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review 2018-09-27 05:01
Prince of Darkness
Prince of Darkness - Barbara Michaels

The below is not a spoiler, just not pertinent to anyone who is looking strictly for a review of the book:

 

Tuesday night, I started in on a buddy read I'm doing with Moonlight Reader and Linda Hilton and got a chapter or two in before falling asleep, believing I was on the backside of this awful head cold.  I woke up yesterday so sick; I can't remember the last time a cold has laid me out so completely flat.  When I was finally able to hold my head up for more than 15 minutes at a time yesterday afternoon, I honestly couldn't hold up my hardcover edition of Houses of Stone.  So, instead, needing something for my Classic Horror square and having decided to use a Wild Card, I picked up Prince of Darkness, a nice mass market paperback I picked up on holiday that has been so well used by its previous owner that I wouldn't feel bad if I passed out with it in bed with me.

(spoiler show)

 

Boy, is this completely different from any of the Barbara Michaels books I've read so far.  Structured differently, and written with a tad more sophistication than a lot of her other romantic suspense books.  Just a tad, though at first I thought I was in for something more on a level with Whitney's works.  I'm sort of glad it wasn't, really, because otherwise this book would have scared the hell out of me.  Instead, it was just fun, with a bit of non-visceral horror at the end.  It feels like Michaels might have been taking a popular trope at the time and turning it on its side, showing it from a different perspective.

 

The book is structured in three parts, meant to mimic metaphorically, a traditional Fox Hunt.  The Meet, The Huntsman, and The Quarry.  Of course, the reader is supposed to suspect the Huntsman at every turn and bemoan the weakness of The Quarry.  All I'll say about any of it is that, while I definitely suspected one facet, there were many that were unexpected on their revelation.  

 

Michaels ratchets up the suspense from page one, to the point that it feels the pages themselves might snap from the tension; it's only when things come to a crisis that the book fails, just a little bit, to deliver what could have been a more explosive resolution.  Mind you, it was still a good ending, and I don't know how such explosiveness might have been achieved, only that for the amount of tension built up, the release of it was slow and measured.  Horrifying in its way, but not detrimental to anyone's pulse.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo, using it as my official Wild Card for the Classic Horror Square.  It's not a classic, but the horror bit was closer to the mark than I expected.

 

  

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review 2018-06-27 07:37
They Came to Baghdad
They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie

This was a surprise.  I'm certainly a long way from having read the entire Christie canon, but I've read enough to expect a certain...atmosphere in her books.  They Came to Baghdad certainly defied those expectations.  Exuberant is the only word that comes to mind.

 

Unfortunately the plot is ludicrous.  For the first 13 chapters, Christie was on fire, creating rich characters and setting.  The breaking of the fourth wall in Chapter two, when Christie's narrator uses the collective present (Victoria was like most of us, ...), has left me wondering if there isn't a touch of the autobiographical in Victoria.  I can imagine Victoria's first impressions of Baghdad being Christie's and I could well believe her final thoughts on relationships are pulled from Christie's first hand knowledge.  It isn't until the plot is revealed that it all goes sideways.  It's all just a bit too Austen Powers.

 

Still, if you can overlook it (and it becomes harder to do so in the second half of the book, to be honest), it's a highly entertaining book; practically a romp.  I enjoyed it overall, and it was worth the wobbly plot to see Christie's lighter side.

 

(This was a buddy read for Summer of Spies.)

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review 2018-06-03 02:46
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange - Anna Katharine Green

I read one of the Violet Strange short stories last year as part of an anthology (I can't remember which one); it was my first introduction to Anna Katherine Green's work and I liked it enough that I wanted to read more.  In that story, (The Intangible Clew), Strange showed a distinctive Sherlock Holmes flair, and I was intrigued.  

 

I've found and read a couple of her books and loved them, but it took longer to find a copy of this book - the one I most wanted to read - that was available and affordable.  I'd heard it wasn't her best work, and sadly, I have to agree; the first story in fact was just down right rubbish, the second one only a little bit better: more coherent but absurdly plotted.

 

But Anna Katherine Green did two things - one of them something I've personally not seen before, which accounts for my slightly high rating.  The first is that every story got better than the one before it - the improvement in the writing and plotting is obvious, and one of these days I'll sit down and do the google-fu necessary to find out if these stories were early efforts, and therefore show a natural progression in her writing, or if there's some other reason.  But as the book goes on the stories get exponentially better.

 

The second thing that elevated the book for me was that each story was a complete stand-alone short story (except the very last one).  Any of them could be read cold and the reader would miss nothing.  But when read together, there's a thin plot that holds them all together, and, it turns out, a romance; one that's hardly hinted at in any of the stories until the second-last.  The last story isn't really a story at all, but Violet's coda in the form of a letter, explaining her motives for taking on the cases.

 

This subtle dichotomy made the uneven collection feel more finely crafted than it really was, and in spite of its flaws it feels clever and fresh.  The writing is a little more florid than the other AKG books I've read so far, and she breaks the fourth wall constantly; something I didn't mind but occasionally felt a little condescending-ish.

 

So - not brilliant, not her best work by far, but interesting and worth experiencing and definitely worth the effort I made to read it.

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review 2018-05-08 04:24
The Circular Study
The Circular Study - Anna Katharine Green

In my unofficial quest to read all of Anna Katherine Green's work, The Circular Study is my first Amelia Butterworth mystery.  Amelia Butterworth is credited as the prototype of the spinster amateur detective, a category that includes Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver, and Christie's infamous Miss Marple.  Green is also credited as the first to develop the series detective with her Ebenezer Gryce (of the New York Metropolitan Police Force) series of mysteries.  This book is also my first introduction to Gryce.

 

Compared to The Mayor's Wife (the only other full-length AKG book I've read so far, published 7 years after this one), the writing is far more florid, but the plot is ahead of its time.  This is a straight up murder mystery, with no romance, but there is a fair amount of romantic narrative, in the form of a character's statement.  This was really heavy handed; a reader could be forgiven for thinking the woman described was a contemporary Blessed Madonna (no, not the singer, the other one).  There were also a few scenes between Gryce and Butterworth that became a bit thick with mutual appreciation.  There was a lot of sunshine being blown up a lot of skirts in those scenes.

 

But the plotting makes up for a lot of it.  The eponymous Circular Study is a room full of secrets: a panel of buttons that controlled the color of the electric lighting (this was 1900, long before electric lighting became common, never mind coloured lighting), secret panels and ... bird cages.  There's a deaf-mute butler, and a talking starling too.  Behind it all is the mother of all schemes.  One that could be called diabolical.

 

In addition to the issues I had with the writing, as mentioned above, the book presents additional problems, but these issue primarily from the 118 years between publication and my reading.  Contemporary attitudes, social structures, and morays all struggle to translate to a modern sensibility, but though I liked The Mayor's Wife better overall, this is still a mystery well-worth reading, especially for those aficionados of the genre.  That she blazed the trail for mystery writers including Doyle, Christie and Sayers, but has since been languishing in obscurity is a tragedy in itself.  Luckily for those with e-readers, Project Gutenberg has most, if not all of her work available; those with a preference for print should be able to source copies of this amazing writer with be no problem, if my experience is any indication.  Highly recommended.

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review 2018-03-29 07:36
4.50 From Paddington (What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw)
4:50 from Paddington - Agatha Christie

Ah Christie, you cunning minx you.  I knew my earlier guess had low odds for being right, but I never saw that coming.  I probably should have given the book a higher rating, but it started off slow and frankly, I don't feel confident yet that Christie didn't pull a rabbit out of her hat here.  I need to let the story sit with me for awhile, and I may adjust the rating 1/2 star later.

 

I say it started off slow, but that's not really the case; it's much more about what happens when an original idea becomes over-used.  Witnessing a murder taking place in a passing train was likely original - or at least fresh - when Christie used it, but 60 years later it feels trite.  I'm also impatient with the idea of dismissing people because of their age.

 

Once Lucy Eyelesbarrow arrived on the scene though, things started to pick up.  From that point I was pretty well glued to the pages, getting lost in the setting and the characters.  And apparently allowing myself to become completely seduced by Christie's red herring.  For the record, I think my ending would have been much more twisted.

 

This book works for the Kill Your Darlings game card: Crime Scene: Orient Express.  (Train on the cover of my edition.)

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