Shades Of Words

Death at President’s Lodging

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Death at President's Lodging

Winter is the perfect time to read the British murder mystery novels, though I have always wondered why this genre is so popular in England. What is this fascination with cold blooded murders in closed country houses? In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale explains how the murder at the Road Hill house caught the nations fancy and inspired an entire generation of literature and must have laid the foundation for the Golden Age of the detective fiction and some of the first detectives in England.

There is something very genteel about the British mystery novel. There is no gore or loud action or twists and turns. There is suspense and the plot peels off in oniony layers, but it’s never scary. As a reader, you can sip a cup of tea and breeze through a novel which engages your mind pleasantly for a few hours.

Death at President’s Lodging plot is very similar to any “closed house limited number of suspects” murder stories. The crime happens, as the name suggests, at the President’s Lodgings in St. Anthony’s college. Since this is a college campus and is open to public during the day, the murderer could be anyone in the village. However, the access to the lodging is limited and controlled by a set of keys which are in the hands of a few people. The access to the college in which the lodge is located is limited at night and controlled by a set of keys, which is again the in the hands of a few people. All the possible suspects have air-tight, strangely corroborative alibis.

Michael Innes, employs his favorite detective to unravel the case, Inspector Appleby. The detective on arrival at St. Anthony’s college realizes that the murdered man was clearly not popular man (uh, duh!) and that the suspects are a bunch of formidable intellectual snobs, who are extremely capable of planning a brilliant murder.
Why I recommend this book is, because after a fairly long time, I felt so absorbed in a puzzle. There is something mathematical about the issue of the keys, and the number of entrances to the college and the sequence of events of the night of the murder. The solution to the mystery is really one of the most imaginative though slightly improbable.

Verdict: Highly recommended

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Death Comes to Pemberley

Finally after 3 years of marriage, my husband realized that I would love to be gifted a book and gave me one for Christmas. I was visibly excited when I saw it was a PD James and curious to see how it handled the most popular romantic classic of the 19th century and probably the most spun off story in recent times – Pride & Prejudice.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery , but I am convinced that had Miss Austen been alive, she would have felt quite abused by the many versions this story has taken and how her favorite characters have progressed. Ofcourse, quality is not an issue with James, who is a credible writer in her own right, and she begins the novel quite rightly and humbly with an apology to Austen for bringing a sense of morbidity to a world created by her.

James sets the story in Pemberley, several years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth, a few days before the traditional autumn ball. The Wickhams are still estranged from the family and on the eve of the ball, Lydia Wickham makes a dramatic entrance into the Pemberly driveway yelling “ My husband has been murdered !”

Now, one would expect that this would set up the tone for a juicy murder investigation where at least Darcy or Elizabeth would take up a sleuthing role and try to find clues and fit pieces together. But that is not the case.

Using P&P as the prologue to this novel really ties James hands down in terms of plot. A lot of the narrative is spent paraphrasing events from the original novel and explaining the context of the relationship of main characters. Even though she clearly has had fun imagining what happened to the lives of ancillary characters like Mary Bennet, Mr. Collins, Charlotte Collins, Kitty Bennet, Mr, Bingly after P&P ended, most of that has very little to do with the plot. The character growth of some the main players is constrained by what we already know about them and does not fit very well into a murder mystery kind of novel.

The third person narrative is slow, often introspective and has very little to do with the murder at most times.  There is a lot of focus on Darcy’s position in society, his relationship with Wickham, the relationships of the family in general.  PD James has introduced some new characters especially with respect to the Pemberely household but none of them interesting enough to leave an impression.

At the end of it as a reader, you don’t care who died, how he was killed, why he was killed and how was the murderer found out. Not much point to reading the book then, is there?

Unless, I am getting it all wrong and this is not a murder mystery and a period novel in which someone just dies.


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The Mystery of the Blue Train

Every once in a while I like to immerse myself in a good British mystery novel. And the “The Mystery of the Blue Train” was just that.
It begins with the initial several chapters of introduction of seemingly distantly related characters each with their own nuances, dark secrets and ambitions. The tone for murder is set early and if you have read enough of Agatha Christie you can easily predict the following things

-> The murder will happen in/on/at the “subject” mentioned in the title ( Blue train)
-> Several of the aforementioned characters will also be in the vicinity of the murder
->  Timing of the murder will be extremely crucial
->  What actually happened and what a witness saw would be different
->  The murderer would definitely be the least suspected character and if you were paying enough attention you could figure out how

In spite of all the above trademarks that make a cozy Hercule Poirot mystery, Blue Train is an interesting enough story where the fun part is actually discovering clues along with Poirot and sort of putting them together. It’s quite complex and I believe its better than some of the recent Agatha Christie’s that I have read

The premise is simple – Mrs Kettering, an heiress, is murdered for priceless rubies as she travels on a train to meet her lover in France. Several people would have wanted her dead – her husband – who stands to inherit her millions OR her lover – who is famous for swindling women in high society OR  a Frenchman- who is interested in her jewels OR just a train robber who knows that the jewels are aboard. Who could it be?

Poirot is also on the train, and graciously offers his services to the French Police to help with the case. Which he does. To find out more read the book!!

Poirot has never been known to be modest but in this book he is so far from it that it almost seems out of character. He actually states somewhere that – ” he is the greatest detective in the world”. Found that a little weird.’

Verdict : I really enjoyed it and it was one of the better Poirot mysteries

PS – Check out Zoya’s review at http://silvermists.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/mystery-of-the-blue-train/


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The Magician’s Death

Again randomly picked from the aisle of my library this book was a treasured find. I love my British mysteries and I love them more if they are based in medieval area.
“The Magician’s death” is based some time during the early 14th century. Thought the story starts off in Paris, most of the plot is based in the Corfe Castle area in Dorset.
The plot is not complex but has several layers – all of them equally intriguing. There is firstly the political struggle between King Edward of England and King Phillip IV of France – they are both looking to unravel Friar Bacon’s Book of Secrets, which has been written in a secret code and will reveal the mysteries of the world. Both of them send their best man to Corfe Castle in the dead of the winter to hold a convention to break the cipher in which the book is written. Things start getting troublesome , when the french scholars start dying apparent natural deaths.
At the same time  murders are being committed around the castle, where dead young women are being found, shot down by arrows for no conceivable reason. Then there are these outlaws that claim that they are innocent of these murders and speak of even worse “horror in the woods”. Lets not forget, Father Matthews – who lives almost an ascetic existence in his little church in the woods. All the murdered girls are students in his sunday classes – is he more than what he seems? If this isn’t enough, the King’s men report presence of pirates in the nearby coastel town, unexpected and seemingly suspicious. Are all these activties related?
Every good crime novel , needs a good detective, ours is Sir Hugh Corbett, King Edward’s right man. Melancholy with a sense for black humor, Corbett is still an instantly likeable character. Along with his advisor, the young Ranulf, Corbett tries to bring pieces of the puzzle together.
What worked for me as I read the book were the storylines and the characters. Though they are a dozen or more important characters in the book, Doherty manages to shape them out in the short spaces they occupy. The fact that I could empathaize with some of the characters of the book is a lot to say for a mystery novel.
The only place where the book falters is at the climax. Its predictable and slightly boring. The build up is pretty huge – political drama, jack the ripper like murders, accidental deaths, the creepy winter, dead bodies in the wood – and then the resolution is pretty unimpressive.
However, I think this would make an excellent movie actually. I would also definitely read more of Paul Doherty.