Friday 1 December 2023

The Pantomime Murders by Fiona Veitch Smith

#2 Miss Clara Vale Mysteries

290 pages

Publisher: Embla Books

Publishing Date: November 28, 2023




Someone is killing fairy godmothers in Cinderella... Can Miss Clara Vale crack the case before the clock strikes twelve?


1929, December: Snow is falling, and Miss Clara Vale is wrapped up against the cold as she braves the icy streets of Newcastle in her latest investigation.

When a young actress from the touring pantomime of Cinderella arrives at her door, Clara isn't sure what to make of her request. Sybil Langford, the legendary fairy godmother in their production, has mysteriously vanished. Could Clara help track her down?

But a few days into Clara's search, Sybil's body is pulled from an icy river, and Clara finds herself in the middle of yet another murder mystery.

With scheming stepsisters waiting in the wings, handsome princes who aren't all they seem, and clues as elusive as glass slippers, Clara will need every one of her scientific skills to catch the killer...

And when Sybil's replacement meets her own tragic end, Clara is in a race against time before the murderer sends a third cast member to their unhappily ever after...



Although this is the second title in a series, this was my first encounter with Miss Clara Vale, and it was a pleasure making her acquaintance and joining her on her sleuthing adventures. Furthermore, I can safely say that this book can be read as a stand-alone story.

Historical mysteries with female leads don’t always work for me. All too often the story becomes a little absurd or over the top in order to allow the sleuth to investigate within the world she inhabits. I had no such qualms about Miss Clara Vale. While it was still (very) rare, women were allowed into colleges in England in 1929, so it is plausible that she would be a knowledgeable chemist. The fact that most but not all men she encounters disapprove of her chosen profession and way of life, and try to discourage her, also makes perfect sense but thankfully didn’t take over the story.

I enjoyed the multi-layered mysteries in this book. What starts of as a case of a missing pantomime leading lady soon turns into something a lot darker and more serious when she turns up dead. Clara Vale moves along with developments, adjusting her investigation to new discoveries as required and making good use of science, friends, and associates.

I have to admit that I figured a lot (but not all) of the mysteries in this book out for myself well before Clara and the police arrived at the same conclusions. That’s not a complaint, however. It just means that this is a true puzzle mystery in that the reader is given all the clues they need to solve the riddles.

This story is filled with interesting and well-portrayed characters. I like Miss Clare Vale. She is a smart, practical, and feisty woman who mostly manages to steer clear of stupid decisions. There is a vast cast of secondary characters in this book, and I liked that they were described just enough for them to play their assigned role in the story without turning into boring stereotypes. I’m especially fond of Clara’s new assistant Betty, and I’m looking forward to reading more about her.

Overall, The Pantomime Murders was a delightful surprise. Who could ask for more than a well-plotted mystery, featuring a fascinating main character, intriguing side characters, and a satisfying solution? Especially when it’s all served as a smooth and captivating read. I’ve got a feeling, I’ll be spending more time with Miss Clara Vale in the future.


Monday 27 November 2023

The Searcher by Tana French

Cal Hooper #1

391 pages

Publisher: Penguin/Viking

Publishing date: October 2020



Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a remote Irish village would be the perfect escape. After twenty-five years in the Chicago police force, and a bruising divorce, he just wants to build a new life in a pretty spot with a good pub where nothing much happens.

But then a local kid comes looking for his help. Trey’s brother has gone missing, and no one, least of all the police, seems to care. Cal wants nothing to do with any kind of investigation, but somehow he can’t make himself walk away.

Soon Cal will discover that even in the most idyllic small tow, secrets lie hidden, people aren’t always what they seem, and trouble can come calling at his door.



To say this book has a slow start would be an understatement. The first quarter of the story leisurely meanders along. The reader is in Cal’s head as he reflects on his new life and surroundings in Ireland and what, and more importantly who, he left behind in America. The writing was beautiful, and Cal is an interesting main character, but the slow pace didn’t urge me to keep on reading. On the other hand, it is fair to say the story's pace perfectly matched the pace of the life Cal thought he was settling into.

Everything starts to change and speed up as soon as Cal meets Trey, a thirteen-year-old kid who wants Cal to use his police skills to find out what happened to their older brother who disappeared a few months earlier. Once Cal starts asking questions the story and events pick up speed, but it isn’t until the last third of the book that the tale really explodes off the page and events follow each other at a much faster, at times rather uncomfortable but always fascinating, pace.

So much for the story since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I have a few thoughts about what exactly did and didn’t happen in the end. For starters, if you read crime fiction because you love the straightforward endings in which evil gets punished and everybody gets what they deserve, this may not be the book for you. I think it’s safe to say there are no clear-cut good and bad people in this story with the possible exception of Lena, the widow Cal befriends and ends up relying on for assistance. While that may not be ideal for a fictional mystery, it does feel true to life. In fact, true to life could be used to describe a lot of what happened in this book. The way small local communities are inclined to distrust outsiders and, for better or worse, tend to take care of their own, for example, as well as the rural gossip, and the leisurely pace of life. I haven’t decided yet whether or not I believe Cal, the former cop, would behave as he does in this story; his actions should go against everything he was trained to believe in. On the other hand, any other decision on his part might have let to more harm rather than a ‘satisfying’ conclusion so the jury is still out in that respect.

In an interview with the All About Agatha podcast (, Tana French revealed that she took tropes from the Western genre and applied them to the west of Ireland, and as far as I’m concerned, she succeeded very well. This story has that ‘loner against the rest of the community’ (the old gunslinger who gets rocked out of retirement for one more mission, to paraphrase Tana French) vibe that we also find in traditional westerns as well as the ‘us against the rest of the world’ sentiments we often encounter in small, close-knit communities.

For a long time while reading this story, I didn’t think I would want to read the sequel. The last quarter of the story changed my mind; I now can’t wait to find out what will happen next to Cal, Trey, and Lena. Bring on March 2024 and The Hunter.


Monday 20 November 2023

Murder in a Country Village by F.L. Everett

An Edie York Mystery #2

318 pages

Publisher: Bookouture

Publishing Date: November 23, 2023



England, 1941. With World War Two shaking the nation, rookie reporter Edie York wants to write the front-page news. But she ends up as the headlines when she stumbles over a body on the moors...

Eager to follow Churchill's order to keep calm and carry on, Edie York has left the bombed-out streets of Manchester behind for a stroll in the countryside. But her rationed picnic lunch turns to ashes in her mouth when she discovers Joyce Reid, a well-known anti-war activist, lifeless at the bottom of a cliff.

Despite infuriatingly handsome DCI Louis Brennan's less-than-amused warnings ringing in her ears, Edie is unable to leave the conscripted local bobby to do his work. Heading off to investigate, she immediately uncovers potential suspects galore. From alleged black-marketeers to the local land girl, a shell-shocked artist to Joyce's on-off lover, Edie is sure the murderer is right under her nose.

Then Edie makes another gruesome discovery, and realises she needs long-suffering Louis on the scene to officially investigate. Can they uncover the killer hiding in plain sight, before it's too late? Or will Edie's own obituary end up featured on the front pages she's coveted for so long...?



I should start this review by saying that I haven’t read A Report of Murder, the first Edie York mystery, yet. While there are references to that first book in this story, I’m very happy that I never felt as if I missed out on vital information.

Murder in a Country Village is a charming, well-plotted, and fluently told mystery. It is also somewhat of a slow burner. While the first body is discovered fairly early on in the story it isn’t even qualified as anything other than an accident until well beyond the midway point of the book. Having said that, Edie has her doubts from the very start and can’t help but investigate both the death and the controversial community of pacifist artists Joyce, the victim was part of.

It isn’t until much later on in the story and Edie’s discovery of a second corpse that things speed up. That is also the moment when her friend, DCI Louis Brennan starts taking an active interest in the case.

There was quite a lot to enjoy in this story. Edie is a very likeable, be it at times exasperatingly impulsive, main character. It’s quite refreshing to encounter a DCI encouraging the amateur investigator to do more sleuthing rather than sternly forbidding them from such action. Edie’s roommate, her colleagues, her friends, and the girl she fell out with years earlier were all interesting and vividly described secondary characters. What’s more, Manchester and its surroundings during WWII made for a fascinating setting, just as the conflict between pacifists and the rest of the population added extra tension to the story.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written and easy-to-read mystery. The crimes were enticingly mysterious, and the solution was satisfying. What’s more, the author played fair with the reader; the clues were there and I’m happy to say that Edie and I reached the same conclusion at more or less the same time. It’s highly probable that I will revisit Edie and Louis in the not-too-distant future.


Thursday 9 November 2023

De Cock en de eenzame dood by Peter Römer

(De Cock and the lonely dead)

De Cock series #89

158 pages

Publisher: Fontein

Publishing Date: August 2021




De Cock wordt naar de Lindengracht geroepen. Hennie, de vrouw die tientallen jaren de aardappelkraam op de markt bestierde, is in haar bed gesmoord met een kussen. Hennie was geen vriendelijk mens, maar wel rijk: achter de aardappelhandel waaraan ze goed verdiende zaten flink wat investeringen, ook in huizen. Naast zakelijke conflicten, zoals met Dennis, een ontevreden huurder met wie Hennie hooglopende ruzie had, denkt De Cock ook aan een motief in de familie. Want Hennie's zoon Tonnie blijkt ook zo zijn redenen te hebben om niet rouwig te zijn om haar dood...


De Cock is summoned to the Lindengracht. Hennie, the woman who for decades ran the potato stall on the market, has been smothered with a pillow in her bed. Hennie wasn’t a friendly person, but she was rich: the potato trade from which she profited nicely let to numerous investments, including in property. Apart from business conflicts such as the one with Dennis, a dissatisfied lodger with whom Hennie had a heated argument, De Cock is also considering a motive within her family. Because Hennie’s son Tonnie also appears to have reasons for not mourning her death…)



A few opening notes before I get to my thoughts about this mystery:

  • I read the original Dutch version of this book, but I’ll do the review in English. I’m not sure how many (if any) people who read my reviews understand Dutch, but I am sure that if any Dutch speakers do follow my reviews, they’ll be more than proficient in English.
  • Peter Römer, the author of this title is not the creator of De Cock. In fact, the first 75 books in this series were written by A.C. Baantjer.
  • At least a few of Baantjer’s titles have been published in English. For obvious reasons the name of the main character underwent a small change during the translation process. English-speaking readers know De Cock as DeKok.

I do have a soft spot for this series of books. I can’t say I’ve read them all, or even that I adhered to the order in which they were published, but I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every single De Cock mystery I have ever started. There’s something about our main character and his quiet and calm approach to his investigations and his deep-rooted sense of justice that always works for me. It’s the recognisable descriptions of Amsterdam, and the wonderful way in with the author(s) manage to capture characters with just a few pen strokes. And the mysteries always work and always manage to keep me on my toes.

The mystery in The Cock en de eenzame dood was satisfying. With a universally unliked victim, a few likely suspects, and a lack of definitive clues, I enjoyed the puzzle. I almost found my way to the solution but managed to miss the final twist. For me, that amounts to a rewarding mystery and enjoyable reading experience.

I’m now out of unread De Cock mysteries. I’ll be stocking up next time I find myself visiting the Netherlands.


Monday 6 November 2023

Shot With Crimson by Nicola Upson

#11 Josephine Tey Mysteries

352 pages

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publishing date: November 2, 2023



 I will never understand why murder is considered such a lowbrow speciality in Hollywood.

September, 1939, and the worries of war follow Josephine Tey to Hollywood, where a different sort of battle is raging on the set of Hitchcock's Rebecca.

Then a shocking act of violence reawakens the shadows of the past, with consequences on both sides of the Atlantic, and Josephine and DCI Archie Penrose find themselves on a trail leading back to the house that inspired a young Daphne du Maurier - a trail that echoes Rebecca's timeless themes of obsession, jealousy and murder.



 “The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

While I have to admit that I may have missed a title or two, I can honestly say that I have loved Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey mysteries since I first read An Expert in Murder thirteen years (13!) ago. Right from the start I’ve loved Upson’s attention to detail, gentle voice, vivid descriptions, clever introduction of real historical figures, and perfectly plotted mysteries and Shot With Crimson was filled with all those qualities.

This isn’t the first Josephine Tey mystery featuring Alfred and Alma Hitchcock and fortunately, the first one, Fear in the Sunlight, is among the previous titles I have read (click the title for my thoughts on that book). The quote below, taken from that older review could have been written today for Shot With Crimson.

 In fact, there were times when I had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction featuring real historical figures. There is such detail in the descriptions in this story that it is quite possible to believe that all of it really happened.

Shot With Crimson starts with a prologue set in an English country house during WWI. The house is used as a hospital for wounded soldiers, and we are witness to a six-year-old Daphne du Maurier undertaking but not completing a task set by James, a medical orderly there.

Fast forward to the start of WWII and James is now a special effects artist working on Rebecca for Alfred Hitchcock. He is back at the estate where he worked two decades ago and discoveries about what happened then lead to him lashing out in the worst possible way.

When we meet James again, he is on his way back to America on the same boat as Josephine Tey who is on her way to visit her lover Martha in Hollywood. He is obviously distressed, and Josephine reaches out in the hope of calming him.

Meanwhile, back in England Josephine’s friend DCI Archie Penrose is sent to the country house to investigate the murder of a woman there.

Finding themselves on different sides of the Atlantic, Archie and Josephine are unaware that they are both dealing with the same case and, as they both dig deeper, the issue only becomes more complicated until it leads to its final, rather sad, conclusion.

For a long time, I thought this was the kind of story where the writer might have revealed too much information at the start of the book. Since I had read books by Nicola Upson before, I should have known better. Layer upon layer of secrets still waited to be exposed and absolutely nothing was quite as it seemed at first. In other words, this is a very cleverly plotted mystery.

Apart from Alfred Hitchcock, his wife Alma, and his daughter Pat, quite a few other famous people feature in this story: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, producer David O. Selznick, and du Maurier herself also make brief appearances. For film buffs, there was also quite a bit of detailed information about the making of a film in Hollywood in the late 1930s.

I loved the parallels between Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the mystery. They added to the sense of realism and were all too plausible. As I said before, I had to remind myself occasionally that what I was reading was fiction.

Overall, I loved this book. The plot fascinated me, the writing was smooth, the conversations flowed naturally, and the mystery was intriguing, leaving me truly baffled before providing a very satisfying, be it devasting solution.

My final thought is less related to the book than the times we live in. Given how long it takes to write a book, edit it, and get it published, there is no way Nicola Upson could have known how shockingly appropriate the quote below would be for the times and events we live through right now.

 We think we’ve learnt our lessons from the past, but we never really get beyond an eye for an eye.


Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman

400 pages

Publisher: Bonnier Books UK

Book Club Read



Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. When Zigri, desperate and grieving after the loss of her husband and son, embarks on an affair with the local merchant, it's not long before she is sent to the fortress at Vardø, to be tried and condemned as a witch.

Zigri's daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren - herself the daughter of a witch ­- whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.

Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark's mistress, who has been sent to Vardø in disgrace. What will she do - and who will she betray - to return to her privileged life at court?

These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King of Denmark. In an age weighted against them they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.



I’m a bit conflicted about this book. It contains a powerful story, featuring at least three fascinating women. However, it also felt drawn out with what for me was a bit too much description and background information. While some of what the author shared was captivating because it enhanced my understanding of the character in question or allowed me to appreciate the harrowing circumstances under which they were forced to survive, other sections came across as having been added because the author fell in love with her subject.

The story is set in the second half of the 17th century in the northern regions of Norway. Life is grim, and superstitions are strong. When 16-year-old Ingeborg’s mother is accused of witchcraft and taken to Vardø to stand trial, she follows with her equally young friend Maren in a quest to rescue her last remaining parent. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Ingeborg and Maren are also arrested. Because of their young age, they’re not locked up in the witches’ hole with Ingeborg’s mother but are instead put under the supervision of Anna Rhodius, a middle-aged woman exiled to Vardø by the king of Denmark.

A lot of this story (maybe a bit too much) is taken up by explaining how these women ended up on Vardø. The actual trial, the outcome, and the aftermath take up relatively less space in this book. The latter part of the story is also where what had previously been basically a historical tale slips into magical realism. And if I’m perfectly honest I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, although I do approve of the outcome it led to.

Anna, Ingeborg, and Maren are fascinating characters doing their best in a world where all the odds are stacked against them. While I sympathised with their plight, I can’t say I liked them very much, though.

I fear that all of the above makes it sound as if I disliked this book, and nothing could be further from the truth. The Witches of Vardø is a beautifully written story with a fascinating and heart-wrenching premise. Throughout the story are engrossing flashes of myth and folklore and all of it put together paints a vivid picture of the harsh and cruel circumstances under which these women are trying to survive.

The pitch line on the cover says: A dangerous time to be a woman. And while that was most certainly true during the 17th century, it does beg the question if there ever was or will be a time when it won’t be dangerous to be a woman. Because my biggest takeaway from this story is how little things have changed. Sure, nobody accuses women of being witches in the literal sense of the word anymore, and being condemned to burn to death is (mostly) a thing of the past too, but somehow women will stand accused of ‘making men’ attack them just by wearing revealing clothing, behaving in certain ways, or daring to be out and about after dark. And everything that almost invariably follows for the woman who dares to make such an accusation may not involve literal flames, but I suspect that the questions asked during cross-examination and the vitriol thrown at them on social media only hurt differently, not less.

So, after what feels like a long and not entirely satisfying review, my overall assessment of this book is that it’s an engrossing and horrifying historical story that will leave the reader with plenty of food for thought.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

The Christmas Appeal by Janice Hallett

The Appeal #1.5

208 pages

Publisher: Viper

Publishing Date: October 26.2023




 One dead Santa. A town full of suspects. Will you discover the truth?

Christmas in Lower Lockwood, and the Fairway Players are busy rehearsing their festive pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, to raise money for the church roof appeal. But despite the season, goodwill is distinctly lacking amongst the amateur dramatics enthusiasts. Sarah-Jane is fending off threats to her new position as Chair, the fibreglass beanstalk might be full of asbestos, and a someone is intent on ruining the panto even before the curtain goes up.

Of course there's also the matter of the dead body. Who could possibly have had the victim on their naughty list? Join lawyers Femi and Charlotte as they read the round robins, examine the emails and pore over the police transcripts. Will the show go on?



Before I get to my thoughts about The Christmas Appeal a word of warning. While I guess that you could read this book without having read The Appeal, I would strongly advice against such an action. The Christmas Appeal very much moves on from the earlier book and contains (vague) spoilers for the prequel.

While I’m on the subject of similarities between the two ‘Appeal’ titles, I want to add that this second one is very much a continuation of the first story. Once again Charlotte and Femi are invited by their mentor to investigate emails and messages shared between the members of the Fairway Players amateur drama group in order to figure out who was murdered by whom and how it happened.

While the setup of the Fairway Players has changed as a result of what happened in The Appeal, the dynamics between the members are as intriguing and amusing in this sequel. The politics, gossip, and backstabbing in the drama group remain frequent and as delicious as they were before. There is a nice mixture of familiar characters (with one very surprising appearance) and new faces.

Once again, the murder mystery appears to be an afterthought to what is happening within the group. In this book too, (the remains of) the victim don’t appear until near the end of the story. In both books, the reader wouldn’t know they were dealing with a mystery if it hadn’t been for the instructions given to Charlotte and Femi at the very start of the story. And yet, it is all the apparently unconnected interaction between the various members of the group that give us all the clues to what is really happening—provided we pay enough attention.

After discussing The Appeal with my book club I’m more conscious than ever that these books aren’t for everyone. Having the story revealed through what at first glance appear to be irrelevant emails and messages about the production of a (Christmas) play can be confusing. Personally, I love it. While it can be a bit like hard work trying to keep up with who is who and how they related to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions between these people, all with their own agenda, while trying to figure out how any of their communications might relate to the mystery in question.

Finally, while The Appeal certainly had its moments of light relief, The Christmas Appeal is funnier. In fact, it’s a bit over the top, a caper, which feels perfect for a mystery centred around the production of a Christmas panto. And while The Appeal was all about righting a miscarriage of justice, The Christmas Appeal puts a different spin on what does and doesn’t constitute justice. Whether or not you agree with the outcome is a personal choice.

Long review short: The Christmas Appeal is a wonderful sequel to The Appeal and a well-plotted and delightful mystery.

Related review: The Appeal