Review: Laura by Vera Caspary

Book Cover of Novel Laura by Vera Caspary

Laura [1943] ★★★★★

To solve the puzzle of [Laura’s death], [one] must first resolve the mystery of Laura’s life” [Vera Caspary, Houghton Mifflin/Vintage: 1942/2012: 16].

A beautiful and still aspiring socialite Laura Hunt is found murdered in her apartment in New York City. She allegedly opened the door to her murderer. A veteran detective Mark McPherson starts to investigate this tricky case, but soon finds out that few things make sense in Laura’s murder. Worse still, McPherson finds himself falling under the charms of Laura’s personality and her world as a number of possible murder suspects emerge, including Laura’s low-paid fiancé Shelby Carpenter and Laura’s friend, eccentric columnist Waldo Lydecker. It soon turns out that Shelby is a possible insurance beneficiary upon Laura’s death, and, then, someone also buys Laura’s portrait that hung on her apartment wall …could it have been the murderer? Clues are scattered throughout this clever mystery-noir, which also has a twist “to die for”.

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Review: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener [1930] ★★★★

London, the 1920s. James Wrexham is a lonely thirty-eight year old man just barely bearing his daily job and with no enviable prospects before him. A merely “spectator of life”, he has already resigned to just watch his life go by when he notices an advertisement in The Times. A certain wealthy gentleman, Jonathan Scrivener, seeks a personal secretary for himself and Wrexham applies on a whim. To his delight, he is accepted for an interview with one lawyer and soon given the position despite never having met the man. Scrivener is allegedly abroad and Wrexham starts his duties in his luxurious apartment on a very generous salary. If these circumstances were not odd enough already, a number of Scrivener’s supposed friends then come barging through the door and each has their own incredulous story to tell about Scrivener. Wrexham’s life turns upside down in a matter of weeks as he transforms from a lonely and desperate man to a social butterfly enjoying a life that only the very wealthy can afford. But, questions still remain – who is Jonathan Scrivener, a supposedly brilliant eccentric? Why is he hiding? What purpose may he have in hiring Wrexham? And why do Scrivener’s friends all give contradictory accounts about the man? I am Jonathan Scrivener is a deeply psychological mystery novel, “a hall of broken mirrors”-type of a book whose many elements need careful reassembling.

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Review: The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Erasers [1953/1964] ★★★★

French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.

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Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery

American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) is probably known for her Tom Ripley thrillers (among which is The Talented Mr Ripley [1955]), as well as for psychological suspense/thriller books that later also became films – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt or The Two Faces of January. Below are the reviews of her two books, novels that showcase the depth of this author’s psychological character studies and her admirable, low-key stream of suspense. 

edith's diaryI. Edith’s Diary [1977] – ★★★★1/2

The difference between dream and reality is the true hell” [Highsmith, 1977: 291].

I first spotted this great book on Radhika’s Reading Retreat (check out her amazing blog and book recommendations!) and I knew I had to read it. In this story, Edith Howland moves with her husband Brett and her young son Cliffie from New York City to Pennsylvania. The family is not rich and hopes for the best in their new community. Edith starts to run a political newspaper in the new place, while keeping in touch with her old neighbours in New York and her wealthy aunt Melanie. Pressure on Edith intensifies as her son Cliffie becomes first troublesome then passive and aimless in life and Brett’s uncle George arrives to demand attention to himself. Soon, it is evident that the life that Edith imagined for herself and her family does not quite accord with reality and Edith finds herself increasingly prone to fantasising as she writes in her dairy. What will be the cost of this fantasy? – Simple paranoia and mental health concerns, or maybe the complicity in the death of another person? Edith’s Diary is a nuanced, psychological novel full of hidden, but real fears, and a quietly disturbing account of a woman whose repressed despair caused by social and personal expectations may just surface to lead to tragic results.  Continue reading “Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery”

Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

the honjin murders The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] – ★★★★1/2

I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser. Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”

Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

bird in a cage book cover Bird in a Cage [1961/2016] – ★★★★

This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood. His day-dreaming is cut abruptly short when he meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman with her daughter at the restaurant he never dared to go into before. Like some nightmare that he is unable to shake off, Albert soon finds himself trapped in a mystery so confusing and layered it is beyond his wildest imaginings – a dead body and a seemingly impossible crime emerge, and accounts of what happened are all as numerous as they are all improbable. Recalling the work of Georges Simenon, Bird in a Cage is a disturbingly delightful read, which is also suspenseful. Perhaps Dard is not as clever as he thinks he is with his big reveal, and much is left both unaccounted for and unbelievable in the story, but his concise and stylish approach to telling the story, that includes both existential and erotic themes, is rather fitting and appealing. Continue reading “Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard”

Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

A House Without Windows Book Cover A House Without Windows [2016] – ★★★

I am progressing with my YARC 2019 with this novel by an American author whose Afghan parents immigrated to the US from Afghanistan in the 1970s. In this tale, a terrible crime shook a small community in Afghanistan – Kamal, a husband and a father of four, has been found murdered with a hatchet plunged into his skull. At the scene of the crime is his wife Zeba who is covered in blood and numb with shock. But, was she really the one who committed the crime? Yusuf, a lawyer from the US, arrives to his native land Afghanistan and is immediately tasked with defending his reticent client Zeba, trying to seek justice in this seemingly open-and-shut case. This is a tale of two families – one traditional Afghan, rooted in its community, and another immigrant, with Nadia Hashimi making observations on the Afghan culture, Afghanistan’s criminal justice system and on the plight of women living in that country, paying a special tribute to their strength and resilience. Continue reading “Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi”

Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

the axeman's jazz The Axeman’s Jazz [2014] – ★★★

This is a debut historical fiction book that fictionalises real serial killer murders that shook New Orleans in 1918 and 1919 and were dubbed the Axeman’s murders. The book is a winner of the 2014 John Creasey (New Blood) Award, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read this book since it is set in New Orleans of all places, a city that has been fascinating me for a long time and so much I have previously mentioned/talked on my blog about its history, art and notable celebrations. This very atmospheric book follows three people investigating the gruesome murders of the Axeman: (i) a professional investigator Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; (ii) a nineteen year-old amateur sleuth and secretary at a local detective agency Ida Davis, and (iii) a recent convict and once detective Luca D’Andrea. Each one of them is under pressure to discover the identity of the murderer before anyone else, and the task is not easy since the murderer taunts the police and leaves strange clues behind, such as Tarot cards. Soon corruption in high places, the Mafia and false leads all complicate the case, as well as the most recent strange demand of the murderer: “play Jazz on one particular Tuesday and you will be safe”. Charmingly evoking the atmosphere of one-of-a-kind place in the world which was New Orleans in the early twentieth century, Ray Celestin concocts a worthy-of-a-read crime thriller, even if it is at times slow, overwritten, unnecessarily confusing and wobbly in its logic.  Continue reading “Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin”

Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek Book Cover Miracle Creek [2019] – ★★★★

There are no facts, only interpretations” (Friedrich Nietzsche). 

I do not read many legal thrillers or courtroom dramas anymore (through I do read crime and detective stories). My “John Grisham” phase ended many years ago, and since I have a background in law, I tend to avoid fiction which makes me ceaselessly question/criticise legal inconsistencies/mistakes in a book. I had to make an exception with Miracle Creek, because there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to this courtroom thriller and debut book, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read what has been called “a jaw-dropping, page-turner” of a book. Miracle Creek, is, indeed, not one’s ordinary legal thriller. Angie Kim centres her story around a pressured oxygen chamber or the Miracle Submarine that is used as an experimental treatment device in Miracle Creek, Virginia. The Miracle Submarine belongs to Pak Yoo, an immigrant from South Korea, who tries to do his best in the US so that his wife and daughter can find happiness in this foreign to them country. When a fatal accident happens at Pak’s treatment facility, one leading suspect emerges, but is the case as clear-cut as it appears at first? Soon, secrets, lies, and surprising relations between Pak Yoo’s patients emerge, complicating this seemingly open-and-shut case, as Angie Kim also makes insightful points on cultural divisions, on the issue of using certain experimental, controversial treatments to treat disabled children and on the trials of parenthood. Continue reading “Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim”

Mini-Review: Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot

Trap for Cinderella Book Cover Trap for Cinderella [1963/65] – ★★★★

Sébastien Japrisot (1931-2003) was an award-winning French author probably best known in the English-speaking world for his book A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) [1991], which was adapted into a well-known film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella, translated by Helen Weaver, is an inventive psychological thriller which plays with one very curious scenario: two girls are found in a burnt down beach house – one dead and one alive. The survivor is burnt beyond recognition and remembers nothing about herself or her previous life. Who is she? And what was her relationship with the dead girl? The investigation into the fire uncovers evil intentions, and our main character begins to question everything she is told about herself. Japrisot’s tale of obsession, strange friendship and mistaken identity is a wild literary ride: intense and mentally-stimulating, even if it does rely on an unbelievable and slightly preposterous turn of events. 

Continue reading “Mini-Review: Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot”

Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

The Night of the Hunter Book CoverThe Night of the Hunter [1953] – ★★★★★

The Night of the Hunter is best known as a film of 1955 by Charles Laughton, but it was first a great book by Davis Grubb, who based his story on a true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a deranged psychopath who preyed on and killed lonely widows in the late 1920s. In the book by Davis Grubb, Willa Harper is a recently widowed mother of two whose husband, Ben Harper, has recently been convicted and executed for killing two men in armed robbery. After the execution, Willa and her two children, John and Pearl, are the centre of sympathy in their community until their “salvation” arrives in the form of Harry Powell or “Preacher”. Preacher knows that Ben Harper disclosed to his children before his execution the location of ten thousand dollars he gained through robbery, and Preacher will use any means – kindness or more disturbing pressure to discover the location of the money. It is safe to say now that The Night of the Hunter was unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Davis Grubb’s book a “lost masterpiece”, and there is truth in that. The Night of the Hunter is a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank in West Virginia. The novel is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.  Continue reading “Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb”

Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau Cover The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau [2014] – ★★★★★

Graeme Macrae Burnet is a Scottish author best known for his Man Booker Prize nominated novel His Bloody Project [2015]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is his debut novel written in a style of a French mystery novel and film noir. Dark and intriguing, the novel tells the story of thirty-six-year old Manfred Baumann, a reclusive, lonely and socially awkward bank worker who spends his evenings in the local Restaurant de la Cloche, Saint-Louis, France. When one attractive waitress of the restaurant – Adèle Bedeau disappears after a night-out, Detective Georges Gorski’s suspicions soon fall on Manfred Baumann and one unsolved past criminal case regains its spotlight. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is written in that nostalgic style of old French mystery novels, echoing the works of Georges Simenon (Burnet’s favourite book is Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel [1957]) or existential literature, such as Ernesto Sabato’s El Tunel [1948]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is an impressive, understated literary mystery with many subtle elements, convincing psychological character study, and one atmospheric setting. Continue reading “Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet”

Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Decagon House Murders Cover The Decagon House Murders [1987/2015]★★1/2

This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939], The Decagon House Murders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming. 

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Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery Book Cover The Beautiful Mystery [2012] – ★★★★ 

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian author and this is her eight Inspector Gamache detective mystery. The book is about a murder that happened in a mysterious 400 year old monastery somewhere in the northern Quebec. Twenty-three devoted-to-music monks are grieving for their murdered music director who was killed in the most merciless way. Inspector Gamache and his second-in-command Beauvoir are called to investigate and instantly become enchanted by the divine ancient chants of the eccentric and reclusive monks. But, who killed Frère Mathieu and for what purpose? Clues have been left behind, and, as the investigation slowly moves forward, Gamache realises that he has to first solve one ancient mystery of religious music before he gets to the identity of the murderer. It is so hard nowadays to find a quality detective novel and this book ticks almost all the boxes for me. In The Beautiful Mystery, there is one single eerie location setting, a focus on internal thinking/motivations of the characters, including their dynamics, and an unusual element, since the emphasis is also on mysterious ancient music. The Beautiful Mystery may suffer from having two narratives (a murder investigation and a previous case discussion), which run uncomfortably side by side, and the result is not altogether unpredictable. However, the book is still suspenseful (maybe too suspenseful), and the location and music described are just too beautiful and intriguing not to be impressed. In that way, an attempt to fuse beauty and darkness is the forte of this book.  Continue reading “Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny”

Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Tangerine Book Cover Tangerine [2018] – ★★★★   

Tangerine is a debut novel which is now both gaining visibility and provoking some strong reactions – there are apparently as many people who love this book as there are those who hate it. The story is about two women – Alice and Lucy, who take turns in the story to share their thoughts on past and present events. Alice, who shared friendship with Lucy in the past, is now married and lives with her husband John in Tangier, Morocco. Unexpectedly, Lucy also arrives to Tangier to rekindle her friendship with Alice after a year of separation. When John disappears, Alice and Lucy have to question both their relationship and their lucidity. The downside is that Mangan’s book gets much too close in its plot and characters to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley [1955], but it is still an intriguing and enjoyable read. Mangan uses simple language and manages to weave a thriller which is slow-burning and deeply psychological, while also vividly evoking the colours of Morocco.  Continue reading “Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan”

Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Faceless Killers Book ReviewFaceless Killers [1991] – ★★★  

This is the first book in the Kurt Wallander detective series penned by Henning Mankell, a Swedish author, who in 1992 won for this book the first ever Glass Key Award, given to authors from the Nordic countries. The translation of 1997 is by Steven T. Murray. In this story, Inspector Wallander is called upon to investigate the savage double murder in Lunnarp, Skåne. A husband and wife (Johannes and Maria Lövgren) are found brutally killed with mysterious clues left behind, such as the fact that the killers allegedly fed the farm horse before they left. The investigation team soon notice that the area where the murders happened is very isolated, relatively peaceful, and they have no immediate suspects. As the investigation continues, Inspector Wallander confronts clues that point to the possibility of foreign nationals being responsible for the murders, and then have to deal with the hate crime and racially-motivated attacks. If the first part of this book is this exciting mystery-thriller where we also delve into the character of Wallander and uncover the extent of his personal problems, the second part of the book is a less compelling narrative of an investigation of another crime which leads to a predictable conclusion.  Continue reading “Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell”

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

the dry cover1The Dry [2016] – ★★★1/2

This bestseller is a debut novel of Jane Harper. It is a murder mystery with two tragedies at the heart of it. The setting is a small town of Kiewarra, Australia that was shaken by the gruesome murders of the Hadler family: Luke, Karen and their son Billy. The official version is that Luke, the father, killed his family before committing suicide. But is this open-and-shut case as straightforward as it seems? Aaron Falk, a police officer in Melbourne, arrives to his native town of Kiewarra for the funeral of his estranged pal Luke, and finds out that there is more to the deaths than first meets the eye. The Dry turns out to be a good, atmospheric book, but not necessarily because of the story. The story is actually quite typical in the genre of “small community” mysteries and not something extraordinary or special at all. What elevates this book above many others is the assured execution of the plot, the particular atmosphere conveyed, as well as some insightful character study. All this provides for an emotional and engaging read. Continue reading “Review: The Dry by Jane Harper”

Review: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

The Mystery of the Yellow Room Cover The Mystery of the Yellow Room [1907] – ★★★★

Obvious signs have never been anything to me but servants; they never were my masters. They never made me that monstrous thing, a thousand times worse than a blind man – a man who cannot see straight” [Leroux, 1907/Ed. 2010: 126]. 

This French author influenced Agatha Christie and wrote The Phantom of the Opera [1910]. His name is Gaston Leroux, and some claim that his The Mystery of the Yellow Room is the greatest detective story in the world. This is a serious statement, but his story is also an ambitious one. Influenced by the stories of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, Leroux conjured up his own, deciding to focus on the most fascinating of cases – the seemingly impossible crime. Miss Stangerson gets attacked in the Yellow Room of the Château du Glandier in a manner which says that her attempted assassin could not have easily come to the room, and nor could he have escaped from it at all after the attack. Miss Stangerson locked the room behind her when she went to her room and got attacked, and the adjoining room was occupied by her father Mr Stangerson and Old Jacques, their employee. The crime could not have been committed, or could it have? The case falls into the hands of a young crime journalist Joseph Rouletabille, and the young man is determined to prove that he is a match for the famous criminal investigator Frédéric Larsan.  Continue reading “Review: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle [2018] – ★★1/2The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

In his debut novel, Stuart Turton takes an unusual twist on a murder-mystery. The Inception, Groundhog Day-mentality meets The Rules of the Game/Gosford Park setting. In other words, the setting is one grand manor house in the UK with the shooting season underway, and our protagonist Aiden Bishop wakes up each day in a body of one of the guests who was invited to the masquerade at the house to celebrate the arrival of Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the house owners. Now, the rules are set for Aiden. He cannot escape the house and will have each day repeating itself, waking up in a body of a different guest, unless he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Each day repeats itself and Evelyn gets murdered. Will Aiden be able to solve her murder and free himself from the never-ending loop? The great things about this book are the brilliant concept, including all the psychology behind it, and enticing setting. However, those who got too excited should also hold their horses. This is because as the novel progresses, it becomes a dull, pretentious and overly confusing read. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”