Lightning Review: The Rich Pay Late by Simon Raven (1964)

Alms Vol I

A review in 200 words or fewer:

This is an example of judging a book by a cover and trusting Vintage Classics.  I’m glad I did as between the comic-book art covers of Alm For Oblivion Volume 1 are four short interconnected novels.

It opens with The Rich Pay Late: Jude Holdbrook has a proposal for his business partner, Donald Salinger, for their advert distributor business to buy a magazine called ‘Strix’ so they can grow their empire. We follow how Jude persuades Donald and how successful they are at this endeavour.

It delves into the lives of the rich and privileged. Simon Raven is quick witted, great with dialogue and able to turn scenes on a pin. It’s like reading a scandal unfolding. I got invested in the characters and their dramas and their various connections. Raven gives all of them a nice story arc and the ending is satisfying and ties things off nicely with people getting what they, more or less, deserve.

All this was unexpected as I usually need a murder or man with a sword or a nice spaceship to keep me interested. This had purely Raven to keep me going.

I liked it a lot.

Anyone have any similar works they’d recommend?

Review: Come Away, Death by Gladys Mitchell (1937)

Mitchell come away death vintage uk


Sir Rudri Hopkinson, an eccentric amateur archaeologist, is determined to recreate ancient rituals at the temple of Eleusis in Greece in the hope of summoning the goddess Demeter. He gathers together a motley collection of people to assist in the experiment, including a rival scholar, a handsome but cruel photographer and a trio of mischievous children. But when one of the group disappears, and a severed head turns up in a box of snakes, the superlative detective and psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley is called upon to investigate… 

There is a little story that that goes with this book. I bought it and I started reading it the same day (a week Saturday just gone) even though I have Tom Brown’s Body, Death and the Maiden, Death at the Opera and The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop already. I bought them an age ago (probably around the last review I wrote of When Last I Died) and they’ve been patiently waiting.  Buying a new one though meant that I didn’t have to choose. I just got cracking.

This time we find Mrs Bradley having a holiday, sort of. It’s not really a holiday as she’s in Greece accompanying the eccentric Sir Hopkinson on his pilgrimage to call on the gods and having the role of matriarch to the group that accompanies him. And for that it’s a quite a leisurely tale. The murder comes  quite late so it’s more about guessing who it’s going to be and why. It does keep you wondering  as you follow the group on their travels.

What did strike me is that Mrs Bradley is quite amoral at times; hiding things that other detectives probably wouldn’t . She doesn’t have the ‘helping police’ thing that you get with her contemporaries. It would spoil it to explain further but it makes her quite refreshing when she keep secrets that others would probably reveal.

It is a story about the interactions of the different characters and how those tensions and connections play out while waiting for the severed head to turn up. So I’d say it was more like a domestic drama with a death thrown in towards the end. And lots of drama there is – secret weddings, affairs, jealousy, visitations, madness, disappearing snakes, oh and the murder.

As it feels more like a drama than a mystery story it lacks a certain tension but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless. It is fascinating if you have a liking of ancient history. It’s a little jolly around a few ancient sites and a little bit of a history lesson thrown in.

In December Vintage are releasing another twentyish books in the Mrs Bradley Mysteries series making the total releases into the thirties – so about half of the 66 written – and from the three I’ve read so far Gladys Mitchell likes to mix up her formula and from that I’m not sure you know what you’ll get next. But you know what? I think Mrs Bradley is a character to keep reading where ever Gladys takes her.


Review: When Last I Died by Gladys Mitchell

When Last I  Died

When Mrs Bradley’s grandson finds an old diary in her rented cottage it attracts the interest of this most unconventional of detectives, for the book’s now deceased owner was once suspected of the murders of both her aunt and cousin. Does the missing diary finally reveal what happened to old Aunt Flora? Is the case of Bella Foxley really closed? And what happened to the boys from the local reformatory who went missing at the same time? As events unfold, Mrs. Bradley faces one of her most difficult cases to date, one that will keep readers guessing until the very end…

When Last I Died is the 2nd re-release from Vintage Books of titles from Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley Mysteries series. It’s rare for a publisher to shine their spotlights on works that have faded from view though some works seem to keep finding the light over and over again with a little help, whatever happened behind the scenes I’m glad I got chance start my exploration of Mitchell’s work.

Why? Because I enjoyed The Saltmarsh Murders but loved When Last I Died even more.

Why? As there is a difference in the narration. The first was narrated by the curate of the sleepy village who was good but only seeing Mrs Bradley from the outside. The narrator in this one is exterior to the action and follows around Mrs Bradley’s actions and internal thoughts, so we get to know Mrs Bradley a litte more intimately.

I have to say as a character she’s fab. She’s nosey, steely, insightful and intelligent without giving over to arrogance. She’s also very curious, and it’s that curiousity which is raised when her grandson finds an old diary in a rented cottage. The book’s owner is now deceased and was once suspected of the murders of both her aunt and cousin. But the contents raises more questions than it answers. Does it reveal what actually happended to Aunt Flora? Is the case of Bella Foxley really closed? And what happened to the boys from the local refectory who went missing that same time?

And it really is a mystery, one that keeps both the reader and Mrs Bradley guessing. My only slight reluctance in the story comes, I guess, from Mrs Bradley pushing at a case that is dead and buried and she doesn’t seem to get enough resistance to her questioning as one might expect.. but then this is a novel from 1941 and she is grandee of society so it doesn’t feel too odd. That was my only doubt.

A great device used by Mitchell is the diary which is reprinted, and which on first glance is heartfelt and absorbing but Mrs Bradley feels differently and she sticks her nose in to find out more about the events. It definitely wrong footed me. 

It’s a short novel at 208 pages, but it’s packed with twists, turns and surprises like all good mysteries should be. And in this case the truth of the matter is much stranger than the fiction that surrounds it.

This review was first published on MyFavouriteBooks

Review: An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas
An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas


Commissaire Adamsberg has left Paris for a police conference in London, accompanied by anglophile Commandant Danglard and Estalere, a young sergeant. The city offers a welcome change of scenery until a gruesome discovery is made – just outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery a pile of shoes, all containing severed feet, is found.

Returning to Paris, the three men are then confronted with the violent killing and dismemberment of a wealthy, elderly man. Both the dead man’s son and gardener have motives for murder, but soon another candidate for the killing emerges. As Adamsberg investigates the links between these two unsettling crimes, he puts himself at terrible risk.


An Uncertain Place is the sixth novel to feature the peculiar detective Commissaire Adamsberg and perhaps is Vargas’s strangest to date. The several pairs of shoes that trigger this strange series of events doesn’t really give an indication as to how strange this whole case is going to get.

I think you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read a Fred Vargas novel. I say this after struggling with the previous one, This Night’s Foul Work, last year. Fred Vargas demands concentration but not analysis. Her writing also requires a leap of faith; it doesn’t seem that she is going to bring everything together but she always does. She’s the queen of manipulation and deception in that regard.

I put down This Night’s Foul Work I think because I was frustrated as I was more in the mood for a novel that was linear and direct. Not something you’d get from Vargas.  But when I picked it up again, because I know how amazing Vargas can be, I pushed through and  by the end I wondered what the barrier was as Vargas has a way of revealing things so you see what has gone before in a different way and when she does the fog goes away and everything is clear and not how they first appeared.

Not to spoil An Uncertain Place but the same thing happened. There was a point where the story turned in an instant and the mist lifted. Not that she obscures things exactly but like her hero she has a way of storytelling that is unorthodox. And it’s definitely a positive thing for both parties. In Adamsberg’s case you get a detective who is illogical and whimsical (as are the detectives he is surrounded with) and with Vargas you get an author who takes you places that you’d never get to go to with any other writer.

This has to be one of the strangest cases yet. It starts off with the feet in London, which is weird in itself, and it gets weirder. It also parallels  Adamsberg’s  strange relationship with those around him, they intermingle, as they always do in Vargas’s books. I think in this book’s case it’s a good idea to read the last one as knowing some of the characters a bit better would enhance a few key moments.

This book I didn’t struggle with. I whizzed through it. I met Vargas’s mind and let her guide me. She informed me too. I know more about a certain area of Europe and its legends than I did. And she managed to fool me, again.


Commissaire Adamsberg remains one of my favourite detectives, the cast is quirky, the crime (murder) is as unformulaic as you can get. There is a reason she’s sold 10 million books!

I’m very much looking forward to reading the next one, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. And I won’t have long as it’s out today.

Reading and Listening Roundup: Absorption, Or The Bull Kills You and The Steel Remains

48john meaney absorption

Absorption by John Meaney (Gollancz)

Across the ages there are characters three things in common: they glimpse shards of darkness moving at the edge of their vision; they hear echoes of a dark, disturbing musical chord; and they will dream of joining a group called the Ragnarok Council.

There are some books that I read that make me wonder ‘Why didn’t someone convince me to read this earlier?’ Absorption is one of those books. But luckily I read a great review of the sequel, Transmission, and decided that if the second one sounded that good I really should give it a go.

I have to say what kind of put me off in the first place was the same thing that intrigued me: I wasn’t sure how John Meaney would mix of viking myth and space opera elements together. And I should have had a little faith as he twists them around each other very tightly. I don’t know yet what shape he’s making but Absorption definitely sets the stage.

As will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

Luckily John doesn’t force it by lingering with characters that at that point don’t move the story forward though their lack of stage time in latter chapters is oddly noticeable when you are waiting for them to reappear during scene changes and as will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

He’s chosen a diverse crew to build up his story. My favourite is probably Roger, a young man that has all manner of talents including being able to travel between dimensions. Meaney also invokes Germany between the world wars – a time and place that I’m starting to feel is a lazy shorthand but not in this case – Meaney looks at the point where physics was on the turn with a greater understanding of the underlying patterns in the universe, which is a good introduction to the scientific complexities (and perhaps impossibilities that he invokes).

It’s nicely compressed something is happening constantly. It doesn’t feel drawn out maybe in a couple of places oddly directed but who knowns where those threads are heading? I’m looking forward to reading Transmission to find out where this SF Norse myth mix is going next.

Paperback jacket

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster (Vintage)

Either you kill the bull, or the bull kills you – traditional proverb. Chief Inspector Max Cámara hates bullfighting but one hot afternoon in Valencia he has to replace his boss, judging a festival corrida that stars Spain’s most famous young matador. That night, he is summoned back to the bullring where the young matador’s dead body now lies, naked and mutilated.

It has to be hard to bring something new to the crime genre. But crime happens everywhere and this time we’re off to sunny Spain. I initially thought this was going to be a crime in translation but like Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police series Cámara is written by a non-native that’s made the place a home, and like Walker brings out an accessible view of the culture and the place. Or at least that’s what comes across in Or The Bull Kills You.

Setting it at the time of the festival of Fallas is very immersive not only do you get to a Valencia in the raw it tightens the tension as Cámara of investigating the death of such a high profile figure. Though I wouldn’t say that makes him a worse detective. He’s very shambling. He likes an early drink and a not entirely legal recreational smoke. He is however endearing. And a good policeman even if he’s not that methodical he does have a policeman’s nose.

Webster keeps everything flowing nicely and you get a not exactly subtle but not force fed either lesson in bullfighting.


The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

Ringil, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap is a legend to all who don’t know him and a twisted degenerate to those that do. A veteran of the wars against the lizards he makes a living from telling credulous travellers of his exploits. Until one day he is pulled away from his life and into the depths of the Empire’s slave trade. Where he will discover a secret infinitely more frightening than the trade in lives.

Now The Steel Remains I confess took me three goes over three different formats to get into. The first two were a review copy, and I bought the ebook to try out the format on my new Sony Reader, but I didn’t get very far. There was something in the opening that didn’t quite gel. So I wrote it off as not for me.

When I was choosing my next audio book a while ago I thought I’d give the sample a go and I’m glad I did (I immediately bought The Cold Commands so that’s a giveaway really). Simon Vance is an amazing narrator so that eased me back into the story.

Morgan challenges expectations from the off. His lead hero is gay and excellently portrayed as a hero who is gay rather than a gay hero. A distinction that is important. Morgan has aliens which haven’t elevated the level of technology to higher or a lasting degree apart from in strengthening swords. But by respecting as at the same time subverting lots of fantasy troupes to me it feels fresh and something I enjoyed listening to.


Review: Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand (Vintage)

Wash this blood clean from my hand vargas fred paperback cover art

The focus of this story shifts to Adamsberg and his rapid and the worrying unraveling of his mind when a buried case is revived by his subconscious. The case is dead and buried both the victims and the Judge that Adamsberg had suspected of the crime. But this case brings those memories to the focus and those he shares them with become concerned as he comes to believe the dead man is alive.

Cleverly Vargas takes takes Adamsberg out of Paris and France to  Canada on a training course at one point with the rest of his team, which leads to seeing Dangard, his second in command, loose his usual cool prior to and during the flight over. Adamsberg also gets a new sidekick at one point that again shows Adamsberg from a new angle.

Previous novels have hinted at his womanising tendencies and even though we don’t linger on the events themselves we do see some consequences this time, which we haven’t seen before. Especially as he still has a thing for Camille even though he stays out of her way she is a big part of his mental space.

There is always a touch of madness about Adamsberg’s methods, which are especially unorthodox considering his high position in the police force but they seem to work most of the time, even if they are strange hunches to his colleagues who mostly stick to traditional detective procedures he usual nails who needs nailing.

What’s nice about the way this story is constructed is that Adamsberg is the complete focus, though he’d prefer the attention not to be on him in this case it’s inevitable under the circumstances.

And Vargas plays her what if guessing game where you aren’t sure what is true and bearing in mind Adamsberg’s mental state you’d be forgiven to be more unsure of his methods than normal.

But not to worry. Vargas is a mistress of leading us up the garden path and then plunging our understanding into a different direction.

Again Vargas has pulled off a creative and unique police procedural by swapping her  focus again and giving us a different view of her hero Adamsberg.

Well worth reading.

Green Review: Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas (Vintage)

Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas
Out Now in Paperback from Vintage

Firstly I have to say I’m ashamed of myself. No, I really am. When do you think I read the last book in this series? JUNE 2009! Let me say that another way. It’s been over 14 months. I know time flies but that’s terrible. You know that it is right?

Should I have left it another 14 months? God no and I’m not waiting 14 months before reading Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. I hope not at least as I ordered it as soon as I finished this one.

You know what I like about Eurocrime, at least the Eurocrime I’ve been reading, is that they focus in on the characters and give everything a foundation and a reason for happening. There isn’t drama for drama sake like guns and gangsters. These are ordinary people who have been twisted enough to kill.

And the method of killing in Have Mercy on Us All is certainly twisted and if I’m honest quite dramatic. The killer brings plague to the French capital but before he does he paints symbols on the door of those who are protected. At the same time he makes cryptic messages that are read out by a town crier though it takes a while for these ‘specials’ to reveal their intentions.

Again, Vargas leads the dance showing us all the events but somehow missing the right bits at the right time to end up surprising you at the end.

We find out more about Adamsberg’s character in this book and I’m not sure I like the revelation. It fits perfectly as he is a bit odd. He thinks and allows events to lead him. It’s like he’s an archaeologist slowly putting bits back together until he has enough to come to a decision on what he’s looking at. Though how he works it all out is a bit of a mystery. But he doesn’t care in the sense the he doesn’t make the emotional attachments that others would and this gets in him into trouble.

But the personal revelations show that Vargas has plans to keep his love life as complicated as the crimes he investigates.

I do need to say that I’m not sure if it’s the translation or Vargas’s writing style but this one feels a little rougher and flatter than the first two I’ve read. I think it might be the pacing or it might the that the translation has lost a little life somewhere. It was just enough to take the shine off the story.

But I’m invested and I enjoyed the crime and the solution and the mix of characters so what more can I ask?