Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

img_1289Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, or dead writers stay dead. Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah, writing as Agatha Christie, is a good example of the latter. When I found myself unable to get through more than one chapter at time before starting to yawn, I should have realized it wasn’t me. The more I read, the less I liked this story. Hannah can write, there’s no question there, so I imagine that trying to channel the great Christie really put a crimp in her style.

The plot, briefly: famous author Athelinda Playford invites Poirot and Edward Catchpool (the detective from the first Hannah/Christie effort, The Monogram Murders) to her estate in Ireland to witness her announcement that she has changed her will, leaving everything to her secretary, Joseph Scotcher. Predictably, her family reacts badly, and Poirot and Catchpool very soon find themselves looking for a murderer.

I found nothing engaging here. The plot was a jumbled mess, and really didn’t make much sense, even at the end. The characters were cardboard cariacatures of the worst of the “usual suspects” in Christie novels, and were almost universally unlikable. The only exception is Athelinda Playford, who Hannah got right. As a lifelong Christie fan with a special affection for Hercule Poirot, I was less than amused to find him insipid and even bumbling along as this story progressed. Christie’s Poirot would never overlook the obvious clue at the murder scene, which became part of the solution.

I enjoyed The Monogram Murders, and had looked forward to Closed Casket, so was fairly disappointed. Will this keep me from reading future entries in the series? Probably not. As I said, Sophie Hannah can write. Let’s call this one a fluke.

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

img_1236Reading an ARC is always a crapshoot. The reader has to be flexible and overlook things like excessive description, disjointed story arcs & grammatical errors and concentrate on the story. In Sharyn McCrumb’s The Unquiet Grave, scheduled for publication in June 2017, there’s none of the negative and ALL of the story.

I’ve read McCrumb’s work for years and remain a true fan of her Ballad novels featuring Nora Bonesteel, but also admire her ability to weave folklore and history into compelling stories. In Unquiet Grave, McCrumb tells the story of the “Greenbrier Ghost,” where we meet Zona Heaster Shue, murdered by her no-account husband “Trout” Shue, whose dirty deed is uncovered only after Zona’s mama Mary Jane Heaster claims to be visited by Zona’s ghost, who tells her what happened on the day she died.

McCrumb has taken an old story from the hills of West Virginia and put flesh on its bones through meticulous genealogical and history research. That approach to storytelling can sometimes fall flat if the author is not skilled at character development. There are no worries about that here, though, as McCrumb creates characters that pop off the page. We have Zona Heaster Shue, the beautiful “Greenbrier Ghost,” her swine of a husband, Erasmus “Trout” Shue, and Zona’s Mama, Mary Jane Heaster, who form the triangle that results in Trout Shue’s trial. Truth be told, I didn’t much like Zona or Trout, but Mary Jane? Oh my! Her dislike of Trout Shue leapt off the page, and I *felt* her cold rage when she was given the news of Zona’s death. McCrumb skillfully conveys Mary Jane’s helplessness, rage, and grief as she copes with the loss of the only beautiful thing in her life.

The companion story to the Heaster-Shue murder introduces attorney James P.D. Gardner and Dr. James Boozer. Gardner served as Second Chair in the Greenbrier Ghost trial, and lived a seemingly fulfilling and successful life and career. We find him at a crossroads, having lost his second wife and not seeing any point in continuing to live. After a suicide attempt, Gardner is committed to an asylum, where he meets Dr. Boozer, who attempts to understand Gardner and get him well through conversation. Gardner tells the story of the legal side of the Greenbrier Ghost, lending insight into 19th century law and the concept of “justice” in a small, mountain community.

By juxtaposing the two stories, McCrumb communicates the emotion of the situation through Zona, Trout, and especially Mary Jane. Gardner’s story provides the factual side of things, with the lead lawyer Mr. Rucker grasping at every straw possible to save his client. We get some insight to the tactics used by lawyers to get their clients off, as well as a quick peek at “mountain justice.”

There are one or two places throughout the story that could use some editing for length, such as the pages devoted to describing Rucker’s exploits in the Civil War, but on the whole, The Unquiet Grave is remarkable. I will be buying this in hardcover when it comes out in June. Recommended.

Garden of Lamentations by Deborah Crombie

img_1229The Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James detective series by Deborah Crombie became a go-to for me when my favorite British detective series, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury, petered out. I found Crombie’s writing similar to Grimes, but with a fresher, modern style. Crombie’s development of the Kincaid and James characters has always been nicely handled, with just the right amount of mystery, suspense, and spice, and the crime stories have been clever and well-plotted. So, you may presume that I have looked forward to the release of Garden of Lamentations for awhile.

Unfortunately, my expectations seem to have been misplaced. While the story ties up loose ends from previous books, I was surprised and disappointed to find Kincaid and James some how less. Less in tune with each other, less trusting, less smart. I spent a good deal of time shaking my head at some of Kincaid’s actions. I was especially frustrated with how he seemed to forget that James is his partner in every sense of the word. Sure, he thought he was protecting her, but come on, she’s totally kick ass! She doesn’t need protecting. You’re supposed to be partners, man!

I will say that the back story to the Angus Craig/Ryan Marsh arc from the previous book was tied up nicely, and the parallel story of Reagan Keating was clever…exactly what I’ve come to expect from Crombie. It really was the sudden-stone-in-road with Kincaid and James that made me like this book less than others in the series. Kincaid’s behavior just did not make sense.

This is one I may have to go back and read again later, just to see if my first reaction was really to the story, or my state of mind when reading it. Sometimes, it’s not good to anticipate too much. If you’re a Crombie fan, definitely read this and tell me what you think. Am I off?

Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

img_1233The Haunting of Maddy Clare is a compelling blend of ghost story, romance, history, and psychology, which could have made it a jumbled mess but which works very, very well.

We first meet ordinary Sarah Piper living her dreary London life as a temporary girl, on her way to meet a new employer. Alastair Gellis, author and ghost hunter, hires Sarah as his assistant and proceeds to turn her world inside out. He needs her, you see, to engage a ghost who hates men. Gellis and his male assistant and fellow WWI soldier, Matthew Ryder, are determined to publish evidence of a ghost no one has ever recorded. However, when they send Sarah into the barn where the ghost lives, they trigger the final chapter in a sordid, painful story involving a young girl, Maddy Clare, made mute by a horrifying experience at age 12 who ends her life at age 19. When Maddy’s ghost is released from the barn, no one is safe, including Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew.

Simone St. James has produced a suspenseful ghost story full of creepy, frightening imagery. Maddy is a vengeful ghost, for sure, and St. James writes her part with just the right amount of description to make you shiver and look over your shoulder. St. James also has produced a decent romance between Sarah and Matthew, into which bleeds the psychological effects of war. Alastair and Matthew both fought in WWI and each experienced different levels of horror, both physical and psychological. The whole reason behind their ghost hunting is intriguing. At one point, Matthew talks about how Alistair had always been interested in ghosts, but that he, Matthew, wondered what happened to the ghosts of all the men he watched die in the Somme and at Ypres. Matthew says “I think the war annihilates ghosts. If we have mechanized death — and we have; I’ve seen it — then where do the ghosts go? I find that most frightening of all. That the ghosts disappear with our humanity.”

There is especially good character development here for Matthew and Sarah. We see Sarah transform from a timid girl with a “soft shell” to a confident, assertive woman ready to finally live her life. Matthew, it seems, begins to come to terms with the physical scars left on his body from the war, but is only slowly beginning to unfold emotionally. I hope St. James writes another book with all these characters because I’d really like to see how they develop.

Readers who like a little romance with their scary stories will find this book very enjoyable. Recommended.

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth

airthRennie Airth’s first novel featuring Scotland Yard detective John Madden,River of Darkness, grabbed me by the throat in the first chapter and never let go. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since. The Death of Kings is the 5th Madden book, and confirms what I began to suspect by the 4th book: Airth’s intricate, suspenseful, brain-crushing storytelling has followed an arc from edgy-detective-damaged-in-the-Great-War to retired-detective-turned-farmer-and-doting-father.

The story here is, in turns, interesting and deadly dull. Madden is roped into quietly investigating an 11-year-old murder of a lovely young “actress” who suffered an untimely death on the estate of Black Jack Jessup. At the time, the murder was quickly solved when an itinerant hop-picker confessed to the crime and was executed for it. Now, new evidence has shown up but not enough to warrant an official re-opening of the investigation. Madden begins the tedious process of tracking down the people who were present that fateful weekend, and quickly realizes that there was much more going on than the police realized.

Airth does his usual skillful job bringing some colorful and appealing characters to life. In this case, Adele Castleton and Richard Jessup are the best drawn of the bunch. By the end of the story, I wanted to know these people, and Airth succeeded in surprising me yet again with the final resolution. Madden’s daughter gets more page time here as well, and she is also becoming a more interesting character.

While the plot kept my attention and the characters appealed, over all the story was sleepy and sometimes boring. Quite frankly, I’m bored with John Madden. If I had Rennie Airth’s ear, I would ask him to please drop John and Helen Madden down to peripheral characters and start writing about Lily Poole, the female Scotland Yard detective who Madden has mentored, and Lucy Madden. I envision a kickass series featuring Lily and Lucy. What a way to invigorate a tired series!

Overall, this will appeal to fans of the author, but my go-to recommendation for the series is still River of Darkness.