Roddy Williams – The Atheist Poet

Detective Novels

Murderous Reviews: From Doon With Death – Ruth Rendell (1964) (Inspector Wexford 01)

From Doon With Death (Inspector Wexford, #1)

This is the first in the Chief Inspector Wexford series which saw a very popular run as a TV series some time ago.
Margaret Parsons, a seemingly very ordinary and perhaps dowdy housewife, is reported missing by her husband and subsequently found strangled in a local wood.
Suspicion falls at first on the husband, an afficianado of real-life murder literature, but then is discovered a cache of expensive poetry books, sent to Margaret on various occasions with written messages of love from the mysterious Doon.
It’s an extremely well-written novel set in a town where everyone, it seems, has secrets and connections to the enigmatic Mrs Parsons.
Rendell paints a somewhat dire, but somehow not depressing, picture of this Nineteen Sixties community, most of them seemingly trapped in a hideous race to achieve or maintain social status.
There’s some excellent characterisation, although paradoxically I suspect Wexford himself is yet to develop into a fully rounded individual.
That, however, is my only gripe. I thoroughly enjoyed this book which comes in the kindle version at least with a fascinating introduction from Ian Rankin.

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Murderous Reviews: Introducing The Toff – John Creasey (1938)

Introducing the Toff (Toff, #1)

This is British pulp fiction I guess. Certainly Creasey produced around six hundred novels in his career under his own name and various pseudonyms.
Sir Richard Rollison, whose not so secret alias is ‘The Toff’, is an aristocratic maverick whose strength and skill with guns and fists has made him feared among the criminal classes.
One night his car is shot at and disabled by an evil looking arab in a Daimler. Further down the road The Toff finds a man in a car, shot dead, and the shoe of a missing woman.
And so begins The Toff’s investigation into a sinister drug smuggling organisation known as The Black Circle.
It’s a fast paced read packed with colourful if admittedly one dimensional characters in a strange and distant London where people like Harry the Pug run villainous public houses in a docklands more akin to Treasure Island than Nineteen Thirties London, and where restaurants and pubs have secret passages to other establishments.
The Toff, whose feared calling card features only a stylised top hat, monocle and cane, is threatened by guns, bombs, gas and poisonous tarantulas but eventually wins through to save the day.
It’s also a fascinating insight into the social culture of London in the Nineteen Thirties. The Toff has a personal bodyguard cum butler called Jolly. When the mysterious woman and her fiancé are forced to spend the night at The Toff’s flat, proprieties have be observed. The couple are split into separate bedrooms and The Toff takes over Jolly’s room, leaving Jolly banished to sleep in a chair.
It’s fantastical hokum, but it’s good fantastical hokum and taken in context, highly enjoyable.
The Toff is, one could argue, the Batman of British literature. He’s a rich maverick aristocrat with no actual superpowers other than his intelligence, strength and prowess with weapons, fighting the criminal underworld with the occasional help of the police.
Give it a go. You might like it.

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Murderous Reviews: Blood and Justice – Rayven T Hill (2013)

Blood and Justice (Jake and Annie Lincoln, #1)

Annie and Jake are in the early days of their Private Eye business and have been commissioned by the mother of a missing teenage girl.
Jenny, as we discover, has been kidnapped by Jeremy the fledgling serial killer who murdered her boyfriend.
All these names beginning with J are a tad confusing it has to be said, and this novel has other issues.
One is pace. Apart from Jeremy’s murders there isn’t a lot of excitement. The other is the technique of flashbacks to Jeremy’s childhood to show how he became the person he is. This would have worked better later in the novel, as it would have accentuated his cold ruthlessness in the first half. Maybe later we might then see unveiled the tragedies in his past which turned him into what he is. This would add another dimension to Jeremy’s personality.
It was a quick and decent read but like many other books published too hastily, might have benefited from a serious re-draft.


Murderous Reviews: Black As He’s Painted – Ngaio Marsh (1973)

Black As He's Painted (Roderick Alleyn, #28)

Inspector Alleyn is given a headache to deal with when an old school friend, now the President of Ng’ombwana decides on a trip to the UK. The President eschews excessive security protocol despite previous attempts on his life and has a habit of wandering off for a walk whenever he feels like it. Alleyn has been charged with visiting Ng’ombwana to persuade his old friend to accede to UK protocols, to which he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, a retired diplomat, Mr Whipplestone, has moved in quite near the Ng’ombwanan Embassy and acquired a stray cat whom he names Lucy Lockett.
Many people in the area, including Mr Whipplestone and his ‘help’, The Chubbs, appear to have previous connections with Ng’ombwana.
On arrival, the President sets up a reception in the The Embassy grounds, but despite stringent security from the police and the security services, death comes to the party anyway.
It’s written in the early nineteen seventies but the general impression is of an earlier era. Certainly, the Chubbs, who attend to several residents in the area, have the aura of people from the Nineteen Thirties. Having said that, people do have servants even today so maybe that’s just my naivety.
Marsh has peopled the novel with larger than life characters, in some cases grotesques, which she handles with aplomb. There are expressions of racism from some characters, but this is in context and are views expounded by unpleasant people. This was the nineteen seventies after all, a less enlightened time and although we have come leaps and bounds in racial tolerance there is a strong underbelly of racial tension thriving even now.
It’s an excellent read with a rather good mystery at the heart of the novel which I failed to unravel, and was very pleasantly surprised at how the various threads came together to a neat and satisfactory conclusion.
Quite wonderful. I shall certainly be reading more of Ngaio Marsh, an author who has been sadly neglected by me until now.


Murderous Reviews: Along Came A Spider (Alex Cross #01) – James Patterson (1993)

Along Came a Spider (Alex Cross, #1)

Alex Cross is hard bitten black detective who is called away from a brutal family slaying in a black neighbourhood to assist the FBI in the kidnapping of two rich white children from a private school.
Untracked serial killer Gary Soneji has been working at the school and has planned what he thinks is the perfect crime.
I must admit that it was 40% into the book that things became very interesting for me. I was misdirected into thinking of this as a simple kidnapping. The plot suddenly becomes more complex and deeper than I was expecting. I can’t really add any more without including spoilers, but from then on I couldn’t put it down.
There’s great characterisation and a troubling view of how much politics and policing are intertwined. Patterson, a white American, has in my view, which is probably not an important one since I am neither black nor American, created a very believable black lead character. Certainly, the books are very popular and I have not read of any criticism of Patterson having misrepresented black people so I hope I am right.
Thoroughly enjoyable.


Murderous Reviews: Dying to Get Published – Judy Fitzwater (1995)

Dying to Get Published (Jennifer Marsh Mysteries, #1)

Jennifer Marsh has written at least eight novels but has had no luck publishing anything. Watching Oprah Windrey one say she sees a woman being interviewed who was falsely accused of murder and now has a best selling book. This gives Jennifer the idea that were she able to carry out the perfect murder, and have a watertight alibi, she too could be a best selling author. She also has the perfect victim in mind, Penney Richmond, an unscrupulous sociopathic literary agent who, it seems, has been responsible for ripping off and demoralising countless authors.
Via her work with a catering company, Jennifer meets Sam, a handsome young journalist who wants her to assist him with an investigation into the apparent suicide of a TV presenter.
Jennifer puts her plan into action but at the last minute decides she is not actually the murderous type and leaves the scene of her attempted crime. Later she is arrested as it seems someone else had exactly the same idea and murdered Penney Richmond anyway. It’s up to Jennifer and Sam then to identify the real killer.
It’s not bad at all, this. An enjoyable read with some interesting characters. One might suggest that the protagonist, who has written several unpublished crime novels, might well have come up with a better plan, but that’s a minor point. The plot is decent enough and the murderer was something of a surprise, at least for me. It’s funny without trying too hard to be funny and it ticks all the boxes as an amusing cosy murder mystery.


Murderous Reviews: The Man With The Dark Beard – Annie Haynes (1928)

The Man with the Dark Beard (Inspector Stoddart, #1)

This is great vintage stuff, introducing Inspector Stoddart who is called in to investigate the murder of a doctor, a doctor who recently confessed to a top defence barrister that he had information about a crime that had gone unpunished.
The doctor was found dead, shot in the head in his study, having left a mysterious note saying ‘It was the man with the dark beard’.
There’s quite a lot going on, what with red herrings, sundered love trysts, disappearing parlour maids, mysterious men with beards, secretaries behaving strangely, another murder and a missing Chinese box. There’s also some interesting characterisation such as Miss Lavinia, who is quite delightful and whom I pictured in my head as Joan Sanderson, one of the UK’s most indomitable battle-axe actresses.
To be honest it’s not hard to work out who the murderer is, although rather more interesting trying to guess the how and the why.
The only failing here is that the denouement fails to fully explain the entire sequence of events concerning the murder.
It’s a good read though, and quite fascinating to read a contemporary account of how British fashions and cultural mores were noticeably changing at the time.
I’m very much looking forward to reading more.


Murderous Reviews: Crime in The Community – Cecilia Peartree (2010)

Crime in the Community (Pitkirtly Mysteries #1)

I am in a quandary about this book. On the whole I enjoyed it, but I can’t help feeling there was something missing. A murder might have livened things up, but despite my best hopes nobody died.
Amaryllis Peebles (There is one problem identified at least) is a young-ish but retired Secret Service Agent who moves to the quiet town of Pitkirtly, and there joins the Pitkirtly Local Improvement Forum, a disparate band of people who essentially have regular meetings in the local pub out of a lack of anything else to do.
Steve Paxman, a Council Official, turns up at Amaryllis’ first meeting and suggests that the PLIF request funding from the Council in order to restore the derelict village hall. Very soon after, Paxman goes missing and things start to get a bit weird for Christopher Wilson, the chair of the PLIF and carer for his mentally unstable sister and her children.
It’s a novel that hasn’t really made a decision as to what it should be. Is it satire, light comedy, cosy mystery, spy thriller or something else entirely?
Let’s return to problem number one. Amaryllis Peebles is completely the wrong name for this character. My wider view is that it’s the completely wrong name for any character. However, if you are going to use an eccentric name, then it has to be for a good reason, or else in a context where others have eccentric names (no one else does). It also has to suit the character, and this doesn’t. There seems no good reason why such a name should have been chosen. If Amaryllis was hoping to blend in to the background then such a name doesn’t help. It seems like a senseless affectation which should have been abandoned after the first draft. You also have characters called Steve Paxman and Simon Fairfax, which have enough common S’s, X’s, M’s and N’s to cause confusion.
There are points where the reader will wonder ‘What the Hell is going on?’ with good reason, although most of it is ultimately explained. The explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense. There were far easier ways for the bad guys in this book to achieve their objective.
Having said that, there is some wonderful characterisation and it is nice to see Christopher’s view of his PLIF colleagues change as they help him to face various random crises which are hurled at him. Christopher himself is a well-drawn character, beset with problems with his family, his PLIF commitments and the strange creature that is Amaryllis, who has entered his life and seemingly brought turmoil in her wake.
Will I read another one? I’ll give it another chance. I’m hoping that the characters might dictate the next book and help it find out what sort of a beast it wishes to be.


Murderous Reviews: Exit Stage Left – Adam Croft (2011)

Exit Stage Left (Kempston Hardwick, #1)

I started this during my hour’s commute to work and finished it on the way back. Yes. It’s that short.
Once famous TV star Charlie Sparks’ career has sunk to the point where he is doing spots in local pubs. Kempston Hardwick is in The Freemasons Arms on the night of a scheduled performance and there makes the acquaintance of Ellis Flint, who pays the landlord for a private meeting for them both with Charlie. During the performance Charlie collapses and dies. Kempston suspects murder and shanghais Ellis into helping him in a private investigation.
It’s all a bit odd, as the book is not really sure whether it’s a comical adventure or not. One also suspects that the dated style of the narrative suggests it was written a long time ago and just put out for free for the sake of it. Fair enough if that’s the case, but one would like some sense of date establishment. One presumes from the nature of his comedy that Charlie was famous in the seventies. Most major stars of the seventies of this nature where in their thirties or forties or older which would make Charlie a little too old today for regular stage appearances and frolicking with strippers. You never know though. Also there’s only one appearance of a mobile phone, which I suspect may have been added as an update.
Characterisation isn’t too bad apart from the case of Hardwick himself, of whom we learn nothing. In other scenarios this may well work but here it just doesn’t.
The plot is fine and it’s well written which makes it more of a shame that this wasn’t treated as a decent first draft and rewritten to at least twice its size, to allow some character development and to establish where we are in time.


Murderous Reviews: Not A Very Nice Woman – John Eider (2012)

Not A Very Nice Woman

Stella Dunbar is found strangled in her flat in what is essentially an old people’s retirement complex. She was a well respected teacher who still gave private tuition to select pupils. It is up to Inspector Graham Rase (confusingly known also as Grey) to investigate Stella’s past to determine the murderer.
This could have done with some serious editing. The prose style is very peculiar and often rambles off into badly constructed sentences.

‘Grey looked up at the window he knew his Superintendent could often be found peering out from, though he was not there that afternoon, gone home early to whatever it was he had asked Grey to interrupt him in with news that evening.’

or

‘It was getting dark by the time Sergeant Smith found herself driving to the large and somewhat historic building on the outskirts of town, her passenger the Inspector ruminating in the passenger seat.’

I felt out of breath by the end of certain paragraphs. It’s also deadened by a plodding linear nature and a lack of characterisation. It is a shame as it wouldn’t take a great deal to make this book sparkle a little.
Some research into police procedure might not go amiss either. Anyone who’s watched ITV detective dramas knows that you don’t give potential suspects and witnesses details from the crime scene outside of a formal interview. Inspector Rase does though.
It’s also a little dated and although set in the present, reads like something from the fifties. It’s not a bad read, but reads more like a first draft than a finished work.