Tag Archives: mystery

Book review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher series)

Unnatural HabitsSummer 1929 in Melbourne: hot, grimy and uncomfortable, and glamorous sleuth The Hon Phryne Fisher feels the heat in more ways than one when the action gets going in this, her 19th full-length mystery by Kerry Greenwood.

Phryne and her friend Dr Elizabeth MacMillian rescue naive reporter Polly Kettle from thugs in Little Lonsdale Street.  They learn that Polly’s ambition is to be an investigative journalist; she is on the trail of missing girls. Specifically, pretty blonde girls and among them three young unwed pregnant women who may have escaped the confines of a dire and harsh convent laundry for something considerably worse. It’s bad enough that their families have disowned them for being damaged goods.

Then Polly herself goes missing and it’s time for Phryne to step in.  Her investigations take her through the seedy and low elements of Melbourne; she meets the brothel owner for whom ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’ just might have been named, the manager of a discreet club for homosexuals, the lesbian owners of a successful communally-run fruit farm, and enters the dark, rigid world of a convent where compassion doesn’t exist. Phryne moves easily through brothels and clubs (and I do love the insight into the clandestine homosexual world of the 20s that weaves through this series), but what she sees at the convent leaves her shaken and angry, and an angry Phryne is the spirit of vengeance brought to life, as villains have found in the past.

The more Phryne delves into the disappearances, the more there is to unravel. Is Polly with the three unwed mothers? And are they with the other young women reported missing? And who is responsible for performing vasectomies on unsuspecting (but deserving) men?

In order to meet the mastermind behind the disappearing girls, Phryne has to become a blonde herself. Whether blondes have more fun is debatable but they certainly get into tight situations, as Phryne discovers. It’s lucky this particular blonde has a knife up her sleeve…

As always, Kerry Greenwood’s research is meticulous. Phryne Fisher may be extremely wealthy and enjoy a superb lifestyle, but her travels in Unnatural Habits take you to heartbreaking places, to slums, to children wearing flour sacks for clothing, to a nursing home for unwed mothers which is barely fit for cockroaches, to places where rights for women workers don’t exist, to a convent where young women are beaten for daring to speak. We are constantly reminded in this book that the good old days weren’t good for everyone.

Balancing the action is the interaction in Phryne’s home, where new resident Tinker is having trouble living in a house full of women. His character develops well throughout this book as he and the household learn to get on with each other.

Phryne has taken to calling Ruth, Jane and Tinker ‘minions’ in this book (and sometimes that includes Dot too). I found the term a little overused, but do suspect that Phryne uses it with warmth and irony.

I always enjoy Phryne Fisher’s adventures and this one was no exception; there are multiple mysteries within this book. The attention to detail with Phryne’s clothing and everyday living in the era is spot on, the laconic language of Bert, Cec and the policemen evokes the way my grandfather used to speak. Unnatural Habits is elegant, well-plotted (and in Phryne’s case well-dressed) escapism at its best, but also reminds me how far we have come with women’s rights, indeed human rights, since 1929.

I feel guilty for devouring this book as hungrily as I did. Given the love and effort gone into writing it I should have savoured it slowly and honourably, but I couldn’t put it down. Finished it at midnight last night. Now, sated, I will re-read it at some point while waiting for Phryne’s next adventure.

(By the way, did anyone else notice the editing error in the first half of p268 of the paperback edition?)

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Felix Francis and the Dick Francis brand

Buying Dick Francis booksI remember buying my first Dick Francis paperback. I was in Swane’s bookshop in downtown Sydney, an Aladdin’s Cave long since gone. I was twelve years old, in school uniform and feeling guilty and embarrassed about looking for books in the mainstream, grownup section of the shop.

I was a horsy girl, and until then had been satisfied with the efforts of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Mary Gervaise, Patricia Leitch and other books aimed at horsy teens. I was also a kid who read well beyond her age, and was a keen follower of the racing world, aided and abetted by my grandfather who’d put on bets for me at the Saturday races.

Pulling down Dead Cert (because the name sounded as if it were in the horse-racing genre), my eyes lit up. I all but salivated. This was just what I had been looking for!

I bought the book and promptly hid it. I read it only in private, worried that my mother would see me reading something aimed strictly at adults. I devoured it despite it not being the strongest murder mystery plot in the universe. It had been written by an ex-jockey (and I, being me, had a crush on one or two apprentice jockeys at the time, pretty boys they were too before age and wasting diets ravaged them) and I was delighted to think that a jockey could be so literate as to write a thriller novel like this one.

Dead Cert was Dick Francis’ first book, published in 1962, a few years after he had retired as a jockey. A week or two later, pocket money topped up and coins foraged from behind the sofa cushions, I headed back to Swane’s for more and bought Enquiry. The artwork on the cover was risqué so I had to cover it with clear plastic and put a sticker over the topless woman!

By the time I bought his most recent, High Stakes, a month later I’d told Mum what I was reading and she too got stuck into Dead Cert. From then on I happily and publicly collected all the Dick Francis books and to this day have the entire collection, in hardback and paperback. (See this resource here by a fellow Francis fan for a full list of novels and a synopsis of each.)

I was even lucky enough to meet Dick Francis years later at a book signing and have a brief conversation about writing while he scrawled on the flyleaf of his latest hardback for me. In the interim years Dick Francis had been a big influence on my own writing style – I spent my teen years writing truly awful horse racing novels that thankfully never saw the light of day. Not that the awfulness was Dick’s influence, that was entirely my own work.

Graham Lord in his unauthorised biography of Dick Francis (Dick Francis A Racing Life) asserts that the books were actually written by Dick’s wife, Mary, who was always recognised by Dick as doing much of the research on the books and ‘contributing to the writing process’. Dick left school at 15; Mary had degrees in French and English and worked for a publisher in her younger days. While this rumour was denied heartily by Dick’s publishers when the bio was released (and it’s since been confirmed by Dick’s son Felix that his parents co-authored the books), I suggest you make up your own mind. In fact, get yourself a copy of Lord’s book as it makes fascinating reading and his dissection of some of the prose and phrases familiar to Francis fans (i.e., “He sketched a farewell”) is priceless. You’ll find the book on eBay, Amazon, etc as it’s out of print.

Whether the author was Dick himself, Mary herself, or Mary putting into prose Dick’s plots and characters, the books have a consistent style and turn of phrase until Mary’s death and the first book released five years after that, Under Orders. For me, the character development is stronger too in the earlier books – that could be coloured by my teenage delight at reading grown-up thrillers!

Under Orders was eagerly snapped up by fans who thought that Dick, devastated at the loss of his beloved wife, had stopped writing for good. It features characters familiar to Dick Francis fans – private investigator Sid Halley and his family, who had featured in previous Francis novels. However, supporting character Rear Admiral Charles Rowland behaves very much out of character, dropping the f-bomb in front of a woman; in the first Halley book (Odds Against, 1965) the very proper Admiral would not even say ‘damn’. The writing style itself is slightly different to earlier Francis books too. It’s subtle, but if you know your Francis well you are aware of it. Dick’s younger son Felix Francis is thanked for his contribution on the dedication page, and for this longtime Francis fan it’s clear he had a strong hand in writing the book.

Since then Dick and Felix, a former school teacher and Dick’s manager, have co-authored four books: Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire. By the time Crossfire was published the writing style of the duo was more akin to classic Dick Francis books but the books for me weren’t in the league of the Francis classics from the early days. Dead Heat is the one I most enjoyed from these four, with a chef as the lead character, followed by Even Money (the first time I’d empathised with a bookmaker!).  They are still enjoyable, but my test of a book is how soon I re-read it, and I haven’t re-read any of these four yet. The voice is slightly different, too. As with Under Orders, it’s subtle, but it’s there; some sentences appear beleaguered if not stilted.

Dick Francis died at the age of 89 two years ago today at the time of writing this post, leaving a legacy of fast-paced novels, villains with improbable names and plots both strong and on the weak side; well-researched thrillers that were set not only deeply in the racing world but on the fringes, with horses in the foreground or sometimes well hidden in the background.

What would happen now? Was Crossfire the last Dick Francis ever?

No. Felix has stepped up to the plate, releasing his first solo “Dick Francis novel” last year, Gamble.

Gamble doesn’t enjoy the tightest plot in the world, and the character development is a little on the thin side, conversation between the characters stilted on occasion. I’d figured out the hero’s girlfriend was ill long before he did. When Our Hero Nicholas misses a vital clue near the end of the book I felt an urge to shout out a pantomime-ish “He’s behind you!”. Or words to that effect. I was disappointed, overall.

Reading Felix’s first solo effort, I’m made aware that any “Dick Francis” book of the past certainly included the man himself in plot development to say the least, if not character development. Dick as a jockey with little education may have heavily relied on his wife or son to turn his ideas and rough drafts into readable reality; every Dick Francis novel a true collaboration. There’s something a little lacking in Gamble, but I’m curious to see if the next Felix Francis is an improvement. One would expect Felix to put his own stamp and voice on the brand; hopefully the confidence gained from acceptance of his first solo effort will see the next novel rollicking along like the 3.30 at Newmarket.

According to the official website the next novel features a tv racing presenter as the lead character and will be published later this year.  Expect a review of it here.

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Kindling an affection for Her Royal Spyness

Her Royal SpynessMy storage problems have led me to buying e-books as an alternative to the ‘real thing’; e-books are also cheaper and if I’m taking a chance and reading a book by an author whose work I haven’t read before, e-books are a low-cost way to discovering new joys.

Last year I found myself, by a circuitous route of Amazon recommendations, reading the description for Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. The premise: It’s 1932 and Lady Georgiana (Georgie) is a minor and thoroughly penniless member of the British Royal Family, 34th in line to the throne. The daughter of a Duke and an actress, Georgie is sent from the family’s cold and bleak Scottish castle to London on a mission for her great Aunt, Queen Mary. HRH wants Georgie to be her eyes and ears at a house party at which the Prince of Wales and his inamorata Mrs Simpson will be in attendance. In essence she has to spy on the Prince of Wales. It’s either that or  Georgie faces a very boring life being lady-in-waiting to the ancient Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s only surviving daughter or even worse marrying the cold fish Prince Siegfried.

Reluctantly Georgie accepts her mission and meets an unsuitable but delectable young man on the way. Oh, and someone dies.  Unexpectedly. In Georgie’s own bathtub. Georgie gets rather too close to the killer as she tries to clear her name and prove she wasn’t the murderer. No more spoilers, you can read it for yourself to see if she is successful in her spying mission.

When I first started reading this, the first in the series about Georgie, I was disappointed to have some Mitfordisms presented to me in the second chapter. “Next thing we know you’ll be teaching Podge to say ‘mirror’ instead of ‘looking glass’ and ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’.” Hmm, I thought; the author was clearly influenced by The Pursuit of Love and Love in A Cold Climate. I was prepared to dismiss the book as a copycat of Nancy Mitford’s upper class social comedies, but kept reading on.

Like most modern books set in ‘Golden Age’ time (between the two World Wars), you know instinctively from the language both of the prose itself and which the characters speak that while it’s been well-researched it’s a new book, written recently. It’s a good romp though; the first book in the series introduces the reader to Georgie’s friends and helps Georgie solve her penniless predicament, with the unlikely scenario that Georgie decides that in order to make money she will become a cleaner.

Deep and meaningful literature it isn’t and it isn’t meant to be either, it’s very readable and Rhys Bowen has a nice touch in cliffhanger chapter endings. By the middle of the book I was thoroughly engrossed in this version of 1930s London – a London probably a little cleaner and kinder than the original methinks!

Bowen has written five books in this series now, and there is character development along the way, but each can be read separately to the others. Amazon’s Kindle store had all five in stock so now they are on my iPad ready to be re-read when I feel like it.

If you have read and enjoyed Nicola Upson’s series set in the 1930s featuring novelist Josephine Tey as the lead character, you will probably enjoy Her Royal Spyness.

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A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill – Book Review

A Decline in ProphetsThis is the second book featuring Rowland Sinclair – an artist with bohemian tendencies born into a wealthy pastoral Australian family. Rowland has an unerring eye for finding trouble – or is it that trouble finds him? At the conclusion of the first book he and his friends fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones, seductive sculptress Edna Higgins and poet Milton Isaacs were setting sail on the Aquitania for Europe and North America, as Sydney in 1932 was a rather unhealthy place for Rowland to stay. He’d upset too many prominent – and criminal – people.

Once again Rowland finds himself embroiled in murders – two, this time aboard the luxurious ship – and his own life and that of Edna’s is put in danger on their return to Australia. Even worse, his very proper brother and other members of the Sinclair family are about to descend on his relaxed Woollahra mansion and Rowland has to juggle family issues and demands, be the feature of unwelcome newspaper headlines, dodge bullets and overall avoid ending up on a slab in the mortuary.

What I love about Sulari Gentill‘s books is her mix of fact and fiction: the books are very well researched, events and moods of the time and well-known people of the era woven in with the fictional Sinclairs. For example, Rowland and his friends spend New Year’s Eve with Norman Lindsay and his model wife Rose at a deliciously debauched party at Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains. To my delight, Edna is escorted through New York nightlife by an up-and-coming British actor called Archie Leach (lucky girl!) after meeting him at a party hosted by moving pictures star Marion Davies. Sydney underworld figures Phil “The Jew” Jeffs, Frank “The Little Gunman” Green and prostitute Nellie Campbell also have encounters with Rowland. (These names will be familiar to viewers of the Nine Network’s Underbelly:Razor series, but for a more realistic, grittier take on Sydney’s wild times of the 20s and 30s I suggest reading Larry Writer’s Razor, the superb true crime book on which the series was based.)

Gentill’s books have a nod to Agatha Christie’s golden age fiction in more ways than one. As well as having a very readable, engaging style there’s wry humour in them. In New York, Rowland takes his friends to meet fellow artist Daniel Cartwright, who only ever paints his own self-portrait. I can’t help but share a laugh-out-loud moment here:

“Rowly,” Clyde’s voice was low and touched with disbelief. “These paintings…  they’re all of him… Cartwright… all self-portraits.”

Rowland nodded. “Yes, Danny only paints himself.”

“What? Always?” Milton whispered, incredulous.

“Never knows him to paint anything else. I must say,” Rowland motioned towards the latest portrait, “he’s getting quite good at it.’

“Does it not strike you as odd?” Milton persisted.

“It’s bloody odd,” Rowland confirmed. “You should see his nudes.”

If the first novel in the series was centred around politics, this one is about religion. The Theosophist Society plays a major role with Rowland meeting its leader Annie Besant on the Aquitania, being interviewed as a suspect for one of its number’s murder on board the ship and being cast as the new prophet by an outcast member back in Sydney. In the blue corner, so to speak, is the bullish Catholic Bishop denouncing Rowland as evil and accusing him of putting his niece in the family way (and worse). Adding to the mix the Protestant-only Masonic Lodge was in its heyday in Sydney back then and prominent families such as the Sinclairs were, of course, members; something free-thinking Rowland would very much like to avoid but is dragged into by his brother Wilfred.

Back in the 1930s religion played a strong part in defining who you were. I remember my grandmother, who grew up in NSW country town Glen Innes, telling me that the Protestant kids didn’t talk to the Connie kids (the ones who went to the Catholic convent school) as a matter of course. They had been brought up that way. Entire towns could be divided with a Protestant and Catholic side of the main street! Religious bigotry was rife. So it’s no surprise that even within Rowland’s circle of friends religion is an issue that’s discussed – and plays a major part in the murders and solving them.

There are plenty of twists in this tale and the mystery is satisfyingly solved in a race against time. I was sorry to finish reading this book!

The only thing that irks me, just the tiniest, about this book is the constant referral to Edna as ‘the sculptress’. She’s described as ‘the sculptress’ every few pages (I was reading this as an e-book by the way due to my straitened storage circumstances). Maybe it’s to remind us what she does for a living as in this book she doesn’t work on any of her sculptures! Milton and Clyde aren’t regularly referred to as ‘the poet’ and ‘the artist’.

I’ve seen some cover art for Sulari’s next Rowland Sinclair novel and I’m wondering if a certain Gypsy Moth aeroplane will play a part in it. To find out why I think that, you’ll have to read this book!

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Blood in the Cotswolds by Rebecca Tope

Blood in the CotswoldsA heroine who owns a spaniel and a murder mystery in one of the prettiest parts of Britain – what’s not to like? In my case, quite a bit. Our heroine is apparently Thea Osborne, owner of Hepzie the spaniel, but through the entire course of the book, we don’t learn a single thing she’s thinking. The real main character of the book is her partner Detective Superintendent Phil Collis, who shares his thoughts and point of view with the reader.

The book is written in the third person, but it’s Phil and not Thea that I sympathise with. In fact, half way through the book I didn’t like Thea very much at all. Phil has managed to slip a disc in his back and Thea, who supposedly loves him, is less than sympathetic and quite heartless about it. The poor bloke’s in agony and she seems to treat him and his recalcitrant back as a nuisance. Not that you’d know for sure, for not once in this book are you privy to Thea’s thoughts.

There’s a good cast of supporting characters, some country-lane twists and turns in the plot, the writing itself is well-edited if unexceptional, but I’m left feeling that the main characters are not quite three-dimensional. There’s nothing here that wants to make me read the entire series (unlike, say, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel & Pascoe series where the main protagonists are so well drawn you expect to see them walking down the street).

For me, three out of five. One of those stars is for Hepzie the spaniel.

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