Tag Archives: Mystery

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.

The Angel’s Game- Carlos Ruiz Zafon


Few people who have read The Shadow of The Wind would question any suggestion that Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a modern day master of elegant lyrical prose.  Translated from Spanish in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been a worldwide best seller, selling well in excess of a million books in the United Kingdom alone. Understandably his follow up novel, The Angel’s Game was hotly anticipated, and perhaps these great expectations played on the author’s mind.

The Angel’s Game has been classed by many as a prequel to The Shadow of The Wind, but I would dispute this terminology. It is set in the same world, which is to say we see The Cemetery of Lost Books and there is some small overlap between characters, but the events to not link together insofar as I can see, so I don’t think of it as a prequel. This is just a convenient term for the unimaginative.

The Angel’s Game tells the tale of David Martin, who rapidly rises from an office boy at a Barcelona newspaper to become the celebrated author of many successful penny dreadfuls. His success upsets his colleagues and he is thrown out of the relative safety of the newspaper’s offices to fend for himself on the dark mean streets of Barcelona; writing for a pair of unscrupulous brothers and living in the foreboding shell of an abandoned tower house. We sit with baited breath as a series of cleverly wrought plot twists draw us deeper into the secret web the house has spun for him, and tear him away from his one true love… or so Zafon would wish to think.

The language of the novel is undeniably brilliant. I was breathless with anticipation upon reading the first page of the book, which said something profound about a writer always remembering the first time he manages to sell his writing, because from that moment onwards his soul has a price. It seemed to me that this would be a fitting follow up to The Shadow of The Wind, and at first it seemed to be,

Zafon’s love of Barcelona was a s clear as ever. His descriptions of the city were masterful and were enough to inspire envy in any would be writer. The dark and heady style was there; a pastiche of the Gothic novel and Penny Dreadful, shot through with poetry.

Despite this, I felt there was something lacking. It’s hard to put my finger on any one thing exactly, but if pushed I would have to say it’s the plot. The plot is missing, or so poorly constructed as to seem invisible.  For me the novel lacked any conviction, and I had to force my way through it. Perhaps I was being especially dense, but Zafon seemed to have Martin dart about trying to solve problems which were never even present, and if they were? Well I certainly didn’t care about them. There was nothing sufficiently gripping about the plot to make me care what happened to anyone.

Minor characters are afforded great importance by the writer but totally fail to add anything to the momentum of the narrative, or, I would argue, the plot of the novel. They succeed only in destroying any glimmering sense of intruge which might have been built by diverting the reader’s attention away from one plotline, which wasn’t really going anywhere, to some pointless subplot which definitely isn’t going anywhere.

A clear example of Zafon’s adulation of secondary characters would be the, the Sempere family. They have several small cameo appearances in the novel, which is the only real reason this is called a prequel. The only real reason for using these characters was to allow the protagonist to be introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books, but this too only added further confusion to the plot. To me there was an element of vainglorious allusion to the author’s previous successes and it dragged the plot deeper into the chaos of poor construction which plagued it.

I found the obvious literary pretentions of the novel really irksome. The first time the boss was described as being as still as a spider was effective, the fifth time was just fricking irritating. This irritation was further compounded by the frequent allusions to Great Expectations, a text Sempere gave the protagonist, who was cruelly deprived of books by his illiterate father. But what do these allusions add to, beyond my growing suspicion that the Zafon is capable of being a tad pretentious? Little. The boss is meant to be a criminal, who gives gifts which destroy the protagonists integrity… fine, a bit heavy handed, since I’d already twigged that, but fine. Cristina is clearly meant to be Estella, but lacks any of the original character’s verve…  and don’t get me started on the intended parallels between Vidal and Miss Havisham. The whole book was filled with poor, unfitting allusions and irritating literary pretentions.

I should be generous and point out that the book is a translation from the Spanish, and we might lay some blame at the translator’s door. However, the language was really the only redeeming feature. The author must take credit, if I can call it that, for the insipid plot, full of hopeless leads to nowhere beyond a truly anticlimactic end. I know it’s a work of fiction, but I can’t help myself adding an “its unrealistic” barb here. Who on Earth would spot that they have a secret room hidden inside their house and then not explore it for half a novel? I wouldn’t. Maybe he should write a book about me.

This book is passable. And probably no worse than much of the slush that gets published these days. But if, like me, you were a fan of The Shadow of The Wind and picked this up hoping for more of the same, I would strongly recommend forgoing biscuits and eating something like, raw garlic, a habanera chilli… maybe wash it down with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Whatever you choose you’ll want to wash the bitter taste from your mouth.

The Swan Thieves- Elizabeth Kostova


An artist, Robert Oliver, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital having desperately attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington. Refusing to speak he spends his days obsessively painting a mysterious and beautiful woman. The novel follows Marlowe, a psychiatrist, as he struggles to treat Oliver, with nothing more to go on than his observations of the patient and conversations with Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, which hint darkly at the insanity which is consuming the artist. Who is the dark lady he paints? And what is the significance of the ancient letters that Robert keeps so close at all times?

Personally I found The Swan Thieves somewhat slow to start as the author was overly keen to establish relationships between minor characters that didn’t really enhance the story, possibly because of a fear of being seen to “tell” the story rather than “show” it. I found the split narrative perspectives lacked cohesion which left the story with a fragmented feel, especially given that the author frequently inserts letters to replace elements of the narrative prior to developing a sequence of chapters which are set in the late 1870s. There are those who will probably attempt to claim that this unity is a clever technique meant to reflect Oliver’s inner turmoil. If so, it’s pretentious, as well as fussy and irritating. It prevented any real sense of urgency developing; something which made Kostova’s debut novel The Historian so enjoyable.

Kostova has clearly researched the art scene carefully, and her presentation of both the modern artists and impressionists are convincing, if not truly engaging. Despite the beautiful language use, her characterisation in this novel is generally poor. The voice of the three main narrators was too similar, and as a result I didn’t believe in the characters. Even when Kostova switched to the third person to narrate the events of Paris in 1870s, I was left with a feeling that the slow progress of Beatrice and Olivier’s relationship was lacking passion and conviction.

The most convincing characters in the novel were the minor characters that were observed by the narrator without a voice of their own, save in sparse dialogue. As the focus of the novel’s quest for truth, Robert Oliver grew in complexity and developed sufficiently to appeal to the reader’s curiosity, though for me this was ruined by the novel’s hurried ending, which was over simplified and somewhat trite.

I have to admit, for me this novel is far too reminiscent of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre (another disappointing second novel). The time switch in the narrative, the descriptions of painting and the lack lustre characterisation all pulled me back to this.  I was incredibly disappointed, as The Historian suggests that Kostova is the more accomplished writer when developing a unique and compelling story. However, this novel was a far cry from its excellent predecessor.