They’re all good dogs in ‘Olive, Mabel & Me’

I really needed this book. It’s a gentle, often humorous and occasionally profound story of a man and his dogs, and a fair bit of mountain walking thrown in. If you were hanging around on Twitter last March, you may have come across a cute little video tweet featuring two dogs having an eating contest, as their sports commentator owner provided the play-by-play commentary, as seen here:

It’s a clever takeoff on traditional sports commentary but of course what makes it so charming (beyond the very appealing Scottish accent of Mr. Cotter) are those adorable Labradors, Olive (the black one) and Mabel. It went as viral as you’d expect, ricocheting around the Internet at a time when we were all just beginning to come to terms with what the pandemic had in store for us. I loved it, promptly began following Cotter (who I confess to never having heard of, not being privy to much in the way of overseas sports broadcasting) and delighted in the occasional videos he has posted since. (If you’d like to catch up, you can find them all on his YouTube channel.)

Really, there’s not much more to say. If you love dogs, I think you’d very much enjoy the book. The canine averse will probably want to give it a pass. It is not a book that will haunt your dreams or cause you to despair of the loss of our common humanity — that’s what the news is for. Indeed, it will not teach you much about the world, except that Dogs Are Very Good Boys and Girls. I deducted a half-star only because the author has an unfortunate fondness for sentence fragments that made my left eye twitch just a tiny bit. A few moments’ break to look at pictures of Olive and Mabel and all was well again.

Greed turns deadly in ‘The Benevent Treasure’

Candida Sayle and Stephen Eversley “meet cute,” as the kids say, when Candida gets stranded on an English beach as the high tide rolls in and threatens to drown her. At that exact moment, Stephen happens to be out birdwatching in a rowboat, as one does, and finds his damsel in distress clinging to a cliff face. He rescues her, they exchange names and then part, presumably never to meet again.

10B0FDAD-0967-493D-BB96-372113292CE6Oh, but that wouldn’t be much of a book, would it — let alone a mystery. And so our two young people meet again, this time at a very creepy old country house (honestly, is there any other kind in England?) that is rumored to house The Benevent Treasure (1954), brought to England when its aristocratic Italian owner fled Italy centuries ago. Candida is the black sheep of the Benevent family, through no fault of her own — her mother married a man the family did not approve of and cut all ties. Now all the Benevents are dead, except for two strange old sisters, Olivia and Cara, two strange old women who are the sisters of Candida’s long-dead grandmother. They reach out to young Candida to effect a reunion and she goes to visit, although she’s not sure what they want with her.

She meets up again with Stephen, who just happens to be in the neighborhood doing some architecting work (he’s a prime one for being on the spot), and they get reacquainted. But something is amiss inside Benevent House, and Candida seems to be its focus. And if there’s a mystery to be solved, it’s a fair bet that Miss Silver, intrepid governess-cum-private enquiry agent, will root out the truth.

Wentworth returns to her habit from earlier in the series of having Miss Silver acquire her client whilst riding the train. In this case, she is coincidentally traveling to Retley, where Benevent House is, in the same train carriage as the uncle of a young man who had previously worked for the Benevent sisters and disappeared mysteriously, supposedly after stealing jewels from the rumored treasure. Miss Silver agrees to look into the subject, not realizing she will need to solve a current mystery before she can find the truth about the cold case.

There are a lot of gothic elements here, including the way Candida and Stephen are lovestruck at virtually first sight. You know Stephen has it bad when meets Candida in a café shortly after her arrival.

Stephen, waiting in the Primrose Café, saw her come in with a glowing colour and starry eyes. She made a brightness in the shaded place. He had a rush of feeling which surprised him. It was as if a light had sprung up to meet her, and when she came to him and they look at each other the brightness was round them both.

More deaths will occur before Miss Silver wraps up all the mysteries and solves the case, but does it really matter as long as young love wins out in the end?

‘A Fatal Lie’ untangles a family puzzle

As A Fatal Lie (2021) opens, it’s three years after the end of World War I and Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is again in the proverbial doghouse of his Superintendent, Markham. The antagonism between the two men once again sees Rutledge sent to a remote corner of the United Kingdom to investigate an unidentified body found floating in the River Dee in Wales. Through some good old-fashioned detective work (admittedly the only kind available in 1921) Rutledge is able to identify the man, although what he was doing in Wales and who killed him is still a mystery.

1d51ffa7ce40bf0596f2b2b78414345412f5945_v5.jpegIn the course of retracing the man’s footsteps, Rutledge is forced to break the news to his wife, on whom this new load of grief weighs heavily atop the still-fresh loss of her young daughter. Could the two crimes be related? And where does the dead man’s possibly mentally unstable sister come into the picture? The Inspector travels hither and yon where northwest England and northeast Wales meet. All the while, he’s got the voice of long-dead Hamish providing a running commentary in his head, as he has ever since the wretched day during the war when the Scotsman died while serving under Rutledge in the Army. Rutledge knows Hamish isn’t really there, but it doesn’t make the ghostly voice any easier to bear …

This is the 23rd entry in the Ian Rutledge series and it’s a rare series that gets that far along and still produces satisfying mysteries to solve. The mother-son duo writing as Charles Todd manage to come up with unique twists to make each plot unique, even as the characters themselves don’t seem to change overmuch. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this one. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, start with the first (A Test of Wills) for the full rewarding experience.

Miss Silver dives in at the deep end in ‘The Silent Pool’

Who wants to kill Adriana Ford? And how many will die before the villain is found?

The first question to be answered in any Golden Age mystery featuring Miss Silver is simple: How will the retired governess-cum-detective acquire her client? Up to now in the series she has been hired by total strangers on trains, via word-of-mouth from satisfied clients, been called in by the police, and more or less stumbled into situations. In The Silent Pool (first published 1953), it’s much more straightforward — the client calls Miss Silver for an appointment. How quaint! But that’s where the humdrum aspects end.

For one thing, the retired stage actress visits Miss Silver in disguise (seen right through by our sharp-eyed sleuth, of course). Adriana Ford thinks someone in her ragtag extended family may be trying to kill her for her money — there’s been a fall on the stairs, a possibly poisoned soup, and a suspicious medicine tablet. After spilling all this to Miss Silver, the actress decides she’s being overly dramatic and declines Miss Silver’s help. But after the first body shows up, she puts in a call to our Maudie to come sort things out.

Throughout this series (we’re on Book 25 here) I’d gotten used to Miss Silver not showing up until perhaps the middle of a book or even later, so it was a surprise to see her right there in the first sentence this time. That fact, combined with a rather lengthy bit of exposition in the first chapter that brings readers up to speed on Miss Silver’s backstory, makes me think this book was seen as a chance to hook some new readers into the Tribe of Maudie. If you’re one of those people who don’t feel the need to start a series at the beginning, this could be a good one to begin with. But surely you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Anyway, the story is a good one. There’s a satisfying surfeit of suspects (though some clearly preposterous red herrings) and some pleasant characters to root for although not, interestingly enough, the client. In other books Miss Silver forms a bit of an attachment to her client that goes beyond a business relationship, but that’s not the case here. The rest of the cast confirms my theory that Wentworth had much more fun writing terrible people than she did nice ones. Her villains are always just so delightfully villainous.

I’m feeling a little melancholy as we approach the end of the series (just seven more left), but I’m pleased that each outing remains remarkably strong even this far along in the series.

‘A Divided Loyalty’

Cold case heats up in latest Inspector Rutledge mystery

When Inspector Ian Rutledge quickly solves the murder of an unknown young woman, he’s just as quickly assigned to follow up on a similar cold case in Avebury, known for its series of standing stones akin to the more famous Stonehenge. The case is tinged with eerie echoes of the prehistoric past, as this unidentified woman is found to have been killed at the base of one of the ancient stones. Was it some sort of ritual sacrifice, or murder with a more modern motive? Could it be connected with Rutledge’s original investigation?

book cover of A Divided Loyalty by Charles ToddThat’s the basic setup for A Divided Loyalty (William Morrow, 2020), the 22nd entry in the police procedural series set in post-World War I England. Rutledge is a classic flawed protagonist, back from serving as an officer in that brutal war with a severe case of what was then called shell shock. It has left him hearing the voice of his dead sergeant Hamish at the most inopportune times. Much of the attraction of this series is observing how Rutledge battles his demons to continue serving as a highly effective Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. So effective, in fact, that he’s often called on to solve cases that have stymied his superiors, and that’s the situation he faces here. A more senior Inspector was assigned to the initial investigation and came up with nothing, managing neither to identify the victim nor the killer. As Rutledge reluctantly follows in his colleague’s footsteps, he find anomalies in the initial investigation that are hard to explain.

Hard but not impossible, of course, or there would be no book. The author engages in clue-slinging so blatant the reader feels sure the suspect it points to cannot possibly be the true killer. And yet it keeps adding up, and every opportunity to find evidence to counter it is unsuccessful. Ultimately, the case tests Rutledge’s single-minded devotion to speaking for victims and finding the truth, which over the course of the series has been one of the few things helping him maintain a slender hold on his sanity. Will this case be the one that causes him to lose his grip?

I’m a big proponent of starting a series at the beginning, but I will say that if this is your first Ian Rutledge book you won’t feel too disoriented. There aren’t any big spoilers to previous events, and while there are references to things that happened in previous books they are subtle enough not to confuse a new reader. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy reading about flawed but honorable characters and their internal struggles. My only regret is having to wait another year until No. 23.

Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.