Welcome, everyone, to a brand new weekly Smugglerific feature: Old School Wednesdays! We came up with the idea towards the end of last year, when both of us were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of new and shiny (and often over-hyped) books. And what better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Inspired by our defunct From the Dungeons feature (owing a dash of inspiration from Angieville’s Retro Fridays), we decided to create a new feature for 2013. On Old School Wednesdays, we take a break from the new and pay homage to the old by reviewing books that are at least 5 years old.
And, because it’s Mystery Appreciation Week, what better excuse is there to dive into some old school crime/mystery/thrillers on our bookshelves? Today, Ana reviews two old school series’: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (a classic from the 1930s) and Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood. Thea follows up with a review of The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman.
Author: Ngaio Marsh
Publication date: This edition 2000 / First published in 1934
Paperback: 176 pages
At Sir Hubert Handesley’s country house party, five guests have gathered for the uproarious parlor game of “Murder.” Yet no one is laughing when the lights come up on an actual corpse, the good-looking and mysterious Charles Rankin. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives to find a complete collection of alibis, a missing butler, and an intricate puzzle of betrayal and sedition in the search for the key player in this deadly game.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Roderick Alleyn series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): print
Why did I read this book: So even though this is a series dating to the 30s I only heard about it very recently when reading this post on classic mysteries written by Guest Author Andrea K Host for The Readventurer’s excellent Year of Classics series.
Five guests gather to participate on a weekend game of Murder at Sir Hubert Handesley’s country house. It’s supposed to be all fun and games but then one of the guests end up murdered for reals and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called upon to investigate – unveiling a plot of spurned lovers, satanic cultists and more.
A Man Lay Dead is the first in Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series and is a classic example of the English Country House murder mystery. The narrative is mostly from Nigel Bathgate’s point of view and since he is one of the guests, the mystery is reduced to only but a handful of not particularly interesting characters – and amongst those is detective Roderick Alleyn who is barely fleshed out enough for me to get any inkling of its potential as lead character.
As you can probably tell I am not incredibly enthused about A Man Lay Dead : it is an utterly familiar read (albeit quite comfortably so) complete with the token romantic subplot and everything. Add to that a subplot involving Satanic Russian (!!) Cultists that is so obviously dated, a random and pointless torture scene and the most absurd resolution to a crime ever – I am sorry but there is no way a crime like that could have actually been planned like it was, considering all the random elements necessary for it to actually work.
Although I enjoyed it like one tends to enjoy cosy mysteries set at English Manor Houses, I can’t say I was particularly impressed with A Man Lay Dead or its main detective.
I hear that the series does get exponentially better and I plan to eventually resume reading it but I admit I am not in any rush to find out more.
Rating: 5 -Meh, take it or leave it
Author: Kerry Greenwood
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: This edition 2007 / First published in 1989
Paperback: 175 pages
This is where it all started! The first classic Phryne Fisher mystery, featuring our delectable heroine, cocaine, communism and adventure. Phryne leaves the tedium of English high society for Melbourne, Australia, and never looks back.
The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honorable Phryne Fisher–she of the green-grey eyes, diamant garters and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions–is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.
Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops and communism–not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse–until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Phryne Fisher series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook (Kobo)
Why did I read this book: I blame Juliet Marillier’s Smugglivus post. I was in the throes of my recently discovered love for Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane so when I read Ms Marillier’s tip “if you love Dorothy L Sayers you may enjoy the Phryne Fisher novels by Kerry Greenwood, set in 1920s Melbourne”, I ran faster than a gazelle to get a copy of the first book in that series.
If I was utterly unimpressed by A Man Lay Dead, the same cannot be said about the completely charming Cocaine Blues. First in a series set in Australia in the early 20s and featuring the delectable Lady Detective Phryne Fisher, Cocaine Blues is a mystery that involves poison, cocaine smuggling rings, criminal abortionists, sex escapades and a main character that is AWESOME.
Phryne Fisher is beautiful, sexy, rich, smart and utterly bored with life in London. An opportunity to help a couple whose daughter is in dire straits leads her to travel to Melbourne, Australia and try her hand at this detecting thing. She is good at basically everything she does and she knows it and takes pride in it – it is not often that a female character is allowed to be like this and I for one loved it (she could be regarded as the female counterpart of one Lord Peter Wimsey). She enjoys life, she enjoys sex and disregards conventions that tells her she shouldn’t be doing any of those things because of her gender. There is inevitably a discussion to be had about how she can only enjoy this freedom because she is a rich aristocrat but I loved how the book not only addresses that but also includes subplots that involve discussions of gender, class, abortion and politics and several beautifully realised female characters. I absolutely loved how this sexy protagonist is portrayed positively and how clever and witty she was.
I can’t really say that the book is completely flawless though. The point of view tends to jump around quite randomly and the plot feels more episodic than tightly woven. I also felt slightly troubled by how the villain is eventually defeated (by using their main fear – stemming from sexual abuse – against them). But the joie de vivre of its main character and the socially aware narrative were more than enough for me to make up for any clumsiness.
Phryne, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Additional Thoughts: So the series has not only 19 published books so far but also this incredible looking TV series – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – based on them which aired in Australia in 2012. WANT
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: This edition 2008 / First published in 1985
Paperback: 256 pages
“BEWARE THE SEVEN blessings . . . ”
When she first utters these words, 16-year-old Sally Lockhart doesn’t know their meaning. But when an employee of her late father hears them, he dies of fear. Thus begins Sally’s terrifying journey into the seamy underworld of Victorian London, in search of clues to her father’s mysterious death.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Sally Lockhart series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: Like most everyone else, I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books – who doesn’t deeply love Lyra and Pan and Will?! That said, I didn’t even know about the Sally Lockhart books until a year or two ago, after reviewing Y.S. Lee’s fantastic Agency books and reading comments that the series was reminiscent of Pullman’s Victorian Mysteries. Naturally, I scrambled to get a copy of The Ruby in the Smoke – and now I’ve finally had the perfect opportunity to read it.
Sally Lockhart is sixteen years old when she loses her father. The only child of a successful merchant with a business of importing goods from far-off destinations, Sally is devastated when she learns that her father’s boat has capsized somewhere off the coast of Singapore, killing him and every other soul onboard. To make matters worse, her only living relation is a distant, scornful Aunt, and her inheritance is far less than what it should be, thanks to a complication in her father’s will. But what has Sally truly flummoxed is a mysterious, misspelled anonymous note she receives in the post, with the message: “Sali beware of the seven blessings. Marchbanks will help chattum. Bware darling.”
Little does Sally know that her quest to understand this message, to figure out what the mysterious Seven Blessings are, who Marchbanks is, will lead to devastating revelations about her past. Her quest for answers will also lead to a mysterious ruby, and a single-minded old woman who will stop at nothing to get her hands on this prize.
Dear readers, I am incredibly remiss – I cannot believe that it took me so long to first discover that this book existed, and second, to actually read and review it. The Ruby in the Smoke is admittedly no His Dark Materials, but it is a wonderfully written and executed Victorian Mystery. And it’s one I enjoyed very, very much. From the onset of the book (really, from the first paragraph introducing Sally Lockhart), I fell in love with the characters and the writing, with its universal omniscient – aka, the “Little Did She Know” foreshadowing/opinion – style. Instead of forced or affected, this writing choice feels very much like a Victorian novel, and imbues a sly character to the narration and some effective foreshadowing for twists to come as Sally and her friends unravel the mystery of the Maharajah’s (cursed) missing ruby. On that note, the plot and true mystery angle of the novel is solid and executed perfectly. There are dual mysteries here, really, whose answers lie in Sally’s past: the mystery of Sally’s father’s death (and the “seven blessings”), the mystery of the missing ruby (and the reasons why people desire it). Sally’s first adventure is a story filled with secrets and reveals, with sojourns to isolated run down mansions, secret journals and hidden letters, opium dens and even pirates. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in The Ruby in the Smoke, but it never feels over-much or over-wrought – no small feat.
On a character front, this book also excels. I adore Sally Lockhart, who is a no-nonsense heroine, who has no knowledge of French or literature but knows how to balance accounts, invest in stocks and bonds, and manage a business. (On that note, can I please interject – A HEROINE THAT LOVES MATH AND ECONOMICS! YES! THIS! I freaking love it!) In addition to the smart, steady-handed and sympathetic heroine we have in Sally, we also meet a swath of different characters, villains and friends alike, over the course of this book. Mrs. Holland, the book’s villain, is a terrifying figure, with her cruelty (and the frightening image of her over-large, vicious dentures) and her singular desire to seize the ruby at any cost. We never really know what drives Mrs. Holland until the end of the book, when we learn a little more about her past and her character – she’s no sympathetic villain, but she has a believable backstory that fuels her misery and obsession.
The best characters, in my opinion, are the new friends that Sally makes – Jim, an apprentice clerk at Sally’s shipping company with his keen insights (fueled by his love for penny dreadfuls); Frederick, the photographer who is terrible with numbers but passionate about his art (and who is quite taken with young Sally); Rosa, the vivacious, beautiful actress who has defied her family and spurned her inheritance for freedom and passion; and Adelaide, the urchin forced to do Mrs. Holland’s bidding, but who finally finds friends and a brighter future. In sum, Sally has made a crew of friends with the perfect set of skills for a new investigation agency. I’m keen to see what happens in their next adventure together.
Finally, I cannot end this review without saying something about that ending! I admit to tearing up just a little bit with that emotional final discovery, and I cannot wait to read the next book in this wonderful series. Absolutely recommended.
(And clearly I must check out the 2006 BBC television adaptation – starring Billie Piper and Matt Smith in a strange out-of-sequence Doctor Who confluence of awesomeness?)
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1, the best introduction to a character, EVER:
On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver.
She was a person of sixteen or so–alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose. She had unusually dark brown eyes for one so fair. Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
Buy the Books:
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A Man Lay Dead
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