Tag Archives: mystery

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

This book has been staring at me from Waterstones’ shelves for months, tempting me with its old map Streets of London cover and its back-cover blurb that makes it seem like a cross between The Eyre Affair and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The last time I went in, it was on special offer. What else could I do but buy it?

And it doesn’t have the intense wordplay of Jasper Fforde, or the detailed, heavy, parallel history of Susannah Clarke. But it does have an incredibly readable voice and an eminently reasonable approach that makes completely bizarre events seem perfectly realistic. Oh, and a touch of heartbreaking sadness, but not unresolvable sadness.

Because reason is what you need, and sadness is what you get, when you can sense residual magic, are given evidence by a ghost, and have to negotiate a peace treaty between London’s river spirits. Oh, and people are having excessively violent reactions to annoyances, and then their faces fall off.

The two stories – the rivers and the violence – aren’t connected; they’re just simultaneous. Occasionally they coincide and intersect, but other than timing they’re completely separate. It’s absolutely great the way the stories intertwine without conflicting – not something that’s done a lot anymore, and Aaronovitch manages it well.

I really liked the glimpses into London’s physical history – the rivers and streams are all personified and their history and current status mentioned, including facts about the Thames area that I sort of knew of but didn’t concretely know before. And some of those details help with the investigation into the violence, which leads to a sort of cultural/social history touchstone that I vaguely recognised but didn’t know much about (Mr. Punch/Punch and Judy). I enjoy things that entertain as well as educate.

There’s a sequel (first chapter provided) which I’ll definitely keep an eye out for. It follows directly on from this one and absolutely acknowledges the events and their consequences. I think, as a series, it has great potential for continuation. In fact, I was thinking that it might make an interesting television show – the combination of police procedural and magic as presented here is so cool, and lends itself to serialisation very well. Producers, talk to me, I’ve got ideas.

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Mr. Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, by Kate Colquhoun

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the various historical non-fiction books that I’ve been reading in the last year or so is how smoothly they integrate their research into their story. There have been occasional points where things get bogged down in the details, but overall, I feel like I’ve experienced the story and the time period instead of just learning about it.

Mr. Briggs’ Hat is no exception to this. Certainly the first half of the book, detailing the discovery of the murder and the investigation, is incredibly gripping. (I also benefited slightly from having relatively recently both read and watched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: there are a couple of familiar names amongst the detectives. [Wow, could I use any more adverbs there?]) I was incredibly impressed at the efforts put in to capture Muller; the detectives not only combed the streets of London for evidence, but took two witnesses to New York to help identify and extradite him.

The second half of the book, while no less interesting, does get more into the political layers, implications, and ramifications of the trial. Once they’ve decided that Muller is the culprit (based on quite a lot of circumstantial evidence, which isn’t quite as tenuous as it sounds to modern ears), things in 1864 get intricate. There’s the necessity of extradition from New York, complicated by the already fraught tensions between the American and British government and populace because of the (US) Civil War. There’s the fact that Muller is German, and Prussia was making moves toward German unification that included aggression toward Denmark (a UK-sympathetic country, due to the Princess of Wales being Danish). And then there’s the ongoing debate about suitable punishment for murder: capital punishment or lifetime with hard labour? Public or private execution?

And that doesn’t even get into the difficulties with the case itself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the murder (who had been threatening Briggs about a loan, who were the other two men supposedly in the carriage with him), and the witnesses on both sides aren’t exactly stellar characters. But despite all the confusing details with the case, it’s never questioned that Muller is the culprit.

And, despite the hook of the murder case itself, the book isn’t really “about” that. It’s about the political and social forces that collided within the scope of the investigation and trial – without getting at all bogged down into socio-political commentary. It paints a picture of the relatively new field of professional detection, and the constantly changing world of public opinion when it comes to crime and punishment. Colquhoun weaves all the threads together so deftly that sometimes it is like being back in 1864. Hovering over it a bit, not always actually walking the streets, but that’s the benefit of history – you know how things turned out, so you don’t have to deal with the uncertainty that the “locals” would have felt. (….now I think I need to read more Ian Mortimer……)

It’s also increased my “want-to-research” list quite substantially…..not a bad thing.

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In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.

 

With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.

 

I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Okay, so I knew vaguely about the Brides in the Bath – I have been to Madame Tussaud’s several times now, and I think George Smith or whatever you want to call him has been featured in the Chamber of Horrors. But I didn’t know many of the details, and a lot of the late Victorian/Edwardian murder sensations blend together in my brain. The only thing I really remembered (probably spurred by the mnemonic there) was that this guy had married women and then drowned them.

What I didn’t know about the case was the bigamy aspect. (Question: is it still bigamy when it’s multiple wives who don’t know about each other? Because he had about three wives at any given time.) He married all of these women in succession, of course, but at the same time he had another wife that he would go back to in between, and a first wife who left him and fled to Canada – but as far as I could tell never actually got a divorce, although I could be wrong about that. Somehow that was almost more disturbing to me than the actual murders: the way he seduced these women and was so charismatic – and how close he came to getting away with it.

Obviously, with a title like that, the case is not the only aspect of this book. It’s also the story of Bernard Spilsbury, a “real-life Sherlock Holmes”, who is sometimes considered the father of modern forensics. It’s not really about his personal life, but it does establish the procedures and principles of autopsies and forensic deduction.

That makes it sound drier than it is. I found the book absolutely fascinating and engrossing. Not just the true-crime bits about the murders, but the information about the forensics of it as well. Possibly the coolest part – and the most convincing to me about the crime – was the “re-enactment” that Spilsbury and his colleagues did in order to establish the means. (Is “means” the word I’m looking for there?) Basically, they used some strong swimmers (women who could handle long stretches underwater), and tested different ways to submerge them. By sharply pulling up on the women’s legs – and keeping them up – they ended up almost killing one of their volunteers, and proving to their own satisfaction the way that the crimes could have been committed.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s so smoothly and engagingly written that I just raced through it. I do enjoy historical true-crime type stuff, and I enjoyed this one even more than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – in part because the crime was solved, so that aspect was much more satisfying in this book. Definitely another one that I’ll be pushing on people.

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Silks, by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

My dad’s visit means that I have taken a few days off from stressing about my dissertation. We’ve been incredibly active (for us) during the day, and then collapsing in his hotel in the evenings. When we collapse, we read. So I finally read Silks.

It’s not the best Dick Francis book ever – and I can say that having read every book he’s written, usually multiple times. It’s not bad, of course, but it’s not as good as Banker or Hot Money or Proof or the one about the toy-maker whose title I always forget (even though now I want to re-read it. I should add it to the list!) or many of the others. It has the same flaws that I noticed in the meteorologist one (whose title I am also blanking on): there are times when it feels like a collection of “things that worked before” rather than an organically new story. I think it’s better than the meteorologist one – it’s closer to the racing world, for one thing – and the retreads are less obvious, but they’re still there. It actually reminded me a bit of Twice Shy.  Not a bad thing – I enjoy Twice Shy quite a lot – but definitely some of the same themes. Mostly the intimidation/organized crime idea, and some in the time-jumping.

Stylistically, it was also less subtle (for lack of a better word) than the early-to-mid-career books. At the beginning, at least, I was very aware that there were two people writing the book. That feeling faded as I got further into it, but there were a few points at the beginning where I was almost able to separate out the son’s writing from the father’s. It just wasn’t as smooth in the story-telling as the early-to-mid-career books were – probably a factor of Dick Francis’s age and health as well as the (explicit) collaboration.

I did enjoy it, though – I don’t want to imply that I didn’t. Any new Dick Francis book is better than no new Dick Francis book, at least for now. It took me a bit to get into it (as it did for the meteorologist one), but once I was, I needed to know the resolution. I would read it again, too. Not right away, and not instead of books like Banker  or Proof or High Stakes (is that the toymaker one? or is that the South African guy one? I can never remember….) or some of the others that I really like, but in my periodic Dick Francis reread weeks (every year or so I go through pretty much all the books), I’ll put it somewhere in the middle, I think.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries