I read a number of early 20th century mystery/crime novels while working on my 2011 reading project – 100 years, 100 Books – including such classics such as The 39 Steps by John Buchan and The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, along with, of course, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.
J. Jefferson Farjeon was a lesser known but still accomplished member of the cadre of writers who produced these early mysteries. The Z Murders follows the typical plot of many mysteries from that era – a dashing, clever man meets a mysterious damsel in distress and attempts to outwit the police and the criminals while embarking on a madcap chase across England. In this instance, Richard Temperley spends most of the book chasing the mysterious Sylvia Wynne, who spends most of the book refusing to explain her predicament to Temperley. A disfigured villain with no arms, plenty of disguises, quaint and trustworthy villagers all combine with the likable Temperley and the reticent Wynne to make a pleasant if somewhat confusing mystery.
The lack of foreshadowing throughout most of book left me fairly unsatisfied and irritated. The reason for the “Z Murders” and the relationship between the two villains is only explained in the last couple of chapters, and not very well. If you really love British mysteries from this era, you’ll like this book well enough, but it’s not one that I’ll remember for very long.
There are very few books that give me real, wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. This is one of them.
I’ve stopped giving a synopsis of books in these “reviews” because *everyone* does that; instead, I am just going to say that the first scene with the blind guy locked in the execution chamber totally did me in. I dreamed about his experience two nights in row. Then I got to the *second* time the blind guy (and our heroine) are locked in the same place, then pursued by a very creepy guy. Cue third sleepless night.
Rayne does a masterful job of telling three stories concurrently – in 1917, 1938-1960, and present day. It’s a rare author who can pull this off, but she does it really well, and brought all three stories together in one satisfying conclusion.
Death Chamber joins Peter Straub’s Ghost Story as scariest books ever.
Gideon Oliver has been one of my favorite characters for years and I always eagerly anticipate a new story. Switcheroo began with a really interesting look into what happened to the Channel Islands during World War II, focusing on a wealthy family who engineered the first “switcheroo” in order to save their sickly child from certain death under German rule. We soon learn that the two boys who were switched were also part of an unsolved murder from the 1960s. When Gideon meets the grandson of one of the switched boys, he agrees to visit the Channel Islands and examine bones that were recovered from a tar pit, supposedly belonging to one of the boys. Of course, Gideon discovers all sorts of family secrets and subterfuge, leading to what, unfortunately, was a conclusion I spotted chapters before the end. And that’s my quibble. In a story where clever plotting abounds, the end was just…unremarkable. But, still, it’s Gideon Oliver and Aaron Elkins, which always means an entertaining couple of hours. Just not the best in the series….