Halloween Bingo 2020: The Rest of the Game and Wrap-Up

Sooo, that’s another bingo game behind us already!  Many thanks to our game hosts for successfully moving the game from BookLikes to a new venue and organizing one heck of a game despite that venue’s built-in limitations.  I had a great time and would only have wished I could have participated more throughout the game (particularly in October).

As I had expected, RL started to run major interference by mid-September; and while initially I was at least still able to continue reading (even though I no longer had any time to compose update posts here on WP), by the beginning of October, even reading was essentially a no-go.  Just as well that I had powered through my remaining books by that time … otherwise, this would likely have been the first year in which I hadn’t made it all the way to blackout.

Anyway — here’s my blacked-out bingo card — gained after having had to wait for Doomsday (to be called … on the game’s very last day, at that: could there possibly have been a better conclusion to this year’s game?), with my “virgin” card below and my final spreadsheet at the end of this post:

 

My Master Update Post

 

The Game’s Final Books

… (roughly) in the order in which I read them:

 

Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver


Book 2 in Novik’s series of books updating classical fairy tales (though not, actually, a sequel to Uprooted — this one very much stands on its own ground): essentially, a blend of Rumpelstiltskin, Baba Yaga, and the English / British version of the elf lore, set in a fictional Eastern European country that is, however, very clearly inspired by Russia — down to the use of proper names, titles, and other terms, which are either downright Russian or a sort of pan-Slavic bowdlerization of Russian, Polish, or other Slavic terms.

Novik almost lost me during the initial scene-setting, which struck me as overly elaborate and wordy (she’s clearly her own greatest fan where it comes to the use of descriptive language or, for that matter, even “showing” instead of “telling”); but once the story got going, I was happy enough to come along for the ride, and there were enough innovative elements to keep me interested throughout.  It was probably a good thing that both the source material and the setting were entirely fictional, though (even if heavily borrowing from Russian and pan-Slavic elements), because I’m almost certain that if Novik had aimed for an existing historical setting (as she does in her Temeraire series), she’d have had me wincing at some point or other. — I may go on to read Uprooted or another fairy tale-based book by her eventually, but it’s not a priority, and after this first taste of her writing, I am even less eager to go anywhere near Temeraire.

 

The Medieval Murderers: The Lost Prophecies


This was a reread, which this time around I liked quite a bit better than when I first read it a few years ago.  The Medieval Murderers series of round robins are the perfect books for the “Relics and Curiosities” Halloween Bingo category, as their very concept consists in following one (supposedly cursed or unlucky) item through history, from its first use or appearance at some point in the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day (or beyond); so they have become sort of my go-to series for this bingo square.  Yet, in this particular instance I was sorely tempted to change my mind and assign the book to either the “Doomsday” or the “Dystopian Hellscape” square, as it ends with a scary-and-believable-as-hell doomsday scenario set in a post-climate-catastrophe future, with half the world (e.g., all of Africa and India) essentially burnt up and turned into a scorching, uninhabitable desert, and the better part of the rest half-submerged by the world’s oceans after the melting of the polar ice caps.  (It’s also a showcase for not extrapolating too noticeably from the political order at the time of writing, though, as it was written pre-Brexit and more or less takes Britain’s continued membership in the EU as a given … oh well.)

Like in all the books in the series, the individual sections of The Lost Prophecies (which concerns a book of doomsday prophesies compiled by a 6th century Irish monk) can, at heart, stand on their own, even though there are occasional cross-references; particularly, of course, to the “dangerous book”‘s mysterious origins.  Individually and collectively, the book’s various parts take the reader on a journey from 6th century Ireland to medieval Devon, late medieval Cambridge, the Tartar Steppe, rural England in Shakespeare’s times, and, as mentioned above, the doomsday world of the “dangerous book”‘s final prophecies.  As is to be expected in a round robin — and as is typically the case in this series, too — not all of the individual mystery sections are equally strong, and I’ve found my previous likes and dislikes essentially confirmed upon this reread, even if, as I said, I liked the book quite a bit better as a whole this time around.

 

A.S. Byatt: Ragnarok


Ultimately, I decided to go with Byatt’s take on Ragnarök for the “Doomsday” Halloween Bingo square, because let’s face it, doomsday doesn’t get anymore terrifying than in Norse mythology — and I am glad that Byatt, for one, didn’t try to humanize the Norse deities, as so many other authors do in their attempt to make them understandable to modern readers.  (You can easily do that to the gods of Greek mythology — and honestly, that’s one of the reasons why as a child I found them, and Greek mythology as a whole, much easier to understand than Norse mythology; but try to assign human characteristics and motivations to Thor or Loki and you’re instantly missing their intrinsic nature.)  By the same token, I found it intriguing that Byatt herself — as the “thin child” through whose eyes we are witnessing Ragnarök here is, as she herself confirms in the book’s afterword, an only thinly-veiled edition of Byatt’s younger self — was drawn so much to the Norse version of doomsday in her younger years.  Of couse, what with WWII persistently threatening to destroy her own world, on the one hand it’s easily understandable that she would turn to the kind of storytelling that centers on precisely this sort of catastrophe; on the other hand, the thoroughly alien and hard-to-grasp Norse deities don’t seem to be the very first, logical point of identification coming to mind.  All the more thought, however, Byatt clearly put into her approach to Ragnarök, and all the more the whole thing is to the benefit of the reader … even if, like myself, that reader still comes away preferring Greek to Norse mythology.

 

Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Tom Dooley


Just as the Medieval Murderers series has, over the years, become my go-to series for “Relics and Curiosities”, Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series is my go-to series for the Southern Gothic bingo square.  I’ve enjoyed all of the books from that series that I’ve read so far; none more than The Ballad of Frankie Silver.  This particular entry, while not a complete let-down, was thus a bit unexpected as it is the first time that I could not empathize with one of the major POV characters (which, I find more and more, is kind of crucial to my enjoyment of a book); not least because I thought her character unnecessarily clichéd.  And although McCrumb insists that — like in her other Ballad novels — the essential story is based on historic fact, she seems to have given in to conjecture here more than she usually does, which is something that I find problematic at least if, like here, it involves people who have actually lived, and have been a part of the events described, though not necessarily (or at least not demonstrably) in the way set forth by the author. — Research and faithful narration aside, however, McCrumb can still write rings around many another writer, and her scene-setting and ear for dialogue (both interior and exterior) is as flawless as ever here.

 

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Original review HERE.

Additional separate post HERE — Macavity, Mr. Mistoffelees & Co. in all their feline glory still very much deserve a post of their own!

 

Michael Jecks: The Malice of Unnatural Death


I’ve been a fan of Michael Jecks’s Knights Templar series for a number of years now, and although he pretty much grabbed me with the opening scene of that series’s very first book (and never mind that that particular book did come across as more of a typical “early” book later on), I keep enjoying how much better the series gets the further it progresses.  I am not reading it in order (though I’ve read enough books at this point to have a fairly solid grasp of the two main characters’ overall story arch) — so far this hasn’t greatly bothered me, but I may find it more difficult to go back to some of the earlier books after having read this particular installment, which, never mind its occasionally gut-wrenching scenes, is a veritable page-turner and darned near perfectly crafted in virtually every respect.  It’s also the perfect Halloween (bingo) read, in that it combines a (medieval) mystery — set in Exeter and the main characters’ nearby Dartmoor home — with apparent elements of the supernatural; concerning, as it does, the activities of a necromancer — an assassin claiming to be in league with the devil and using powers bestowed on him by the devil in order to carry out his murders (in the dead of winter, at that).  All told, this was definitely one of the highlights of my bingo reads this year.

 

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice


Another (re-re-)reread and, not just in its medieval setting, the perfect follow-up to Michael Jecks’s The Malice of Unnatural Death: The story of a young man professing an earnest desire to become a novice at Shrewsbury’s abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul and yet, soon revealing in his sleep that he is haunted by demons that will need to be exorcised before any decision about his future can be made — not just the decision whether he is meant for the cloister at all.

This is one of my favorite installments in Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series; I’ve revisited both the book and the screen adaptation starring Derek Jacobi numerous times … and I confess that petty li’l me always gets an extra kick out of seeing the odious Brother Jerome brought down a peg or three here when he is temporarily rendered incapable of speech.  (And I feel secure in the knowledge that not merely Cadfael but Abbot Radulfus shares that sentiment, so I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it, either.)

 

Alice Hoffman: The River King


This was, incredibly, my first taste of Hoffman’s writing — in hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have started with her Practical Magic books after all (but then again, I might be wondering about the same thing in reverse — i.e., whether I should have started with this book — if I had).  Either way, I was a bit more underwhelmed than I had expected to be — with this book, at any rate: I”ve always been much less certain that the Practical Magic books are for me, and am even less certain about that now.

This is a murder mystery with supernatural elements set in a New England prep school: I found the main characters and the setting well enough executed, but I suppose I’m just too prosaically-minded to see what the supernatural elements added to the (by and large sordid, but hardly original) story — and Hoffman’s writing at times has a downright manipulative quality that I found more and more jarring the further I progressed in the book.  I also have a serious bone to pick with the ending, which doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the victims of bullying in this (the real, not the supernatural) world — in a book that clearly aims to send a message, that is just about the last sort of message I’d want to see.

 

Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho


Another comfort (re)read (well, its been that kind of year … and fall): It was more or less “six of this, half a dozen of the other” whether I’d use this book for the “Film at 11” bingo square and something from Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series for “Read by Flashlight or Candlelight” or vice versa, but I ultimately decided to go with the more obvious focus on the book as actually written here, simply because this book’s screen adaptation is one of the Morse TV episodes I care somewhat less for than the series as a whole.  The reason is that the screenwriters’ fiddling with the plot (which is present, to some extent, in all episodes of the TV series) in this instance creates a structure that is several degrees more serpentine than the already fairly convoluted plot of the actual book — which in turn, for a number of reasons isn’t my absolute favorite in the series, either, but as a writing exercise it’s still superior to the screenplay.  (No reflection on the cast: John Thaw, Kevin Whately, and Gemma Jones are all in great form.)

Another reason for my decision to pick this book for this particular square was that the audio version is narrated by Samuel West, who does an absolutely phantastic job, as he does for the entire series.

In keeping with the theme of this square, I made this listening experience as comfortable and laid-back as possible; starting while having a bath and finishing in bed — with my obligatory black(ish) Halloween bingo good luck cat by my side. — Thanks again to Lora who agreed to flip this square for my original card’s “Stone Cold Horror” … I’d never have found a horror novel set in winter on my shelves (nor been inclined to read it even if I’d found one, this year being what it is)!  You’ve got to admit … this was the much more “feel good” version:


 

Patricia Highsmith: Ripley Under Ground


This year’s Halloween Bingo buddy read — thanks again to Christine, BrokenTune and Lillelara for the fun of reading this book together!  Somehow, that seems to be the way Patricia Highsmith’s books are enjoyed best … Though I have to say, while I struggled with Strangers on a Train, I’m getting a complete and total kick out of Tom Ripley.  I mean, sure, he’s a psychopath, and it was slightly even more fun to watch him turn into the monster that he actually is in the first book … but it was still eye-rolling good fun to watch his antics in the arts world.  (He also seems to be one of the notable exceptions to the fact that, as a rule, I have to be able to empathize with at least one of a book’s POV characters, see above.  Which is a rule that of course also applies to Highsmith’s books — hence, in part, my response to Strangers on a Train — and c’mon on, you can’t seriously root for a psychopath … or can you?!)

 

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White


Thank God for writers like Wilkie Collins, who always provide(s) me with enough options to fill at least one horror-related bingo square without having to reach for a spell card … and still read something generally classified as “horror” (or “gothic”) without actually being scared out of my wits and unable to sleep afterwards.  In The Woman in White, it’s all in the psychology: At heart, this is more mystery than what we’d call “horror” today — chiefly concerning, as it does, the identity of the eponymous “Woman in White” and the goings-on in a house that, it turns out, she used to call her home — but one character (the odious Count Fosco) alone provides enough of a creep factor to satisfy the definition as “gothic” three times over, and most of the other tropes of the genre are present as well (mysterious lonely country estate, women in peril, doomed love, fire, etc.) — For those who may have struggled with Collins’s The Moonstone: This is similar in structure in that it, too, has several narrators, but none of them have quite as many idiosyncrasies as does Betteredge, in particular, in The Moonstone; and I also found The Woman in White somewhat more tightly plotted.

 

W. Stanley Moss: Ill Meet by Moonlight

The book I’ve wanted to read ever since I visited Anógia village, high up in the Cretan Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) massif, several years ago: The first-hand account of the WWII abduction of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion, after which Kreipe was marched all the way up the mountain and, ultimately back down again to the southern coast of Crete and, from there, into English captivity in Egypt for the entire rest of the war.  I’ve posted about this before, so by way of background I’ll let that other post say all that is necessary … for purposes of this update, let me just add that “the book itself” is a ripping great read and then some; not just because it’s all true (what need for fiction if reality can write this sort of story?!), but also because Moss’s narrative style is tremendously engaging; affable and charming, understated, and straightforward at the same time. — And for anybody wondering just how fast friends he and Patrick Leigh Fermor (only incidentally his commanding officer in the venture) really were, I’ll give you just one excerpt; straight from Moss’s diary, which forms the backbone of the text, in this particular instance, from their first day in the cave (!) where their little group awaited the arrival of “Paddy” Leigh Fermor and the rest of their contingent:

“To remain here for a few days in comparative idleness will not be unpleasant.  I have with me the books which Paddy and I selected in Cairo to take with us, and among them there is something to suit every mood.  My literary companions are Cellini, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoi, and Marco Polo, while in a lighter vein there are Les Fleurs du Mal, Les Yeux d’Elsa, and Alice in Wonderland.  Then there are The Oxford Book of Verse and the collected Shakespeare which Billy MacLean gave us on our last night in Tara [before starting on the mission] …”

Only a person whom Patrick Leigh Fermor considered a true brother in spirit would find it perfectly normal — even indispensable — to bring (a) any books at all, (b) so many books, and (c) these books of all the books in the world on a potentially deadly mission in enemy territory (as Crete was for the Brits in WWII) … not to mention, consider Baudelaire’s controversial masterpiece and Louis Aragon’s patriotic wartime poems to his muse Elsa something “in a lighter vein.”  (And, of course, this is only one of several passages in the book that literally had me do a double take.)

N.B.: I’ve since found out that above and beyond the passage quoted in my other post, Leigh Fermor actually did end up writing his own full, book-length account of that particular mission, too … guess what went straight into my online shopping basket once I’d made that discovery.

 

J.J. Connington: Nordenholt’s Million


This was a book I instantly knew I’d be saving for Halloween Bingo after I’d read its back cover blurb. And it proved chillingly topical for our times — it sort of describes the combined effect of Brexit (and Trump in the U.S.), venture capitalism, and a rampant, out-of-control biological pest coming together.  (As a minor but significant tangent, also throw in religious fundamentalism.)

In the book’s case the pest is a bacterium that destroys the chemical compounds in which plants ingest nitrogen; in other words, it’s a killer with the capability of destroying the world’s entire food reserve (not just plant-based — animals directly or indirectly (via their prey) feed off plants, too, after all) in the space of less than a year. In the crisis brought about by the bacterium’s spread, a businessman / venture capitalist “relieves” the inept government of the reins of power — first behind the scenes, ultimately overtly — and puts in place a scheme where 90% of the British population (and 99+ % of the world’s population) are condemned to starve, while the remaining 10% of Brits — all of them, of course carefully selected — are put to use in creating a new, utopian society, which alone is in possession of nitrogenated soil and can grow plants.  (When religious fundamentalism takes hold in that community of the “select few”, the leader of the cult is first publicly unmasked as a fraud and then, literally only seconds later, shot dead in full view of the crowd he has amassed.)

I was shocked to see that this book was published in 1923; after having read the first chapters, I’d have expected at the very least that Connington had seen Hitler’s “Enabling Law” and use of the press for propaganda purposes in action, but no … and yet, he foretells them with a frightening degree of accuracy, only on the basis of the British system (which, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the book does include adjourning parliament to avoid inconvenient questions. And yes, at the moment when the crisis hits, the future dictator is an MP himself, too … by way of a sort of lateral activity, with the ultimate aim of furthering his venture capitalist interests). The way in which Connington pretty much foretells everything we saw with Hitler, and everything we’re now seeing with the combined effects of Trump, Brexit, a venture capital-based economic system AND the pandemic is scary to the nth degree … I’m glad he only ever put his ideas into this book and didn’t, himself, set about putting them into practice.

Connnington was, incidentally, a chemist by training, so he clearly knew what he was writing about as far as the scientific elements are concerned.  In fact, he was even prescient enough to foresee the use of nuclear energy — it’s the energy on which his future, utopian cities are ultimately run.  (They also consist of buildings made of other materials than stone or concrete, not unlike the building materials that are actually used today.)

If, in the final analysis, I only ended up rating the book 3 1/2 stars after all, this is based on essentially three reasons, and all of them only truly materialize in the final part(s) of the book — though some of these issues already start cropping up about halfway through:

(1) In terms of social clichés and perceptions, Connington was, alas, very much a man of his times.  There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the book contains some glaringly racist passages (and it’s not unconscious racism, either — he clearly meant every word); and, similarly, his take on women and women’s role in society is … well, let’s say, at the very least problematic.  There’s a distinct element of misogyny; even if it’s not quite as blatant as the racism (and he may even have believed he was doing something “advanced” in expressly giving one particular woman more of an active voice / role in building that utopian society).

(2) Connington, like a fair number of his contemporaries, was in favor of euthanasia — which is a fact I only know because I’ve read Martin Edwards’s two books about Golden Age crime fiction; but even if I hadn’t known this going in, it would have been hard to miss here.  However terrifying the first half of the book, the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that the author himself doesn’t, fundamentally, seem to see anything wrong with starting from a “clean slate”, as it were, of hand-picked superior human material (although even he does seem to balk at the more horrific aspects of achieving such a “clean slate”).  I haven’t read anything else by Connington yet — except for one mystery short story, that is — and I’m willing to grant that, had he foreseen the extent to which the Nazis took their particular version of a “clean slate”, he, too, would have been horrified.  (He died shortly after WWII; maybe some of his final literary output can provide some guidance as to his thinking once the world had begun to learn about the unspeakable horrors wreaked by the Nazis.)  Still, it’s an unnecessarily jarring feature.

(3) The utopian society ultimately emerging from all the turmoil is presented only in the sketchiest of terms, in great contrast to the description of the destruction of the world as it had been known until then.  Granted, this wasn’t Connington’s focus, but the ending of the book still feels rushed; and I found it hard to envision how, even after the discovery of nuclear energy (for which not one but several scientists knowingly and selflessly sacrifice their own lives … really, Mr. Connington??), the whole thing is supposed to have worked out … especially without the least further social turmoil.  As Connington himself shows, human society doesn’t work like that — and it’s not just the “dumb, gullible masses” (whoever they are) who won’t be pacified by the “bread and games” approach forever.

Still, I am glad that I have read this book — and there were times when, in the first half especially, I very much felt like quoting huge passages verbatim and yelling at people: “Listen to this — and this is from a book published in 1923, for crying out loud!”

 

Julie Smith (ed.) & Various Authors: New Orleans Noir


This year’s final bingo book: an anthology of mystery short stories set in New Orleans, by some of the Big Easy’s best-known crime writers.  As is usually the case with such compilations, some of the entries struck more of a chord with me than others, but taken together, they definitely conveyed an image of how the city just might see itself — or at least, some of of its seamier sides.  In a way, it also proved as fitting a final Halloween Bingo book as Nordenholt’s Million (which I had initially expected to finish last): what I hadn’t known when I picked this anthology — but instantly learned from the introduction — was that this book was put together in support of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster aid.  And in a year largely dominated by a global pandemic, that seems as apt a way to conclude my Halloween Bingo reads as having to wait for the Doomsday square to be called in order to be able to record my full “called and read” card blackout.

 

Previous Status Updates:
Week 1
Week 2

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Blackout! (And bingos Nos. 12 and 13.)

 

Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

Witih today’s call, I’ve blacked out my card, in addition to collecting my final bingos (nos. 12 and 13).

Somewhat to my surprise, after completing my books for my official bingo card at the end of September, I even managed to read enough extra books to put together a supplemental inofficial card throughout the month of October, so this year’s game has really exceeded my wildest expectations in every conceivable way!

 

My Official 2019 Bingo Card:

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week
Fourth Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

The Extra Squares / Card and Books:

13: Rex Stout: And Be a Villain
Supernatural: Jennifer Estep: Kill the Queen
New Release: Sara Collins: The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Genre: Mystery: Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Romantic Suspense: Georgette Heyer: The Unfinished Clue
Terror in a Small Town: Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Halloween: Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Monsters: Terry Pratchett: Pyramids
Shifters: Joan D. Vinge: Ladyhawke
Sleepy Hollow: Dennis Lehane: The Given Day
Film at 11: J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls
In the Dark, Dark Woods: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Free (Raven) Square: Various Authors: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Grave or Graveyard: Kathy Reichs: Grave Secrets
Genre: Suspense: Tony Medawar (ed.) & Various Authors: Bodies from the Library 2
Southern Gothic: Sharyn McCrumb: The Unquiet Grave
Baker Street Irregulars: Joanne Harris: Gentlemen & Players
Darkest London: J.V. Turner: Below the Clock
Magical Realism: Joanne Harris: Chocolat
It was a dark and stormy night: Peter May: The Lewis Man
Full Moon: Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon
King of Fear: John Le Carré: Absolute Friends
Serial / Spree Killer: Steven Kramer, Paul Holes & Jim Clemente: Evil Has a Name
Classic Noir: Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train
Classic Horror: Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk

Note: With regard to the extra squares, I added the image for the relevant square for every book completed (= “read”); and I am using my “called” markers for the main card to indicate “called and read”.

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
http://themisathena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Bingo No. 3 and Reading Blackout

* Triple Bingo Happy Dance *

Well, that went by much faster than I had anticipated … Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

I’ll continue tracking my bingos of course — and since we now have so many more great squares than can possibly fit on one person’s card, I’ll just continue reading for a few of the extra squares that didn’t make it onto mine.

And I hope everybody else is going to continue / start collecting bingos soon as well!

 

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
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Halloween Bingo 2019: The Third Week

Well, the third week really hit my bingo experience out of the ballpark this year — and not only Pbecause it finished with my first completed bingo; that was actually just the icing on the cake.  But it included no less than three absolutely knock-out fabulous books, plus a fourth that was almost as good — and the remaining three, though not quite reaching this level, were at least mostly enjoyable, all in their own particular way.  So without any further ado:

 

The Books

Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge)

Based on everything I’d previously heard about this book, it took me quite a while to get up my nerve to read it, because I knew I’d be in for a fairly merciless game of psychological hares and foxes — which however, of course, meant that it would be a natural choice for the “Psych” bingo square.

Sofi Oksanen’s The Purge contrasts the early 1990s’ post-Soviet Union independent Estonia with that of the WWII and post-WWII era which had led to the country’s being swallowed up by the Soviet Union.  The setting in which this happens is the isolated farm where one of the novel’s protagonists, has been living almost all her life, and where at the beginning of the book the other protagonist — a young woman who is obviously on the run — suddenly appears, seeking refuge.  Although the two women have never seen each other in their entire lives (and the young refugee for all practical purposes is Russian rather than Estonian), it soon becomes clear that it is by no means an accident for her to show up in this place and none other.  What follows is a dance macabre style exploration of death, guilt, betrayal, running away from versus accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, and one (or two?) families’ entanglement with Estonia’s and the Soviet Union’s brutal social and political order in the second half of the 20th century.  This is an uncomfortable read, but it perfectly encapsulates the mental, psychological, political and social purge that every society will embark on both upon slipping into and upon freeing itself from a dictatorial system; and particularly in today’s political climate it comes highly recommended.

 

Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

And talking about books that ought to be read, today more than ever, this turned out to be yet another one, right on the heels of Oksanen’s.  The eighth Discworld novel and the first book of the Night Watch subseries — but first and foremost, an exploration of just how a political system can fail and slip into dictatorships right before everybody’s eyes. Whatever it was that motivated Pratchett to write this book exactly 30 years ago, in the waning days of the Cold War, it is eerily prescient and feels as if it were written this or last year; so exactly does it foretell recent events (particularly in the UK and the U.S., but by far not merely there).  There is, of course, also plenty of Pratchett’s trademark pith and humor, and plenty of lines that, at least in the first part of the book, will make you laugh out loud; but in the second half, more often than not your laughter is going to get stuck right in your throat.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering about my bingo square attribution, it features dragons.  Plural — but one in particular.

 

Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery

Allingham’s first mystery, and it clearly shows off her talent as a writer from the start.  As in the first Albert Campion book (The Crime at Black Dudley) and several of the subsequent Campion mysteries, there’s an international “detour” — here: literally so — that is not in any way, shape and form necessary to the plot and that I could therefore have done without, and it’s no particular surprise that Allingham later chose a somewhat more flamboyant hero for the series she would come to write.  But for an afternoon’s (or in my case, morning’s) worth of entertainment this works very nicely indeed.

 

BBC Audio: The Lady Detectives

See separate post HERE.

 

Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild

The first book of Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy and, while it started out enjoyable enough, another book that ultimately failed to live up to my expectations.  (It’s by no means awful, but it also didn’t entice me to continue with the series, however much the ending may have be trying to do just that.)

The book concerns a teenage girl from the slums who in the course of an anti-magician rally with fatal consequences — though not for herself — accidentally discovers that (drumroll …) she has magical powers herself and is henceforth sought out by the Magicians’ Guild who (1) want to make her one of their own and (2) even if she should refuse that rather unexpeted honor — all things magical ordinarily being perceived as something restricted to the country’s ruling families — have decided that in her own interest as well as for the common good, a clamp must be put on her magical abilities, which indeed quickly turn out to be destructive and beyond her own control (a control she can only be taught by a fully-trained magician).

The first part of the book, which essentially concerns the hide and seek game involving the magicians’ hunt for the protagonist, is sprightly enough — though even there the book is displaying its first unnecessary lengths –, but the second part, instead of kicking things into a higher gear, is riddled with lengthy and largely unnecessary exposition, and from the book’s mid-point onwards the plot is entirely predictable.  The world-building, too, is only so-so: hardly original — and it doesn’t become anymore so just by giving fancy names to ordinary everyday creatures such as farm animals, crops, or certain types of city buildings such as boarding houses, taverns and brothels –, and I am seriously sick of fantasy novels that believe they’re doing something clever by slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of ordinary everyday names.  (The heroine’s first name is Sonea — pronounced Son-EE-a –; one of the magicians is called Dannyl (pronounced DANNyl.)

In summary, I miight have enjoyed this a good deal more if (1) it had been only about half (or at most, 2 /3) of its actual length and (2) the second half of the book had lived up to the promise of the first half, instead of delving into banal predictability.

 

Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones

Aaah, but what a joy to move from the week’s last so-so book to another absolute stunner!  I had every faith this was going to be the case, and Ellis delivers in spades — in a mystery that this time comes calling so close to DI Jackman’s home that in reality he would probably have had to recuse himself from the investigation.  (Obviously we can’t have such a thing in a mystery, but to give Ellis her due, at least she doesn’t duck the issue; and by and large she handles it more successfully here than a similar — albeit slightly less weighty — situation in an earlier book.)  I know that at least one other bingo participant is still looking to read this book, so I won’t say a word about the plot — and I only mentioned Jackman’s personal involvement because this is essentially the setup of the entire thing and we’re being told about it right from the start — but what I will say is that this book came very, very close to competing with Their Lost Daughters for the spot of my favorite installment in the entire series; and just when I thought I had figured it all out, Ellis kicked things onto a whole new level.  Brava!

 

Toni Morrison: Beloved

… and finally: The book that accompanied me throughout the week, bit by bit, in both audio and the print version.  And oh, what a writer the world lost when Toni Morrison died.  This wasn’t my first book by her, but it brought home her extraordinary qualities as a writer all over again: There isn’t a word wasted here; Morrison even makes every single sillable stand up and be counted, and each and every one of them comes from a place deep inside her and reaches out right to the reader.  The narration is not linear; every fact unveiled simultaneously shrouds two more in allusion and “rememory” too painful to be allowed to come to the surface; and both this and the changing viewpoints make for a canvas that requires time, patience, and the reader’s full attention to pull it out from its multiple layers of protection — and the complete picture, when it is finally out in the open, is one crying out with unbearable heartbreak.

Much as I enjoyed listening to Toni Morrison’s narration as a companion experience to the book, I would join those who counsel against relying on the audiobook alone if this is your first experience with the book: Morrison’s vocal performance essentially does the same as her writing, coaxing forth and simultaneously shushing bits and pieces of the story as they come up in the text, so it adds yet another layer of complexity to a book that, based on its story alone, already calls on the full engagement of the reader’s senses and awareness.

Whichever way you choose to experience this book, though — if you only read one book by Toni Morrison, by all means let it be this one.  She deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved alone.

 

The Card

… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference:

 

Original post:
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BBC Audio: The Lady Detectives

Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Redhill Sisterhood / L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace: Mr Bovey’s Unexpected Will / Anna Katharine Green: The Golden Slipper / Wilkie Collins: The Law and the Lady

Halloween Bingo 2019: Read by Flashlight or Candle Light


The Lady Detectives is a compilation of four full cast radio dramatizations of early Golden Age mysteries focusing on women detectives; not only pioneering works of detective fiction as such but works that give their women protagonists much greater agency than the majority of their female contemporaries would have had in real life — without, however, leaving the social confines of the time when these stories were actually written (and when they are also set).

Given both the “gaslight” setting of these mysteries and the length of this compilation (about three hours total), this seemed the ideal audiobook to use for the “Read by Flashlight or Candle Light” square.  I listened to the first two episodes last night while taking a bath, with my lovely new changing bottle lights on a chair next to the tub, and the remaining two episodes afterwards in bed (with a flashlight style light on my bedside table).

The Redhill Sisterhood by Catherine Louisa Pirkis is one of Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke mysteries — a collection of which I ordered forthwith after having listened to this dramatization, which was by far my favorite of the lot.  Assuming that the dramatization represents Ms. Brooke’s character by and large accurately, she is an enterprising young lady who is not afraid to put the (of course exclusively male) professional police firmly in their place, and of all four female amateur detectives featured here, she is also one of the two most resembling Sherlock Holmes in her approach to logics and reasoning.  Unlike the three other ladies featured in this collection, she seems to be investigating crimes merely for the fun of the thing, not out of some sort of personal or charitable compulsion (which especially endeared her to me). — This particular case concerns suspicions of robbery and theft that have arisen against a society of nuns in rural Surrey.

Mr Bovey’s Unexpected Will is one of several cooperatios by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, featuring Ms. Florence Cusack: both Sherlock Holmes’s and Loveday Brooke’s equal in razorsharp logics and stone cold detection powers, but unlike Ms. Brooke, secretly suffering from a nervous affliction (which in turn provides her with her own medically-trained Watson-type sidekick).  In this particular case, she is engaged in an investigation involving fraudulent coinage and a millionaire’s singular will.  Like all stories co-written by Robert Eustace (who was a doctor by training), the mystery’s solution substantially depends on scientific processes; but while part of it is easy to anticipate (as is at least part of Pirkis’s Redhill Sisterhood‘s solution), enough remains — at least in this dramatization — to create a bit of an element of surprise at the end.

The Golden Slipper is one of Anna Katharine Green’s Violet Strange mysteries, involving an investigation into mysterious instances of theft occurring in New York’s upper crust society. Ms. Strange is a member of that society herself (and thus arguably ideally placed to conduct this type of investigation), but she has a charitable motive to seek out gainful employment instead of living off her father’s money and waiting for a husband to come along.

Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, finally, involves a woman who, shortly after her marriage, finds out that her husband’s name (and thus her own married name) is false and that under his real name, he had stood accused — without either having been convicted or judicially cleared — of having murdered his first wife.  Impulsively and staunchly believing in his innocence, she sets out to clear him once and for all. — Even in this dramatization, which condenses a 400+ page novel down to less than an hour’s worth of listening, it becomes clear just how much of this story is pure Victorian melodrama; yet, Collins doubtlessly has to be credited with having created not merely some of the first detective novels as such but even one (in 1875) that features a woman as its chief investigator.

 

Original post:
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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/03 (Day 3): Favorite Ghostly Tales?

     

As I said in my first pre-party post, I’m not much of a horror reader, and the ghost stories I like almost all either feature a ghost who is the author’s messenger for some larger point, or they’re chiefly characters who have had such an impact on another character’s life, or on a given place, that their “ghostly” presence is in effect like a lasting shadow of their living presence.  Or, of course, we’re really just talking fairy tale — or satire / parody.

It goes without saying that this definition includes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Signalman; as well as the likes of:

* Aladdin from 1001 Nights (the genie is at least a kind of ghost, right?)
* A.S. Byatt: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
* Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
* Henry James: The Turn of the Screw
* Naguib Mahfouz: Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales
* Toni Morrison: Beloved
* Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
* Otfried Preußler: The Little Ghost (a wonderful children’s story about not fearing “the other”)
* Anne Rice: Violin (the last book by her that I read before she turned BBA)
* Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster)
* The ghost stories of Edith Wharton (wonderfully atmospheric)

… and of course …

* Oscar Wilde: The Canterville Ghost

 

 

Original post:
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Halloween Bingo 2017: Update 3, Part 2 — Catching up on Reviews

 

The “bingo” squares and books read:

  

 

My Square Markers and “Virgin” Bingo Card:

“Virgin” card posted for ease of tracking and comparison.


Black Kitty:
Read but not called


Black Vignette:
Called but not read

Black Kitty in Black Vignette: Read and Called

Black Kitty Center Square: Read = Called

Current Status of Spreadsheet:

(Note: Physical print editions unless stated otherwise)

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 3:


Martin Edwards: The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The standout read among this batch of bingo books; a tour de force parcours through 50 years of British crime writing (from 1900 to 1950), with sidelights on authors and books published in the U.S., continental Europe, Argentina and Japan.  Martin Edwards is concurrently President of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club, but more importantly for present purposes, he was the Detection Club’s first archivist: In my first reading status update I compared this book to what it would sound like if you get a walking encyclopedia talking, and to the print equivalent of having your favorite actor reading the phone book, but what could easily have been bone-dry in another author’s hands makes for a more than compelling read in Edwards’s.

Though the “100 books” (in effect, 102) chosen to exemplify the various stages and aspects of British crime writing as it emerged in the first half of the 20th century are the primary narrative vehicle, each section of the book has a short introductory chapter, and it’s these in particular that make your head spin, because they’re jam-packed with references to all manner of crime fiction, from the unduly forgotten to the justly remembered — on average, no less than 20 books per chapter (and in some chapters, over 40). In fact, it is this “cramming” that ultimately made the book a tiny fraction less than a 5-star read for me: I’d either have appreciated more space to explore some of these other books at greater leisure, too, or, as this would probably have blown the book up by the hundredfold, maybe in the end less would occasionally have been more after all.

That all being said, I’m doubtlessly going to refer back to Martin’s book frequently from here on out when exploring the countless new authors, Great Detectives and series I’ve been introduced to, and I’m also OCD enough to have started creating reading lists on Google and BookLikes for all the books mentioned by Edwards (NB: in the Google version, later amplified by the books Edwards mentions in The Golden Age of Murder):

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books & The Golden Age of Murder: List of all books referenced

The BookLikes Breakup:
The “100 Books” Presented

Other Books Mentioned:
Part 1: Chapters 1 – 5
Part 2: Chapters 6 & 7
Part 3: Chapters 8 – 10
Part 4: Chapters 11 – 15
Part 5: Chapters 16-20
Part 6: Chapters 21-24

 



Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
(Prunella Scales & Samuel West audio)

It’s with no small amount of surprise that I find myself registering a 4 1/2 star rating and a “favorite” check for this audio recording of Emily Brontë’s one and only novel.

Though I didn’t have any doubts that the mother and son team of Prunella Scales and Samuel West would pull off a stellar performance (which they of course did), Wuthering Heights has so far, in my perception, always veered dangerously close to the over-the-top melodramatic, with more than an occasional foray into the very heart of that territory, which is not my line of country at all.  Yet, actually hearing the bulk of the story being told by Prunella Scales in the voice of a down-to-earth Yorkshire woman — Nelly Dean — opened up a whole new perspective for me, and even the high drama of “I am Heathcliff“, “he’s more myself than I am” and “be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! … I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!” for the first time came across as totally believable to me — because it wasn’t told in the voice of the novel’s equally tempestuous author (if contemporaneous characterizations are to be believed), but rather, in the voice of a sympathetic friend and surrogate mother, who genuinely cares for the speakers and worries about them but is apt to take a step back from their outbursts and relates those outbursts more in sorrow than in anguish.

The novel’s format doesn’t place Mr. Lockwood’s (here: Samuel West’s) framework narration on nearly the same footing as that of Nelly Dean, so the bulk of the narration is Prunella Scales’s, but I particularly also enjoyed the “handover” moments from the outer framework to Nelly Dean’s story.  They are brief enough moments of dialogue, but in this recording they “clicked” seamlessly, like perfectly matching links of a well-made chain.

So, while of all the Brontës’ novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (which I also revisited this summer on audio) will probably always remain my favorite, I enjoyed this particular return to Wuthering Heights much more than I anticipated and will probably revisit it more often and with greater enjoyment than I initially thought.

 


Simon Brett: An Amateur Corpse

An actor and BBC broadcast journalist in addition to being a writer, Simon Brett is one of Martin Edwards’s predecessors as President of the Detection Club.  In the early 1970s he began writing a series of mysteries centering on an actor named Charles Paris; this is the fourth of these books.  Paris is invited to do a “critics circle” live discussion review of an amateur theatre production of Chekhov’s Seagull, but before he even gets to give his talk, the company’s new leading lady (the only professional actor in their midst) is found strangled.

Given that the edition of this mystery which I own is part of a four-book omnibus including the first four installments of the series that I acquired used and dirt-cheap, I may well give this series another shot at a later time; however, this particular novel (written in 1975) hasn’t aged very well and was a rather uncomfortable reminder of all the reasons why I’m really not sorry to have left the 1970s far, far behind (the part that I consciously lived through, in any event) … I don’t think the occasional whiff of staleness emanating from the pages of the book was due to its external condition alone.  I was also less than enchanted with Mr. Paris’s midlife crisis woes and attitude towards women and commitment, and his insufferably arrogant stance vis-à-vis amateur theatricals, however ill-informed or pretentious they may be in turn.

That being said, the writing itself is OK, the murderer’s alibi was cleverly plotted, Paris’s reasons for getting involved with the investigation in the first place (worry about the chief suspect under arrest, the victim’s husband, who is a friend of his, and guilt over having gone along with said friend’s drowning his woes in booze instead of trying to provide some more substantial support) came across as just about credible enough, and some of Paris’s deductions were nicely drawn; even though the final clue was — incredibly — as far-fetched as it was, at the same time, telegraphed narratively from ten miles away, and the ultimate path to the solution was (literally) more a case of stumbling over it than brain work à la Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.  So, as I said, I may well give the series another shot at a later point in time.  It probably won’t be anytime very soon, though.

 

The Medieval Murderers: House of Shadows

The Medieval Murderers round robin series is, literally, one of those products of an idle evening at the pub — I guess that’s what you’ll get when you have five authors of medieval whodunits talking shop over a pint or two (or three …) of ale.  Permanent members of the group, which itself goes by the name “Medieval Murderers”, too, are Michael Jecks (another past President of the Detection Club), Bernard Knight, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and Susanna Gregory; with Karen Maitland and C.J. Sansom having joined for individual installments of the series.

All but one Medieval Murderers books are moulded on essentially the same template, in that they follow one particular (allegedly) “doomed” or “cursed” object from the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day in several separate but interlinked episodes, written by the group’s individual members and typically featuring their “own” individual series protagonists; the sole exception being, so far, The Deadliest Sin, which is modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — themselves also a round robin of sorts, modeled in turn on Boccaccio’s Decameron.

In House of Shadows, the series’s third installment, the “object” whose journey the writers and their protagonists follow is Bermondsey Abbey, a real life monastery founded in the 11th century by Cluniac monks near the banks of the River Thames, opposite the Tower.  The abbey, rich and influential in the Middle Ages, was dissolved under Henry VIII and subequently repeatedly built over; it seems to have been the abbey ruins’ excavation in the early 2000s — in the course of the construction of a huge shopping and office complex now forming part of the newly- and substantially-gentrified Bermondsey and Southwark shoreline — that apparently inspired the premise and opening chapter(s) of House of Shadows.  The authors do go to some lenghts to assure the reader, however, that the events placing a curse on the abbey at the beginning of this book are fictitious (as are the plotlines of the subsequent chapters), and though not inconceivable in the so-called “Dark Ages”, it would indeed be shocking for a medieval house of God to have been carrying such a terrible legacy.

While the individual chapters’ storylines are thus fictitious, again as in many Medieval Murderers books, real, documented historic persons are used in the stories alongside fictitious characters, and the research into details of social and geographical history is solid.  Also as with virtually all round robin efforts (not just by this particular group), the writerly approach varies both in style and in quality, and this installment of the Medieval Murderers series does not necessarily show all of the participants at the top of their game.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough, some of the chapters really are a delight to read, and once more as is so frequently the case, the sum total is decidedly more than its constituent parts.

 
Sketches of medieval Bermondsey Abbey
(Sources: Wikipedia (left) and South London Guide (right))


Bermondsey Abbey ground plan (source: British Library)


Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (attr. — formerly attr. John Hofnagel): A Fête at Bermondsey (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Bermondsey Abbey excavations and memorial plaque
(sources: Wikipedia (left) and London Remembers (right))

The sacred taper’s lights are gone,
Grey moss has clad the altar-stone,
The holy image is o’erthrown,
The bell has ceased to toll:
The long-ribb’d aisles are burst and shrunk,
The holy shrine to ruin sunk,
Departed is the pious monk;
God’s blessing on his soul!”
Sir Walter Scott: Bermondsey

Bermondsey Abbey history and excavation (YouTube)

 
Bermondsey shoreline today (photo mine)

 

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(Bernadette Dunne audio)

Terrifying women all around with this one — Shirley Jackson delivers every single time when it comes to sheer psychology-based horror (and so, for that matter, do her characters).  You’re barely ten minutes into the story, and you’re already supremely uneasy — and boy, does this ever have a slow, peeling-away-layer-by-layer burn ending in a gigantic dynamite fuse.  There’s no way to write about this book without instantly giving away spoilers, so I … just won’t, even though most people here are probably already familiar with the story anyway.  Truly masterful storytelling, in any event; truly unsettling social commentary and, in the audio version I own, also truly masterfully rendered by Bernadette Dunne.  I started listening to this one night when I really should have gone to bed much earlier — and ended up finishing the complete audio in a single sitting; there was no way I could have stopped, even though ultimately it was solely due to my being crash-and-knocked-out tired from entirely unrelated RL exertions that I was able to sleep afterwards at all.

And finally:

… an audiobook extravaganza, though in the case of the Edgar Allan Poe, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie books (see below), I do own paper copies of the respective novels, too, and have read them before; this was strictly in the spirit of revisiting them in a different medium.  (Hah.  So much for “I’m going to use this square to do something about those books on my mystery TBR that I can’t fit into any other bingo square, because clearly something needs to be done about reducing that stack” …)


To start off — well, let’s be honest, how could I possibly not use an audio collection entitled Murder Most Foul for this particular square?!

This is a collection of eight short stories by different authors, read with great aplomb by five well-known British actors.  It starts of with Bluebeard’s Bath by Margery Allingham — read by Patrick Malahide –, a “non-Campion” twist on the black widow trope (the twist being, as the title implies, that here it’s a black widower), which derives most of its suspense from the fact that it is told from the murderer’s perspective.– 4 1/2 stars for this story individually; it’s one of the strongest of this lot.

Next is Wilkie Collins‘s Who Killed Zebedee? (read by Derek Jacobi), which concerns the death of a lodger in an apartment house, and a would-be accidental amateur sleuth’s attempt to clear the woman with whom he is infatuated from the suspicion of murder. (3 stars, individually — Collins himself could do better, and the story doesn’t really measure up to the rest of this collection, either.)

The third story is An Alpine Divorce by Robert Barr (read by Brian Cox), where a married couple that has come to secretly hate each other’s guts vacations in the Alps … with starkly differing notions as to how those vacations are supposed to end, and with a deliciously-executed evil twist at the end. — Easily 4 stars.

Barr’s story is followed by Edward Hardwicke‘s reading of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Speckled Band: Although overall I prefer the Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry readings of the Holmes canon, it’s always a true pleasure, too, to have a story narrated by the actor who was Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes for the better part of my personal “Sherlock Holmes to end all Sherlock Holmes” series, and certainly nobody nails Holmes’s occasionally strident tone as well as the man who was at the receiving end of that very tone for a considerable amount of time (even though in real life Brett and Hardwicke got along like a house on fire, and when Brett’s illness reared its ugly head, Hardwicke was the first to be protective of him). — I already own several collections of Sherlock Holmes stories read by Hardwicke, and this reading nicely complements those collections. (5 stars — this is a stand-out even in Conan Doyle’s amazing body of work.)

The next story is probably my favorite of the lot — next to the Holmes entry, obviously, and with Allingham’s offering not far behind: P.C. Wren‘s The Perfect Crime (read, again, by Brian Cox), which is based on the explicit premise that yes, “there is in fact such a thing as the perfect crime: I know, because I have committed one.”  As in Allingham’s story, the chief element of suspense is derived from the fact that the story is told strictly from the murderer’s perspective, and again similar to Allingham’s story, the plot is constructed so as to slowly and deliciously peel away layer by layer, with a slow burn that ends in a supremely devious final twist. — 5 solid stars as well.

The final three stories (like Wilkie Collins’s) are made of weaker stuff than the three highlighted above in particular:

Sapper‘s Thirteen Lead Soldiers (again read by Edward Hardwicke) is a story from the “Bulldog Drummond” canon whose crucial twist turns, as the title implies, on a collection of toy soldiers that one participant of a secret meeting of high-ranking international diplomats (to which Drummond has been invited at Scotland Yard’s suggestion in an effort to highten security) has made for and gifted to the hosting nobleman’s son.  This is both a “whodunit” and a “howdunit” — where Drummond manages to foil the murderer’s intentions to rather lasting effect — and though I didn’t care enough to try and unravel every last detail of the solution in advance, both “whodunit” and the basic outline of “howdunit” are fairly easy to work out. (3 1/2 stars, individually.)

Algernon Blackwood‘s First Hate (read by Derek Jacobi) is based on the contention that, just as there is such a thing as love at first sight, there is also such a thing as purely instinctive “hate at first sight” — quod erat demonstrandum by way of an “around the fireplace” narration of just such an encounter, with a competition for the hand of a woman thrown in as a sideline (or as a more plausible motive?  I couldn’t make up my mind which was which, and ultimately didn’t care), and with an ending high up in the Canadian Rockies — where the story moves from its London beginnings — that for all practical purposes amounts to cold-blooded murder dressed up as self-defense … unless you buy into the central premise, which I manifestly don’t.  (Jacobi doesn’t seem to, either; this is definitely not one of his most convincing narrations, and coming from someone who’d willingly listen to him reciting the phone book, that should tell you something in and of itself.) — 2 1/2 stars, because I’m feeling generous and because Blackwood still knows how to tell a story, even if it’s a supremely implausible one.  Also, um, Derek Jacobi.

Finally, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Markheim (read by Jack Shepherd) is highly atmospheric and skillfully constructed until about its halfway point (or shortly thereafter): It starts with a customer’s (the eponymous Markheim’s) visit to a pawnbroker’s store on Christmas Eve and the exchange between the customer and the pawnbroker, which after a short while ends in murder.  There’s a nice, slow build-up to the murder itself (which build-up even includes an adroitly-executed slight of hand), and a further slow burn while the murderer is rifling the shop and trying to cover his tracks.  However, then we literally get a deus ex machina appearance that radically changes the state of play, and unfortunately that was the point where Stevenson lost me. — 3 1/2 stars, chiefly for the story’s first part; a writer of Stevenson’s caliber shouldn’t have needed (or even explicitly sought) any deus ex machina, and certainly not this one; not even in a story set on Christmas Eve.

 

Edgar Allan Poe: The Dupin Stories — The Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Mystery of Marie Rogêt / The Purloined Letter
(Kerry Shale audio)

I debated using this for either the “Locked Room” or the “Classic Horror” bingo square, but there was compelling competition for both of those, and anyway, I already knew the stories and chiefly bought this CD for Kerry Shale’s narration: Ever since I first listenend to his audio versions of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, I’ve been on the lookout for further recordings featuring him.

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with having created the first professional detective in C. Auguste Dupin — a fact that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go down particularly well with Sherlock Holmes when mentioned to him by Dr. Watson — and in fact, Dupin and Holmes share a number of traits and abilities, including their disdain (benevolent or not) for the professional police, their reliance on “trifles” (apparently unimportant details), and their rather astonishing ability to deduct another person’s silent, unvoiced thoughts by “reasoning backwards” and then thoroughly startle the other person by explicitly responding to those very thoughts.  But while Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories rely on Holmes’s fully-rounded character, as well as action and plot development as much as on Holmes’s deductive methods and invite the reader along on the investigation, Poe’s “stories of ratiocination” — once Dupin has been (or considers himself) called on  to help solve the case — are almost exclusively a rendition of Dupin’s own thought processes and reasoning.  This, to me, makes them somewhat more monotonous and consequently somewhat less easy to follow than Conan Doyle’s (even with a splendid narrator like Kerry Shale).

The Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the earliest locked room mysteries in the history of crime fiction; together with the even earlier Mademoiselle Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann (which however is more “impossible crime” story than locked room mystery in the strict sense), and with Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room, it pretty much laid down the template for this particular mystery subgenre.  Its solution is as, um, colorful as some of Dupin’s conclusions, however, and it requires a healthy portion of suspension of disbelief — here, too, both Conan Doyle and Leroux did better, and so did E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s response to a widely-publicized real life murder case in New York: Poe transposed the events to Paris and, through the voice of his fictional detective, set forth what he believed to be the solution of the case; dissecting, in the process, the various competing theories advanced by the newspapers writing about the murder — the only material that Poe himself had to go on.  (Despite its notoriety and the public hunt for the killer, the real life case of the murder of Mary Rogers still remains unsolved.)

The Purloined Letter, finally, is easily my favorite among the three Dupin stories: Like it would frequently be the case with his famous London colleague half a century later, our Paris detective is called on by a high government official (the Prefect of Police) with a request to assist in recovering a document which, in the wrong hands, might wreak all sorts of political havoc.  The solution to the case relies on both a rather brazen attitude by the culprit, which Dupin divines, and on an oversight that, I very much hope and trust, should not happen to any well-organized modern police force.  Dupin’s deductive process is sound and fun to watch, however, and we’re also invited in on a bit more of the chase than in the other stories.

 

Agatha Christie: Endless Night
(BBC full cast dramatization)

I said not so long ago that (barring Christie’s overwhelmingly abysmal final books) Endless Night isn’t exactly my favorite book by her and that I probably wouldn’t revisit it anytime soon — then this CD crossed my path for a song during a recent book store browse, and I figured it had to be karma, so here we are after all.

I’m still not exactly enchanted with the story (let alone its narrator and protagonist), though, and if there is one thing that this audio adaptation makes clear it is that this is a story that does not easily lend itself to the transformation to another medium — too subtle, nuanced and slow is the burn up to the final climax.  That said, the adaptation’s cast handles the material very well, and the script avoids the pitfalls that some of the novel’s incidental elements would undoubtedly create in less expert hands.  So, if you just want to know what happens in this novel, this is a decent enough introduction — just don’t expect the depth of the written original.

 

Dick Francis: Knockdown
(Tim Pigott-Smith audio)

I love horses and used to be an enthusiastic horseback rider throughout my entire school years, and I also love mysteries, so Dick Francis’s books were a natural go-to choice for me once upon a time.  Having revisited a Dick Francis novel after many years, though, I find that this, too, hasn’t weathered the passage of time particularly well, even though it’s still a pleasure to go horse trading with Mr. Francis and have him share his experience of life on and off the racetrack — and Mr. Pigott-Smith is another audio narrator who has once more solidified his hold on my attention.

Knockdown is the story of Jonah Dereham, an ex-steeplechase jockey turned bloodstock agent who gets into trouble when he takes a stance against a de-facto syndicate exploiting a gap in the rules of trading for purposes of profiteering at their clients’ (the horse owners’ and breeders’) expense.  The book doesn’t start out as a murder mystery — there’s plenty of assault and battery, arson, and other assorted violent behaviour (as well as, obviously, greed, extortion and [near-]fraudulent machinations), but the murders — several of them in quick succession — only happen once the profiteering racket’s chief organizer is beginning to feel the hounds closing in on him, with Jonah at their forefront.

 



 Ngaio Marsh:
Artists in Crime (Benedict Cumberbatch audio)

Overture to Death (Anton Lesser audio)

Death and the Dancing Footman (Anton Lesser audio)

Surfet of Lampreys (Anton Lesser audio)

Opening Night (aka Night at the Vulcan) (Anton Lesser audio)

Finally, my audio extravaganza consisted of a five-volume foray into Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, next to Agatha Christie’s, Dorothy Sayers’s, Margery Allingham’s and Patricia Wentworth’s one of the major Great Detective series of the Golden Age; taken together, these five writers are unquestionably the era’s “Queens of Crime.”  (I own print versions of all of Marsh’s novels, too, and pulled those in addition to the audio recordings.)

Of the five novels revisited, Death and the Dancing Footman had previously been my favorite novel and it continues to be so; it’s a slightly wacky country house locked-room mystery (so would also fit these two squares) where a group of guests with previously-existing antagonisms are invited to a house party … with predictable effects; and it certainly doesn’t help that the house is snowed in and thus locked off from its surroundings.

Death and the Dancing Footman is an intra-series sequel of sorts to Overture to Death, which is set in the village closest to the manor where Death and the Dancing Footman is set in turn, with the vicar from Overture to Death briefly making a reappearance as Alleyn’s and his wife’s host in Death and the Dancing Footman.

Marsh’s writing particularly shines where it focuses on characterization, and there are two settings — in addition to country house mysteries — ideally suited for this: village settings and the theatre. Overture to Death is a nice example of the former, Opening Night (published as Night at the Vulcan in the U.S.) of the latter. In Overture to Death, village jealousies and intrigues culminate in a rather cleverly-constructed “murder by piano” (with a built-in service revolver) on the day of the opening of the local amateur theatricals’ latest production. — Opening Night is set in London’s West End, at the (fictitious) Vulcan Theatre, which had already been the setting for Marsh’s second Alleyn novel, Enter a Murderer; and it concerns the “death by greasepaint” of an actor who has made one enemy to many in a cast of bickering performers; plus an idiosyncratic and irrascible playwright.  (The actor manager of the Vulcan is rather obviously modeled on Laurence Olivier — and he is not the only leading actor appearing in Marsh’s novels with whom that is the case.)  As Marsh herself was, first and foremost, a highly-reputed theatrical director who had built an especially solid reputation for her productions of the plays of William Shakespeare, this particular milieu was second nature to her, and consequently her portrayals of actors and the world of the theatre are a special delight to read — and a character’s aptitude at quoting Shakespeare is a near-infallible indication that he is likely one of the “good guys.”  (Obviously, Alleyn himself speaks Shakespeare fluently.)

Opening Night is, again (and very losely speaking), an intra-series sequel of sorts to Surfeit of Lampreys (in the U.S., published as Death of a Peer), where the death of the wealthy Lamprey family patriarch brings Alleyn into an investigative encounter with the dead peer’s quirky, chronically impoverished family — one of whose sons, as a result of the encounter, eventually seeks employment with the Metropolitan Police and returns as P.C. Lamprey in the later novel.

Artists in Crime, finally, is the novel where Alleyn meets his wife-to-be, the feisty, self-assured painter Agatha Troy.  Again, as Marsh (in addition to being a director and writer) was also a trained painter she could speak from experience when writing about Troy, who would become one of the series’s greatest assets and a great complement to “the nice detective” Roderick Alleyn.

Of the audio versions I listened to, I preferred the four read by Anton Lesser to the one by Benedict Cumberbatch (Artists in Crime): While Lesser clearly knew and appreciated the material, Cumberbatch did bring his considerable talent to bear, but it was rather obviously “just a job” to him and he knew nothing about the series.  This showed most obviously in his pronunciation of Alleyn’s name: Marsh had named her inspector for Elizabethan actor Edward “Ned” Alleyn, the star of the Lord Admiral’s Men (the chief competitors of William Shakespeare’s King’s Men), whose name was pronounced ALLen — and Marsh was adamant that this was how her inspector’s name was to be pronounced as well.  Anton Lesser knew and respected that — Cumberbatch didn’t, and to a fan of the series, it was seriously jarring to hear him saying All-EYN over and over again, particularly given the frequency with which the name appears.

 

Next Reads:

and


Angua!!

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 1:



Terry Pratchett: Equal Rites



Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
(Gillian Anderson audio)

 



Martin Edwards / British Library:
Miraculous Mysteries – Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes

 



Agatha Christie: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
(Hugh Fraser audio)

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 2:



Donna Andrews: Lord of the Wings


Ruth Rendell:
The Babes in the Wood

& Not in the Flesh

 


Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

 


Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black

 Raymond Chandler:
Farewell, My Lovely

  The Long Goodbye

The High Window

 

The Book Pool:

Most likely: Donna Andrews: Lord of the Wings

Alternatively:
* Diane Mott Davidson: Catering to Nobody
* One or more stories from Martin Greenberg’s and Ed Gorman’s (eds.) Cat Crimes
* … or something by Lilian Jackson Braun




Most likely: Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
(audio return visit courtesy of
either Michael Kitchen or Prunella Scales and Samuel West)

Alternatively:
* Wilkie Collins: The Woman In White
(audio version read by Nigel Anthony and Susan Jameson)
* Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey
(audio return visit courtesy of Anna Massey)
* Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* … or something by Daphne du Maurier




Candace Robb: The Apothecary Rose




Most likely: Simon Brett: A book from a four-novel omibus edition including An Amateur Corpse, Star Trap, So Much Blood, and Cast, in Order of Disappearance

Alternatively:
* Georgette Heyer: Why Shoot a Butler?
* Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley
(audio version read by David Thorpe)
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes




Most likely: Something from James D. Doss‘sCharlie Moon series (one of my great discoveries from last year’s bingo)

Or one of Walter Mosley‘s Easy Rawlins mysteries

Alternatively:
Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer




Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum




One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’sMiraculous Mysteries: Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes




Most likely: Agatha Christie: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
(audio return visit courtesy of Hugh Fraser)

Or one or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes

Alternatively:
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar,To Love and Be Wise, orThe Singing Sands
* Georgette Heyer: Why Shoot a Butler?
* Peter May: The Lewis Man
* S.D. Sykes: Plague Land
* Arthur Conan Doyle: The Mystery of Cloomber
* Michael Jecks: The Devil’s Acolyte
* Stephen Booth: Dancing with the Virgins
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Martha Grimes: The End of the Pier
* Minette Walters: The Breaker




One of two “Joker” Squares:

To be filled in as my whimsy takes me (with apologies to Dorothy L. Sayers), either with one of the other mystery squares’ alternate books, or with a murder mystery that doesn’t meet any of the more specific squares’ requirements.  In going through my shelves, I found to my shame that I own several bingo cards’ worth of books that would fill this square alone, some of them bought years ago … clearly something needs to be done about that, even if it’s one book at a time!




Isabel Allende: Cuentos de Eva Luna (The Stories of Eva Luna) or
Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)




Most likely: One or more stories from Charles Dickens: Complete Ghost Stories or
Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills

Alternatively:
* Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
(Gillian Anderson audio)
* Stephen King: Bag of Bones




Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms




Obviously and as per definition in the rules, the second “Joker” Square.

Equally as per definition, the possibles for this square also include my alternate reads for the non-mystery squares.




Most likely: Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black

Alternatively:
* Raymond Chandler: Farewell My Lovely or The Long Goodbye / The High Window
* James M. Cain: Mildred Pierce
* Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
* David Goodis: Shoot the Piano Playeror Dark Passage
* … or something else by Cornell Woolrich, e.g., Phantom Lady or I Married a Dead Man




Most likely: Ruth Rendell: Not in the Flesh orThe Babes in the Wood (audio versions read by Christopher Ravenscroft, aka Inspector Burden in the TV series)

Alternatively:
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills




Most likely: Peter May: Coffin Road

Alternatively:
* Stephen King: Bag of BonesorHearts in Atlantis
* Denise Mina: Field of Blood
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Minette Walters: The Breaker
* Jonathan Kellerman: When The Bough Breaks, Time Bomb, Blood Test, or Billy Straight
* Greg Iles: 24 Hours




Most likely: Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills

Alternatively:
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Greg Iles: Sleep No More




Most likely: Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley
(audio version read by David Thorpe)

Alternatively:
* One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries
* Georgette Heyer: They Found Him Dead
* Ellis Peters: Black is the Colour of My True-Love’s Heart




Most likely: Something from Terry Pratchett’sDiscworld / Witches subseries — either Equal Rites or Maskerade

Alternatively:
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Shirley Jackson: The Witchcraft of Salem Village




Most likely: Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea

Alternatively:
* Rory Clements: Martyr
* Philip Gooden: Sleep of Death 
* Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes
* Ngaio Marsh: Death in Ecstasy
* One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Capital Crimes: London Mysteries




Most likely: Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio return visit courtesy of Sir Christopher Lee)

Alternatively:
* H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau
* … or something by Edgar Allan Poe




Most likely: Something from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Alternatively:
* Robert Louis Stevenson: The Bottle Imp
* Christina Rossetti: Goblin Market
* H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau




Most likely: Jo Nesbø: The Snowman

Alternatively:
* Val McDermid: The Retribution
* Denise Mina: Sanctum
* Mo Hayder: Birdman
* Caleb Carr: The Alienist
* Jonathan Kellerman: The Butcher’s Theater
* Greg Iles: Mortal Fear




Most likely: The Medieval Murderers: House of Shadows
or Hill of Bones

Alternatively:
* Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills
* Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
* Stephen King: Bag of Bones
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Michael Jecks: The Devil’s Acolyte




Ooohhh, you know — something by Shirley Jackson … if I don’t wimp out in the end; otherwise something by Daphne du Maurier.

 

Various Authors: Murder Most Foul


This is a collection of eight short stories by different authors, read with great aplomb by five well-known British actors.  It starts of with Bluebeard’s Bath by Margery Allingham — read by Patrick Malahide –, a “non-Campion” twist on the black widow trope (the twist being, as the title implies, that here it’s a black widower: the story is obviously inspired by the infamous real life “Brides in the Bath” case), which derives most of its suspense from the fact that it is told from the murderer’s perspective. — 4 1/2 stars for this story individually; it’s one of the strongest of this lot.

Next is Wilkie Collins‘s Who Killed Zebedee? (read by Derek Jacobi), which concerns the death of a lodger in an apartment house, and a would-be accidental amateur sleuth’s attempt to clear the woman with whom he is infatuated from the suspicion of murder. (3 stars, individually — Collins himself could do better, and the story doesn’t really measure up to the rest of this collection, either.)

The third story is An Alpine Divorce by Robert Barr (read by Brian Cox), where a married couple that has come to secretly hate each other’s guts vacations in the Alps … with starkly differing notions as to how those vacations are supposed to end, and with a deliciously-executed evil twist at the end. — Easily 4 stars.

Barr’s story is followed by Edward Hardwicke‘s reading of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Speckled Band: Although overall I prefer the Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry readings of the Holmes canon, it’s always a true pleasure, too, to have a story narrated by the actor who was Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes for the better part of my personal “Sherlock Holmes to end all Sherlock Holmes” series, and certainly nobody nails Holmes’s occasionally strident tone as well as the man who was at the receiving end of that very tone for a considerable amount of time (even though in real life Brett and Hardwicke got along like a house on fire, and when Brett’s illness reared its ugly head, Hardwicke was the first to be protective of him). — I already own several collections of Sherlock Holmes stories read by Hardwicke, and this reading nicely complements those collections. (5 stars — this is a stand-out even in Conan Doyle’s amazing body of work.)

The next story is probably my favorite of the lot — next to the Holmes entry, obviously, and with Allingham’s offering not far behind: P.C. Wren‘s The Perfect Crime (read, again, by Brian Cox), which is based on the explicit premise that yes, “there is in fact such a thing as the perfect crime: I know, because I have committed one.”  As in Allingham’s story, the chief element of suspense is derived from the fact that the story is told strictly from the murderer’s perspective, and again similar to Allingham’s story, the plot is constructed so as to slowly and deliciously peel away layer by layer, with a slow burn that ends in a supremely devious final twist. — 5 solid stars as well.

The final three stories (like Wilkie Collins’s) are made of weaker stuff than the three highlighted above in particular:

Sapper‘s Thirteen Lead Soldiers (again read by Edward Hardwicke) is a story from the “Bulldog Drummond” canon whose crucial twist turns, as the title implies, on a collection of toy soldiers that one participant of a secret meeting of high-ranking international diplomats (to which Drummond has been invited at Scotland Yard’s suggestion in an effort to highten security) has made for and gifted to the hosting nobleman’s son.  This is both a “whodunit” and a “howdunit” — where Drummond manages to foil the murderer’s intentions to rather lasting effect — and though I didn’t care enough to try and unravel every last detail of the solution in advance, both “whodunit” and the basic outline of “howdunit” are fairly easy to work out. (3 1/2 stars, individually.)

Algernon Blackwood‘s First Hate (read by Derek Jacobi) is based on the contention that, just as there is such a thing as love at first sight, there is also such a thing as purely instinctive “hate at first sight” — quod erat demonstrandum by way of an “around the fireplace” narration of just such an encounter, with a competition for the hand of a woman thrown in as a sideline (or as a more plausible motive?  I couldn’t make up my mind which was which, and ultimately didn’t care), and with an ending high up in the Canadian Rockies — where the story moves from its London beginnings — that for all practical purposes amounts to cold-blooded murder dressed up as self-defense … unless you buy into the central premise, which I manifestly don’t.  (Jacobi doesn’t seem to, either; this is definitely not one of his most convincing narrations, and coming from someone who’d willingly listen to him reciting the phone book, that should tell you something in and of itself.) — 2 1/2 stars, because I’m feeling generous and because Blackwood still knows how to tell a story, even if it’s a supremely implausible one.  Also, um, Derek Jacobi.

Finally, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Markheim (read by Jack Shepherd) is highly atmospheric and skillfully constructed until about its halfway point (or shortly thereafter): It starts with a customer’s (the eponymous Markheim’s) visit to a pawnbroker’s store on Christmas Eve and the exchange between the customer and the pawnbroker, which after a short while ends in murder.  There’s a nice, slow build-up to the murder itself (which build-up even includes an adroitly-executed slight of hand), and a further slow burn while the murderer is rifling the shop and trying to cover his tracks.  However, then we literally get a deus ex machina appearance that radically changes the state of play, and unfortunately that was the point where Stevenson lost me. — 3 1/2 stars, chiefly for the story’s first part; a writer of Stevenson’s caliber shouldn’t have needed (or even explicitly sought) any deus ex machina, and certainly not this one; not even in a story set on Christmas Eve.

Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost



I remembered that several folks on Booklikes had listened to this novella / extended short story during last year’s bingo, so when I saw it was available for free on Audible I snatched it up — and when “Ghost” was the first square to be called, I made a snap decision to use this read for the square as I had just enough time to fit in the audio yesterday.

This is the story of a widowed father’s acquaintance with a young woman (the eponymous Mrs. Zant) who, in turn, has recently lost her husband, and whose strange behaviour is giving rise to the suggestion that she might have gone mad.  After some initial  reluctance, she eventually confides in Mr. Rayburn (the widower, from whose point of view — albeit in the third person — the story is told), and he (and through him, the reader) is given to understand that ever since the untimely death of her much-loved husband Mrs. Zant has experienced instances of a mysterious invisible presence which, though it initially disturbed her and made her suspect herself of madness, too, she eventually learns to trust and come to consider benign — much to the distress of her brother in law, who (at Rayburn’s suggestion) takes her to his residence on the seaside in the professed hope of thus relieving her nervous state and nursing her back to stability and mental health.

To a 19th century reader, this story would probably have had much more novelty value, surprising turns and perhaps even spooky aspects than to this jaded late 20th / early 21st century reader (or listener) — certainly, it’s no competition to the likes of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw — and Collins’s narration does tend to meander a bit.  Still, it’s a sweet enough little story, and for someone who is not a big horror reader, just the perfect kind of thing to cover this particular bingo square.