Review: Died in the Wool

Died in the Wool (Roderick Alleyn #13), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1945).

Summary: New Zealand member of Parliament Flossie Rubrick is found dead, concealed in a bale of wool from her farm, and Alleyn, working in counter-espionage during the war, comes to investigate because of secret research on the farm.

The setting is the highlands of New Zealand during World War 2. After having apparently departed for a session of Parliament, Flossie Rubrick has been missing for three weeks, until found in a bale of wool from Mount Moon, her farm. Roderick Alleyn, engaged in war service in counter-espionage, is sent fifteen months later to investigate because of some secret research being conducted by her husband’s nephew on the farm–a type of aerial magnetic anti-aircraft mine.

Flossie had been an influential force in Parliament. Her driving character did not make her easy to live with, whether it was her generosity to her niece Ursula and her husband’s nephew Fabian, the one doing research, with practical assistance from Flossie’s nephew, Douglas Grace. Flossie could be generous, but drove everyone in her circle hard, including her secretary Terence Lynne and her husband, Arthur, working together researching and formulating her policy proposals. Their work together fostered an attraction, discovered the first time it had found expression when Flossie intruded weeks before her death. She separated them and was cloyingly sweet to Arthur. Then there is Cliff Johns, son of the working manager of the farm. Cliff had become her protege when she discovered his musical talent, until the night before, when Markins, the manservant, discovered him apparently stealing some of her whiskey. Markins himself is not without suspicion, having been sent from a generous wool buyer, Kurata Kan, suspected of ties with the Japanese spy effort.

In other words, there is a whole cast of characters with a motive for murder, and perhaps a larger agenda, something that becomes evident when Fabian, mistaken for Alleyn, nearly suffers the same fate as Flossie. As in other cases, Alleyn interviews everyone, including the whole family circle together in an awkward discussion that reveals varying perceptions of Flossie. Small things–a lost diamond clip, a stub of a candle, smudges on the floor of the wool shed where the murder occurred and the whereabouts of each person when the murder occurred all are important.

In the end, Alleyn sets a trap, with himself as the bait, to catch a murderer and a spy. The trap works but who will be found in it and why?

This is one that builds up at a leisurely pace at first as Alleyn does his interviews–lots of conversation looking at Flossie Rubrick and her murder from every perspective. Then things accelerate and the book turns into a page-turner as we come to the final scenes. Even then, while Alleyn has his hunches, it is the murderer (and spy) who is responsible for the big reveal. All in all, a well-crafted story!

Review: The Devil’s Star

The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5), Jo Nesbø. New York: Harper, 2017 (originally published 2003).

Summary: Detective Harry Hole, still in turmoil over the unsolved death of his partner, is spiraling downward to termination, until asked to work on the case of a serial killer.

Detective Harry Hole’s life is a mess. His former detective partner, Ellen Gjelten was killed and the murder is unsolved. It has estranged him from his partner, Rakel, and eventually his offenses, fueled by his drinking, have mounted to such a point that even his boss, Bjarne Moller, can’t shield him from dismissal.

But there is one more case, or rather a string of them. The murder of Camille Loen, which he walked out on because of being paired with his nemesis Tom Waaler, has turned into a series of murders following a pattern–a finger severed, a red diamond star left somewhere on the victim with another carved in the vicinity, and a shot to the head. Five days later, Lisbeth Barli, a singer living with a theatre impresario goes missing until her finger arrives at the police department. Then in another five days later, a receptionist found dead in a fifth floor restroom.

Hole, the only detective to solve another serial killer case, is asked to assist Waaler, despite his suspicions that Waaler is corrupt. Waaler in turn plays on the imminent dismissal to Hole to try to lure him into his corruption. Meanwhile, it is Hole who figures out the pattern. The five-pointed stars are pentagrams, a demonic symbol. There is a pattern of fives–five days, fifth floors, different digits for each murder. The pattern leads to a suspect and future murder locations. But something bother Hole. It seems a bit too perfect.

This one has a page-turner climax that I will not spoil by discussing it. This was my first Jo Nesbø. I’d heard others recommend his work. Hole is a gritty and flawed character, but like other great detectives, he thinks and muses and keeps thinking. He spots patterns and thinks beyond them. I realized that he has a history that I may have missed by not reading the earlier books (this was a deal on Kindle). Will he self-destruct or find an equilibrium that allows him to survive.

Nesbø sets this in Oslo during the summer, amid the warp and woof of urban life–students, theatre, business. The mounting heat wave provides an atmospheric backdrop as we await the storm to break. A longsuffering boss, a savvy cab driver, and a longsuffering girlfriend and her adoring son all seem to see something beneath the troubled life of this detective. I found myself turning the pages to see how this would all turn out, and find myself wanting to hang in there with this Harry Hole guy as well.

Review: The Nature of the Beast (second reading)

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

Usually I will only review a book once. I initially reviewed The Nature of the Beast in February of 2020, sharing my realization that I had started my reading of the Chief Inspector Gamache series out of order. A number of Louise Penny fans suggested that while I could do that, there was so much I was missing out on by not reading them in order. This review is to say that they were right on both counts. The plot of this book stands by itself as an exciting effort to find the murderer of a boy, missing parts and plans to the big gun he found, and the killer of a director of a play written by a sociopath. If you want to know more of the plot, you may read my first review.

There is so much I did not understand about the character and setting of this book that all make sense having gone back and read the series in order (with several more books still to look forward to). Among these are:

  • Just how batty and brilliant Ruth Zardo really is, her hidden depths of insight and moral compass, and why she lives with a duck named Rosa and the unusual relation she has with Jean Guy Beauvoir a.k.a. “numbnuts.”
  • Why Armand and Reine-Marie have moved to this quaint village in eastern Quebec that doesn’t even show up on any maps or GPS systems, and why Armand’s forehead is creased with a scar and why he retired early from the Surete.
  • The long and complicated road Armand and Jean Guy Beauvoir have navigated to reaching their affectionate relationship as father and son-in-law. Little had I realized that it almost didn’t happen.
  • I wouldn’t understand the loss it may be if Clara could never paint again, and why she was trying to paint a portrait of Peter.
  • The development of both Beauvoir and Lacoste, who replaced him, and even lesser characters like Yvette Nichol and Adam Cohen, and the insightful mentorship Gamache offered each of them, recognizing the hidden talents and essence of good Surete officers others missed.
  • The importance Myrna Landers plays to the psychological welfare of Three Pines, including that of Gamache–far beyond the new and used books she sells (or Ruth takes) in her store.
  • What the nature of the corruption of the Surete was that affected the young officers Gamache encounters early in this story, and why the accusation of cowardice made by John Fleming stung so deeply and was in fact so untrue.
  • The element of good food savored during leisurely meals of stimulating conversations, often supplied by Olivier and Gabri, the gay bistro and B & B owners.

I suspect if you are a lover of this series, you could easily add to my list. It is plain to me that one’s experience of these books is far richer when you read them in the order written. Part of the richness for me is a growing appreciation for the world Louise Penny fashions. One wants to visit any place she describes. She sees them with an eye for the cultural and historical richness. And the one place that she creates out of whole cloth seems like such a wonderful place that we would all move there or at least visit if we could.

Deeper than the settings of her novels, I revel in the quiet beauty of the web of relationships in these books. With some exceptions, Penny’s characters are strong individuals with well-formed identities who meet each other with respect and mutual affection, without the neediness and co-dependence we encounter in so many books. None are without flaws, yet even these are accepted with humor and grace in most instances. What a delight to see so many people comfortable in their own skins!

Penny offers us a vision of lives well lived. They are lives lived in community, filled with conversations over good food, lives with time to cultivate the inner life, and out of that, great creativity. One of the things that marks Gamache, that he transmits to others is taking time for a good “think.” In our hurried existence focused on productivity, on doing, Gamache, like many great detectives in literature does his best work by thinking. Three Pines affords space for stillness in which thought as well as creative work may occur.

I only vaguely intuited some of these things and just plain didn’t understand most of them on my first reading. Beyond the value of reading these books is order is what we encounter when we do. Amid riveting stories, Penny explores larger issues of the life well-lived. I think the draw of these books in part is they paint an alternative to our technologized, frantic, and often relationally-isolated lives. While we cannot visit Three Pines, one senses in these books the invitation to bring the best of Three Pines (not the murders!) into our own lives.

Review: Killer Dolphin

Killer Dolphin (Inspector Alleyn #24), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1966).

Summary: Through an accident, a playwright realizes his dream of a renovated Dolphin Theatre, with packed houses for one of his plays, until a murder occurs and a boy actor is badly injured in a botched theft.

Peregrine Jay is a playwright and director with a dream–to restore the old Dolphin Theatre to the glory it enjoyed under Adolphus Ruby. The building suffered wartime damage with a bomb that left a hole in the stage, and it is in otherwise solid, but decayed shape. Jay arranges to tour the building, and despite being warned, falls through the hole in the stage into a well beneath where water has collected. He’s in danger of drowning when a rescuer comes, pulls him out and takes him to his estate where he is clothed and refreshed. This unlikely savior is the owner of the property who feels responsible for the accident.

Vassily Conducis is a rich magnate with a mysterious manner. In the course of their conversation, he shows Jay a glove that has been authenticated as that of young Hamnet Shakespeare, who predeceased his more illustrious father. It inspires Jay to write a play. Also, under the influence of too much to drink, Peregrine Jay shares his dreams for the Dolphin Theatre. Amazingly, Conducis agrees to bankroll this, working through his business agent, Greenslade.

Months later, the Dolphin gleams in its former glory, Jay has written his play, which will debut at the theatre with its twin dolphins in the lobby. The cast is brilliant if wrought with turmoil–dislikes, broken romances and jealousies, and one difficult to work with actor, W. Hartly Grove, a rival to Marcus Knight on and off stage. Conducis, otherwise removed from the day to day operations, insisted on his inclusion. The other thing insisted upon is a display of the glove, in a glass window, part of a protective safe, very secure, but with an easily guessable combination created by the business manager of the theatre. Superintendent Alleyn has overseen the security arrangements, expressing concerns about that combination.

The play is a wild success on its own merits as well as the draw of the rare glove. On the night before the glove is to be removed to be sold to an American buyer (an offense to Jeremy Jones, Jay’s roommate, who designed costumes for the play and believed in keeping Britain’s treasures in Britain) a terrible thing happens. The overnight watchman finds Jobbins, who watched the theatre in the evening, dead, killed by a blow to the head from one of the dolphins. And the annoying boy actor, Trevor Vere has fallen out of the balcony into the stalls and is in a coma with serious injuries. The glove and some documents, missing from the safe, were found nearby.

Alleyn concludes on the basis of evidence that it must be someone in the cast. Who stole the glove? And why? If Trevor comes around, will he be the guilty one, or know who is? What about Jeremy? And other cast members have motives, as well as connections with the mysterious Mr. Conducis. And what will become of Peregrine Jay’s dream and budding romance with Emily Dunne.

One of the things striking about this work is Marsh’s descriptions of the theatre. One could almost draw sketches of the interior, or at least envision the theatre in one’s mind. She paints not only a picture of this grand old building rising from the river, but evokes an atmosphere of wharves and watercraft, workers and the theatre crowd, all in the mix of this space. What may have been less satisfying was the stereotypic theatre cast, the vain star, the ditzy actress, the rogue, the lover snubbed, the spoiled child actor. There is a fascinating observation about how actors thrive on the drama and emotion within the caste, using it in their acting. I wonder. At any rate, it all worked to advance the story but they all just seemed to be types, with only Peregrine Jay evoking any interest, as well as Conducis, when he appears, definitely one of Marsh’s more interesting character.

Alleyn, of course is drawn into it all, handling the security surrounding the glove. As always, one of the most satisfying aspects of these stories is his patient piecing together of evidence, stories, and histories bringing the case to a successful, and surprising conclusion. This is an engaging book for those who like their mysteries with a bit of “head” on them.

Review: A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead, (Roderick Alleyn #1), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011 (originally published in 1934).

Summary: Sir Hubert Handesley hosts one of his famous weekend parties and Nigel Bathgate, a young reporter is invited to join his cousin Charles Rankin for the weekend’s entertainment, the Murder Game, which becomes serious when Rankin turns up the corpse–for real!

Charles Rankin, a man about town and his younger cousin Nigel Bathgate have been invited to one of Sir Hubert Handesley’s famous house parties. The are joined by Sir Handesley’s niece, Angela North, Arthur and Marjorie Wilde, Rosamund Grant, at one time enamored with Rankin and a Russian art expert, Foma Tokareff. The entertainment for the weekend is the Murder Game. Someone is given a card making them the murderer. They have so many hours to carry out the murder, whispering the words “You’re the corpse” in the ear of the victim. The murderer then bangs a gong, turns out the lights and blends in.

While the guests are dressing for dinner, in connecting rooms where they hear each other, they hear the gong and the lights go out. When they assemble, they discover the victim, Charles Rankin. In his back was a knife that had been under discussion the previous evening, a gift for services to Rankin. It had occasioned alarm among the Russians: the art expert and the Russian butler, Vassily. The knife evidences a sinister history with a “brotherhood” with which Vassily was connected, at least at one time. To possess this was to be accursed. Rankin laughs it off and makes out a “joke” will bequeathing the knife to Sir Handesley should Rankin die first. Sir Handesley had an avid interest in weaponry.

Enter Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, the first time we are introduced to him. He’s courteous, thorough, and has quickly ruled out Bathgate, who was witnessed by a maid in his room at the time of the murder. This sets him up to be Alleyn’s sounding board, the beginning of their friendship that runs through the books.. Things get more interesting when Vassily flees the scene. Was this a case where the butler really did it? At another point, Mr. Wilde comes forward but the facts don’t add up. It seems there is a house full of innocent people and yet a man who lay dead. Maybe an outsider really did it.

This being the first of the series, one can see how Ngaio Marsh caught on. The characters are fashionable and some are edgy, like Angela who has chemistry with Bathgate, and loves to drive excessively fast in her Bentley. There are enough red herrings both to interest and distract, and even a scene where Bathgate is deceived and subjected to torture! Marsh combines the leisure of a country house and the excitement of murders, fast cars, bits of this and that found about the premises and a climactic gathering of the suspects as they prepare to depart after the inquest. We turn to a book like this for both leisure and enough excitement to hold our interest and Marsh delivers this in her debut to the Alleyn series.

Review: The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Agatha Christie (Miss Marple #9). New York: HarperCollins, 2011, originally published 1962.

Summary: A harmless busybody dies of a poisoned drink intended for a famous actress, the beginning of further threats, and murders that follow.

Marina Gregg, a celebrated but temperamental actress and her husband, Jason Rudd have re-habilitated a Victorian mansion once owned by a friend of Miss Marple, Dolly Bantry. They host a reception for distinguished guests and neighbors. Heather Badcock, a local do-gooder and busybody, who earlier had rendered assistance when Miss Marple had fallen by her house, eagerly greets the actress and tells the story of how she had met her years earlier, rising from her sickbed to get the actress’s autograph.

Subsequently she is jostled, spills her drink, and Marina Gregg offers hers. Minutes later Heather Badcock is dead, poisoned by an overdose of a tranquilizer used by everyone connected with the house, it seems. It dawns on both that the poison was meant for Marina. Subsequently, a cup of coffee intended for Marina is laced with arsenic. Then a secretary dies of an atomizer filled with cyanide as does a dress designer. The question is how the killer who is threatening Marina is gaining access.

And Miss Marple? Out of caution for her age, she has an overly-protective live in attendant, who she has to elude. Her doctor thinks she needs to do some “unraveling.” This case allows her that opportunity as her adopted “nephew,” Chief Inspector Craddock, seeks her perspective. As usual, she pays close attention to details–a stained dress and the “help” who saw the accident, the stories in the celebrity gossip magazines and the look on Marina’s face as she talked to Mrs. Badcock, from which the book takes its title, the look on Lady Shalott’s face when she saw the “mirror crack’d from side to side.” What was this look, and what caused it?

This was a delightful read and as always, it is fun to admire Miss Marple’s “spunk.” The ending surprised me, adding to the satisfaction. Side characters like Dolly Bantry, Dr. Haycock, and even Cherry, the housekeeper add to the pleasure. Agatha even sneaks in some commentary on the new “developments” and their lack of personality. No wonder they called Christie “the Queen of Mystery.”

Review: The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec.

[Note: This review assumes readers who have read previous books in the series. While I try hard to avoid spoilers for the current book, some information here might “spoil” reading of previous books.]

Armand and Reine Marie have settled into what is hoped to be a peaceful and joyous retirement in Three Pines. Each morning, Gamache goes, sits on a bench above the village, pulls out a slim book, reads only as far as a bookmark, and gazes on the village. Clara Morrow has begun joining him and it is clear there is something on her mind. Finally she asks, and she dares to break into his peace, telling him that Peter had not come home. A year before, when it was clear he was deeply jealous of Clara’s growing success that was eclipsing his, she asked him to leave. For a year. When he returned, they would decide where the marriage went. On the day he was supposed to return, he did not come. No letter or contact. Days turned into weeks. No Peter and no word. Not like Peter.

Armand agrees to help, joined by his son-in-law, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna, the bookstore owner who has become his counselor. Slowly a picture emerges, in fact, a number, sent to Bean, who we met in an earlier novel. They are a veritable “dog’s mess,” painted by Peter, but unlike anything he’s ever painted. They reflect a long journey through Europe to a strange garden in Dumfries, Scotland, and a remote location outside of Baie St Paul in the Charlevoix region. Between those two locations, he had visited charming old professor Massey in Toronto, withdrew money from his bank in Montreal and disappeared.

How to understand the paintings and to make sense of Peter’s journey occupies much of the book. It seems that a controversial professor recruited and later dismissed by Massey, Norman or “No Man,” had created an artist commune or cult in Baie St. Paul some years back around the idea of the “tenth muse,” which was believed to be the muse of artists. Was Peter, whose career was eclipsed seeking the muse in some kind of crazed effort to regain eminence over Clara.

The foursome embark on a journey, led by Clara, not Gamache, at her insistence. They do not find Peter, or No Man, but find clues that take them to Tabaquen, a remote and desolate village along the St. Lawrence in the far eastern reaches of Quebec . The question is what will they find when they get there?

Throughout the book two themes recur: the balm of Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul and the idea of “a brave man in a brave country.” Will they find a sin-sick soul, corrupted by jealousy? Will they find one who has found balm, and become a brave man in a brave country? Will Peter find that what he has sought to the ends of Canada was something that was already his in the love and creativity of Clara? Or will he be a different man, maddened with jealousy, driven by a quest for a mythical muse to bring a fresh spark of creativity to his art?

The story turns on jealousy, the mystery of artistic creativity, and perspective, centered around both a painting that reveals different things depending on how it is turned and the identity of a mad figure in a yearbook drawing from the art school. Perspective will also figure in the emerging picture of what they will find in Tabaquen.

Unlike other books thus far, this has no side plots. From a peaceful beginning, it develops methodically, but not without its humorous moments, to an edge-of-the-seat ending. Savor every moment. They all matter.

Review: Hand in Glove

Hand in Glove (Roderick Alleyn #22), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1962).

Summary: An April Fool’s scavenger hunt organized by Lady Bantling ends badly when a body is found under a drainage pipe in a ditch.

It all started at lunch. Nicola Maitland-Mayne had been escorted by Andrew Bantling, with whom she is quickly taken, to the home of Mr. Percival Pyke Period. She is employed to take dictation on Pyke Period’s book on etiquette. Mr. Pyke Period invites her to what ends up a disastrous lunch. Andrew has departed to Lady Bantling’s after an angry interview with Harold Cartell, his guardian who refuses to make over Andrew’s inheritance to him so he can pursue a career as an artist. He opposed Andrew’s decision to leave the Guards to pursue his art. Harold Cartell seems generally disagreeable, a lawyer who has moved in with Pyke Period to conserve costs. He makes a disagreeable allusion to Pyke Period’s ancestry. He also has a truly annoying dog, Pixie, which is always getting loose and bites. Also at the lunch is sad Connie Cartell, Harold’s spinster sister has taken a 20 year old orphan, “Moppet,” under her wing. Moppet is accompanied by Leonard Leiss, a flashy dresser with a criminal background. Harold Cartell has insisted Connie end her relationship with these ne’er-do-wells. The lunch ends with Leiss looking at a cigarette case owned by Pyke Period which subsequently goes missing.

The scene shifts to Lady Bantling’s, Harold Cartell’s former wife, now married to Bimbo Dodds, who it turns out has club connections with Leiss. She’s organizing one of her legendary parties for April Fool’s, a scavenger hunt. Leiss and the Moppet wrangle an invitation and Andrew invites Nicola to join the fun. Everyone is out at one point or another in the evening. The next morning, Harold Cartell is found in a drainage ditch being dug for Mr. Pyke Period, underneath a length of drain pipe that has shattered his skull. It seems someone moved boards over the ditch everyone used so that the board upturned, knocking Cartell into the ditch, along with a lantern. Also, Mr. Pyke Period’s cigarette case is lying nearby in the ditch.

Nicola’s friend, Roderick Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox are called in. Now she is a front row witness. Nearly everyone mentioned here are possible suspects. Cartell was not a beloved man. It all comes down to some missing gloves, and the hands that had been in them, moving the plank and levering the pipe into the ditch, as well as a mix up in correspondence from Pyke Period.

The upper crust folk come off pretty unlikeable, although Lady Bantling is a character. Andrew and Nicola stand out. While Andrew had a motive, he’d sat with Nicola in the car and then returned with her to Lady Bantling’s at the end of the scavenger hunt. They also stand out as the two people who are actually working to make a living; he in his art, she in her secretarial work. Eventually, even Troy affirms his art. The others seem to live vacuous lives, as do most of the wealthy in the other of Marsh’s novels I’ve read. One can’t help but to see thinly-veiled social commentary in these depictions.

While all of Marsh’s books are decent reads, this felt more workmanlike than some when it came to solving the actual murder (and another murder attempt). The eccentric but somewhat one-dimensional characters seemed to dominate the plot more than the twists and turns of unraveling the murder. I do hope, however, that we haven’t seen the last of Andrew and Nicola.

Review: How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013.

Summary: The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head.

Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur as taken away Gamache’s right hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, transferred out his department’s best agents, filling their slots with the indifferent or corrupt. Is it simply the fact that Gamache had arrested former Chief Superintendent Arnot? Or is there, as Gamache suspects, something more going on?

Amid the increasing pressure on Gamache, he continues to do his job. And that job takes him back to Three Pines. A former client who had become a friend of Myrna Landers was supposed to come for a Christmas visit but fails to turn up. Gamache investigates and finds her dead in her home, killed by a head blow from a lamp as she was packing. One of the most startling discoveries was that she was Constance Ouellet, the last of the Ouellet quintuplets, considered a true miracle at their birth, exploited by a doctor who had not even been at the delivery, and used by the government to create a fairy-tale story. Who would have a motive to kill her? It turns out that Constance has left clues, unrecognized by those around her.

The murder allows Gamache, through a combination of misdirection and shrewd preparation, to turn Three Pines into a base of operations to ferret out what Francoeur is trying to do, along with Yvette Nichol, who has been spending years in the basement of the Surete learning to listen, and Jerome and Assistant Superintendent Therese Brunel. Jerome has been covertly infiltrating the Surete’s systems until he found a name that scared him. It’s time for the Brunels to flee, ostensibly to Vancouver, but actually to Three Pines.

One problem. When they find what they are looking for, they will be found, jeopardizing the whole village. It comes down to who will outmaneuver who? And the wild card is Beauvoir, who knows Gamache and in his drug addiction is tied to Francoeur.

One other piece. A woman in the Transportation Ministry, Audrey Villeneuve was found dead at the base of the most heavily-traveled bridge in Montreal. Her car was on the bridge and her death was ruled as a suicide. The book opens with her distraught drive onto the bridge. Let’s just say it’s not irrelevant.

The story line leaves us wondering at times if Gamache is paranoid, seeing conspiracies where there are none and becoming unhinged. Does he love and then leave as Beauvoir believes, or is there love that persists even when denied? And was inviting Nichol a good idea? Is this an one of Gamache’s redemption efforts that will put them all at risk? Penny quotes a poem, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, with these words “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” In this novel, we see in Gamache who believes in the foolish wisdom that to risk loving and trusting is the crack that lets the light in. The question is whether this will prevail over the earthly wisdom of power. Many lives and a hidden village hang in the balance.

Review: Final Curtain

Final Curtain (Inspector Alleyn #14), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1947.

Summary: While Inspector Alleyn is returning from wartime service in New Zealand, Troy Alleyn, his artist wife is commissioned on short notice to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, a noteworthy stage actor, meeting his dramatic family, encountering a number of practical jokes including one that infuriates Sir Henry at his birthday dinner, after which he is found dead the next morning. Inspector Alleyn arrives home to investigate a possible murder in which his wife is an interested party.

Troy Alleyn is eagerly awaiting the return of her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, after a lengthy assignment in New Zealand during the war. She is an artist of some repute and receives a commission from Sir Henry Ancred, a noted stage actor, to paint his portrait at Ancreton Manor, the ancestral home of the family. She quickly discovers that she will have to contend with far more than Sir Henry, who is a striking subject. She has to reside with a theatrical family whose daily interactions are high drama. We are introduced to everyone from the responsible Paul, Sir Henry’s son to the flippant Cedric, Fenella, a granddaughter and Paul, a cousin, who are engaged despite Sir Henry’s opposition, Millament, the dutiful widowed daughter-in-law, Pauline, engrossed in her son Paul’s affairs, and Jennetta and Desdemona. Finally, there the young and willful Patricia, or as she is known, Panty–known for her practical jokes.

Troy’s arrival coincides with an outbreak of practical jokes–paint on the bannister to her room, a greasepaint message on Sir Henry’s mirror, and painting over Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry–humorous and easily removed. The family all thinks it points back to Panty–except for Troy who has become friends with the young child.

The family drama is heightened by another guest, Sonia Orrincourt, who is Sir Henry’s love interest. Given Sir Henry’s increasingly fragile health and his propensity to constantly change his will, which currently favors Panty, there is all kind of apprehension, gossip, and attempts to manipulate Sir Henry’s outlook. All this comes to a climax at Sir Henry’s Birthday dinner as he announces his new will and his engagement to Sonia. This is followed by the unveiling of Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry, once again marred by a cow, like those Panty likes to paint, flying over Sir Henry’s head. While the damage to the painting is easily undone, Sir Henry goes to bed upset in stomach from dinner and emotionally wrought out. Next morning, Barker, the butler, finds him dead.

Troy is present during all of this, which takes up nearly half the book, departing as the undertaker arrives to go and meet her husband. She recounts the story, which he enjoys, even as they get reacquainted. Then, back at Ancreton, things get more interesting. Someone sends the whole family a note written on school paper alleging that Sir Henry was murdered. Sir Henry had been interested in an ancestral embalming method involving arsenic, a book about which was in his library and several had consulted. A tin of rat poison is missing. Inspector Alleyn and his team are asked to make inquiries. Increasingly, he becomes convinced that Sir Henry was murdered.

The story turns on wills and family attachments and the unhealthy loves people can have for those around them. The unusual situation of Troy being an interested party brings her into the investigation. Her memory for detail is invaluable and it turns out that she gives Alleyn the decisive clue.

I have to admit that I had kind of hoped that most of those at Ancreton Manor apart from the butler and Panty would be found guilty. Marsh creates a family full of unlikable people as well as portraying the Inspector’s wife as a capable professional (and detective) in her own right. I hope I encounter more of Troy in future novels! It will be interesting to see if Marsh brings them together on a case again.