Tag Archives: London

Treason at Lisson Grove – Anne Perry

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Really, I was so glad to find an Anne Perry crime story on the library shelves I could have wept.  No experimental literary fails. No mind-numbing clog of words to cut through. No plot that assumes I have the intelligence of a dung beetle and not one iota more than its sophistication. (Sincere apologies to dung beetles.) Just a well-made Victorian thriller with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt sharing the honors and the remarkable Vespasia in a brilliant and essential cameo role. Treason at Lisson Grove was a delight.

I read it until I couldn’t make out the words anymore just before turning out the light. I read it in line waiting for free tickets to the Shakespeare Festival in the park–didn’t score any but the weather was perfect. I read it after the daily agony of coaxing my wheezing laptop through the tedious research needed to write web content that syphons off all the time I should be writing a book. It was excellent Anne Perry, which is to say that the story and the characters and the dilemma hold up splendidly and spending time in that book was pure pleasure.

Treachery is everywhere in the Special Branch and the very future of England is at stake as Thomas Pitt chases a spooked informant down alleys and through traffic with the help of a junior colleague. He is too late. The informant is stabbed–throat slit–moments before Pitt reaches him and the two detectives set off in pursuit of a murderer. So it begins. Pitt has no idea what he is pursuing. He and the colleague end up in France just as his mentor, the head of Special Branch, is ignominiously removed from office under the cloud of an embezzlement that cost an Irish collaborator who trusted him his life. Tip of the iceberg. Victor Narraway has painful ghosts in Ireland, and plenty of the living with long memories who hate him enough to nurture revenge plots for decades. So he plans to leave at once for Dublin.

Charlotte Pitt doesn’t hesitate to inform Narraway she is going along to help discover the truth. If his career is ruined, so is her husband’s–and her family homeless, no hope of work or an income to raise their children, everyone out to menial jobs, even the kids. Besides, she believes Narraway has been framed and she sees how completely wrecked his life is without the job that defines it. Her dour new housekeeper chooses that moment to walk out. Pitt is incommunicado in France on a stakeout. Things couldn’t be worse. And then Pitt realizes he has been set up to remove him from London just as some dark political plot is about to unfold.

Complete craziness in Dublin, Dover, London and the Isle of Wight follows. Treason at Lisson Grove is very good. Anne Perry is so reliable.  More than fifty books in four separate series. I wish I could write that fast and that well.

Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel  Anne Perry | Ballantine Books   2011

Acceptable Loss – Anne Perry

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I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Perry novels and come to some conclusions about this best-selling author of historical crime fiction. She writes several series with dedicated characters situated in specific venues for their exploits. By far I prefer her William and Hester Monk books. Acceptable Loss is the latest of these and they are so good I will reserve as many as the New York Public Library has so I can read all of them.

Monk shares top billing with Hester who is a strong heroine, smart sleuth, fearless investigator and highly principled woman essential to the solving of morally repugnant crimes along the Thames in Victorian London. Acceptable Loss picks up where Execution Dock left off—the pornography ring and floating salons of sexual abuse that serve as prisons for young boys is still very much alive. Even the murder-suicide of the owner of one of the boats and the prominent judge who was his customer hasn’t slowed the traffic. Monk and Hester have taken in a mudlark, Scuff, a kid who lived by his wits on the lawless banks of the Thames and was nearly destroyed by the horrible business. As Acceptable Loss opens, they know that Scuff still doesn’t feel safe and won’t until they do something to uncover the money and power behind the sex salons and the extortion ring they fuel.

When the body of a boat owner farther upriver washes ashore, Monk and his deputy find another slave ship crammed with five- and six-year-old boys. The hunt is on for the real puppet-masters, complicated by the charge that the upper-class father-in-law of London’s most prominent barrister, a close friend of both Hester and Monk, has something to do with the revolting trade in children’s flesh. Monk’s investigation threatens a major patron of Hester’s clinic for prostitutes and poor women, and makes an enemy of the barrister’s wife, a clinic volunteer and friend of Hester’s who is also the daughter of the chief suspect.

The forensics are terrific; the suspects are plentiful; the stakes couldn’t be higher; the moral questions are fierce; the courage required to pursue faint and dangerous leads to the truth is exceptional. So is the novel. I think the Monk books are by far Perry’s best and my guess is that the characters and the issues are richer and more compelling than those in her other mysteries. London’s seedy waterfront spawns an inexhaustible number of colorful individuals. The crime is cinematic; the narrow alleyways are stifling; the poverty is grinding and grimy; the gap between rich and poor is stark; the self-doubt that plagues the protagonists at key points in the crime-solving isn’t based on poor self-image but on a refusal to settle for anything less than absolute integrity.

I wonder if Monk and his cohorts are Anne Perry’s favorite creations? In my estimation, they benefit from the lion’s share of her talent. I have yet to read any of her WWI books, although I am told those are among her best. So I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve had the chance to sample all the dishes in this literary banquet. But Monk and Hester are the go-to team for times when I want a reliable, satisfying read—one that could compel you to stay up way too late so you can finish it. Which I did.

Acceptable Loss: A William Monk Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2011

The Vault – Ruth Rendell

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The Vault is a Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford mystery—the jacket calls it a “novel” and it can lay claim fairly to that description. Rendell writes a complex, nuanced, character-rich tale that mixes criminal industries, social inequalities, personal failings, family relationships, architecture, geography and gardening into a Mensa-like puzzle that will keep you glued to the page. Or screen, I suppose.

Wexford is retired but not very complacently. When a younger colleague asks him to take on the discovery of four bodies as an informal advisor to the case, he jumps at the chance. This involves some delicate footwork for the intuitive, experienced old detective who no longer has police privileges and can’t be seen as trying to take charge. He isn’t entirely successful but he is always mindful of his new, reduced position.

The owner of a storied cottage in London unearths a grisly burial when he removes the manhole cover from an unused coalhole in the center of a paved backyard patio. Three bodies have been down in the vault for a dozen years, a fourth body for merely two. No one knows who they might be so Wexford sets about solving the crime or crimes. There are many rancorous relationships that may have provided motive but the decade between the deaths is a stumbling point as is the fact that none of the bodies matches any missing persons reports.

The retired inspector is dogged, if hamstrung by his lack of authority, but personal crises interrupt his sleuthing. His daughter is stabbed and nearly dies—that story is more complicated than first revealed and progresses to a horrible conclusion. Wexford’s living arrangements are unsettled—he and his wife shuttle between their old home in Kingsmarkham and a London carriage house provided for them by their other daughter. His new habit of walking everywhere puts him in the pink of health but his old habits place him in harm’s way and nearly do him in.

Building, surveying, renovating, changing seasons and landscaping have as much to do with the crime as xenophobia, predation and greed. Wexford’s eye misses little, from the link between mood and fashion to the precise color of a prized Edsel to the facial tics that disclose deceit. Rendell has not won every mystery writer’s award on the planet for nothing. Her crime novel is polished, well-paced, salted with enigmatic clues and perplexing developments. The Vault yields its secrets reluctantly—Wexford and his puzzle keep you guessing until the end. A thorough workout for the brain and an inducement to track Inspector Wexford as he fails at retirement but meets the challenges of solving the crime.

The Vault: An Inspector Wexford Novel   Ruth Rendell | Scribner  2011

Shifting Sands – Anthea Fraser

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A South African safari ends in hundreds of digital photos of giraffes, hippos and natural wonders for a new widow who shocks herself by falling in love en route. Anna Farrell’s son and daughter send her on the trip to help heal her grief at the sudden death of her husband. A friend who was to accompany her has an accident and Anna goes alone—but not for long. Back home in England, Jonathan Farrell, separated from his wife and his two young sons, is contacted by a mysterious young woman who begs his help with a scandal but then refuses to tell him what it is. Jonathan is a sort-of-working freelance journalist who nonetheless manages to support a household and his lifestyle easily between gigs. He worries about finding work but lack of income never trims his sails. I wonder if this magical freelance existence is a recurring theme with Fraser?

In any case, the mystery contact keeps calling and then turning into a no-show, Jonathan enlists a friend—another freelance journalist who has plenty of work–to help him explore the elusive caller’s hints; Jonathan’s mom is wined and dined in style on safari; and Jonathan’s sister Sophie tries to sort out her troubled friends, adolescent kids and other domestic complications. Anna’s new beau is connected to the mystery caller and to a glamorous former model who is still tabloid fare and who can’t keep a confidence. Jonathan finds out what the terrible secret is and discovers something even more horrible and deadly that puts him in danger. Friends fall in and out of favor and the family obsesses over what to say to each other and when to say it.

Shifting Sands has a more believable plot resolution than Unfinished Portrait, the Fraser mystery with Rona Parish as the sleuth. But the stakes never feel high enough, the danger never gets tense enough, the misleading clues are finally disappointing and harsh reality is never very messy or inconvenient. After two books, my impression is that Fraser writes light, comfortable mysteries that provide an afternoon’s entertaining read but won’t keep you up late at night or unsettle your mind with pictures or threats too vivid to let you fall asleep. Predictable, quasi-modern cozies for those times when life is challenging enough and an undemanding genre book is the perfect respite.

Shifting Sands   Anthea Fraser | Severn House 2011

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – Jennifer E. Smith

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The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a YA novel that, incredibly, has no suicides, drug addictions, depression-inducing bullying, vampires or werewolves at the heart of the plot—or anywhere on its pages. Jennifer E. Smith’s book is also readable, if somewhat relentlessly introspective. The narration is first-person—a 17-year-old girl who examines her fears and emotions incessantly, and a tad tiresomely, but manages to navigate from start to finish at a reasonable pace anyway.

I suspect the obsessive self-examination is a teen tendency I have mercifully forgotten so it probably makes sense to the intended readers. And the story is not bad—a real fairytale with a handsome, witty prince who rides to the rescue, an attractive and beleaguered heroine who is stubborn, plucky and smart enough to know when to change her mind, and settings and events worthy of a Disney princess animation. There is a missed flight, an overnight change of venue from New York to London, a charming wedding, a graveyard and a few other locations that reflect upscale finances and a remove from gritty reality. Very aspirational.

The crux of the story is the validity of the concept of love at first sight in a world of divorce, remarriage, confused loyalties and sudden infatuation . The book is an extended experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis, find out how to deal with love and loss when neither is simple or pain-free, and resolve the conflicts of the heart. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is very sweet, funny and entertaining. In the YA world of today, that’s really a refreshing change.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight   Jennifer E. Smith | Little, Brown and Company   2012

Shroud for a Nightingale – P.D. James

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Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh dashes into the world of P. D. James to sort out the bizarre killings of student nurses in a post-war British training hospital fifty miles outside London. In Shroud for a Nightingale, a demonstration of intubating a patient turns into a primer on murder and the students of Nightingale House and their instructors are horrified. Then another student dies and debate rages about the cause—was she killed or did she commit suicide?

Dalgliesh has his suspicions, of course. The presence of one of his volumes of poetry in the dead woman’s bookshelf may prejudice him slightly but his instincts are never far off. So he sets about methodically uncovering motive and means. The story is brimful of complex characters—a few with surprising twists. Even the ones risking caricature have back stories to surprise a reader.

Relationships in the hospital and the old Victorian estate on the grounds that serves as the nursing school are convoluted. Personalities range from polite to thorny and motives flit about the gloomy halls like ominous ghosts. James conjures up plenty of atmosphere, loose ends, dead ends and ends that never justify the means. Tracking the tale is fascinating because the author and her sleuth are so intelligent—lots of false leads, no false steps.

It is to James’ credit that seasoned mystery readers can guess at unlikely suspects but be thoroughly misled back into the maze. It’s a relief to put yourself in the hands of a master for a few hours and just live in a good story. Her sleuth is an admirable but imperfect man who freely admits (most of) his shortcomings—and doesn’t hesitate to point out the failings of his colleagues. Murder is a moral issue in a James novel and, while details may be titillating, crime is never reduced to a mere plot device. The victims are revealed in all their flawed humanity as well as the perpetrators.

Shroud for a Nightingale depicts some graphic suffering, the terrible resonance of war crimes, the strange ways people invent to cope with their tragedies and a particular place and time in history, with wonderful verisimilitude. It’s like the pensieve in Harry Potter, stick your face between its covers and fall into a vivid movie that lets up only at the last page. P. D. James has written a new murder mystery set in Pemberley, the estate of delicious Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. I’ve reserved it at the library–can’t wait for my name to come up in that long queue.

Shroud for a Nightingale (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #4)   P. D. James | Touchstone   2001

A Good Year — Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle’s A Good Year is mystery-lite. It’s a very good glass of wine—fragrant with the scents of the Provence, Mayle’s beloved niche as resident and writer—and easy to imbibe, like a smooth blend of grapes. So the book is a mini-vacation, a travel-free trip to a lovely, warm destination where not a lot happens and people are fine with that.

Max Skinner works in finance in London but his own finances are a mess. He likes his job, more or less, but hates his boss, and with good reason. The weasel hijacks Max’s ready-to-pay-off big deal and Max quits and is unceremoniously turned out of his cubicle without a dime in severance. Unfortunately, the bonus from the deal was supposed to pay off his creditors and right his listing fiscal ship—all off now.

But a solicitor’s letter saves the day with a convenient inheritance of a chateau and vineyard in Provence, the place where Max spent his childhood summers. His friend Charlie, a major real estate shark and all around cheerful guy, loans him a wad of cash and Max sets out to claim his vineyard and a new life.

Not so simple, but not too much more complicated, actually. The local lawyer is a dish and is worth far more than a modest village practice might indicate. The vineyard caretaker has a secret he is desperate to hide. The new housekeeper is a non-stop talker with a heart-of-gold and a bossy streak. The proprietor of the village bistro is hotter than her delectable cuisine and seems interested in Max. The chateau’s wine, however, is tant pis—or maybe pisse, worse than vinegar.

Into this sunny land of lovingly described meals and lively characters comes a long-lost relative with her own claims to the estate. Christie happens to be a tour guide in a Napa Valley winery, with a skill set that will come in very handy to resolve the plot. As she pokes around the estate, her questions reveal some inconsistencies that could mean fortune or disaster for the future of the property and whomever owns it. Best Friend Charlie drops in for a visit just in time and the local fabrication of lies begins to unravel.

Charlie and Christie find some common ground, leaving Max to pursue the sexy restaurateur. The glamorous local lawyer is still very much in the picture and the greed- and status-driven international  boutique wine trade edges in along with a couple of nefarious villains. Criminals and conspiracies mix with revelries at the village festival. More local comestibles are consumed, wine is tasted, an odd patch of rocky land holds an important clue.

A Good Year is a good escape book for a dreary day or an unclaimed evening when a visit to Provence is the perfect way to kill a few pleasant hours. The author’s impeccable credentials allow you to relax and enjoy vicarious imbibing, ingesting and investigating even when the clues seem a little heavy-handed and the Provenceaux too readily accepting of outsiders.   

 A Good Year     Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf  2004