Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


Posts Tagged ‘England’

STONE MOTHERS by Erin Kelly: Book Review

Growing up in a town where virtually everyone was employed or dependent in some way on a mental hospital has left its mark on Marianne Thackeray.  She had always wanted to leave Nusstead, but with no particular plan in mind that seemed like a forlorn hope.  However, after high school she was able to move to London and begin a successful career, and she determined to put her past behind her.  For Marianne, the saying “you can’t go home again” has another meaning–you don’t want to.

The statement that opens Stone Mothers is a chilling warning of what to expect.  Its author was the Chief Inspector of Asylums and Advisor for the Commission of Lunacy–can you think of a more frightening title?  His report, written in 1868, extols the virtues of the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum and states that “many women committed due to domestic discord or excess of childbearing request to stay.”  If that were true, one can only imagine the lives these women were trying to escape.

Marianne’s husband Sam thinks he has given her a wonderful gift, an apartment they can use as a getaway from their busy London lives, close to the cottage where she was born and her mother and sister still live.  In fact, Marianne’s reaction is horror, guilt, and fright at having to move into the newly designed Park Royal Manor.  To her it will always be Nazareth Hospital, formerly called the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the very place whose merits were extolled by the 19th-century Chief Inspector of Asylums.

The book’s title comes from an earlier time; the Victorians called their mental hospitals stone mothers.  The asylums were built with one method of dealing with mental illness, but almost as soon as they were completed, psychiatric treatment was much improved and made such places dangerous and obsolete.   For Marianne, the memories of Nazareth can’t be expunged.  Even worse than living at the newly-named Park Royal Manor, she thinks, would be telling Sam what happened at the hospital more than two decades earlier.

For generations Nazareth Hospital was the economic center of Nusstead.  Then, in a campaign spearheaded by Helen Greenlaw, a Tory member of Parliament, the hospital was closed, turning the town into a bankrupt version of its former self.  Entire families were left jobless and destitute, including the father of Marianne’s secret high school lover, Jesse, and her own mother.

Jesse has never forgiven Helen for her part in closing the hospital, and neither has anyone else in the town.  Now he has a plan, he tells Marianne, to make Helen pay.  Marianne responds that the fact is that the three of them are equally to blame for what happened in the aftermath of the hospital’s closing, but Jesse doesn’t perceive it that way and can’t be persuaded to leave it alone.

Consequently, Marianne sees her whole world, which includes her husband and their very vulnerable daughter, crumbling before her eyes.

Erin Kelly has written a thriller in many shades of gray.  The characters do bad things, but mostly not for bad reasons.  Their motives, if not commendable, are understandable, and the reader is torn between condemnation and sympathy.  Stone Mothers is a truly skillful, beautifully written novel.

You can read more about Erin Kelly at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

DAISY IN CHAINS by Sharon Bolton: Book Review

Maggie Rose is used to getting requests from convicted killers to help them in their fight for freedom.  Of course they’ve been wrongly imprisoned–isn’t everyone in jail innocent?

Hamish Wolfe is one of those men.  A strikingly handsome man, a successful physician, a gifted athlete, he nonetheless has been convicted of murdering three women and is suspected in the disappearance of a fourth.  Their crimes?  Being fat.

Hamish Wolfe’s mother and a number of his supporters have a website devoted to proclaiming his innocence.  His mother meets Maggie and implores her to look into the case and free Hamish, as she has been able to do with several other men.  In addition to being a defense attorney, or barrister as they are called in England, Maggie is the author of several books recounting the trials of the men she has been able to free.  It’s not that she necessarily thinks each man is innocent but simply that their trials weren’t properly conducted, the evidence was mishandled, or the defending barristers were incompetent.  It doesn’t appear to matter to her that these men are probably, in fact, killers; what’s important is that they were improperly convicted and thus should be freed.

Detective Sergeant Pete Weston has been closely monitoring the Wolfe case, even after its conclusion. He visits Maggie to reiterate his belief that Hamish is indeed guilty and to try to persuade her not to get involved.  Her response?  “…for what it’s worth, I agree with you.  I have no plans to take on his case….If I were to decide to do so, no amount of pressure on your part would put me off.”  It couldn’t be more clear than that, Pete thinks.

But Hamish’s mother and his “fan club” aren’t about to give up.  They become more intrusive in Maggie’s life, there’s a forced entry into her home, and continued mail from Hamish himself asking for her help.  So between her own curiosity and the pressure from those who believe that the prisoner is innocent, Maggie decides she must start her own investigation.  From there it’s a slippery slope, and she is propelled ever faster into the mystery that is Hamish Wolfe.

Daisy in Chains is a taut, suspenseful thriller.  Just like the previous book by Ms. Bolton that I reviewed, Little Black Lies, this mystery grabs you and won’t let go.  Is Hamish Wolfe innocent?  Who is the recipient of the letters he’s writing from jail, the letters that proclaim his undying love?  Does Maggie think he truly is innocent, or is the desire to write another best-selling true-crime book too irresistible to pass up?

Sharon Bolton has written an extraordinary novel, one that will keep you reading far into the night.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




SPEAKING FROM AMONG THE BONES by Alan Bradley: Book Review

In case you haven’t met her already, allow me to introduce Flavia de Luce.  The third daughter of an impoverished British former army officer, she’s a delightful character who appeared fully formed in the first book of Alan Bradley’s series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  Now she’s back in Speaking from Among the Bones.

The de Luce family traces its roots back hundreds of years in England, but they have fallen on hard times.  The estate of Buckshaw, the ancestral home of Harriet de Luce, the girls’ late mother, is in arrears for back taxes that Colonel de Luce is unable to pay.  Harriet went missing, as the British expression goes, on a trek in the Himalayas shortly after Flavia was born twelve years ago.  Although Buckshaw is no longer the elegant country estate it once was, it’s the only home that Flavia and her two sisters, Daphne (Daffy) and Ophelia (Feely) have ever known, and the thought of having it taken away by Inland Revenue is casting a dark shadow over the family.

The village of Bishop’s Lacy, home to the de Luces, is preparing for the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of its patron holy man, St. Tancred.  Exactly why this should necessitate digging up his coffin and removing his bones is unclear, unless it is, as Daffy says to Flavia, to see if his body remains uncorrupted, if he has “the odor of sanctity.”  Whatever the reason, the Church of England authorities gave the vicar of St. Tancred permission to remove his coffin, but now they want to revoke that.   The vicar protests that plans have gone too far, but when the crypt is entered (and Flavia, of course, is present) to unearth the casket, the group finds the much more recent remains of the church’s organist, Chrispin Collicutt, who has been missing for several weeks.

Flavia, of course, wants to be in the midst of everything, reflecting that her past successes with local crimes should entitle her to assist the local police whether they want her help or not.  And her vast knowledge of poisons will come in handy, she is sure, in solving any and all crimes in the village, including that of the murder of Mr. Collicutt.  Astride her trusty bike, Gladys, there’s no stopping her.

Bishop’s Lacey is filled with fascinating characters.  There’s  the church’s vicar and his wife; Miss Tanty, a middle-aged member of the choir who suddenly fancies herself as a detective; Adam Sowerby, a friend of the colonel’s with a business card that identifies him as a horticulturist, flora-archaeologist, and investigator (the last under the somewhat misleading wording of “inquiries”); and the two remaining members of the once-grand Buckshaw staff:  Mrs. Mullet, cook and housekeeper; and Dogger, gardener and general handyman, formerly in the service with Colonel de Luce.

Alan Bradley has written the fifth novel in this delightful series with the same wit and verve as he did with the previous four.  You can read more about him at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

THE INVISIBLE ONES by Stef Penney: Book Review

I’ve always been fascinated by Gypsy culture. I’ve read a number of books about them over the years, including several by Martin Cruz Smith, and enjoyed them all.  But The Invisible Ones is really special.

Stef Penney tells the story in two voices:  that of Ray Lovell, a private investigator with a Gypsy father and a gorjio mother, and that of JJ, a fourteen-year-old Romany youth with a Gypsy mother and a gorjio father.

Ray is approached by the father of a Gypsy woman who has been missing for seven years. The last time her father saw Rose Janko was at her wedding.  Leon Wood insists there is nothing odd about the fact that his daughter hasn’t been in touch all these years, given the vagaries of Romany life.  He was told by her husband and her father-in-law that she ran off shortly after giving birth to a son who inherited the Janko family disease, as yet undiagnosed, which affects only boys and leads to an early death.  But now, after the death of his own wife, Leon wants to find his daughter, or at least to find out what happened to her.

JJ is the second narrator. He lives on a “site” in a trailer with his mother.  In the neighboring trailers are his grand-uncle, confined to a wheelchair; his grandmother and grandfather; and his cousin Ivo and Ivo’s son Christo, who is six years old and suffers from the hereditary disease.  He’s quite small for his age, weak, and can barely speak, but his sweet disposition has his family longing to help him.  And as the novel opens, they are on their way to Lourdes, looking for a miracle like the one that cured Ivo.

The Janko family is indeed living under a cloud.  One of Ivo’s brothers died of this disease, and his sister was killed in a car crash when the family was returning from the Lourdes trip that saved Ivo.  The Jankos are torn between believing that some good fortune is due to come their way and believing that they are doomed to continue living under this curse.  The precocious JJ tells his family’s story with both the intelligence of a bright teenager and the anger and moodiness of the same.

Finally persuaded by Rose’s father that only a Gypsy, even one not with “pure blood,” will be able to find Rose Janko, Ray takes the case.  But no one really wants to talk to him.  Rose’s two sisters haven’t seen her since the wedding, and Ivo and his father are adamant that she left the family because she couldn’t deal with her son’s illness; they couldn’t care less what has happened to her.  But where could she have gone?  In the Gypsy culture, a married woman belongs to her husband’s family, no matter the circumstances, so her own family would not have welcomed her back.  In addition, Rose was born with a port wine birthmark on her neck, making her, in the Romany culture, less than desirable.  Perhaps that is why her father agreed so readily to her marriage to a man she barely knew.

In addition to being an excellent mystery, there is the added attraction in The Invisible Ones of reading about a way of life that not many of us are familiar with. The reader learns about the family’s fear of living “in brick,” of JJ being the first of the clan to possibly graduate from high school and then go on to university, and the reason why Gypsies don’t have sinks in their kitchens.  (Sorry, but you’ll have to read the book to find out the answer to the sink question.)

You can read more about Stef Penney at her web site.

THE DEAD OF WINTER by Rennie Airth: Book Review

It’s difficult for an author to write a trilogy featuring a former police detective that goes from just after World War I to the middle of World War II and make it believable. After all, the question facing authors as to whether or not to have their characters age is a hard one.  But in the third book in this series featuring former Scotland Yard inspector John Madden, Rennie Airth shows that it can be done, and done convincingly.

The Dead of Winter opens with a prologue. It’s 1940 in Paris, and Maurice Sobel, a French Jew, is getting ready to leave his country, one step ahead of the invading Nazis. His wife and sons have already reached America, but Sobel wants and needs to close his business and bring some capital with him to the United States.  He converts the money he receives for his business into easy-to-carry diamonds he purchased from a Dutch dealer working in Paris.

Two nights before his planned leave-taking he receives a phone call from a friend who knows that Sobel is getting ready to leave France, asking if he would be willing to take two Polish refugees along with him to Portugal.  Sobel agrees, and on the night he receives the diamonds and is doing last-minute preparations prior to departure, he hears his doorbell ring.  Sobel opens the door, expecting to see his traveling companions, and it is the last thing he does.  His throat is encircled by a thin wire, and Sobel drops to the floor, dead.

Now it’s November 1944, and the war has been going on for more than five years in Europe. Men too old to fight have been given jobs on the Home Front.  One of these air wardens, whose job it is to see that the blackout in London is strictly observed, is walking his beat when he sees a young woman in front of him carrying a basket and a bundle.  She seems apprehensive but refuses his offer to walk with her and help her carry the items, saying her destination is just around the corner.  When he turns that same corner less than a minute later, he stumbles over her; her slight body is twisted, and she has a broken neck.

Scotland Yard is almost ready to call the murder one of the too-frequent acts of violence that have come to the city since the beginning of the war.  The only reason the Yard hesitates is that the girl, Rosa Nowak, is identified as a land girl, a farm helper, who is working for former Inspector John Madden of the Yard.

Rosa came to England as a refugee, having lost her parents and siblings to the Nazis, and her quiet demeanor and inexpressible sadness had touched Madden’s family.  Madden wants to make certain that Scotland Yard is doing all it can to find her killer.  When a prostitute comes forward several days later to say she may have seen the man who killed Rosa, the police are anxious to get a complete description of the man.  But before they can call her in for a second interview, her landlady calls the Yard to tell them that she has been killed, garrotted.

Other murders follow, and Scotland Yard fears it has a paid assassin on its hands, perhaps the first that the country has seen.

Rennie Airth’s trilogy seamlessly takes the reader from World War I England to World War II England.   Years have gone by, but John Madden is as interesting a character as he was in the first novel.

You can read more about Rennie Airth at his web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.