Murder at the Villa Rose

“It seemed as if the girl had gone out of her way to make the weight of evidence against her as heavy as possible. Yet, after all, it was just through inattention to the small details, so insignificant at the time of the crime, so terribly instructive the next day, that guilt was generally brought home.”

As is usually the case, the title of this small volume caught my attention on the library shelf. Murder at the Villa Rose, by A.E. W. Mason, is a 1910 mystery novel introducing the French detective Inspector Hanaud. It was reissued by Black Dagger Crime.

image from Amazon

In the resort town of Aix-les-bains, a wealthy woman is brutally murdered for her jewels, and her young companion Celie appears to have absconded with them. Despite all the incriminating evidence her fiancé Weathermill is convinced of her innocence, and hires the vacationing Hanaud to investigate. Only he could be capable of sifting through the facts to reconstruct what really happened that night at the Villa Rose.

Though the premise may sound like a typical Perry Mason, Hanaud is definitely from an older school. He has a sense of superiority from his skills, referring to himself as the captain of a ship who alone determines the course. Only occasionally does his complacency slip as he shivers at certain perceived horrors. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Mr. Ricardo, another vacationer and witness whom Hanaud chooses to accompany him. The introduction has this to say about it:

It is similarly interesting and unusual in that the French detective-hero, the intelligent, middle-aged and heavy Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté is the professional crime solver of mysteries, while it is his Watson, Mr. Ricardo, who is the wealthy and underemployed dilettante.

The investigation itself is a scientific build-up of clues, extracting information from details in a manner similar to Sherlock Holmes. Hanaud takes measurements, analyzes handwriting, and makes much of the manner in which footprints were made. The conclusions he is able to draw from these are astonishing, like taking puzzle pieces that appear to fit perfectly and revealing through a magnifying glass that they do not. The downside to this is that once he has revealed the criminal, fifty pages are devoted to recreating the events surrounding the crime. It’s emotional at times, and explains well how everything fits together, but the suspense element is no longer there, making it drag somewhat. Apparently, however, the story is based on a real crime.

The other interesting factor in this story is the role of the supernatural. Celie has a background giving seances, and her murdered companion was quite receptive to them. At the time many people were fascinated with superstition, so it seems likely to have been taken advantage of.

Even though I’m far from well-read in the genre I love looking at the history and trends in detective fiction. The wonderful Guide to Classic Mystery and Detective Fiction website doesn’t seem to be a fan of Mason. It seems, however, that he was probably an influence on John Dickinson Carr (whose books I’m unfamiliar with). I really do want to try to read more older detective fiction. I love puzzle plots, and they seem much more palatable to me than today’s gritty forensic versions.

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Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 10:50 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Black Curl

“‘[Your father] was always right, as you are too, dear. A man can sometimes get away with it, but a woman, never. I haven’t been able to.'”

Technically I started at the wrong spot with the Constance and Gwenyth Little, as The Black Curl is their final mystery and not considered one of their best according to the introduction. It does, however, have all the apparent hallmarks of a Little sisters book, including “black” in the title and a zany plot.

image from Amazon

Our very sympathetic narrator is Bill, a strait-laced hard worker trying to carry on the family business despite the lack of effort from his charming playboy cousin Eliot. One evening he notices a strange old woman in a cherry hat loitering on the street, and she shows up again the next day when his housekeeper suddenly quits. Then his stepmother Irene shows up with her daughter Madeleine, claiming to be in trouble and demanding to stay t the house. Nothing seems too unusual until his cowlick is cut off in the middle of the night–and then there’s that body in the icebox…

I can’t recall the last mystery I read that was so much fun; “madcap” is the best way to describe it. The characters are delightfully witty and surprisingly down to earth (at least the main ones). By the end the plot seemed to have gone off the rails somewhat, but I was enjoying the ride too much to mind. For me it just hinted at how good the books from their prime must be.

I’m very grateful that Rue Morgue Press is reprinting all their books, in addition to many other vintage mysteries. The originals from the forties seem hard to come by. Hopefully the profit will allow them to hire a decent editor; I can’t even count how may typos  there were! An equally annoyed previous reader penciled in several corrections in the library copy, and even he or she didn’t catch them all. Based on the content of the Rue Morgue Press catalog, however, I’ll probably have to forgive them.

The library does have a few other books by the Little sisters, and  I can’t wait to read them. For more information, check out Diana Killian’s guide at her website.

One question if anyone else has actually read this: what’s the deal with Madeleine’s age? She and her mother claim it to be 22, while Bill swears she’s two years younger than his own 31. I thought this would turn out to be important but it’s never mentioned again. Any thoughts?

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Murder at Longbourn

“Our only pets, if you could even call them that, were two goldfish purchased during a rare fit of domesticity. Unfortunately our local pet store didn’t stock a particularly hardy variety,resulting in bimonthly replacement visits. As a result, I’d named each new pair Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It didn’t change their fate, but it added a little drama when I had to announce it.

I had originally planned to read Murder at Longbourn for the Everything Austen Challenge, but every time I went to the library it was checked out. Thankfully, it was worth the wait.

image from macmillan.com

Elizabeth Parker is looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve at her Great Aunt Winnie’s Vermont bed-and-breakfast, Longbourn. She has recently broken up with her cheating boyfriend and hopes a new love-interest might turn up among the guests (preferable British dreamboat Daniel). Unfortunately, two events put a damper on the situation. Peter McGowan, her tormentor from childhood summers, is back to help Winnie fix up the inn. In addition, during the murder mystery dinner local businessman Gerard Ramsey dies for real. Lots of people might have wanted him dead, and Winnie is high on the list. Elizabeth is determined to clear her aunt’s name, sorting through all the mysterious happenings that seem to be occurring.

This book is a refreshing change from the slew of Austen-related material available; despite what the title suggests it is an homage rather than a retelling. It includes a Mr. Collins but also hints at Emma, with many other literary references as well. Having Elizabeth as a general book lover rather than just an Austen addict makes her a more believable character. It also means that readers will be kept guessing, rather than automatically searching for a Bingley.

Astute readers might pick up on the solution before Elizabeth does, but the mystery is clever enough to be satisfying regardless. Her relationship with Detective Stewart reminded me Laura Child’s Tea Shop Mysteries. My only complaints about the plot were the slow start (it’s quite a while before the body shows up) and the overly dramatic ending. That many broken bones seems unnecessary, and makes it less plausible that Elizabeth would choose to continue her amateur sleuthing career as we know her to do in the next book.

I really enjoyed Murder at Longbourn, and am looking forward to the sequel. The series promises to be a nice blend of mystery, bibliophilia, gentle humor,  and likable characters.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 2:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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A Lady of Hidden Intent

When I get stressed, I read. When I get really stressed, I don’t read because if I do it will take the place of everything else. Which is why I’ve read nothing more substantial than graphic novels and newspaper comics since the end of Christmas break. It sounds silly, I know, for someone who loves books, but I’ve been working full-time with two part-time jobs and just don’t have the mental energy for much else.

image from Amazon

On Saturday, however, I finally had some free time without tests to grade and settled in to browse at the library. I had seen Tracie Peterson’s novels on the shelf before and even read the back of  A Lady of Hidden Intent. Anytime I look at something a second time I usually trust my instinct and go with it; in this case, it was the perfect light book for a return to reading.

A Lady of Hidden Intent is billed as the second in the prolific author’s Ladies of Liberty series, though the books seem to be unrelated other than the setting of 19th century Philadelphia. In this one, Catherine Newbury first meets American Carter Danby as a young debutante in Bath, but must flee to Philadelphia the next day when her father is wrongly accused in a shipping scandal. She begins working at the low rung in a sewing house, secretly saving all her money for her father’s legal bills, and soon wins acclaim for her sense of design. Even wealthy Mrs. Danby wants Catherine “Shay” gowns for herself and her shy daughter Winnifred. As Catherine grows closer to Winnie she is terrified that her brother will remember her and reveal her past. Carter, on the other hand, is entranced by the new girl who somehow seems familiar. When Catherine receives threats from another source, she has to decide whether to flee again or face the situation with courage and faith.

This was the perfect book to get back into the swing of reading. I love historical novels, I love clean romance, I love Philadelphia, and  I love beautiful dresses. We get tidbits about drafting muslin patterns and the possible effects of tulle. I know the book is meant to entertain rather than to have literary pretensions, but that’s fine with me. I couldn’t put it down and finished in about four hours! The characters are very likable even if a little flat. Catherine’s devotion to protecting her father is touching, while Carter’s generous heart is surprising given the character of his parents. The villain was even somewhat believable, or at least given motivation.

The novel is billed as Christian fiction, and the characters do pray and make reference to their faith, especially when faced with difficult decisions. One of Catherine’s dilemmas is learning to trust again after all that she is been through. Some might feel uncomfortable with this; I don’t mind because I’m Christian myself, but I also view it as more of a cultural aspect. We praise authors who include authentic Latino or Irish elements in their work, so why not religion as well if it’s part of who people are? The book is meant to be a reflection on a character’s beliefs, not a conversion tactic.

I don’t necessarily feel compelled to read other Tracie Peterson books, but it’s nice to know they are available if I need another entertaining comfort read.

Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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Emma Volume 4

I’ve found that I’m reading the books in this manga series more than once–the first time racing through for the story, and the second time slowly to savor the beautiful artwork. Kaoru Mori does both elements extremely well.

In Emma: Volume 4, due to her familiarity with London, Emma is chosen to accompany the Molders on a brief trip to the city. The footman Hans is among other servants making the trip, and looks forward to the chance to spend time alone with her. Mrs. Molder pays another visit to her reclusive friend Mrs. Trollope, who convinces Emma to accompany her to a family affair. She attempts to pass Emma off as a society girl, with surprising results. Meanwhile, William is also at a party celebrating his engagement to Eleanor Campbell. He continues to wear a cool facade, but begins to wonder if he has been entirely successful in attempts to erase Emma from his thoughts.

I will say right now that this is my favorite volume in the series. It is sweet, heart-wrenching, and gorgeously drawn. I will always be a sucker for ballroom scenes and crying men, and when a talented artist gives me both–well, it’s more than I could have hoped for. For example, this reviewer at Dear Author uploaded one of my favorite scenes (images are potential spoiler). You can just feel the emotion in the body language of the characters, like the tension in William’s hands.

I’m trying to ration these, so we’ll see how long I can wait before volume 5…

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Guardian Challenge Summary

(Note: I am actually posting this summary several months after the contest ended, because I realized I’d left it as a draft.)

The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Challenge,

hosted by Jennie at BiblioFile

February 1, 2009 to February 1, 2010

Well, thanks to a little something called a job, my Guardian Challenge started with a bang and ended with a whimper.

Here is my original post, as well as my actual list of books read:

  1. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (travel)
  2. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg (mystery/crime)
  3. 1984, by George Orwell (sci-fi/fantasy)
  4. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow (love)
  5. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (comedy)
  6. The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (mystery/crime)

To be fair, Invitation to the Waltz and The L-Shaped Room are not available at any libraries in my county’s system, The Princess of Cleves is only on-line, and McTeague actually turned out to sound really boring.

However, I read several other books on the list, including

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Manservant and Maidervant, by Ivy Compton-Burnett

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie

and others, so I don’t think it was a complete failure. In fact, if I count books intended for other challenges I read 19 Guardian books in the 2010 calendar year (several before I joined the challenge, though). I like that the list is broad enough to encompass a range of genres and tastes, but still (hopefully) guarantees some sort of merit. Now I just have several hundred books to go…

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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