Nature of the Beast

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This week I’ve made a return to the mysterious Canadian village of Three Pines, which is not found on any map or satnav, for Louise Penny’s eleventh in the Chief Inspector Gamache series. I’m a couple of volumes behind, and this one makes few concessions to readers who have not been following the plot. The former Chief Inspector of the Surete has retired, or so he thinks, until a young boy is found murdered. Young Laurent had an active imagination, so no one believed him when he said he had found something extraordinary in the woods – apart from one person, who killed him.

The book is an extended examination of how the threats of one era continue to dominate the present. At what point does history render a person or an issue harmless? At the same time as Gamache is lending a hand to his successor, an inhabitant of Three Pines is trying to stage a play written by an author of some notoriety. Does his past have any bearing on the case? Gamache is being tempted back to the police – has he been superseded, is his day over, is he past it? Or does his knowledge still have some value? Three Pines may not seem entirely real, but the issues facing a man whose career may be coming to a close most certainly are.

The plot strays into spy/ thriller territory, and is perhaps not the best place to begin an acquaintance with the series, but I found it enjoyable, with odd echoes of Margery Alingham’s The Mind Readers, a much earlier look at the threat posed by rogue scientists.

Mablethorpe

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This week, a chance discovery in my local library – Mablethorpe by W.S. Barton. The author and indeed the publisher, Rudling House, were new to me, but I have at least been to the beach at the eponymous east coast resort. The novel could have done with more stringent editing, but captures well the precarious and isolated feel of an out-of-season caravan park. The plot revolves round the lives of a number of park owners and their children, and when the first child goes missing, suspicion falls on one of them, Mark Smith. The police are convinced they’ve got the right man, even if the proof is inconclusive. However, as spring returns, the disappearances begin again. What if the prime suspect is innocent?

Many people like to pretend that class distinctions barely exist, but one of the last great divides is the caravan park. Those whose holidays consist of a week in a static caravan (aka trailer in the US) are considered, erm, less advantaged, which means that Mablethorpe, with its in-depth dissection of caravan-park mores, holds some of the fascination of an anthropology textbook revealing the forbidden rites of distant tribes for the uninitiated. The detection element is weak, but Barton is a man who knows about caravans, and for that alone, plus the east coast atmosphere, it was worth giving this a go.

 

His Bloody Project

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This week, it’s a book that I’ve been putting off reading since Christmas because I was afraid it would be too gloomy – His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so I knew it would be well-written, but in the short dark days of January and February, I needed something lighter. Set in rural Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, it tells the story of a remote crofting community and how one young man was driven to murder. The tale is told partly in the young man’s  own words, written while awaiting trial, and partly in those of a lawyer who is looking into the case.

This is bleak reading, and does much to explain why people left the countryside in the first place. Abuses of power in a small place have a disproportionate effect on the poverty-stricken inhabitants, and grievances fester for decades. The murder, when it comes, is an inevitable outcome of a generation’s worth of oppression, and it is a tribute to Burnet’s skill that the reader retains sympathy for the murderer throughout. The brutality of his neighbours is revenged, but there is no satisfaction in the end, only a sense of lives wasted by poverty. An excellent book, but one that holds no nostalgia for the Scotland of days past.

Berry the Hatchet

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Firmly back in cozy territory this week, in the little town of Cranberry Cove on Lake Michigan. Our heroine Monica Albertson bakes cakes and cookies with the cranberries grown on her half-brother’s farm. The town is full of neighbourly people, except the one who murdered the mayor at a winter festival designed to bring in the tourists (epic fail). Everything’s cute and wholesome, with added recipes and interesting snippets on cranberry-farming. Can’t have too many cranberries.

It’s easy to mock, but I enjoyed this. One or two little niggles, such as the cat changing colour part way through the book (tabby on p.76), then back again – it’s black and white on the cover, so why not stick with that? Other than that, it’s a cheerful read – even ex-wives of the same husband behave nicely to each other. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”, Jane Austen once said. Ms Cochran is dwelling on cranberries, and I’m happy to go along for the ride.

Boar Island

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Maine again, but a more brutal take on the state. Boar Island is Nevada Barr’s latest, 2016, offering. Heath (female despite the name) Jarrod is in a wheelchair, so feels particularly helpless when her adopted daughter is the victim of school cyber-bullying. She arranges to go to her old friend, Anna Pigeon, who has taken a ranger job at Boar Island in a remote part of Maine. However, the bullying becomes stalking when the threatening messages continue, and it becomes clear they are being watched.

Anna is trying to clear up the murder of a local man, with a history of domestic violence, which ultimately will put her in extreme danger. The main feature of this book is the high level of violence against women and as such I found it uncomfortable reading. It’s entirely realistic – there’s little that you wouldn’t find in the pages of a newspaper – but the sense of helplessness and anger of the victims comes across very clearly. Barr is a skilful writer – I wouldn’t be left feeling Heath’s anger over her daughter’s oppressor if she wasn’t – but not a comfortable one. Not in a hurry to read another one.

Fogged Inn

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I’ve had a week off for holidays, which has taken me to the Northumberland coast. Not wanting to re-read Anne Cleeves’ Vera novels, I’ve gone further afield, to Maine, for my holiday reading. I tracked down one of the Agatha Award finalists, “Fogged Inn”, by Barbara Ross. It’s the fourth in the Maine Clambake series published by Kensington, and something of a guilty pleasure. The mass-market American cozy isn’t widely available in the UK, but I have a now-not-very-secret liking for the cheerful covers and a sense that this is pulp fiction for our age. The more shocking stories are mainstream, and the professionally written but produced to a rapid schedule cozy mysteries are now somehow less worthy.

If there’s one thing that’s likely to make me a read a ton of these, it’s the thought that I’m not supposed to… “Fogged Inn” is set in the small Maine town of Busman’s Harbour, and Julia Snowden goes downstairs one morning to discover that someone has stashed a corpse in the catering refrigerator at the restaurant where she works. Needless to say, the kitchen is declared a crime scene and closed for business.

The corpse is a stranger, but in a small closely-knit town, it’s only a matter of time before someone will work out who he is, and what his links to Busman’s Harbour are. Julia’s an energetic sleuth, and this mystery is full of regular people trying to make a living in the off-season of a small tourist town. An enjoyable setting, with a hardworking heroine, and recipes too. Mug of cocoa and tartan rug time.

 

Death is a Word

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It is perhaps a little embarrassing to be reading the final volume in a series, without having read the preceding 20, but this week I’ve been reading Hazel Holt’s “Death is a Word”, the final Mrs Malory mystery. It is set in the fictional town of Taviscombe (a blending of Tavistock and Wiveliscombe?) in Devon, and Sheila Malory is a retired lady who lives with her dog and cat. (Though only the cat gets a look-in on the cover – wasn’t the dog photogenic enough?)

Sheila’s old friend Eva Jackson has recently retired to live close to her, yet her efforts to put her husband’s old papers in order seemed marred by bad luck. Despite the interest shown in Eva by another recent arrival to the area, Donald Webster, Eva is more concerned with her son and his partner, Patrick. Sheila, and her old friend Inspector Morris, turn to detection one last time to find out why tragedy has followed Eva.

This trips off the page like some fleet-footed insect, beetling on to the next food source – it’s a light read, but there’s a sense of lived experience (in particular, I’d lay money on Mrs Holt having served on a village hall committee or equivalent). It takes a long time to get going, and the first murder is delayed until almost the halfway point, which lessens the suspense rather than increasing it. It seems churlish, however, to quibble, as it was the author’s final book before her death in 2015. I now have the previous 20 to read, as well as her biography of Barbara Pym.