historical fantasy · mystery · review

Himself, by Jess Kidd

The prologue to Jess Kidd’s horribly magical novel, Himself, is brutal. It was almost enough to put me off the book entirely as I read about a woman I later learned was called Orla Sweeney being beaten to death by an unknown man, as her infant son unwittingly watched. At the end of the prologue, the forest itself conceals a boy who grows up to become the protagonist of the rest of the novel from his would-be murderer and I was immediately hooked. Himself ended up being a blend of horror, mystery, supernatural doings, and quirkiness that I found completely fascinating. I’ve never read anything like Himself and, given how much I enjoyed Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (also titled The Hoarder), I am now a committed fan of Jess Kidd.

Mahony turns up in the town of Mulderrig, Count Mayo like a stranger in a western—at least until word gets out who’s son he is. He’s treated well (mostly) by the people of the town. He gets a bit of stick for his hair and trousers because, even though it’s 1976, rural Ireland is still in the 1950s (or earlier). It also doesn’t help him that he draws the eyes of the town’s female half and makes friends with the eccentric Mrs. Cauley. The town’s priest, Father Quinn, and his ally, Annie (who uses religion to disapprove of people) are wary of Mahony. Once he starts his investigation into his mother’s disappearance and probable murder, Quinn, Annie, and the mysterious murderer spring into action to get Mahony to drop it and leave. Flashbacks to Orla’s life before her murder let us know that Mahony is absolutely right to be suspicious of this seemingly-normal town. There are a lot of skeletons (literal and metaphorical) in the closets of Mulderrig.

Nothing in Himself happens as expected. Mrs. Cauley leaps on Mahony’s investigation with a will and comes up with a plan based on Miss Marple mysteries and her own theatrical talents. The plan shouldn’t work, but it does. The supernatural elements—such as Mahony’s ability to see and talk with ghosts—keep everything delightfully off-kilter. While Mahony, Mrs. Cauley, and their allies go to work, Father Quinn is tormented by what seems to be local spirits with a wicked sense of humor. Mrs. Cauley’s antics and whatever is messing with Father Quinn keep this book from being totally grim, giving Himself some much needed levity after the really dark parts.

My only complaint about Himself is that it was over too soon. The end was a bit of a rush, so fast that I didn’t really get a chance to decompress from the tension that Kidd had built up over the course of the book. Also, even though Mulderrig has some terrifying inhabitants, I wanted more of it. I wanted more of the ghosts and the sassy holy spring and the possibly sentient forest. But on the other hand, maybe if I had more answers about what was going on on the supernatural side of things, Himself might have lost some of the weird charm it held for me. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers who like mysteries that have a touch of the uncanny (especially if the uncanny elements do not include vampires and werewolves) and know when to crack a joke when things get too bleak.

I listened to the audio version of Himself, narrated by Aiden Kelly’s gentle Irish voice. I was glad of the narration because I would never have figured out how to pronounce some of the characters’ names correctly.

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literary fiction · mystery · review

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Detective Frank Mackey has been happily (more or less) avoiding his past for more than twenty years at the beginning of Tana French’s brilliant novel, Faithful Place. He’s a wizard at his work in the Dublin police’s undercover division. He’s divorced but still gets to have weekends with his daughter, Holly, and to spend the odd moment cheerfully annoying his ex-wife. But his relative calm is shattered when he gets a call from his sister, who tells him that a suitcase belonging to his first love, Rosie Daly, has been found at a derelict house back in his old stomping grounds. Shortly thereafter, Frank finds Rosie’s body in the basement of that house.

Those two discoveries send Frank back to all of the things he’s been hiding from for all those years. Underneath his undercover detective’s smoothness, Frank is deeply insecure about his family and his background. His sister is the only family member he still talks to. When we meet the rest of the Mackeys, after Frank starts to ask questions about the suitcase, it’s not hard to understand why. Frank is the middle child of a loud, violent, lower-class family and he carries what may be in the biggest chip in the world on his shoulder about it. His father is an abusive drunk. His mother is passive aggressive, with an emphasis on the aggressive. His older brother, Seamus, is no slouch in the biting comment department. In addition to all this, there is Rosie’s disappearance. On the night it turns out she was killed, Frank and Rosie had been planning to elope to England to escape their families.

Frank doesn’t stop his questions even after Dublin’s murder squad take over. He doesn’t trust them to find out what really happened in this coldest of cold cases, especially after Frank’s youngest brother, Kevin, takes a header out of the window of the same derelict house where Rosie was found and part of a letter Rosie wrote was found in his pocket. Kevin and the letter make a neat explanation for the murder squad, even though there are things that don’t add up about the case. Not only does he want to know what happened to Rosie and Kevin, Frank also desperately wants to know if Rosie left him waiting on the night they were going to escape because his family was so awful she didn’t want anything to do with Frank after all.

The mystery is expertly plotted, leading in all sorts of astonishing directions. But what I enjoyed most about the story was the way that Frank wrestles with the question of whether or not blood will tell in the end. He keeps his child and ex-wife as far away from the Mackeys as possible. He doesn’t want their taint to spread. He doesn’t want to become like his father or mother, ever, but he worries about his own temper and his knack for finding people’s weak places to exploit. Frank knows he as it in him to become like the worst of the Mackeys if he slips up. And, it seems, like proximity to his family might be working its evil spell: Frank brings all his skills at getting people to talk and do things they might not want to do to keep digging into Rosie and Kevin’s deaths. He is a master at manipulation, to the point where I felt uncomfortable with his Mephistophelian ways. For all that he claims to loathe secrets and lies, Frank appears to have a different set of ethics for himself. There are also scenes where we see Frank walk perilously close to the edge of violence and bad Mackey behavior.

I listened to Faithful Place as an audiobook. The narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, uses a gentle Irish accent that I loved. His voice brought an already vibrant book to life. I stayed up far too late on Friday night (Saturday morning) through the explosive ending of the novel because I just had to know what happened next. I also had to know if Frank would ever be able to resolve his issues about his family and his roots in the lower class neighborhood of Faithful Place. I honestly can’t say enough about how truly excellent this book was.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Satapur Moonstone, by Sujata Massey

Lawyer Perveen Mistry’s adventures in British India continue in Sujata Massey’s The Satapur Moonstone. Perveen has gained a reputation for conflict mediation between women in purdah (religious and/or cultural seclusion). She can go where men cannot and her strong sense of right and intelligence help her cut through seemingly impossible disputes. That reputation nets her an unlikely job offer from a British governing agency to settle an intractable disagreement between two maharanis in the obscure (possibly fictional) princely state of Satapur.

Though she never says it, I think Perveen was not paid enough to take on the challenges she finds in Satapur. First, there’s the palanquin. Because there are no real roads in Satapur and Perveen is not a confident horsewoman, she has to travel in what appears to be the only palanquin in the state. Then there’s the British agent who she sparks with (even though she is fierce about maintaining her reputation and not letting people know about her disastrous marriage). Then there’s the dispute over the education of the very young maharaja, who has just lost his father and older brother in somewhat suspicious circumstances. And then there are the maharanis. The maharaja’s grandmother, the dowager maharani, is a hidebound woman who wants nothing to change in the state. On the other side is the maharaja’s mother, Mirabai, wants to send her son away to England…because she things someone is trying to kill him.

The Satapur Moonstone is a fast read. (I recommend that readers who are interested in this one pick up the first book in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, so that they can be caught up on Perveen’s life before diving into this one.) It seems as though Perveen is barely unpacked for a short stay at the palace of Satapur before people are trying to kill her. There are plenty of suspects and lots of dodgy stories for Perveen to pick apart—and for us to puzzle over as we race our protagonist towards the solution. Even though the plot races along, there are plenty of expository passages to set the stage in the Satapur wilderness and its eerie palace. Massey is a deft touch at drawing characters from a few lines of dialogue and description, too, so I never felt like I was being cheated out of setting or character development in favor of the plot.

The Satapur Moonstone is a fine entry in a series that I’m starting to love. I hope to see more of Perveen in the future. I also hope that we see more of Colin Sandringham, the British agent who likes to do yoga in the jungle without his shirt on. Even though he’s a bit defensive about his missing foot, I developed a bit of a crush on him, too.

contemporary fantasy · mystery · review

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Collins

DCI Holly Craig has a gift and a curse. On the one hand, her ability to sense the darkness inside people can make her job as a detective a little easier. She knows when people are lying. The problem is that she can never turn it off and, consequently, can’t really trust anyone. In Ragged Alice, Gareth L. Powell, Holly and her gift/curse return to the Welsh town of Pontyrhudd to escape a case gone wrong in London. As soon as she arrives, people start dying and Holly has to wonder if she made the wrong decision.

Ragged Alice is one of the fastest reads I think I’ve ever read. It clocks in at 208 pages, but I was done in less than two hours. Reading this book was almost like watching a TV show because the plot races along so quickly. It’s not even two days before one body turns into three, then more people are killed. With the exception of the first victim, the bodies are left in a terrifying state. This book is filled not so much with red herrings as it is with a blizzard of information as Holly and her detective sergeant Scott Fowler turn the town of Pontyrhudd inside out. Not only is there physical evidence and witness statements, Holly also has supernatural clues to deal with.

Because Ragged Alice is such a fast read, it sacrificed character development for everyone except for Holly. The mayor is a stereotype of a lecherous incumbent. The reporters are ciphers. The only characters that rise above the scrum of suspects, bystanders, and potential victims are the ones who have gifts similar to Holly’s. Mrs. Phillips is the best of these and I would have loved it if the book had been narrated from her perspective. The other thing that gets sacrificed in the rush to the end of the book is a strong conclusion. The ending of this book ties up the plot, but it’s more of a sparkler than a firework.

All that said, Ragged Alice was an interesting read because of its supernatural elements. I would have liked more of an exploration of them, but this book never slows down enough to explore much of anything. Readers who are looking for a quick, cinematic read might enjoy Ragged Alice. Readers who prefer more psychological depth or more fantasy in their mysteries should probably give this one a miss.

mystery · review · thriller

The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides

There is a lot that is unsettling about The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides. First, there is a patient—Alicia Berenson—who will not speak after she was convicted of shooting her husband. Then there are all the conflicting accounts of Alicia’s character; there are a lot of liars in this novel. But I think that unsettled me most was the way that Theo Faber wrangled so hard to become Alicia’s psychotherapist at the facility where Alicia has been confined. Something about his declarations that Theo wants to get Alicia to speak feel a little desperate. It’s only at the end of the book that we learn the full, shocking truth in a twist that absolutely floored me. I haven’t been snookered so completely, in the best way, by a book in a very long time.

After short prologue introduces us to Alicia’s voice, via a journal she kept before she was tried and convicted of her husband’s murder, we meet Theo Faber. Theo has been delighted to learn that he has secured a job at the Grove, a facility for criminals with mental illness. Alicia has been incarcerated there for seven years by the time Theo shows up. The first time he sees her at the Grove, Theo can see the tell-tale signs of overmedication. Alicia is on a strong dose of anti-psychotics and has restricted privileges due to her history of violence and suicide attempts. But even once Theo convinces the director to allow him to become Alicia’s therapist, reduce her dose, and give her access to art supplies and a temporary studio, Alicia still refuses to speak.

At the same time that we see Theo using everything in his psychoanalytic arsenal to try and get Alicia to talk, we get more excerpts from Alicia’s journal, as well as conversations Theo has with her friends and relatives to try and discover what is keeping Alicia from speaking. He finds a long, often contested history of abandonment, suicidal depression, and betrayal. Meanwhile, alternating chapters reveal that Theo has his own problems. His beloved wife has cheated on him and he is reeling from the shock.

I can’t say anything else about the plot of The Silent Patient without ruining its brilliant twist. Instead, I can say that this book is an astounding tale of psychological cat and mouse. There were a few times I rolled my eyes at Theo’s more Freudian statements about Alicia’s state of mind, but I had to admire his drive to break through Alicia’s silence. The rest of the staff at the Grove seem to have consigned the former artist to medication and given up on talk therapy. Even if I thought there was something inexperienced and off about Theo, Alicia needs rescuing. Any port in a storm, eh? But as every chapter and every conversation reveals just how far down the rabbit hole of deception and psychological horror goes, one has to wonder if there really is a safe harbor anywhere for her—or if she really deserves one at all.

Agh! I’m saying too much. Thriller fans, especially fans of psychological mysteries should definitely pick this one up.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Trigger warning for extreme violence and sexual sadism.

About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

mystery · review · thriller

The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths

One of the most repeated pieces of anecdata I hear in higher education is that English majors are highly employable in all sorts of fields. I’m sure most of us end up as teachers, librarians, editors, and writers. But, after reading The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, I’m wondering if English majors might not also make very good detectives. We’re taught to read between the lines of what people are telling us and to recognize that everything is a narrative with an agenda behind it. Plus, it’s sure handy to be able to spot the source of literary quotes left by a multiple murderer.

The Stranger Diaries is narrated by three women who are all keeping secrets from each other and who all, more or less, distrust one another. Clare Cassidy is our first narrator. She teaches English at a comprehensive school in Sussex that also happens to be housed in the same building as a Victorian author (fictional) she loves. Then, after Clare’s friend is brutally murdered, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur takes over. Kaur doesn’t care much for Clare—not only does Clare strike Kaur as a bit self-centered but Kaur also knows (and so do we) that Clare is hiding useful information. In spite of her initial dislike of Clare, Kaur is a very good detective who remembers her English literature and, more importantly, how to stay suspicious when people tell their stories. Our third narrator is Clare’s daughter, Georgia. Georgia, like all teenagers everywhere, believes that she knows enough about the world that she has to shelter her mother from her burgeoning coven and unsuitably older boyfriend.

The three take turns telling an increasingly complicated—and very well-plotted—mystery. There are plenty of plausible suspects. There are red herrings that may or may not be red herrings, each ratcheting up the tension another notch. Best of all (at least for me and bookish readers) there are metafictional elements and quotes from The Tempest and The Woman in White to enjoy. Plus, Griffiths includes passages from the Victorian writer’s best known story, “The Stranger,” to make things even more spooky.

I really enjoyed The Stranger Diaries. I didn’t mind bouncing around from prickly narrator to prickly narrator. I loved using my English major skills to work out what all of them were doing and thinking as they all followed different agendas and different breadcrumbs of clues: it’s a lot of fun to be the only person with perspective. I would definitely recommend The Stranger Diaries to readers who like literary mysteries with complicated-but-ultimately-logical conclusions.

P.S.: The dog lives.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.