Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels:  Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.

“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”

Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.

The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.

A classic whodunnit I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Lucy Harper has achieved what many writers dream of: her detective novels about Eliza Grey have become highly successful and she built up a huge fan base. Her husband Dan supports her and takes care of their finances and everyday life. When he, without asking her first, decides to buy a house, she gets angry, even more so when she learns where exactly the house is located: close to where she grew up, next to the woods where her younger brother once disappeared and which she connects with her most dreadful nightmares. How could he do something like this, knowing about her childhood? Quite obviously, he is gaslighting her – that’s what Eliza tells her. Eliza, not only the protagonist of her novels but also the voice that has been in her head as long as she can remember. What has been useful for her writing now becomes complicated when Lucy struggles to distinguish between what is real, what is fiction and what is only in her head and when her husband is found murdered, the writer finds herself the main suspect of a story just like her novels.

I have several of Gilly Macmillan’s novels, always liking how she plays with the reader’s sympathies for the characters and the unexpected twists which keep suspense high. “To Tell You the Truth” is also masterfully crafted in terms of being vague and keeping you in the dark about what is real within fiction and what is only imagined by Lucy. Just like the protagonist, it takes a long time to figure out where the actual threat comes from, many different leads offer options for speculation which makes reading totally enjoyable.

Having a crime writer who finds herself suddenly suspect in a crime in which the police use her own writing against her, is a setting which has been used before. Yet, Gilly Macmillan added a lot of aspects to make the case much more complicated. On the one hand, the voice in Lucy’s head is quite strong and surely a negative character whom you shouldn’t trust. Again and again, Lucy also seems to suffer from blackouts thus opening the possibility of actions she simply cannot recollect and which therefore remain blank spaces also for the reader. The backstory of her vanished brother and the big question looming over all if she herself might be responsible for his likely death – maybe even willingly – also add to the unpleasant feeling that she might not be a victim in this story at all.

Her husband, too, raises many questions. He is, quite obviously, envious of his wife’s success since he also dreams of a career in writing but lacks talent. The bits and pieces of information one gets directly lead to the assumption of him gaslighting her. However, the possibility of Lucy getting it all wrong due to her hallucinations and the Eliza-voice is also in the air.

A creepy thriller which keeps you alert at all times. Even though I found the end a bit too simply for the plot, a fantastic read I totally enjoyed.

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.

Alan Parks – The April Dead

Alan Parks – The April Dead

1974 and Glasgow is shaken by homemade bombs. What so far was only known to happen in Northern Ireland, now also seems to have reached Scotland. Detective Harry McCoy is assigned the investigation, but first, he needs to head to the prison where his oldest friends Stevie Cooper is released. Harry tells him to keep his head down for a couple of days, despite knowing Stevie’s character only too well. Thus, he starts a series of gang feuds in Glasgow’s underworld which adds to the mysterious bombings. And there is another case which Harry tries to solve: an American father is looking for his son who disappeared while being stationed with the navy in Scotland. Just like always, all things happen at the same time and McCoy has another couple of challenging days ahead.

Following the Harry McCoy series from the first instalment, I have since been a huge fan of Alan Park’s novels. The first two, “Bloody January” and “February’s Son” presented us the protagonist of the series and his family background and link to the underworld, “Bobby March Will Live Forever” focussed a bit more on the police world in 1970s Glasgow, the latest book is again brilliant in creating a special atmosphere and gives insight in how, at times, the truth needs to be adapted to the needs while not losing sight of rightfulness and justice.

The bombings plot is quickly linked to a paramilitary army which, of course, strongly reminds of the IRA. A charismatic leader who abuses his followers to accomplish his mission in a complex political environment is perfectly chosen for a crime novel. The missing son is an interesting addition since this illustrates the family pressure which was much stronger five decades ago than today.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect was this time how McCoy is torn between his conviction as a member of the police and his bond with Cooper, himself the number one of Glasgow’s underworld. McCoy is not actually afraid of what Cooper might be willing to do to him, but he shows respect while making his point as a detective, at the same time. Even though he follows his instinct, which is often totally right, he is also at fault at times and has to cope with the consequences and challenge his sense of justice.

Another enjoyable and suspenseful novel which is not only highly complex but cleverly made-up with a careful rhythm and thus, for me, one of the best crime series at the moment.

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

After his wife’s death, Nicholas has lost the energy to live and fallen into a dark hole. When he takes a holiday on the Greek Island of Rhodes, the incredible happens. He meets a woman who immediately sparks something in him. They are on the ferry to Halki and agree to meet in the afternoon before taking the ferry back to Rhodes. Yet, Alessandra does not show up. Nicholas is disappointed but apparently, she did not feel the same as he did during their brief encounter. Back in England, he goes on with his life when one evening, he sees a report about a young woman gone missing – Alessandra. Could he have been the last person to see her alive? He contacts the police and the parents before he resolves to return to Greece and to have a look himself since no one seems to be really preoccupied. He cannot simply do nothing when the one person who brought back his will to live has gone missing. It does not take long for him to be sure that there is much more behind Alessandra’s disappearance than just a woman who decided to start a new life and cut all former strings.

Robert Cole’s debut novel is a mixture of suspenseful crime and interesting dive into ancient history. Nicholas’ search for Alessandra is strongly linked to the past of the Greek islands, old trade routes between Europe and the Middle East as well as modern trade – which is rather of the illegal kind. Stolen goods of inestimable value, belonging to the world heritage which in the turmoil of wars fall into the hands of shady businessmen. Some of the history is well known, a lot was also new to me and I found it wonderfully integrated into the thrilling search for the young archaeologist.

Strongest is certainly the atmosphere of the islands which offer such a long and great history which finds its place in the novel. Even though Nicholas is a bit naive at times and irresponsible at others, I found this characters quite charming to follow. He cleverly understands the evidence and draws the right conclusions leading step by step him closer to Alessandra and some very dangerous dubious men.

Not an absolutely thrilling psychological mystery, but rather an entertaining, yet nevertheless enthralling, trip into history.

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Jane is on the run, she hasn’t simply given up her old life, there are things which need to be forgotten und buried and never talked about. When she comes to Thornfield Estates, the McMansion area of Birmingham/Alabama, she sees a life which could hardly differ more from hers. Having grown up as a foster child, she has never known love and affection and surely not the riches she can observe in the families for whom she walks the dogs. One day, she meets Eddie Rochester who recently lost his wife Bea. They fall in love and suddenly, everything seems possible for Jane. Leading a carefree life, no worries about money anymore and a loving husband. But at times, she wonders if she sees something different, threatening in his eyes. Then, however, she remembers that she herself also has some secrets. Yet, there is a third person in that house also having secrets.

Rachel Hawkins does not hide that her novel is a modern version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. The names are identical and even parts of the characters’ biographies show large similarities, only small Adèle has been turned into a dog. The plot is not set among the British upper class but among the newly rich who are driven by greed, egoism and the conviction that they can have it all.

What I liked about this version of the classic plot is that Rachel Hawkins created some unexpected twists which keep suspense high and make you reassess the characters. You can never be totally sure about who is good and who is bad, actually, they are all some dark shade of grey. I would have liked the protagonist to be a bit more complex, Jane remains a bit plain and shallow throughout the novel for my liking even though the other characters repeatedly consider her rather clever and strong. On the other hand, everything around Bea was quite surprising and I actually adored the utterly malicious character.

An enjoyable read with a lot of Jane Eyre to be found and some new aspects which added to the suspense.

Christophe Gavat – Cap Canaille

Christophe Gavat – Cap Canaille

Loin de Paris et du 36 quai des Orfèvres, la vie doit être plus agréable. Mais le commandant Henri Saint-Donat se rend vite compte que Marseille est beaucoup mais pas une vielle paisible. Son premier « barbecue » – une personne brûlée dans une voiture, méthode typique pour régler les comptes parmi les trafiquants – offre une surprise : ça fait des décennies déjà qu’il connaît la victime : la fameuse Carlton. Qui a bien tuée la criminelle élégante et séduisante ? La mort d’un frère d’une famille criminelle marseillaise à Paris offre une connexion aussi inattendue qu’inexplicable. Un cas compliqué pour Saint-Donat et ses subordonnés Basile Urteguy et Louise Clet.

« Cap Canaille » a gagné le Prix du Quai des Orfèvres 2021, l’ancien lieutenant et commissaire Christophe Gavat qui a été décoré de la médaille d’honneur pour acte de courage et de dévouement connaît bien son métier et donne une bonne idée du travail policier.

Le cas – ou plutôt les deux cas – sont bien compliqués et prennent leur temps. Le roman reste plein de suspense quoique l’auteur développe aussi ses caractères et leur donne un air authentique avec leur histoire à part du travail. Mais, c’est avant tout la description de la région au bord de la Méditerranée qui m’a plue beaucoup.

Sara Sligar – Take Me Apart

Sara Sligar – Take Me Apart

Journalist Kate flees New York and her job and hopes to have a new start in Callinas close to San Francisco where she is staying with her aunt while working as an archivist for Theo Brand. He is the son of the famous photographer Miranda Brand whose legacy has been stored unattended in their home for more than two decades. Even though Theo is quite reserved, Kate gets on well immediately with his kids Oscar and Jemima; the deeper she digs into Miranda’s work and story, the more fascinated she becomes. Spending hours daily at the Brand home ultimately also brings her closer to Theo and makes her challenge her luck: he explicitly prohibited her from accessing some parts of the home which he considered strictly private. Kate cannot resist and thus finds Miranda’s diary which sheds a completely new light on the artist and her mysterious death.

It only took me a couple of pages to be totally enthralled by the story. Sara Sligar’s debut is a clever combination of an extraordinary artist’s (fictitious) biography, a crime novel and also feminist psychological thriller. Miranda’s death is the central aspect which Kate investigates, but what I found much more interesting was, on the one hand, how Miranda’s relationship with her obsessive-aggressive husband develops and, on the other, how Kate, herself just having recovered from an episode of mental struggles, reacts to it and becomes increasingly fixated. A brilliant study of two female characters who try to cope with psychological issues and being misunderstood by the world around them.

“I must figure out how to be exactly the right level of insane.”

The crime part of the novel is not that obvious from the beginning, it develops slowly and is surely reinforced by Kate’s prying in Theo’s home. It does not seem to make sense why he hides important information from her while paying her to sort out his mother’s legacy. Their getting closer over the time, not surprisingly, makes things even more complicated.

Even though some serious topics are addressed, Sara Sligar keeps a light tone and works on suspense rather than having the novel turn into a too melodramatic story. Added to this, her characters are not just black or white but give an authentic representation of the complex layers of grey which exist when it comes to relationships, violence and mental issues.

Heidi Perks – Three Perfect Liars

heidi perks three perfect liars
Heidi Perks – Three Perfect Liars

When Laura returns to her job after six month of maternity leave, she expects Mia, who substituted her in this time, to be gone. Yet, the young woman is still there, at Laura’s desk and with Laura’s most valuable customer and: she got a permanent contract. Laura is furious and soon convinced that there is something wrong with that seemingly sympathetic colleague who makes friends with everybody easily. The more Laura digs into it, the more paranoid she gets, neglecting her husband and young son, her mind only circulating around how to dethrone the enemy. Mia actually has something to hide and yes, there was a reason why she rushed to this rural area and wanted explicitly to work in this company. Janie, Laura and Mia’s boss Harry’s wife, on the contrary, is a full time mom and at the moment totally frustrated. It is not just that she has given up a splendid career, something is nagging on her and slowly destroying her marriage. When one evening, the offices burn down, all three of them seem to have had good reasons to destroy the company. But, did they also count on killing somebody inside the building?

Heidi Perks’s mystery is a marvellous story which hooked me immediately and keep me reading on as soon as I had started. Three female protagonists are very different from each other and hard to see through at the beginning. But the more you see them interact with each other, the more suspicious you get and while I was reading, I was constantly shifting sympathies since every piece of information added to the picture and slightly changed it.

At first, I felt compassionate for Laura. Coming back after months at home now struggling with her new role as mother and having a career at the same time. Her husband’s constant criticism – even though completely justified – and having somebody younger and attractive stealing her post while her boss lacked supporting her: I could easily understand why she felt like losing all confidence in herself and increasingly getting obsessed with Mia. I didn’t really like the later at first, mainly due to the fact that she was presented through Laura’s point of view, she seemed like an intruder with evil intentions. Yet, there was also another side which she kept from the office and which told an entirely different story. I didn’t know what to do with Janie, was it just lamenting at a very high level? Having a wonderful family and lots of money, what did she have to complain about? It was herself who suggested giving up her career. She was certainly the character least tangible of the three and her motives of ending her marriage remained quite blurry until the end.

A brilliantly crafted plot with a very female and perfidious fight between the three. There was also something really tragic about the story when the motives were finally revealed which kept me pondering about the fact that how easily you put together an allegedly coherent picture of a person or a situation while you might be totally wrong.