Review: A Fine Red Rain

A Fine Red Rain (Porfiry Rostnikov #4), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2012 (First published in 1987).

Summary: When two of three high wire artist die, one by suicide, one by “accident,” Rostnikov suspects more, little realizing the reach of the KGB into this case while his friends Sasha deals with black marketers and Karpo pursues a serial murderer of prostitutes.

Porfiry Rostnikov, once a hero has been demoted after a clash with the KGB, separated from his team of Sasha Tkach and Emil Karpo. Rostnikov’s son has been sent to Afghanistan, a warning of what can happen to family of those crossing the KGB. Rostnikov is reduced to chasing pickpockets in Arbat Square when he spots a man atop a statue of Gogol, spouting nonsense about flying. Rostnikov fails to talk him down as he ends his life with a perfect somersault onto the pavement. He was an aerial artist for the circus where the other male in the act, Oleg, discovers in the last moment of his life that his safety net is not. Rostnikov, thinking that there is more than a concurrent suicide and accident going on, sets out to investigate, The third, Katya Rashkovskaya, doesn’t want to be protected, even after Rostnikov saves her life. Nor will she tell him anything she knows. Then his old KGB boss, dying of cancer warns him off the case. This is KGB territory. But he suspects the deputy director, Mazaraki is behind the deaths and the murder attempt, and he uses that angle to keep pursuing the case.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s undercover work trapping videotape and machine black marketers reveals corruption on the part of his boss. The boss turns the black marketers to his own profitable end. That is, until Sasha teams up with Rostnikov and the two black marketers to mount a sting.

Emil Karpo has an obsession with unsolved crimes, studying the files, brooding over them. His current file is that of a series of murders of a prostitute. We are introduced to the killer, a file clerk wanting to make the Party safe from prostitutes…and he is feeling the compulsion to kill again.

Rostnikov, despite his leg injury, ends up playing a decisive role in the denouement of all three cases, while Sasha intervenes at a decisive moment to save Rostnikov’s life during the climactic confrontation. Clearly this team belongs together, and Rostnikov manages to find the leverage to make that happen by the end.

Kaminsky moves between the three plots in a fast-paced novel. One sees the currency of knowledge that can be used to subdue, to manipulate, and even to murder. Rostnikov, not ignorant of these things surprises us in his apparent vulnerability, and shrewd intelligence, combined with a loyalty to his friends, each with their own vulnerabilities. We see how difficult it can be to be married to someone in law enforcement, compounded in Rostnikov’s case with the ever present danger of falling afoul of his own superiors. Perhaps the only thing that protects Rostnikov is his own humility, the realization that these things could come at any time, and that he is never above or beyond them.

Review: When in Rome

When in Rome (Roderick Alleyn #26), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015.

Summary: Alleyn goes undercover on a Roman holiday tour led by a sketchy tour guide suspected of drug smuggling and other corrupt activities and ends up collaborating in a murder investigation.

This Ngaio Marsh work is different. Alleyn travels alone and incognito to Rome to find convicting evidence on a drug smuggler who is a British subject, and discover the other key figures of a syndicate led by a man named Ziegfeldt.. Fox and Bailey are back at Scotland Yard providing support. The story draws upon Marsh’s own Roman holiday in 1968, reproducing a tour of a basilica, street scenes, and even a student demonstration which she observed in Paris.

The novel begins with author Barnaby Grant enjoying a coffee at an outdoor café when a melee occurs, sending him sprawling with a blow to the shoulder. When he recovers, he discovers that the brief case with the only copy of his latest novel manuscript is missing. Three days later, the manuscript turns up in the form of Sebastian Mailer, who accepts no reward but a dinner with Grant. He mentions he also is a writer, then invites Grant to less reputable entertainment…and then turns around and blackmails him the next day. But what does he have on Grant?

What he does secure is Grant’s presence on an exclusive and expensive tour Mailer organizes, the first of which begins after the launch of Grant’s novel. An elderly Dutch couple associated with a religious publisher, a reputed former military figure, Major Sweet, a dissolute young man, Kenneth Dorne, and his mother Sonia, Lady Braceley are signed up. Rounding out the group are a young girl, Sophie Jason, from Grant’s publishing house, and Alleyn, trying to get close to Mailer.

When the tour reaches the Basilica di San Tommaso several things happen. A card seller verbally attacks Mailer, and is later seen in the shadows on the lower level of the structure. Mailer disappears as does she. Subsequently she is found in a sarcophagus while Mailer remains missing but was never seen leaving the Basilica. Alleyn reveals himself and joins the Roman investigators. It turns out that every man in the entourage is being extorted in some way by Mailer and Sweet and Dorne were absent during the time when the murder may have occurred.

A few days later, Mailer turns up at the bottom of a subterranean well in the Basilica. He was the lead suspect in the death of the woman, but who killed him? Was it one of the men or Mailer’s capable assistant? Eventually, the Roman authorities identify the suspect, who dies in an accident. But Alleyn connects the dots differently, and, in a first as far as I can determine, does not reveal him but lets him go.

This twist makes for an unusual ending, far different from the exciting “revcals” in many of her stories. We also see Alleyn in more of an undercover role, even stealthily surveilling one of the tour members. While he contributes, he really takes a back seat to the Romans in the murder investigation. All this represents something of a departure for Marsh in breaking out of the typically British upper crust settings of he books (although her characters are drawn from this class). She even writes a love story into the plot. When in Rome…

Review: Light Thickens

Light Thickens, Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1982).

Summary: Set once again at the Dolphin theatre as Peregrine Jay stages Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition, a production plagued by macabre practical jokes, and the real murder of the title character discovered just after the play’s climactic scene, with Alleyn in the front row.

This is the last Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, completed in 1982 when she was 86 and just weeks before her passing. She returns to the scene of an earlier murder, the Dolphin theatre, as the accomplished Peregrine Jay undertakes one of the most audacious productions, and one surrounded by superstition–Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The superstition is that it is ill luck for any production members to mention the play by name or speak its lines elsewhere than in rehearsal or performance.

Jay has assembled an brilliant, but eccentric cast. The title character is played Dougal MacDougal, a true Scot and a vain one at that. Both he and his opposite, Simon Morten, who plays Macduff are real-life rivals for the affections of Margaret Mannering, who plays Lady Macbeth. Gaston Sears, who plays Seyton, has an obsession with arms, including the Claidheamh Mòr (emphatically not a claymore according to him), a wickedly sharp two edged sword used in the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff. He choreographs and trains them in the fight.

Banquo is played by Bruce Barrabell, a union leader and participant in fringe causes, and has a connection to the child actor, William Smith, who plays Macbeth’s son. William’s father was an insane murderer who killed by decapitation. The most superstitious is Nina Gaythorne as Lady Macduff, although Rangi, a Maori actor and one of the Three Witches rivals her.

A series of incidents arouse superstitions during rehearsals. A costume decapitated head is found in a bag during a rehearsal, and later under a covered platter. A warning message about William and his father is found on the manager’s typewriter. Then the opening weeks of the performance come off flawlessly to acclaim. That is, until Alleyn has front row seats, compliments of the house, after having provided security for some royals attending an earlier performance, and realizes as the climactic scene concludes that something has gone horribly wrong and Dougal MacDougal is really dead, and in the manner of his denouement as Macbeth.

It’s obvious that a number could have a motive and Marsh keeps us guessing until the end while Alleyn methodically interviews witnesses. Yet there is something off in the chronology. There wasn’t enough time for any of the suspects to commit the murder…or was there?

One of the most interesting themes is that of not charging children with the sins of their parents. There are several turns during which William is allowed to shine as his own person, and to be encouraged with the prospects of his future rather than haunted by his father’s past acts. In this, Marsh invites us to heed the better angels of our nature, and to believe the best of others.

Whether this was one of Marsh’s best, I will leave to others. All I will say is that she concluded her last act well.

Review: Death at the Bar

Death at the Bar (Roderick Alleyn #9), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2013 (first published in 1940).

Summary: A holiday at a secluded seaside inn, and a challenge at darts ends up in murder from prussic acid (cyanide).

Three friends return to the remote seaside village of Ottercombe for a holiday. Luke Watchman is a renowned barrister, his cousin Sebastian Parish, a well-known actor, and Norman Cubitt, an accomplished artist who is doing Sebastian’s portrait. They stay at The Feathers, an inn with a pub operated by Abel Pomeroy and his son Will, who is active in a local communist cell with Decima Moore, a stunning local farmer’s daughter returned from Oxford who Will hopes to marry, and Bob Legge, an older gentleman with a mysterious background who already is secretary and treasurer for the group. Legge lives at The Feathers. Also staying at the Feathers is the Hon. Violet Darragh, who hangs about doing amateurish water color sketches while paying particular attention to Legge.

Things start off badly between Watchman and Legge. They have a fender-bender resulting from Legge charging into a blind intersection. The gentlemen extricate their cars, which were not damaged, only to discover on arrival that they are both staying at Feathers. It’s clear from an encounter the first night that they don’t like each other, and Watchman expects he’s seen him before. Legge has a stellar hand at darts, defeating Watchman, and challenging him to a trick where Legge will outline a hand on the dartboard with darts. Watchman declines.

The next day starts benignly enough with Cubitt off painting Sebastian’s portrait. Violet paints nearby. Over a rise Watchman encounters Decima Moore and we learn they’d had a fling on a previous visit by Watchman. Now she wants nothing more to do with him and he forces himself on her only to be repulsed as the painter come over the rise. The weather turns ill that night and Legge can’t make an appointment in nearby Illington because the tunnel into Ottercombe, its only access is impassable. So they are all in the bar. Pomeroy opens a special brandy for the guests, who have already drunk freely. Legge resumes his dart challenge, Watchman takes it up. Abel breaks out a new set of darts to which Legge approves.

The fourth dart pierces one of Watchman’s fingers. He turns pale, sits down. He is averse to blood and his friends chalk it up to that. Abel dresses the wound with iodine, but Watchman worsens. Someone suggests brandy, which Decima pours into Watchman’s empty glass. He barely takes any, saying “poison” through clenched teeth, knocking the glass away in a spasm-like motion. Just then the lights went out amid the storm, things are hectic with broken glass everywhere. When the lights come back on, Watchman is dead.

The local police do a credible investigation of the scene. The dart is found to have traces of prussic acid (cyanide) on the tip. Abel Pomeroy, who had bought prussic acid to kill rats is muttered against by the locals for not securing it. He goes to Scotland Yard to clear his reputation, sees Alleyn, who consults with the locals and is asked in, along with his fellow investigator, Fox. Attention is focused on Legge, but it becomes clear that he could not have put cyanide on the darts before throwing them. Nor was the brandy nor the glass tainted. But lethal levels of cyanide were found in Watchman’s blood. How was he poisoned? And who did it? Both Parrish, who is in financial straits and Cubitt stood to inherit from Watchman. It is clear Decima disliked him. Will was aware of the affair from the previous year. And Legge turns out to have been part of a case prosecuted by Watchman under the name Montague Thringle, taking the fall for a partner, perhaps unjustly.

Alleyn’s challenge is to sort all this out when virtually no one wants to cooperate. Legge is pathologically afraid of the police. And then an attempt is made to poison him and Fox, with Fox getting very ill.

I really enjoyed this story for the delightful cast of characters (Violet Darragh turns out to be quite interesting!), the rustic inn, and the unique seaside setting with its difficult to navigate tunnel that foreshadowed the twisty plot of this story. I found myself surprised at the end by who the murderer was–I had been thinking “anyone but this person.” A very satisfying read!

Review: Tied Up in Tinsel

Tied Up in Tinsel (Roderick Alleyn #27), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (Originally published in 1972).

Summary: Hilary Bill-Talsman is the subject of a Troy portrait and host of a Christmas house party that includes a Druid Pageant, marred when the chief Druid disappears. Alleyn arrives from overseas just in time to solve the mystery.

Hilary Bill-Talsman, an entrepreneur and nouveaux riche is rehabilitating an old manor house, Halberds, to which Troy has been invited to paint his portrait, and if he can persuade her, his fiancée, Cressida Tottenham. The holidays are approaching, Alleyn is away on assignment, and Hilary has persuaded Troy to stay for the Christmas pageant on a Druid theme, along with his house guests, Colonel Fleaton Forrester, Hilary’s uncle and his wife, along with their “man” Moult, formerly under the Colonel’s command, Bert Smith, an expert on antiques, and the aforementioned Cressida.

It’s an interesting lot, to be sure, but even more interesting is the household staff, all former murderers who have done their time. Staffing a manor house in the 1970’s, when this is set, is difficult. Hilary covers this with his social experiment. Particularly disturbing is Nigel, whose mental state is questionable, seeing “sinners” behind every bush, as it were. Yet the house seems to run smoothly, they get along and the only conflicts are between them and Moult, who has a streak of unpleasantness mixed with being prone to excess, and Cressida, who is averse to Cooke the cook’s cats.

Colonel Forrester is set to play the chief Druid, the counterpart of Father Christmas, whose appearance with gifts is the climax of the pageant. But he has a propensity for spells, and worked up as he is, he succumbs to one. Unbeknownst to everyone except for Cressida who helps him with his costume, Moult takes his place and pulls it off. Only after helping him remove the beard in a cloakroom, does Cressida inform Mrs. Forrester of the Colonel’s indisposition. Only afterwards do they notice that Moult has disappeared. A search of the house and grounds is made but he is nowhere to be found.

It’s at this juncture that Alleyn, having finished up an overseas assignment early, turns up, advises contacting the authorities, and stays on to help with the investigation. It turns into a murder investigation, when he spots four of the house staff moving a large box in the middle of the night, a box that contains Moult’s body. Yet despite the protests of the guests, Alleyn is not inclined to suspect the former murderers.

Marsh is a master of the “murder at a house party” genre but I have to admit that this one wasn’t my favorite. It takes half the book to get to the murder, a lot of stage setting, a series of malicious messages and pranks intended to incriminate one or more of the staff. And the identity of the murderer did not come as a surprise, only the motive. At the same time, the setting of the mood during Troy’s walk in the country and the later search during the storm, the description of the pageant, and the fascinating character of Hilary were all masterfully done.

This was one of two Marsh novels to be nominated for an Edgar Award, the other being Killer Dolphin. I’m not sure I understand the nomination of this book, which I did not find nearly as well-written as Killer Dolphin or some of her other works. It may just have been the year.

Review: The Mystery of the Blue Train

The Mystery of the Blue Train (Hercule Poirot #6), Agatha Christie. New York: William Morrow, 2005 (originally published in 1928).

Summary: A rich heiress carrying a rare ruby is murdered on the fashionable overnight train to the French Riviera on which retired detective Hercule Poirot happens to be riding.

Agatha Christie’s most well-known train mystery is Murder on the Orient Express (1934). This was preceded by a lesser-known train mystery, The Mystery of the Blue Train, published six years earlier. It wasn’t one of her favorites and one she struggled to write. But I thought it contained some interesting plot twists and a surprise ending that I wasn’t looking for.

The plot revolves around the murder of Ruth Kettering, daughter of American tycoon, Rufus Van Aldin. Just before departing for a trip to the Riviera on the Blue Train, a luxury, overnight train through France, she agrees to her father’s counsel to divorce her philandering husband, Derek Kettering, whose most recent “bit of stuff” is an opportunistic dancer, Mirelle. He also gives her the fabulous gift of a rare ruby, with a history of murder attached to it. Van Aldin tries to buy Derek off, which he refuses, even though he faces mounting debts with no income besides Ruth’s. The only way he will get anything from her is if she dies. He also knows Ruth has resumed an affair with the Comte de la Roche, who is a rogue and a swindler who thusfar has escaped the reach of the law.

Ruth is accompanied by her new maid, Ada Mason, who after her death, tells authorities that Ruth asked her to leave at Paris and stay at the Ritz. Katherine Grey is a single woman who has been an elder companion, whose service meant so much that she was left a sizable sum by the woman she cared for. She has decided that there are things to see and experience that are now possible. She has been invited to stay with her cousin, the Viscountess Tamplin and her daughter, who also hope to benefit from Katherine’s new found wealth. And Poirot, retired and seeking to enjoy the world, is also on the train, talks wisely to Katherine, who thinks detective stories are just something fictional people are part of. It turns out she will end up far more involved than she could have imagined. Poirot agrees to assist, as well as to work for Van Aldin, and his quiet, war veteran assistant, Major Knighton.

The case revolves around the time between when Ada left Ruth in Paris and who the tall male was seen entering and leaving Ruth’s compartment before the train passed through Lyons. Initial suspicions center around Ruth’s love, the Comte de la Roche, in league with a jewel dealer. Was this just a jewelry theft gone bad or something more? Yet Poirot is not so sure and suspicions turn to Derek. A cigarette case found in the compartment is thought to be his. Then Mirelle, who Derek has decided to ditch in his interest in Katherine, goes to Poirot and tells him that she saw Derek leave Ruth’s compartment at about the time the murder was purported to occur. Katherine also saw a man around Ruth’s compartment and possibly enter it.

One other detail troubles Poirot. Why did Ruth’s murderer not only strangle her but also strike her face with a disfiguring blow. Could Derek have done that? Katherine, who is now being pursued by both Derek and Major Knighton is drawn into Poirot’s counsels. At the risk of looking “past it” with Van Aldin, Poirot keeps looking, and particularly for a shadowy figure known as the Marquis.

As I mentioned, I wasn’t expecting the ending, which made this all the more fun. Poirot and Katherine match each other in very different ways in their own self-possession. I would have liked to see them together again–and perhaps Poirot would have as well–but she makes a different choice that, depending on your perspective, may seem “safe” or alternatively reflect a mature self-understanding. I think the latter and found her one of the most interesting of Christie’s characters, in her understated way.

Review: Death in a White Tie

Death in a White Tie (Alleyn #7), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012.

Summary: At a premiere debutante ball, Lord Robert Gospell’s call to Alleyn about a blackmail conspiracy is interrupted. A few hours later, Gospell turns up at Scotland Yard in the back of a taxi–dead!

It is the season of the debutante ball in London. Chaperoned young women are introduced to eligible young men–a high fashion and high pressure time for daughters and their mothers. Lady Alleyn’s niece Sara is one of those coming out as is Bridget O’Brien, Lady Carrados daughter by her first marriage to Paddy O’Brien and Miss Rose Birnbaum, the retiring protégé of the abrasive and ambitious Mrs. Halcut-Hackett.

Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett comes to Roderick Alleyn to report a blackmailer threatening one of her society “friends” and possibly others. He asks Lord Robert Gospell (aka “Bunchy”), a lovable “Victorian relic” who moves easily among these fashionable circles because he is the epitome of grace and empathy, especially for the scared young girls and their mothers confronted by the intimidating experience of “coming out.” He quickly intuits that there are at least two objects of blackmail–Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett herself and Lady Carrados, whose weariness, attended by Sir Daniel Davidson, doctor to the London elite, seems to stem from more than just the arduous efforts of hosting a ball, which is being capably handled by her quiet and efficient secretary, Violet Harris, who turns out to have a connection to the family going back to the death of her first husband, Paddy O’Brien.

“Bunchy” is a keen observer, and he notes that the hands of the caterer to the rich, Colombo Dmitri, are the very ones that purloin a handbag of Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett, sitting beside him in a darkened concert hall. Later, he witnesses Dmitri return a much thinner handbag to Lady Carrados at the debutante ball. The question is, is he doing this alone or with an accomplice who has access to the material being used to perpetrate the blackmail?

“Bunchy” thinks he has figured it out and calls Alleyn from an upstairs sitting room, but is interrupted as he is about to reveal his hunch. He covers up, discussing a lost item, and arranges to stop by and see Alleyn later that night. A few hours later, Alleyn sees him at Scotland Yard–dead. A cabbie picked him up, but before they set off, he was joined by another passenger in male dress. They stop at Bunchy’s address, and someone feigning Bunchy’s voice gets out wearing Bunchy’s cape. When they get to the other address given, the cabby finds Bunchy dead, and drives on to Scotland Yard. He’d been knocked unconscious by a cigarette case and suffocated, most likely with his own cape.

The delight of this mystery is Alleyn’s concerted effort to find the murderer of his dear friend which involves connecting a number of different pieces and eliminating suspects. Was it Donald Potter, Bunchy’s nephew, who has just been cut off because he prefers his dangerous association with Captain Maurice Withers, who is running an illicit gambling house? Is it Withers? Or Dmitri? Why did Sir Herbert Carrados hide a letter brought him by Violet Harris as a young girl, that had been in the coat of Paddy O’Brien when he died? And what was General Halcutt-Hackett doing when he was out walking near the ball at 3:30 in the morning? There were several, including Donald, Captain Withers, and Sir Daniel Davidson, who knew Bunchy suffered from a heart condition that would have made it easier to suffocate him. And what happened to Bunchy’s voluminous cloak?

There was one odd aspect of the novel for me. It was the scenes of Alleyn and Troy together. I think some modern readers would object to Alleyn’s breaking through the awkwardness between them by forcing a kiss upon her, to which she softens. It’s a classic trope, the idea of the male who is a bit “rough,” asserting his attentions. It surprises me that a female writer would write it this way and I wonder whether this reflects a perception of what her readers would want.

This aside, I think this is one of the most artfully plotted and tightly written of the Alleyn books I’ve read with a great classic climax scene with all the suspects present at Scotland Yard. We also get a glimpse into the frenetic character of the London “season” of the day and what seems an implicit criticism of its often fatuous character.

Review: The Madness of Crowds

The Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Gamache #17), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.

Summary: A Christmas assignment to provide security for a professor proposing mercy killing leads to a murder investigation in Three Pines.

It began with a request to provide security for a speech at a nearby university at an old gym over the Christmas holidays.. It seems like something far beneath the pay grade of Gamache until he investigates the speaker. Abigail Robinson is a polished academic, comfortable with statistics who speaks with calm conviction. She had submitted a report to the Canadian government about pandemic deaths that concluded with a startling proposal. The havoc wrought on the economy meant that the government couldn’t continue to support the elderly and others with disabilities. The answer was mercy killing. And she assures her audiences with this familiar tag line, “All will be well” or in Quebec, “ça va bien aller.” Her message cuts like a sword, attracting a growing social media following of those who embrace her ideas and a contingent of those outraged that such a thing might even be considered.

Gamache recognizes the danger such an event represents. He knows he cannot legally stop her but pleads that the university cancel the event. Citing free speech, they refuse. A huge and volatile crowd of all ages arrives and despite security, an attempt is made on her life. Only Gamache’s reaction saves her…and he wonders if he should have.

The professor’s ideas reach deeply into Gamache’s circle. His granddaughter Idola, Jean Guy’s daughter, is a Downs Syndrome child. She would be a candidate for mercy killing. Both Gamache and Beauvoir struggle not only with the inherent moral issue Professor Robinson’s ideas raise, but the reality that they could not let this happen to Idola, even as they also understand the reality of the challenges of care for a special needs child.

Meanwhile, a Nobel prize nominee, Haniya Daoud, is visiting Three Pines, the guest of Myrna, who was one of the first to support her human rights organization in Canada. She relentlessly works to free children and women in bondage in South Sudan. She’s fierce, having killed her own drunken captor to escape, and killing others to free captive children. Her face bears the physical scars of her captivity. There are other scars that go deeper, including a hatred for law enforcement. Having heard about Abigail Robinson, whose ideas are against all she stands for, she calls Gamache a coward for protecting her.

While Gamache’s team investigates the murder attempt, which involved more than the person apprehended, Professor Robinson and her assistant Debbie Schneider are given protection but asked not to leave Chancellor Collette Roberge’s home. Roberge had been a mentor to Abigail Robinson after her father’s death and was responsible for the invitation to speak. On New Year’s Eve, Roberge was invited to a gathering at the Hadley House, now the Auberge, and she brings Abigail and Debbie along. Vincent Gilbert, “the Asshole Saint” we’ve encountered in earlier volumes is there. There is an uncomfortable encounter when Gilbert challenges the morality of what Robinson is proposing and she brings up the name of Ewan Cameron, whose unethical psychological experiments were used by the CIA in interrogations, that left a trail of human wreckage that will become important to the plot. We learn later that Gilbert was a lowly lab assistant caring for animals who knew what was happening and did nothing, a secret he’d protected for years, now exposed.

The New Year’s celebration occurs. Kids light sparklers, there is a huge fireworks display, couples kiss, teens go off in the woods to drink. Just before midnight, Debbie and Collette step outside. Minutes later, as Billy Williams is extinguishing the bonfire, kids race out of the woods, reporting a body laying in the snow. Gamache fears it is Robinson, but when the crime scene investigators arrive, it is discovered to be Debbie Schneider, dead from blunt force trauma from a piece of firewood. They face two questions. Did the killer mistake her for Abigail or was she the target? And who is the killer? Vincent Gilbert? Collette Roberge? Abigail Robinson herself? The son of the man arrested for the gym incident, who was working the party? Or maybe Haniya Daoud, who has killed before?

Penney raises important questions. How has the pandemic changed us? Has the cavalier disregard for elder lives in care settings on the part of some, opened the door to consider measures like mercy killing that were once off the table? Are the elderly and those with disabilities a “drag” on the economy and a burden to society we cannot afford? On what basis will we defend their right to life? And what price are we willing to pay for our safety? Ewan Cameron was not a fictional character. Unsuspecting patients, often women suffering post-partum depression, were victims of his CIA research which used curare, LSD, electroconvulsive shock, and sensory deprivation. The CIA continues to use the fruits of his research in interrogations.

Gamache has to wrestle with these issues as he prepares his own report on the horrors he witnessed in care facilities during the pandemic. And Beauvoir will confront these in a very different way in the climactic scene of the novel. I also find myself wondering if we’ve seen the last of Haniya Daoud. Louise Penny is still writing!

Review: All the Devils Are Here

All the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Gamache #16), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020.

Summary: A family visit of the Gamaches to children in Paris suddenly becomes an investigation into the attempted murder of Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather, and the murder of a close associate, and will put the Gamaches in great peril.

” ‘Hell is empty, Armand,’ said Stephen Horowitz.

‘You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.”

All the Devils Are Here. p. 1.

This opening conversation seems strange in the garden of the Musee Rodin as Armand and his godfather Stephen Horowitz, an aging but active venture capitalist, who raised Armand from age nine, talk in the safety of each other’s company, sitting in front of Rodin’s statue, The Gates of Hell. Armand had always felt safe with this man. They are in Paris on a joyous occasion, the imminent birth of a child to Annie and Jean-Guy, and a chance to visit Daniel and Roslyn. They agree to meet that night for dinner with the whole family.

After dinner as they walk, tragedy strikes. Stephen Horowitz is run down by a van. To Gamache it is no accident, but intentional, and as Stephen lays clinging to life, Gamache works with Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Police in Paris to uncover who is behind all this. But not before the Armand and Reine-Marie find a second man gunned down in Stephen’s apartment, which has been ransacked in what appears an unsuccessful search, the Gamaches interrupting the gunman.

The whole family soon becomes involved. It becomes apparent that the engineering firm with which Jean-Guy is working, a position secretly arranged by Stephen, has been the target of Stephen’s efforts, that were to culminate with Stephen’s attendance at an upcoming board meeting. Jean-Guy searches for what could have been so important to cover up in the firm, GHS, drawing the attention of a security guard who turns out to be more than that. Daniel digs into financial transactions Stephen had with his bank, imperiling his safety. Reine-Marie works with a famous French archivist to discover both the secrets hidden in some cryptic dates Stephen had written on a piece of paper, and to learn the truth about disturbing allegations about Stephen’s past.

The investigations put the whole family at risk, and they move into a lavish suite Stephen mysteriously rented for his stay rather than using his own apartment, where they could be better protected. But the secret whose threads they are unraveling is apparently so dire that those concealing it have left a trail of bodies in their wake, including a journalist investigating a GHS mine and a mysterious train derailment. And the trail of corruption appears to include even Gamache’s old friend Dussault. What protection do they have if the Paris police are corrupted?

Along the way, we discover more about Gamache’s childhood with Stephen, and about the cause of the estrangement between Gamache and his son Daniel, going back to Daniel’s childhood. And Gamache and Jean-Guy are teamed up once more, for those of us who feared we’d seen the end of their teamwork.

The two things that make this a riveting read are the effort to uncover GHS’s buried secret and the question of whether Gamache and the family team (plus a few others) will be able to outsmart and outmaneuver those willing to stop at nothing to protect that secret. They are not even sure of who the “devils” may be and whether they are in their very midst. All this leads to a heart-stopping climax at Stephen’s apartment.

Once again, resolute love runs through this book–the love between Armand and Stephen, expressed with great tenderness at Stephen’s bedside, the love Armand has for his family, even, and especially the estranged Daniel, who at the same time realizes that Jean-Guy has become something to Armand that Daniel is not able to share.

Which brings me back to what captures my appreciation for this series. It is not just the consummate storytelling, but above all the character of Gamache and those around him, people of resolve, integrity, and grace who at least this reader wants to emulate.

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a Murderer (Roderick Alleyn #2), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2012 (originally published in 1935).

Summary: Invited to see a play with his sidekick Bathgate, Alleyn actually witnesses the murder he will investigate.

Nigel Bathgate is friends with the lead actor in a play at the unicorn and receives two tickets to a performance. His friend, and lead partner in crime investigation, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is free and joins him. Before the play, they visit the lead actor, Felix Gardner and witness tensions within the cast as Arthur Subornadier barges into a conversation with Gardner and actress Stephanie Vaughn, a lovers’ triangle with Subornadier the jilted lover. We also learn that Subornadier had threatened the theatre owner, Jacob Saint with blackmail to get the lead part. Are you getting the picture that Subornadier is not a very likable character. Turns out he has offended most of the cast and crew.

During the climactic scene, the character played by Subornadier loads a gun (supposedly with dummy bullets) quarrels with Gardner’s character. Gardner gets the gun, fires and kills Subornadier as the stage manager fires a blank shot. Only Gardner really kills Subornadier, and Alleyn sees it all and calls in his crew to investigate. Quickly, they figure out the murder is the one who substitute real bullets for the dummies that were in the top drawer of a desk during a short time when the stage was blacked out. Attention focuses on various characters including Jacob Saint, who is eventually arrested, and Albert Hickson, the property manager who was responsible for the bullets–until Hickson turns up dead while Saint is in jail.

The climax comes when the actors return to the theatre to re-enact their movements in the final scene. In the end the murderer self-exposes, the very person who Alleyn had written down for his newswriting sidekick, Bathgate. And so ends the first of Marsh’s murder mysteries set in a theatre–a favorite location.

This is early Alleyn. He and Bathgate are still learning to trust each other. Alleyn seems a bit rougher around the edges than in later novels, and without Troy in the picture, suggestively returns the attentions of lead actress Stephanie Vaughn, who doesn’t seem to mind gathering men around her. At the same time, the trademark qualities of Alleyn emerge, his quiet, commanding character that marshals the efforts of his team, including Bathgate and his focus on details and not appearances until the murderer is revealed.

This was a quick read and great fun with an unexpected twist at the end–all the ingredients for a good mystery, and for one just beginning the series, an indication of the good things to come with thirty more of these to go!