Tag Archives: crime

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.

Fangirling over Sophie Hannah

Looking back through old posts I don’t think that I’ve said anything about Sophie Hannah, which is a massive oversight because I think she’s amazing. I’ve been feeling really sucky with a virus recently, so I decided to read Hurting Distance last night as I always enjoy her books. Chilling, compelling and genius once again… though I have to admit that I’m a bit embarrassed because I bought it for my boyfriend’s mother for her birthday before I read it. I knew it would be amazing, I just didn’t realise there would be a rape scene. You live you learn.

I started reading Sophie Hannah’s novels with The Point of Rescue so I’ve gotten the Zailer/Waterhouse narrative a little muddled, but even on the rare occasions that I’ve been able to predict elements of what is going to happen from information I’ve gleaned by reading the books in the wrong order, I’m still totally blown away by some plot twist and the final reveal. Her books are messed up. And I mean that as the highest compliment. Zailer and Waterhouse, brilliant but deeply flawed detectives who need each other more than they are willing to admit, are fantastic characters who give the books a narrative unity throughout the series. The crime stories are deliciously twisted, if you like thrillers then you have to read them.

Having discovered Hannah’s novels, I moved on to her short stories which are some of the best I’ve ever read. I read The Octopus Nest (from The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets) with my A-level students when I was still teaching and it was brilliant hearing the gasps. I really believe it takes more skill to write a good short story than it does to write a good novel, and Sophie Hannah is a modern master of the genre.

Anyway, that’s enough fangirling from me. I’ll be off to buy The Carrier tomorrow.