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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

'Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church by Indrek Hargla

Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen,
26 November 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-7602-1844-0

We are in 15th century Tallinn.   The apothecary, Melchior Wakenstede, becomes involved in trying to discover who murdered the Teutonic knight, Henning von Clingenstain, as he returned to the town from the Toompea Castle, late at night while comprehensively drunk.   The town and castle are separate entities linked together and part of any investigation must be to decide whether the murderer was from the town or the castle.  Maps are provided at the end of the book.

Corroborative details of 15th century life are very convincing - in particular the mindsets of the inhabitants are displayed by their actions and attitudes.   Melchior, possibly because of his profession, is a keen observer of the scene around him and he soon appreciates that this is a very puzzling death.  Other characters play their parts - the would-be Meistersinger, the goldsmith, the monks, the pastor, the merchants and their womenfolk - while the geography of the place dictates much that happens.  The guild of foreign merchants is called the Blackheads which reads strangely to an English speaker!   St Olaf's Church is another brooding presence with its famous spire - the tallest in the world at that time.  This town is a member of the Hanseatic League so it is not a parochial place but is full of a variety of people.  The origins of the real Tallinn are being shown to us.

After further frightening deaths in this bustling entrepĂ´t, Melchior begins to work out what has happened.  He is a Poirotesque figure who gathers a group together to expound his theory of events at the end, with the aim of revealing the murderer.   This is a cleverly crafted tale with a fully developed background.  The story is densely packed, literally so.
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Palmer
There are 6 books in the series but this is the first of two to be translated into English.

Indrek Hargla was born in 1970. One of the bestselling Estonian authors working today, his Apothecary Melchior novels now run to six widely translated volumes, and film versions are currently in production. 'Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church' is the first of two volumes in the series to be published in English by Peter Owen.

Jennifer Palmer Throughout my reading life crime fiction has been a constant interest; I really enjoyed my 15 years as an expatriate in the Far East, the Netherlands & the USA but occasionally the solace of closing my door to the outside world and sitting reading was highly therapeutic. I now lecture to adults on historical topics including Famous Historical Mysteries.

‘A Painted Smile’ by Frances Fyfield

Published by Sphere,
19 November 2015.
ISBN: 978 0 7515 5520 2 (TPB)

Sometimes reading a book which is part of a series feels like meeting up with old friends, even when some time has passed and it’s only the second visit to their world.

A Painted Smile is the third adventure for Di Porteous and her motley crew of allies. I missed the second, though I will certainly be seeking it out. This one is as engrossing, as richly woven and as subtle as the first, and these are charismatic people I want to know better.

It’s not a murder mystery, but the one death (by natural causes; the character was a frail eighty-something) becomes the catalyst for a chain of events encompassing burglary, blackmail and fraud – not all committed by Di or members of her merry band. But the real crime, as in the first in the series, is the damage people do to each other in pursuit of their own goals.

Di is slowly coming to terms with both widowhood and the dilemma of suddenly becoming a rich woman with a passion for traditional visual art, especially the many portraits which festoon her beautiful house. She and Saul, her late husband’s art collection agent, are planning an exhibition which will begin the process of opening her collection to the public.

Then Toby, eighty-plus and an amazingly talented member of an art class, dies with his brush in his hand, leaving a decrepit house where Saul finds a dozen exquisite paintings which have clearly been taken from a museum. He removes them, leaving Di uncomfortable; she makes an elaborate plan to return them, but what she discovers in the process makes her wonder how wise this would be...

I could sum up the rest of the story in a few more lines, but hate to spoil the plot of a novel I recommend so heartily. The plot is only part of it; the characters, the convoluted relationships between them, and the meticulous attention to detail which brings the whole scenario so vividly to life are arguably more important – certainly a more significant factor in my huge enjoyment of the book.

Di herself, her possibly-half-brother Steven, her lively but damaged twelve-year-old step-grandson Patrick, desperate to make his malevolent parents notice his existence, her father Quig of dubious morality, sprightly octogenarian Tabitha Hanks, Saul’s worldly-wise sister Sarah: these are just some of the intriguing personae who make up the extensive cast. The unnamed Kent coastal town they live in is as much a character as the people; and Frances Fyfield reveals a talent for finding the hearts and souls of museums, several of which figure strongly.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, she explores human nature at its best and worst, and makes the reader think very carefully indeed about the nature of right and wrong.

She has sown fertile ground in this series, and I for one hope it continues to bring forth fruit as full of flavour and nourishment as A Painted Smile.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Frances Fyfield   is the pseudonym of Frances Hegarty, a lawyer and crime-writer. Born 18th November 1948 in Derbyshire, she was mostly educated in convent schools before reading English at Newcastle University. She then went on to qualify as a solicitor, working for what is now the Crown Prosecution Service, thus learning a bit about murder at second hand.  Years later, writing became the real vocation, although the law and its ramifications still haunt me and inform many of my novels. She has been the recipient of both the Gold and Silver Crime Writers'Association Daggers. She is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4, most recently as the presenter of the series 'Tales from the Stave'. She lives in London and in Deal, overlooking the sea which is her passion.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Gigi Pandian

‘Artefact’ by Gigi Pandian
Published by The Henery Press, 2013.
ISBN (trade pb): 978-1-938383-68-7
 ‘Pirate Vishnu’ by Gigi Pandian
Published by The Henery Press, 2013.
ISBN (trade pb): 978-1-938383-97-7
Dr Jaya Jones who narrates the story in both these novels is a young history professor at Berkeley University, San Francisco, California. Her hippy father whom she sees little of is American; her mother, now dead, was a Tamil from South India. It was that which influenced Jaya in the direction that her studies took; her subject is the history of the East India Company which preceded the absorption of South Asia into the British Empire. Another instance of Jaya’s interest in her South Asian heritage is her love of bhangra music – a fusion of traditional Indian music and Western rock – which she plays in clubs with her friend Sanjay, he on the sitar, she on the tabla (small drums). Sanjay also works as a magician.

In Artefact the story begins when Jaya is distressed to read in a newspaper that a young English archaeologist, Rupert Chadwick, and a former lover, has been killed in a road accident on a winding coastal road in Scotland. Almost simultaneously, Jaya receives a parcel addressed to her in Rupert’s handwriting. In the parcel is a heavy gold anklet with a large ruby and tucked away in the wrapping is a note from Rupert saying that he is sending the ruby to her for safekeeping, that someone is on to it, that she is the only person he can trust, and asking her to call him. This she cannot do; after all, he is dead and Jaya is beginning to suspect murder. She recognises that the anklet is old and of Indian workmanship. She consults Lane Peters, an art historian, who says that it is in fact a bracelet and is indeed old and would have formed part of a priceless collection. He is clearly intrigued and would like to do further research. Jaya, however, has established not only where Rupert was staying but that he was taking part in an archaeological excavation of a Pictish site in Scotland and she determines to set off there and investigate the circumstances of Rupert’s death, and of the rest of the collection. However, she finds that Lane is bent on the same quest. Her travels take her first to London where she becomes aware that she is being followed and then to Scotland. There she and Lane eventually unravel the true story of the collection and the mystery of what happened to Rupert, a search which lands them both in peril and calls into question the motives of all the people involved in the excavation. 

Pirate Vishnu concerns one of Jaya’s ancestors, her great-great-uncle, Anand Paravar, who had emigrated from what is now Kerala in Southern India to California and was killed trying to save the life of his friend in the great earthquake of 1906. The story begins when Jaya is consulted by a retired lawyer, Steven Healy, about a map of San Francisco he has found showing the whereabouts of a treasure. He tells Jaya that the treasure is one that her ancestor, Anand Paravar, stole from his ancestor, and that so far from dying a hero’s death Anand had been killed over the treasure. When Jaya tells Healy that Anand wrote letters to her great-grandfather back in India and if there had been references in the letters to a treasure the family would have known, Healy insists that he must see the letters so that they will lead him to the treasure. But that night he is murdered. And Jaya finds evidence that Uncle Anand was also known as Pirate Vishnu; if that is so that could explain how he came to possess the treasure. Then Healy’s son Connor accuses Jaya of being involved in his father’s death, and although the police do not think she was she resolves in order to settle all doubts she will go to the city of Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala and find out the truth for herself. She is accompanied by the art historian Lane Peters and while it is clear that his feelings for her match her feelings for him he is reluctant to become more involved for reasons which he will not disclose. And Sanjay too travels to Kochi. Although they do discover more clues in India the mystery is not unravelled until all three return to San Francisco. And throughout the narrative there is a parallel narrative in which we learn of Anand’s time in San Francisco and the true story of his life and death.

Like many crime fiction readers I was a great fan of Elizabeth Peters and her many novels such as her long series about Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Radcliffe Emerson, her shorter series about the historian Vicky Bliss and the sardonic librarian Jacqueline Kirby, not to mention a number of one-offs, all equally enjoyable yet clearly founded on a considerable knowledge of history. So it is good to see a new series which combines suspenseful and exciting stories told with lightness of touch yet at the same time substantial scholarship. Recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Gigi Pandian is the USA Today bestselling author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series (Artifact, Pirate Vishnu, and Quicksand) and the Accidental Alchemist mysteries (The Accidental Alchemist and The Masquerading Magician). Gigi’s debut mystery novel, Artifact, was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and named a “Best of 2012” Debut Novel by Suspense Magazine. The follow-up, Pirate Vishnu, was awarded the Left Coast Crime Rose Award, and her short fiction has been shortlisted for Agatha and Macavity awards. Gigi spent her childhood being dragged around the world by her cultural anthropologist parents, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 


Radmila May was born in the US but has lived in the UK ever since apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and has been working for them off and on ever since. For the last few years she was one of three editors working on a new edition of a practitioners' text book on Criminal Evidence by her late husband; the book has now been published thus giving her time to concentrate on her own writing. She also has an interest in archaeology in which subject she has a Diploma.




Monday, 8 February 2016

'His Right Hand' by Mette Ivie Harrison

Published by Mette Ivie Harrison,
3 December 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-61695-610-3

A tight-knit Mormon community is thrown into confusion when their ward’s second counsellor – the bishop’s right-hand-man – is found murdered in their church. Worse, the autopsy reveals that devout family man Carl was actually a woman ...

The book is narrated by Linda Wallheim, the wife of the bishop, and so a woman at the heart of the Mormon community. Linda lived outside the church before returning to it,  which gives her a sharper viewpoint, and at the moment she also has problems of her own, with her youngest child leaving for college: when her role for so long has been as home-maker, who will she be, with nobody to mother? Linda was a plausible and interesting character, and a good guide to the Mormon world, which was displayed mostly in a positive light (the author is herself a member). We were shown the closeness and structured nature of the community – for example, in the relay of help that instantly rallies to Carl’s stricken widow – as well as its hierarchy’s initially negative reaction to Carl’s transgender life. I did feel that at times the many explanations of Mormon life slowed the plot down (although I also found them really interesting), but the storyline was well worked-out, with several good twists, a tense finale, and clear, well-clued motivation for the surprise perp.

A traditional who-dunnit in an unusual setting. This is the second in a series, and does contain references to the first, so you might like to start with The Bishop’s Wife.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Mette Ivie Harrison grew up in a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in central New Jersey in a family with eleven children, a dog, a pony, and lots of chickens. She moved to the more suburban Utah city of Provo at age ten, where her father taught Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Mette graduated from Brigham Young University with a Master's Degree in German Literature. She went on to earn a PhD from Princeton University in 1995 in Germanic Languages and Literatures with a dissertation on the female Bildungsroman of the 18th century. She faced considerable difficulty on the topic because of prejudice against a dissertation that focused completely on women writers in a department without a single female tenured faculty member. Beginning in 1994, Mette worked as an adjunct professor at BYU, but decided in 1997 to work on her fiction writing career. Two years later, in 1999, she sold her first young adult novel, The Monster in Me.  Mette has since published seven young adult novels, including Mira, Mirror and The Princess and The Hound.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.





'The Jump' by Doug Johnstone

Published by Faber & Faber,
6 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-571-32157-5

Ellie and her husband are struggling to come to terms with the suicide of their teenage son. When Ellie sees another teenager poised on the Forth Bridge, she sees it as a second chance, but events quickly spiral out of control.

We’re drawn into Ellie’s world straight away: the collapsing world of a forty-something woman who has lost her only son in an unforseen suicide. Logan’s death has driven Ellie and her husband, Ben, into different spirals. Ellie is swimming in the Forth, beneath the bridge, walking up to the point her son jumped from, watching the CCTV footage of his death over and over again. Ben has become a conspiracy theorist, continually posting leaflets on what ‘They’ are doing through the neighbours’ doors. When Ellie rescues Sam, in the tense opening chapter, we see him through her eyes as another lost teenager who can’t articulate his emotions, and it’s only as the book goes on that we realise the dark heart of his story. Ellie is a particularly sympathetic character, and it says much for Johnstone’s creation of her that the reader continues to feel for her as her actions become increasingly bizarre. The storyline is compelling, with twist following twist, and the scenery and feel of the Forth well-evoked.

A strong psychological thriller with characters whose emotions haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. His sixth novel, The Dead Beat, was published by Faber and Faber in May 2014. Gone Again (2013) was an Amazon bestseller and Hit & Run (2012) and was an Amazon #1 as well as being selected as a prestigious Fiction Uncovered winner. Smokeheads (2011) was nominated for the Crimefest Last Laugh Award. Before that Doug published two novels with Penguin, Tombstoning (2006) and The Ossians (2008). His work has received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, William McIlvanney, Megan Abbott and Christopher Brookmyre.
Doug is a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, who have released four albums to critical acclaim, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians. Doug released his debut solo EP, 'Keep It Afloat', in 2011.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.





‘Burning Down George Orwell’s House’ By Andrew Ervin

Published by Soho Press,
July 30, 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-61695-4594-9

This introspective debut novel chronicles the ups and downs in the life of Ray Welter, a farm boy who rose to the top of his profession until his inner self caught up with him.  Then he tossed it all away in effort to escape everything he had left behind in Chicago: a high-paying advertising job, a wife, and a way of life with which he had increasingly become disenchanted.  He takes off to the Scottish Isle of Jura.  And rents, for six months (with the last of his funds which he hopes to spend before his wife grabs the money in the divorce settlement), the cottage where George Orwell wrote and finished the satirical novel “*Nineteen Eighty-Four*.”

The inhabitants of Jura are an eccentric bunch, protective of each other and their way of life, especially disdainful of outsiders, tourists and the like.  Ray’s intrusion sets up many amusing situations.  That Inner Hebrides island is known for its single malt scotch, and Ray consumes a prodigious amount in an effort to either lose or find himself.  In the meantime, not only does he have to cope with his own troubles but also deal with the foibles and problems arising from the various characters in the community.

The author uses comedy to mask the seriousness of the novel, which deeply probes Ray’s thinking, seeking to define the good and bad of his life as he knows it and distilling the results until Ray can reach an inner peace.  It is quite an achievement, rarely seen in a first effort.  Can Ray reach his nirvana?  Read and enjoy the book, which is highly recommended, and find out.
Reviewer: Theodore Feit

Andrew Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, The Southern Review, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga.

Ted and Gloria Feit live in Long Beach, NY, a few miles outside New York City.  For 26 years, Gloria was the manager of a medium-sized litigation firm in lower Manhattan. Her husband, Ted, is an attorney and former stock analyst, publicist and writer/editor for, over the years, several daily, weekly and monthly publications.  Having always been avid mystery readers, and since they're now retired, they're able to indulge that passion.  Their reviews appear online as well as in three print publications in the UK and US.  On a more personal note: both having been widowed, Gloria and Ted have five children and nine grandchildren between them.

The Rivals of Dracula Edited by Nick Rennison

Published by No Exit Press,
22 October 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-84344-632-3

A sumach tree which needs blood to turn its leaves red ... a withered brown creature with glittering eyes that scratches at the window ... a house which drove its owners mad ... a Viking warrior pitted against the undead ...

This wonderful collection shows the range of vampire stories published at the time of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As Rennison explains in the introduction, film adaptations have made Dracula the best-remembered example of a fashion that began with Polidari’s The Vampyre in 1819, continued with the hugely popular Varney the Vampire, published as a serial between 1845 and 1847, and Le Fanu’s Carmilla in 1871. These fifteen stories show that almost every prolific writer of the Victorian age had a shot at Gothic horror. Each story is preceded by a short biography of the author or authors, most of them very popular then, and almost unknown now – the only household name is M R James, with the antiquarian-in-Sweden yarn, Count Magnus. The only tale I’d come across before was the purportedly true The Vampire of Croglin Grange, by Augustus Hare. All the stories were very readable, with a good range of twists on the theme; surprisingly, as Rennison points out in his introduction, unlike our image of Dracula, almost all the blood-sucking vampires were female, the male undeads being of a different species, like James’ Count Magnus’s familiar, or the dead herdsman from Frank Norris’s Icelandic saga tale.

A gloriously Gothic collection of heroes fighting against maidens with bone-white skin, glittering eyes and blood-thirsty intentions.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Nick Rennison is a writer, editor and bookseller with a particular interest in the Victorian era and in crime fiction. He has written several Pocket Essential guides published by Oldcastle Books including Short History of the Polar Exploration, Roget, Freud and Robin Hood. He is also the author of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction, 100 Must-Read Crime Novels and Sherlock Holmes: An Unauthorised Biography. His debut crime novel, Carver's Quest, set in nineteenth century London, was published by Atlantic Books. He is a regular reviewer for both The Sunday Times and BBC History Magazine.




Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.