Mystery

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Date of Publication: 2005, Little. Brown and Company

Number of Pages: 642

Synopsis (from inside cover): Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.

The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known – and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself – to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.

Review: As a university student about to return to classes in a few weeks, I found an enthusiasm for this very scholarly novel, which I ultimately needed. The main problem with this book is that is stays true to the nature of historical research: searching through libraries with painstaking care, reading ancient texts, puzzling through inconsistencies. This is detective work at its finest, but even my study-starved mind became a little impatient at all the studying required to solve the mystery of Dracula.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the way Kostova weaves her way through time, from stories from ancient Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, to the fevered investigations spanning two generations in the 20th century. Secrets long buried in history are constantly being revealed and there’s a twist in almost every chapter. Kostova is also adept at bringing the environment in which these incredible events take place beautifully to life. I almost felt as if I were traveling through the streets of Istanbul and the countryside of Romania. Kostova also brings this intensity to her storytelling. It was at one moment incredibly frightening, and at another moment so moving it brought tears to my eyes.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, including the history of Dracula. The Historian is a wonderful and cerebral twist on the traditional Dracula legend.

Rating: 9/10

A Place of Safety: A Chief Inspector Barnaby Mystery by Caroline Graham

Date of Publication: 1999, St. Martin’s/Minotaur

Number of Pages: 275

Synopsis (from back cover): When sour Charlie Leathers and his dog disappear into thin air, his neighbors in the small, sleepy English village of Ferne Basset are more concerned about the dog than they are about Charlie. Everyone assumes that Charlie will show up…sooner or later. But nobody expects it when he shows up dead.

With one mad dead and a mysterious young woman missing, Chief Inspector Barnaby must race to uncover the secrets of love and greed hidden beneath a cozy village veneer. Now it seems that this safe little town is anything but – and that one if its quirky inhabitants possesses the motive and the means to murder…

Review: I was a little disappointed with some aspects of this book, namely the way the mystery was solved. I don’t want to give too much away, but the perpetrator of the crimes involved felt way too obvious. On the other hand, there was a very satisfying ending with a wodnerful twist, something that, in my opinion, is essential for a good mystery. Another thing I liked about this book was the characters. I found myself wishing I had a neighbor like Evadne Pleat, with her eccentric outfits and many dogs. Also, the two main female characters, Louise Fainlight and Ann Lawrence, are beautifully developed and wonderfully complex. In the end, the book is an entertaining read, but based upon other books in this series, is nothing very special. However, I would still recommend it to any fan of mysteries and thrillers.

Rating: 8/10

Faithful unto Death: A Chief Inspector Barnaby Mystery by Caroline Graham

Date of Publication: 1996, St. Martin’s/Minotaur

Number of Pages: 387

Synopsis (from back cover): When bored young housewife Simone Hollingsworth misses bell-ringing practice – her latest effort to find something to do – no one is surprised. In fact, if old Mrs. Molfrey, her neighbor, didn’t report is to Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, Simone’s disappearance might have gone unrecorded in Fawcett Green. But even Barnaby isn’t concerned – until a body is found.

Soon Barnaby is uncovering the passionate entanglements beneath the placid surface of Fawcett Green – and perhaps jeopardizing his career. Now, if he misconstrues the clue buried in Simone’s garden – and a subtlety of human behavior his experienced eye should spot – a brutal killer may go free…

Review: This is, I believe Caroline Graham’s fourth Chief Inspector Barnaby story (my review of her first can be found here), and I definitely think she has improved with time. The characters of Inspector Barnaby and his ultra-macho sidekick, Detective Sergeant Troy, are much better developed (if not a tad less likable) and the story has a much smoother flow. I knew how the story ended, having seen the Midsomer Murders adaptation multiple times, or so I thought. This book is full of subtleties, not only of human behavior, but also in the way the characters think and in the way the action is described. This is definitely a book that “shows” rather than “tells”. It was a great joy to read, and being a huge fan of the Midsomer Murders series, I am relieved to finally find a Chief Inspector Barnaby story that I enjoy.

Both Barnaby and Troy are complex men, each in their own ways. Barnaby is a rule-breaker, an experienced detective who wears a million hats, from “favorite uncle” to the man no one wants to cross, all the while not caring one bit what people think of him. Troy, an alpha-male who thinks nothing of trying to get it on with any attractive woman who isn’t his wife, believes that tact is one thing that doesn’t belong anywhere near a crime scene. He is the character who is the hardest for me to like, especially given that I adore the Gavin Troy portrayed by Daniel Casey on Midsomer Murders. But being now privy to the inside machinations of his mind, I can also feel sympathy for him. They are a unique team, without whom, no crime in Midsomer County would ever be fully solved. I am definitely going to read the rest of the series!

Rating: 9/10

The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Date of Publication: 1935

Number of Pages: 184

Synopsis (from back cover): A is for Mrs. Ascher – fatally attacked in Andover. B is for Betty Barnard – strangled on the beach in Bexhill. C is for Sir Carmichael Clarke – now a corpse in Churston. If nothing else, the murderer knew is ABCs. But the alphabetical assassin would need to know more that that to outwit the world’s cleverest detective…Hercule Poirot!

Review: This is the first Agatha Christie story I have read, although I am familiar with the Hercule Poirot series on television. This was also my first foray into this genre; most “mysteries” I have read are actually gory crime thrillers. It was refreshing to have a main character, the dapper Poirot, instead of some gritty detective with emotional problems. Poirot is brilliant, polished, and funny. He’s even well-adjusted. I also appreciated the fact that the story was told from the perspective of Poirot’s friend, Captain Hastings, meaning that I was left out of Poirot’s thought-processes, so every twist and turn was a surprise.

The story starts out with the arrival of a teasing letter at Poirot’s home. It warns of something happening in Andover on a specific day. When Alice Ascher is found dead, it’s obvious that the murderer is engaged in a lethal game with Poirot. The cast of characters keeps expanding as more murders occur, including family members and distraught boyfriends. Although everyone is a suspect, there are mysterious chapters interspersed throughout the book that feature a strange man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust…A.B.C. Who is this man? What is his connection to the murders?

As the police are scrambling to try to find A.B.C. and to prevent these murders from happening on their appointed days, Poirot is using all his mental powers to try and figure out why these murders are happening. Even when it seems that the case is all locked up, Poirot still tries to understand the underlying reasons behind the crimes. It is this reason that finally blows the case wide open and provides a stunning twist at the end.

This book is a classic of Christie’s and really demonstrates her skills as the premier mystery writer. It will obviously appeal to all mystery fiction fans, but also to anyone who is curious about this classic genre. I am looking forward to reading more of Christie’s books, and especially those featuring this comically brilliant detective.

Rating: 10/10

The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham

Date of Publication: 1987, Felony and MayhemNo. of pages: 272

Synopsis (blurb from back cover):

Badger’s Drift is the ideal English village, complete with vicar, bumbling local doctor, and kindly spinster with a nice line in homemade cookies. But when the spinster dies suddenly, her best friend kicks up an unseemly fuss, loud enough to attract the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. And when Barnaby and his eager-beaver deputy start poking around, they uncover a swamp of ugly scandals and long-suppressed resentments seething below the picture-postcard prettiness.

Review:

This book is the first in the Inspector Barnaby mystery series, which is the basis for the popular TV show, Midsomer Murders (which happens to be my favorite show). I was so excited to read this book, but ultimately I was disappointed. It could simply be because I know the characters from TV so well, but I didn’t feel that these characters were very well-developed. In terms of the mystery factor, this book is full of suspense and the murders are just gory enough to be believable. The many suspects are enjoyably colorful, and I loved the portrayal of the sweet little village with its many secrets. But many of the details felt glossed over, and the dialog was very messy in some places (it’s hard to tell who is speaking). But despite these faults, I enjoyed the story for what it was, and I’m even willing to try the next book in the series.

Rating: 7/10