Tag Archives: mysteries

Books: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

If you know anything about me and my writing, you probably know I got my start with Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved Holmes since childhood, but I won’t bother to enumerate my passions here. Let’s just say that this book came highly recommended to me by people who know my background.

This is the first in a series called… “Lady Sherlock” or something? I didn’t realize it going in. And here is where I’m going to sound like a purist snob, but it’s not my favorite thing when people decide Sherlock Holmes must actually be a brilliant woman disguised or masquerading as a man. Not because I have anything against brilliant women, or female detectives, or brilliant Victorian female detectives or any combination thereof. But because I often feel like, at that point, the author should come up with his or her own character from whole cloth rather than grafting it onto the famous name of Sherlock Holmes. Either they’re doing it for marketing power, or because they don’t have faith in their own creations, or possibly a bit of both. Whatever the reason, I’m not a fan.

So. In a nutshell: Charlotte Holmes is the youngest daughter in an upper class family in Victorian London. When she falls from grace, she must find a way to get through the world on her own. Her chief asset is her great intellect. You can guess where it goes from there.

The good: This is [mostly] very well written. I enjoyed a number of the characters and the mystery was a fairly good one.

The bad: The first few pages are somewhat garbled and confusing as they jump from viewpoint to viewpoint. Charlotte isn’t actually all that interesting a character in and of herself. It wasn’t until the second half of the book that things really took off and made me want to keep reading. And the author goes to ridiculous lengths to twist Holmes canon into this new form. We’re supposed to gasp once Moriarty is mentioned, but honestly, who didn’t see it coming? Finally, the answer to the mystery comes in a rush and via post rather than Holmes or any of her associates working it out for themselves. Sure, they did a fair amount of deducing earlier on, but the ultimate solution is laid out for them in an explanatory letter.

Part of me supposes this book is simply meant to set up the situation for subsequent titles in the series. (I know there is at least one other.) So perhaps I can forgive the laborious construction of the first half of the novel. But I think I’d honestly more enjoy a book about Lord Ingram or Inspector Treadles or even Mrs. Watson than another one about Charlotte “Sherlock” Holmes. The forced romantic angle between her and Ingram, too, did not work for me. I can believe in the chemistry—it’s well written enough to work—but *sigh*. I could simply have done without it entirely. The fact that Charlotte made such a stupid decision that caused her fall from Society, too, just makes so little sense to me, despite the attempted rationalizations. I suppose it humanizes her to have her make mistakes, but this one beggared belief. Yet the entire book is predicated on it.

So… yeah. It’s by no means a terrible book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, would even have considered 4.5 until that flat ending. The book is entertaining despite its main character rather than because of her. And I still can’t love the borrowing of Sherlock Holmes by this author when, in this case, he’s actually a non-entity. But that’s a personal bias.

Will I read the next one? Eh. Maybe? I’m in no rush for it, but if I saw it at the library, I might at least pick it up for a look. ::shrug::

Books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield

This is another book that was recommended to me, and… it wasn’t terrible, but… I had a difficult time staying interested. Which is strange given the author works very hard to make everything mysterious. Maybe she tries too hard?

I’m not sure I can accurately describe my feelings about this book. Let’s start with the story itself. Margaret Lea is the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer, and she helps her father in his shop. Her mother is an invalid, and the family has a secret: Margaret was born with a conjoined twin who, when cut free, died. They all pretend it never happened, but the “ghost” is there, so to speak. In fact, Margaret spends an almost ridiculous amount of time dwelling on this ghost, which is very real to her. And perhaps I’m being insensitive? But I just couldn’t feel anything about this. Maybe because Margaret herself has very little personality. I suspect this is by design, since Margaret narrates the novel, and her job is to actually tell someone else’s story. If her character were too strong, the other story would fail to shine through. It’s a delicate kind of balance, quite the undertaking by Setterfield. But Margaret is nothing more than lightly tinted glass, and that prevented me somewhat from being fully invested in her or her story.

Margaret sometimes writes little biographies of authors. These are nothing more than tracts, really, but a famous author named Vida Winter notices them and asks Margaret to come stay at her house in Yorkshire so as to write her life story. Miss Winter is known for telling many lies about her past, but she’s old and ill now, and wants to have the truth recorded for posterity or something. So then we get a different story about twin girls growing up in very strange circumstances, &tc. &tc.

And somehow this story isn’t actually all that compelling either. It’s odd, no lie, and there are twists, though I suspected as much if only because I had friends tell me they’d read this book more than once. And it’s the kind of book where, if someone reads it more than once, you conclude it must be because they want to re-read based on some new knowledge. You know, like when you watch a movie that has a big twist, you then want to watch it again and look for all the clues? As I was reading this book, the only reason I could imagine anyone would have for reading it again would be that. Of course, I’m sure many people like it well enough to want to read it for the pleasure of it, but… Overall, it felt somewhat lacking to me. It introduced many characters and pretended to delve when, in fact, we’re left with only slices of information and/or personalities. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone intimately, except maybe Margaret, and she’s the least interesting one.

It’s not a bad book. I gave it three stars, which is to say, it’s average. There are things that I’m sure will stay with me. But overall, for me, this one was just okay. And I did feel like I had to drag myself back to it now and then because the story didn’t light a need in me to keep reading. “Idle,” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. If I hadn’t finished it, I might have idly wondered what happened in the story. The prose itself feels idle, languid. There is no urgency in it, and therefore no urgency was created in me to read, to finish, to find out. So much description… but so very little actual tale.

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I saw after finishing this book that Setterfield also wrote Bellman & Black, another book once recommended to me. That one I was never able to get into; I made it maybe thirty pages in? So perhaps this author just isn’t for me.

Books: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This one was recommended by a friend, and the prologue had me hooked. I’m just sorry the rest of the book wasn’t from that character’s point of view because the voice of the prologue was, to me, far more interesting and authentic. Not that the rest of the book wasn’t, but…

Well, let’s start with the premise. Darren Mathews is black. He also happens to be a Texas Ranger. On suspension pending a grand jury’s findings in a murder. But when an FBI friend puts Darren on the trail of a small-town murder that’s possibly a hate crime, Darren heads to Lark, Texas to investigate.

I’m from Texas. Grew up in a small town then moved to a bigger town then went to to school at UT. Locke’s descriptions are spot on, her tone perfectly captures the culture. (No surprise given she’s from Houston herself.) I read some reviews saying it was all too slow and too descriptive, so it’s possible that I liked this book more than some just because of my connection to the location. For me, reading this book was like going home.

Still and all, it isn’t perfect. Darren is not a particularly interesting main character. The prologue is told from another character’s POV, one I found much more interesting, but also one that isn’t as evident in the rest of the book. Instead, the chief female character is the murdered man’s widow, and she’s every kind of irritating. Between her and Darren, I will say there were times when I was a bit bored and annoyed with the book. Not the story, mind, just the book. The story is a good one, a solid mystery, though it has a somewhat abrupt resolution. And the book itself doesn’t entirely resolve as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I found that to be the most annoying thing about it. Because it makes me think maybe Locke intended or intends to write another one? And yet I feel more or less done with these characters. This doesn’t feel like it should be a series.

Final bit of exasperation comes from the fact the book needed at least one more thorough copy edit. A character named Mack is called “Mark” on page 19, and, well, a few other little things that probably wouldn’t bother anyone not an editor. But having worked as one, they did bother me.

I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, would have gone higher if not for that ending. This is a mystery in the vein of something like True Detective—not a fast-paced thriller, but a meandering thread that is more character based than plot driven. A bit like my Peter, in fact. If you want to immerse yourself in small-town Texas, be disturbed by the true racial undercurrents of the American South, this is the book for you.

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.

Movies: Knives Out

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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This being movie #1 of 2020. (I’m hoping to keep count.)

I have long been a fan of cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein. So of course when I saw the trailers for this one, I had to see it. No one makes movies like this anymore; more often this kind of content goes to the stage, if it gets produced at all. (Certainly, there are still many mystery books published.) Anyway, after being disappointed by J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars, it seemed fitting in a way to go enjoy something by Rian Johnson. (Yes, I did like Last Jedi.)

Knives Out is a fun take on the genre. The viewers are fed the building blocks of the crime early on, and a fair part of the film is about watching the murderer attempt to elude Daniel Craig’s Southern-gentleman detective. But of course there is the standard twist. I saw it coming—I would guess many mystery readers will put it all together fairly swiftly—but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film for me. There is a lot of humor and a lot of charm on show here.

Being from the South myself, I had many friends warn me that Craig’s Southern accent was terrible. Maybe they oversold it because it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Overwrought, sure, but I suspect some of that is on purpose as much of the film is somewhat exaggerated, as is common in the genre. Can I also just mention how glad I am to see Don Johnson getting work these days? Between this and Watchmen, he’s suddenly everywhere, and in great form. My guess is that casting agents are capitalizing on us 80s’ kids’ nostalgia by bringing back actors from our childhoods. Well, huzzah! Makes me plenty happy. (I was actually a bit too young for Miami Vice, but my parents were weirdly permissive in letting me watch it with them. I probably didn’t understand half of what I saw and heard.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, Knives Out is about the abrupt death of a famous mystery novelist, and the swarm of his greedy family. The death is at first ruled a suicide, but then a detective (Craig) is anonymously hired to look into it. Things are complicated by the fact that the writer left all his money to his personal nurse (de Armas, managing incredibly well considering she’s on screen for almost the entire movie). Suspense tempered by humor ensues.

In all, I do recommend this one for fans of a fun murder mystery. It’s a bit too easy to figure out (which is why I shaved a wee bit off the rating), but it’s a good time anyway.

Books: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

I’ve never read any of Rankin’s books before; I happened upon this one in a library display. It looked interesting, so I borrowed it. And for the most part it was interesting. Though I don’t know if it was so interesting that I’d go read any of the previous books in the series.

So there’s this retired Scottish police detective named John Rebus. And there’s a DI named Siobhan Clarke who is kind of his protégée or something? She catches a murder case that for twelve years has been a misper (missing persons) but now a body has suddenly turned up. And Rebus worked on the original inquiry. So… yeah.

Even not having read any of the other books, I was able to follow this fine and discern/infer enough not to be confused. The mystery was a pretty good one, with Rebus getting a B plot in which he gets to poke around in one of Clarke’s old cases too. I guess my problem was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. They’re pretty dry, even at moments when they (I think) are supposed to be witty. So I don’t know that I’d want to revisit them. Then again, I read on Goodreads that this is something like the 22nd book in this series, so maybe the characters have simply atrophied. Maybe they’re way more interesting and engaging in earlier novels.

Anyway… an okay read, but nothing I’m in a hurry to devour more of.