It’s been a while since I went on the rampage had a crime reading binge but this one, fuelled by full-on stress, is approaching epic proportions.

Books 1 and 2:  Debut Novels

I’ve been meaning to read The Medieval Murderers for a while now.  So I took advantage of The Book People’s offer and bought a set of 6 for £9.99.  Settled down to the first and …. abandoned it on page 38. The Tainted Relicjust seemed to be an episodic litany of  fatal mishaps, seemingly triggered by the possession of a cursed medieval relic.  Very disappointing.  Now I know this series has many fans and if you are, perhaps you can give me a reason to try again.  Did I abandon it too soon?  Does the series improve as it goes on?

I fared better with Karen Maitland’s first novel, A Company of Liars, a reworking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which a motley crew of 9, thrown together by circumstance,  attempt to outrun the plague as it cuts its swathe through Britain.  The plague, however, turns out to be the least of their worries!  There is greater danger in their duplicitous backstories and the journey turns out to be more perilous than they ever could have imagined.  This was a fabulous audio book read – the structure of stories within stories absolutely ideal for listening to.  It was also very informative about medieval culture and beliefs, though the history lesson never felt lke one.   The story built slowly, tensions mounted imperceptibly as secrets were uncovered and the body count grew.   And just when everything had been resolved, a final twist with an open ending which left me very, very anxious ….

Karen Maitland has since become one of the Medieval Murderers and so I might, just might give the book she collaborated upon a whirl …

Books 3 and 4:  Second Helpings

I read Paulus Hochgatterer’s very unsweet  but brilliant The Sweetness of Life a couple of years ago.  The Mattress House is the second in his series of Kovacs and Horn investigations although that suggests a traditional detective novel, which this isn’t.   It’s not even a traditional crime narrative as it’s told in episodes (though frustratingly not all of which are entirely relevant).  A man falls from some scaffolding (did he fall or was he pushed?) and a number of children who are beaten by a mysterious black owl. Kovacs, the detective investigates the former death while Horn, the psychiatrist, attempts to get the children to speak of their experiences.  Interwoven is a third, very dark strand, involving child sex-trafficking  This story is told quite obliquely from the viewpoint of the girls involved.  While there are searing moments of clarity, this style of narration is a good choice – sometimes graphic detail is neither necessary or welcome. But there are strange choices elsewhere.  The plot strands do not intersect – neither in fact do Kovacs and Horn – they’re not colleagues – and hence the reason why the subtitle “A Kovacs and Horn Investigation” is a misnomer.  Unless applied to the underlying theme: the alienation between adult and child, sometimes even parent and child – an alienation that even extends into the families of the two “investigators”.  It’s a point well made and supported by the episodic and oblique narrative technique although the side-effect of that was the alienation of this reader.

There is nothing oblique about  Peter Guttridge’s The Last King of Brighton which chronicles the making (in the 1960s)  and the breaking (in contemporary times) of the last gangland boss of the British seaside  town.  Nastiness is what typifies such existence and there’s plenty of it in these pages.  While there is a case for verisimilitude, there is a line that I feel was crossed in the set piece of the prologue.  So I’m issuing a health warning: do not read the prologue  unless you have a very strong stomach and wish to know the –  shall we say – intricacies of Vlad the Impaler’s favoured modus operandi.  I know it’s there to set up the atmosphere of terror for what is to follow – the barbarians really are at the gates –  but it’s not really essential to the story line.  That said, there are some enjoyable touches in the midst of  the mayhem.  Before he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps, the young John Hathaway is a member of a band and as he gigs his way around Brighton, a soundtrack of the 60’s (and my childhood) was laid down.  The novel also offers interesting theses on the identity of the great train robber that got away and the sorry state of Brighton’s West Pier, pictured on the dust jacket in its heyday.  It doesn’t, however, clear up the mystery of the Milldean Massacre, the botched police operation that opened Book 1 of the Brighton Trilogy, Guttridge has promised to do that in Book 3, which is due at the end of May.  I will read it – to finish what I started –  but, because of that prologue, I’m unsure whether I’m waiting with baited breath or not.

Book 5  – The Third in a Series

Time to flee then from the crossfire of gangland Brighton into the relative innocence of 1950’s Bishop’s Lacey and the further adventures of child super detective Flavia De Luce.   A Red Herring without Mustard sees Flavia – now 11 –  investigating the brutal attack of an elderly gypsy woman, a snatched baby,  and uncovering a fine line in forged antiques, all the while dealing with the cruelties of her elder sisters, the vagaries of fleeting friendships and the realities of her widower father’s impending bankruptcy.   Flavia is quite simply intrepid and comic with it.

When I come to write my autobiography, I must remember to record the fact that a chicken-wire fence can be scaled by a girl in bare feet, but only by one who is willing to suffer the tortures of the damned to satisfy her curiosity.

Flavia just goes for it worrying about the consequences – frequently a ruined dress – afterwards.  This is cozy murder mystery of the coziest and most delightful sort.  Book 4 is already available and in the TBR – but I’m saving it for whenever an antidote to real life or other crime novels becomes necessary.

Ratings: The Tainted Relic (DNF) / Company of Liars (3/5) / The Mattress House (2.5/5) / The Last King of Brighton (3/5) / A Red Herring Without Mustard (3/5)