rounds of the family in order to research the family tree, her first reaction is to think what a bore. Bernard is a pompous self-important windbag. She imagines his retirement as headmaster from a boys’ school must have come as a huge relief to the boys.
Hazel Holt’s Sheila Malloy has been likened to a modern day Miss Marple. There are some similarities. Shelia lives a quiet, unremarkable life in a village where she lives in happy retirement taking part in community activities.
When it comes to amateur detectives, maintaining believability can be a challenge, one that Holt has met quite well. Holt has commendably refrained from allowing her protagonist to be put into ridiculously dangerous situations that blind Freddy could see are ill-advised. Sheila’s investigations are limited to visiting various family members and questioning them about Bernard’s visit.
The plot is fairly simple and straightforward. There are no tricksy twists. No hidden surprises waiting to leap out of the closet. If there is a criticism it is that the details about Sheila’s life is a little too mundane. There are only so many times you can read about Sheila being asked to bake a cake for an afternoon tea and maintain interest. Having said that, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is a quick, entertaining read which will appeal to those whose crime fiction tastes are on the lighter side
THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK - James Anderson
It's really easy for latter day homages to early 1930's / 1940's arch, drawing room style comedies or take offs to overdo it to the point where it's cartoonish. THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK doesn't overdo it, but on the other hand it doesn't under deliver on a slightly comic (tongue in cheek) murder drama in the realms of high British aristocracy.
The Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the joys of the cinematographic entertainment and he's more than a bit chuffed at the Hollywood crowd arriving. He doesn't even mind the eccentric screenwriter who invites his own secretary along - even though he's an odd sort of a cove. Of course neither the Earl or the Countess are convinced about Gerry's plan of inviting both her suitors for a close up comparison - but who can talk Gerry out of anything. Catching up with the long-lost cousin and her husband, recently returned from Australia are about the only thing that the Countess can look forward to, whilst the Earl is starting to worry about the history of large house parties at Alderley - seems they have a bit of an history. With the arrival of the totally unexpected Great Italian Actress and the equally early arrival of the very effacing librarian; the party is primed and starting to feel the tension rise. Then a death occurs (of course!).
The murder is being ably investigated by local Inspector Wilkins - who has been involved in mysterious deaths at Alderley in the past. He's been doing an admirable job, but in "rides" Allgood of the Yard. Allgood is here to save the day and solve the puzzle, being a master detective and all round genius (definitely a legend in his own notebooks!)
In this mix of characters there are more daring deeds, bad 'uns, nefarious goings on, creeping around in the dead of night, cheating, snooping, lying, ducking and weaving than you'd think possible to fit into 350 pages. It's a nicely complex plot which doesn't ever become overly complicated and there's some fun twists on the standard of the final "everybody in the drawing room" conclusion.
At the end of the day Merryweather saves the day - now you'll have to read the book to find out which day!
GRIEF ENCOUNTERS - Stuart Pawson
Detective Inspector Charlie Priest is sitting in the monthly superintendent’s briefing doodling idly on his notepad when Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Swainby, one of the ugliest men ever to don a uniform, announces he is leaving the force. He adds that certain allegations are going to be made about him and asks that he be given the benefit of the doubt.
Shortly after that a local member of parliament is photographed in a compromising position in the back of his car. He too chooses to bow out quietly, only he finds a much more permanent method.
Reading GRIEF ENCOUNTERS is like slipping into a pair of your favourite comfy slippers. It may not set the world on fire for being fashionable or chic but you know you are going to enjoy the experience. Stuart Pawson steers away from the dysfunctional stereotypes that abound in crime fiction these days. It is near impossible not to like the amiable Charlie Priest and his team at Heckley nick. These are ordinary people who come to work each day and share jokes, socialise and lead quiet unremarkable lives; just like the majority of us. And perhaps that is the clue to the popularity of Pawson’s Charlie Priest series. The men and women of Heckley could so easily be you and me.
GRIEF ENCOUNTERS is the twelfth in the Charlie Priest series and may there be many more.
BY DEATH DIVIDED - Patricia Hall
Caught by the current, her body tumbles this way and that in the black waters of the River Maze, dragged inexorably forward, her long dark hair trailing out behind her. For days she continues on, unseen, making a lonely passage through villages and marshes, until, at last, her journey comes to an end in a tangle of debris washed down with the flood waters.
BY DEATH DIVIDED is the 14th book in the Thackeray and Ackroyd series. Laura Ackroyd is a journalist - her partner Michael Thackeray is a DCI. Fitting the double central characters, BY DEATH DIVIDED has two main threads - a missing Asian woman and her husband (which Thackeray is investigating) and domestic violence (which Ackroyd is reporting on). Both of these threads - probably predictably - meet up as the book draws to a conclusion. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the predictability of this joining up, as it's done with a fair amount of aplomb and some darn good reasons.
The book has a third central character - Mohammed Sharif is a Policeman, Asian and Muslim background, but living a very non-traditional (and unpopular with his family) lifestyle; he is tightrope walking between his life and that of his family, and his connection with the missing Asian woman (his cousin) and her husband. Some of his "thought processes" probably provide the only minor quibble with the book - he's frequently put into a position of asking questions / doing things that he says to himself "will get him banned from his extended families homes". Yet he goes back. Minor point, but by the second time around it stuck out like the proverbial.
BY DEATH DIVIDED touches on a lot of current day themes within the the context of both main threads - the domestic violence issues discussed include how hard it is to build cases against perpetrators when family members won't talk; how the violence is often inexplicable and rapid - but also how there can actually be an explanation behind it. The investigation into the missing woman works it's way through the differences in lifestyles of traditional and non-traditional Asian families - and how that fits into a wider British community; the problems associated with perceptions of religion; the complications that terrorism brings to communities who are too easily tarred with a wide ranging brush; the difficulties in understanding arranged marriages for those outside.
Nothing in the book is jarring or controversial, but it covers a lot of ground very competently. Built into the narrative is an ongoing development of the relationship between Thackeray and Ackroyd. There's some background to that relationship that's briefly hit upon in BY DEATH DIVIDED, and it would be interesting to know what that is - but it's not going to stop you from diving into this long-running series at this point, if that's what it takes to get you started.
COTSWOLD MYSTERY - Rebecca Tope
A COTSWOLD MYSTERY is light reading without being too cosy. There is a cast of interesting characters and the descriptions of Blockley and its history make the reader want to visit the area. The relationship between Thea and Jessica in particular is well portrayed. The pair are close, but their relationship is frequently prickly so there are flare ups and squabbles. It is just what you’d expect from a strong-minded mother and daughter.
I liked Thea and Jessica a great deal and found the mystery to be engrossing. If there is a criticism of the book it is that perhaps the resolution felt a little rushed, but it is a minor quibble. A COTSWOLD MYSTERY is Rebecca Tope’s fourth in the Cotswold Mystery series.
In CULT KILLERS , Frank Moorhouse brings together a diverse group of killers all with connections to Satanism in its various forms. He tells their stories, from their childhoods to their eventual fate
Beginning with a short history of the characters responsible for the rise of 20th century interest in Satanism and the Occult , Moorhouse then visits the usual suspects: Charles Manson, David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, The Chicago Rippers, and Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker). These had me rolling my eyes and thinking that there was nothing in the book that couldn’t be found on the internet and that the author was simply rehashing what had gone before and trying to link them, often tenuously, with Satanism. Something the tabloid newspapers already do very well.
The second half of the book, however, was much more interesting. This deals with more recent murders where the killers were nearly all troubled teenagers. Yes, we all know about Manson, but how about Vard Vikernes (Count Grishnackh), a young Norwegian man who was deeply involved in the Black Metal music scene? And have you ever heard of Hendrik Mobus? Another Black Metal enthusiast. There is also the vampire-obsessed Nico Claux convicted of murdering a gay man in Paris and suspected of murdering even more. Claux served his time and has now forged a career for himself painting serial killers. He even has his own website http://www.nicolasclaux.com/ Charming! .
The last few chapters in the book are more tragic than frightening. They deal with teenagers who seemed to have little chance in life but whose fate took them down the path to killing. The final biography features a troubled young Scottish man, Luke Mitchell, whom the author feels was a victim of media and community hysteria. He isn’t completely convinced of the young man’s guilt.
In the final chapter Moorhouse offers his thoughts on what has happened in society to create these teenage murderers. He blames a number of things: the politics of greed, globalisation and the subsequent closure of high-employment industries. This puts more pressure on already struggling families. Then there is the erosion of wages and conditions forcing parents to work longer and longer hours . Add to that the gradual cutting in funding of education etc which has cut-off one way of escaping their situation. He admits that isn’t the whole picture, but feels it goes some way to explaining the phenomenon of teenage killers.
After a slow start I found CULT KILLERS a fascinating look at the dysfunctional world of many teenagers in today’s society. It does offer explanations for some of the killings and perhaps some solutions, but whether there is the political will to change things is another question entirely.