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E is for Evidence - Sue Grafton 17/02/2012

A Family Affair

E is for Evidence - Sue Grafton When Kinsey Millhone receives an advice slip from her bank telling her that $5000 has been deposited into her account, she regards it as nothing more than a clerical error; at worst, it’s a distraction from the job in hand, which is to produce an insurance investigation report on a warehouse fire. California Fidelity, the company which provides Kinsey with a steady supply of work, and from whose office building she operates her one-woman private detective agency, wants the report yesterday, notwithstanding that it’s slap bang in the middle of the Christmas holidays. In truth, Kinsey isn’t all that put out: with no family around and her few trusted friends all out of town for the holidays, there’s little else to do but shut herself away in her studio apartment with a Len Deighton novel and a quantity of white wine until the world gets back to normal. As fate would have it, the warehouse in question belongs to Wood/Warren, a family-run company of which Kinsey has some knowledge, having been at school with the youngest daughter of the family. She’s met one of the brothers too, in the past, having been introduced to him by Daniel, her second ex-husband. The case seems fairly straightforward: Kinsey can find no evidence of arson, and the report in the file by the attending fire chief confirms her views. Just another standard claim for fire damage, Kinsey concludes, so the only reason she can think of for the urgency is that Wood/Warren must be putting pressure on its insurers to ...

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson 02/07/2011

Over-egging the Pudding

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson When the first two pages of a murder mystery novel consist of a floor plan of an English country house and a list of principal characters nineteen strong, you know you’re going to have to bring the little grey cells out of hibernation if you want to be in with a chance of keeping up with proceedings throughout the remainder of the three hundred and sixty-odd pages. And when said list includes such delightfully long-winded monikers as ‘George Henry Aylwin Saunders, 12th Earl of Burford’ and ‘Mr Hiram S. Peabody of Texas, a multi-millionaire’, you’ll wish you had one of those big white notice-boards the police use on the telly, the ones where they pin up pictures of suspects and draw lots of flowcharts with black marker pens. On the other hand, you could simply sit back and let this slightly silly but nonetheless pleasantly entertaining piece of murder fiction play itself out without taxing your brain too greatly; largely because by the time you’ve reached the end of it, few people will have turned out to be who you thought they were, and fewer still will have told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, rendering all that cerebral exercise a complete waste of effort. The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (only the English would dress a boiled egg in a hat before bashing its head in) is set, in classic detective fiction style, at Alderley, the country seat of the aforementioned Earl of Burford and his wife, where delicate and highly sensitive diplomatic talks ...

Gone For Good - Harlan Coben 13/04/2011

Where There's a Will

Gone For Good - Harlan Coben Eleven years ago Will Klein’s world fell apart. His neighbour and former girlfriend Julie was found raped and strangled in the basement of her home, with Will’s brother Ken emerging as prime suspect for the murder. In the wake of the overwhelming evidence against him, Ken went to ground and despite a couple of reported sightings over the years, hasn’t been seen since. The general consensus is that he is dead, a theory which both Will and their mother have never fully been able to accept, and now, eleven years on, Will’s life is about to be thrown into turmoil once again. First, there is his mother’s deathbed announcement that she has proof his brother is still alive, then days later, his current girlfriend Sheila disappears suddenly from their home. Worse is to come when the FBI suspect Will of knowing more than he is letting on about both Sheila’s and Ken’s disappearances. To preserve his sanity, Will enlists the help of his friend and colleague from the charitable foundation he helps to run, to try to uncover the truth about what happened. Missing persons and the unearthing of secrets from the past are recurrent themes in Harlan Coben’s novels, as his regular readers will know, but it must be said that Coben is a master of both storytelling devices, his books falling undoubtedly into the thriller category rather than that of standard crime fiction. The plots tend to be very convoluted and you certainly need to muster up your best concentration skills in order to keep up ...

Corduroy Mansions - Alexander McCall Smith 27/02/2011

Life's Rich Tapestry in Corduroy

Corduroy Mansions - Alexander McCall Smith It would be fair to say that Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific writer. Not quite in the Barbara Cartland mould, perhaps – as far as I know he doesn't dictate his work dressed in a pink frock, sprawled out on an equally grotesquely coloured chaise-longue – but there's no getting away from the fact that every few months or so a new novel of his finds its way onto the shelves and into the best-sellers lists of the major High Street bookshops. Not content with having three popular and well-established series on the go, he's recently started a fourth, moving, as it were, from his more familiar territories of Botswana and Edinburgh to central London's Pimlico area; more specifically, a four storey mansion block known by its residents as Corduroy Mansions, the nickname having been coined by a former occupant in reference to the building's distinctly unglamorous but comfortable style. This new series of novels, of which Corduroy Mansions is the first, is delivered in similar format to the Scotland Street series of books, that is to say that it follows the comings and goings of a small group of residents, venturing a little farther afield every now and then into the lives of their inner circles of friends, families and acquaintances. It's largely observational fiction with a dash of gentle humour rather than laugh-out-loud comedy, occasionally dipping its feet into philosophical territory, but rarely reaching a pace beyond that of a casual stroll down to the newsagents for the ...

Elonex 500EB 19/02/2011

My Little Black Book Reader

Elonex 500EB WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH When it comes to technical gadgets, I'm afraid I'm a bit of a dinosaur, although on the plus side my indifference means that I'll probably get through life without bumping into lampposts and passers-by whilst absorbed in some hand-held gadget or another. I don't expect to develop RSI in my thumbs through vigorous texting or gaming, and any deafness I might suffer as I grow older is likely to be through general wear and tear rather than the result of having music blasted into my eardrums via a pair of earplugs attached to a length of wire. Though I have to admit, I've been very tempted of late to treat myself to an e-book reader, and being a person to whom shelves of unread books are as visually pleasing as those containing bottles of the finest wines or olive oils, it goes without saying that I've been suffering a crisis of conscience. On the one hand, there's a deep sense of guilt that by climbing aboard the digital bandwagon I'll be contributing to the eventual demise of the high street bookshop; on the other, and from a more practical slant, I've simply run out of space for any more books at home, and since I can't quite bring myself to dump them off at the nearest charity shop, there they all sit, gathering copious amounts of dust. So I've recently begun to do some research, weighing up the pros and cons of getting an e-reader, but more or less accepting that I'd do the deed at some point during 2011. GOOD THINGS COME IN SMALL ...

The Frost Fair - Edward Marston 21/07/2010

A Killing Frost

The Frost Fair - Edward Marston “London was brought to a standstill. Markets were cancelled, trades abandoned, shops left shut” Not a depressing newspaper headline describing the capital during an all-out transport strike, or the more ominous after-effects of a terrorist attack, but a sentence taken from the first page of Edward Marston’s compelling murder novel set in 1669. Still reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Fire three years earlier, Londoners now have to face up to the harshest of winters, the like of which we twenty-first century mortals, tucked up in our centrally-heated dwellings, cannot even begin to imagine. The River Thames, as essential to seventeenth-century transport as our motorways are today, has been transformed from an erstwhile bustling waterway into an inhospitable sheet of ice stretching as far as the eye can see. But whereas their modern-day counterparts would think nothing of throwing a ‘sickie’ and retreating under the duvet, these hardy and resilient inhabitants of the capital have managed to turn disaster into enterprise by setting up a Frost Fair on the newly-frozen thoroughfare. Here, the antecedents of ‘Delboy’ Trotter and Simon Cowell are in full throttle, hoisting all manner of dubious merchandise and entertainment acts onto a willing and receptive public, grateful for some respite from the crippling weather conditions. Among the revellers is architect Christopher Redmayne, a man whose skills are in great demand in Restoration London, along with ...

Requiem for a Mezzo - Carola Dunn 19/05/2010

No Extra Toppings, Please

Requiem for a Mezzo - Carola Dunn As regular readers of English crime fiction well know, many of the murders committed in this country would have remained unsolved over the years were it not for the existence of a certain type of persistent and tenacious female, seemingly capable of piecing together clues and information far more efficiently than the stubborn and incompetent duffers of the police force could ever hope to do. Indeed, it’s an alarming thought that hundreds of villains would have got away with their murderous deeds had it not been for the likes of Miss Marple and her fellow meddling spinsters poking their refined noses into the most dangerous of situations. Recently in need of something lightweight in the way of murder mystery reading, I picked up “Requiem for a Mezzo”, written by Carola Dunn, a British ex-pat now living in Oregon, U.S.A. Seeing the phrase “A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery” running along the bottom of the front cover, I imagined that this would be an offering in the Agatha Christie mould, the heroine a little old dear kitted out in knitted twin-set and sensible shoes perhaps, specs dangling from a mother-of-pearl senility-chain and clutching a daintily embroidered handkerchief in a wrinkled, age-spotted hand. I couldn’t have been more wrong, in fact, not only in the sense that Daisy turned out to be decades younger than wise old Miss M. but also because she was streets behind the old biddy in both the charisma and the grey cells departments. Had I bothered to read the back-cover blurb ...

The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery) - P.D. James 04/04/2010

The Curious Affair of the Missing Satnav

The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery) - P.D. James Adam Dalgleish has, it seems, been around since his biblical namesake was a lad, solving his first murder case around the time that his cerebral counterpart Inspector Morse would have been supping his first pint of real ale, the famous Jaguar car a mere twinkle in his youthful eye. Dalgleish is of the old school of English fictional detectives, a man of high moral standards and impeccable good manners, who expects nothing less from those who work for him. His relationship with his small, close-knit team is one of mutual respect, but it’s a fairly formal relationship nonetheless, one in which the hierarchy is never challenged, and where to address him by anything other than ‘Sir’ would be to cross a firmly established boundary. Adam is formal – often ridiculously so – in his personal life too, although some would attribute it to nothing more than well-mannered chivalry; nevertheless, he’s from a background where it’s considered good form to seek the approval, informal or otherwise, of one’s prospective father-in-law before going ahead with marriage, which is precisely what he’s doing when he receives the call to travel to Cheverall Manor, a private clinic in Dorset, where investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn has been found murdered. Rhoda had been recovering from cosmetic surgery to remove a prominent and unsightly scar from her face, the result of a whisky bottle having been smashed in her face as a child by a violent, alcoholic father. The operation had been successful, ...

The Miracle at Speedy Motors - Alexander McCall Smith 11/09/2009

Miracles and True Blue Spectacles

The Miracle at Speedy Motors - Alexander McCall Smith Boy George warbled about one, Smokey Robinson was ably assisted by five of them, and depending on one’s religious beliefs, a chap with long hair and a beard performed them on a regular basis, arguably the best-known of which was to turn five loaves and two fishes into a meal fit for a five thousand-strong mob. I’m talking about miracles, of course, but what really constitutes a miracle? The dictionary defines it as an ‘extraordinary or improbable event which is inexplicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the result of divine intervention’, and that’s certainly our perception when we talk about ‘miracle cures’ for otherwise incurable illnesses and conditions. But can the term be used legitimately to describe less remarkable happenings or do we have a tendency to bandy it about a little too freely so as to devalue its real meaning? Perhaps it rather depends on the expectations of the individual, for something which one person might regard as a miracle may well appear as little more than an everyday event in the eyes of another. There’s no doubt that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Speedy Motors and loyal husband of Precious Ramotswe - Botswana’s most famous (and possibly only) lady detective - is hoping for a miracle in the literal sense when he arranges to take their adopted daughter Motholeli to Johannesburg in search of a cure for the paralysis which they have been told will confine her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. ... 30/08/2009

The Heads-Up on Surveyhead A NEW HEAD ON OLD SHOULDERS If you’ve been part of the online survey community for a few years, you can’t fail to have heard of goZing, the now defunct US-based company notorious in its day for both its snail-like payment processing and its unholy alliance with the equally infamous OTX Surveys, the outfit which invites you to sit through endless film previews (twice), bombards you with questions and then waits until you’ve swallowed the last morsel of popcorn before informing you that you’re not part of the target group. goZing finally bit the dust in 2005 when it was bought out by Greenfield Online, the company which later acquired our very own Ciao, and which itself subsequently ended up as fodder for the omnipresent Microsoft. Sounds a bit like that song about the old lady who swallowed a fly, doesn’t it? Well, if the chaps at goZing were down, they certainly weren’t out - or perhaps they’d spent all the money they got from Greenfield – anyway, they returned to the survey scene in 2008 to form Surveyhead, which is part of a larger organisation called United Sample, and which is based in California. So much for the history; more importantly, long-suffering ex-goZing members will be wondering whether Surveyhead is any better at this survey lark than its hapless predecessor, or whether it’s merely the devil reincarnated. And more to the point, is it worth joining or is it better to let sleeping dogs lie? To which the answers would be: “Yes; sometimes; probably; and ...

Cold Burn (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) - Max Allan Collins 17/08/2009

Freezing to Death

Cold Burn (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) - Max Allan Collins If you’re one of those diehard C.S.I. fans who believe the programme has never been quite the same since Warrick transferred to the great forensic lab in the sky and Grissom threw in his microscope to be with Sara, you’ll be relieved to hear that there’s a very passable alternative to watching televised reruns of the early seasons, or indeed, to forking out large sums of money for the DVD versions. It comes courtesy of Max Allan Collins, a respected Iowan filmmaker and author of crime and graphic novels, who has written a series of books based on the successful and highly popular TV series depicting the activities of the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation Unit. All are original novels which to my knowledge have not been adapted for television, and those I’ve read so far complement the show and reflect its style and content accurately. Cold Burn falls in with the standard format of having two cases running concurrently; in this instance, Catherine Willows is left in charge of the department while Grissom and Sara head north to upstate New York to attend a forensic science conference. This all happens long before Grissom and Sara get together as an item of course, with Sara spending her free time at the mountain lodge hotel reading Agatha Christie novels while Grissom buries himself in his entomology textbooks. Whilst it’s blatantly obvious to the rest of us that these two really were made for each other, the same cannot be said yet of Grissom, who at one point looks at ...

A Necessary End - Peter Robinson 26/07/2009

What a Riot

A Necessary End - Peter Robinson If anything is guaranteed to get decent, law-abiding townsfolk out of their nice cosy houses and onto the streets in protest, it’s the news that there’s going to be a nuclear power station opening up on their doorstep. Factor into the equation that this is the late 1980s, that the town in question is in the north of England, and that the person insisting it’ll do the area nothing but good is a condescending, female Conservative M.P. from the Home Counties, and you’ve the makings of a full-scale riot on your hands. Which is exactly what Chief Inspector Alan Banks finds himself having to deal with, having left the crime-ridden streets of London for what he thought was the peace and quiet of Eastvale in Yorkshire. Whoever told him that life would be less stressful up here was having him on. With Eastvale’s narrow streets swollen by bottle-throwing protesters (the whole town seems to have turned out for this one) and a thick blue line bolstered by truncheon-happy draftees from neighbouring forces, it isn’t long before the demonstration turns ugly, and in scenes reminiscent of the battlefields of Toxteth and Brixton, it’s the boys in blue who come off worst, with one of their number falling victim to a fatal stabbing. It’s thought to be a tragic accident at first, but once the investigation gets under way, it seems increasingly likely that PC Edwin Gill was deliberately murdered. With practically half the town as suspects and no knife to be found, tracking down the killer ...

C is for Corpse - Sue Grafton 14/07/2009

Sniffing for Clues

C is for Corpse - Sue Grafton I had a sneaking admiration for Kinsey Millhone right from the off; the off being A is for Alibi, the first in Sue Grafton’s series of novels featuring the 32 year-old, twice-divorced female private eye from Santa Teresa, California. She’s something of a wit, I’ve discovered, and by page two of C is for Corpse, my initial instincts were confirmed. Describing the down-market gym where she works out whilst recovering from a work-related injury as “twenty-eight hundred square feet of space smelling like men’s jockstraps”, she wins my further approval; on the one hand for having the temerity to go to the trouble of finding out what men’s jockstraps smell like, and on the other, for being brave enough to admit to it in print. In return for planting that image in my brain, not only can I forgive her for having the cheesiest name in detective fiction – hardly her fault, in any case – but I can even overlook the unlikely coincidence of her assignments arriving in alphabetical order, any complaints I might have had in either direction being reduced to petty nit-picking. At the gym, Kinsey meets young Bobby Callahan, and while there’s no hint of any jockstrap-sniffing, she does take a shine to the lad, and they become friends of a sort. It turns out that Bobby narrowly escaped death some months back when his car was run off the road, and although it was generally deemed to have been an accident, Bobby believes somebody was trying to kill him. He spent two weeks in a coma as a ...

Caedmon's Song - Peter Robinson 04/07/2009

Mission Implausible

Caedmon's Song - Peter Robinson Peter Robinson is the author of the Inspector Banks series, set in Yorkshire, where he lived before emigrating to Canada. Caedmon’s Song is a departure from that series, recounting the stories of two young women: the first, Kirsten, is in her final year at university when she is attacked on her way home from an end-of-term party and left for dead. She survives the assault, but the savage knife attack leaves her with horrific internal injuries, and as the full extent of those injuries is gradually revealed to her, she realises that her life will never be the same again. Her physical and emotional pain is compounded by her inability to remember very much about the incident, and with next to nothing to go on, it isn’t going to be easy for the police to catch her assailant. Martha Browne, meanwhile, is a strange kettle of fish, a young woman who arrives in Whitby on the East Yorkshire coast, ostensibly to gather research for a book she’s supposedly intending to write. There is no book of course; moreover, Martha has come to hunt down an as yet unknown person. All we’re told is that it’s a man – Martha herself doesn’t know his name or even that he really does live in the town - but all her instincts tell her that she’s come to the right place. Keeping a low profile, she begins to put together a plan to trap her prey. The back cover describes the book as a psychological thriller, and while I can see what the publishers were getting at, I’d dispute the second part of that ...

Love Over Scotland (44 Scotland Street) - Alexander McCall Smith 07/06/2009

Paris, Pirates and Paramours

Love Over Scotland (44 Scotland Street) - Alexander McCall Smith It’s part three of this engaging saga about life at 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh, and a lot has changed since we were last there. Of the original occupants, only six-year-old Bertie Pollock and his family remain in the building, with Bruce having departed for London, and Pat now living another part of the city in preparation for her new University course. Domenica, the anthropologist, has taken off for the Malacca Straits to study pirates, to the deep sadness of her artist friend Angus Lordie, and her flat is now occupied by a female friend, Antonia Collie, to whom Angus attempts to pay court, with indifferent results. Nearby, Matthew is continuing to run the art gallery, substantially richer thanks to his father’s £4 million gift, and Big Lou from Arbroath, proprietress of the café, has found what she thinks is true love with old flame Eddie, the two of them planning a further business venture together with the help of Lou’s savings. And so, life at Scotland Street and its environs goes on. It’s a brave move to depart from a story’s familiar setting – soap opera scriptwriters have attempted it in the past, with less than successful results – and of all the subplots involved in this volume, Domenica’s activities are possibly the least compelling reading of them all, despite the ongoing intrigue surrounding the mysterious disappearance of her Belgian predecessor, and her fear that she might end up following suit. As much as a change of scenery is refreshing, it’s ...
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