Tuesday, April 29, 2014

March Middleton is a young woman in Victorian England who must make her own way in the world after the death of her father.  Luckily for her, she has a godfather who is willing to take her in and provide her with a home. This is all she knows when she turns up on the doorstep of one Mr. Sidney Grice in The Mangle Street Murders.

It's probably just as well she didn't know much about her guardian, because he turns out to be a fairly unsympathetic character.  He's pompous, judgmental and never makes mistakes.  He is also London's most well-known private detective.  When March joins his household, it isn't long before a woman appears asking for help. Her daughter has been murdered, and she is certain her son-in-law (arrested soon after the discovery of the body) is innocent.  She tells Grice the facts of the case.  Her daughter was stabbed to death inside the shop she ran with her husband on Mangle Street.  The husband was asleep in the next room, but heard nothing of the struggle.  To make matters worse, the police can find no evidence of a robbery.  Grice listens to the evidence and announces that he will investigate, but he tells Mrs. Dillinger that his services are expensive.  Because she is a widow, Grice asks how she intends to pay his bill.  She cannot pay and leaves in a distressed state, but March, having been moved by her plight, asks Grice to investigate the crime. She offers the mining shares she inherited from her father as payment.  She does, however, impose one condition -- she wants to accompany Grice on his investigations as his assistant.  He accepts her offer and they begin the investigation of the most recent murder on Mangle Street.  It turns out that Mangle Street has been the scene of other murders in the not too distant past.

Grice goes to the jail to interview William Ashby, the unfortunate husband of the deceased, to determine if his story is believable.  Unfortunately for William, his tale of the extravagantly dressed Italian with bright orange curly hair who bought a knife from his shop doesn't exactly convince Grice of his innocence.  Even after the case seems to have been solved to Grice's satisfaction, March continues to investigate on her own.  Her experiences helping her father, an army surgeon, are useful as her inquiries lead her to the morgue (among other unsavory places).

The story is interesting, mostly for the two main characters. March is a thoroughly modern young woman, who doesn't hesitate to speak her mind when she feels she's right (which is most of the time).  She is also mourning the death of her fiance, and recalls events from their time together throughout the story.  Grice is totally devoid of any sort of sympathy or feelings.  He comes to quick decisions based solely on his best interests and never deviates from them.  He also has quite a few amusing scenes surrounding his glass eye and its refusal to cooperate as Grice would like.

The only quibble I have with the story is the way everything was explained in one fell swoop toward the end of the story.  The two main characters went around questioning and investigating (with more bodies turning up from time to time) and the explanation of the whole thing just seemed rather rushed in an effort to tidy up all the loose ends.  Still, I enjoyed the characters and hope this will be a regular series.

Final Verdict for The Mangle Street Murders:    Three Gherkins, for being a revealing look at an unconventional detective

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Poor Dr. Shannon Frasier is really having a bad couple of days.  During a dinner party at her house, a man is shot and killed in front of her house.  Then her junkie sister shows up for an extended visit.  On top of all that, her father has a serious health crisis.  All that would be bad enough, but then a threatening anonymous caller begins harassing her to find out what the murder victim on her front yard said before expiring.  That's the whirlwind beginning of Critical Condition by Dr. Richard L. Mabry.

Shannon has even bigger problems, because when she was in medical school, her fiance was shot and died in her arms.  Although she was in the process of becoming a doctor, she was powerless to save her wounded fiance.  That left her with doubts about her abilities, as well as something of a "post traumatic" response when she encounters gunshot victims in her work.  She does have a new boyfriend, pathologist Dr. Mark Gilbert.  Her unresolved feelings for her dead fiance, however, are also preventing her from moving forward in her latest relationship.

Things get a more complicated when it turns out that Shannon's sister Megan, who hasn't been out of rehab for very long, knew the dead man.  They had been in rehab together, so the victim was also a pretty sketchy guy.  Megan was fleeing yet another abusive relationship when she asked Shannon to take her in.  When Megan's boyfriend also turns up dead, the police begin to question whether the Frasier sisters don't know more than they're telling.  An interesting complication occurs when the investigating officer seems to have more than a professional interest in Shannnon.

Eventually, the mysterious caller makes personal contact in frightening and increasingly violent ways.  Mark urges Shannon to get a gun, but given her tragic history with firearms, she's unwilling to consider the subject.  All of this stress also begins to take a toll on her professional life as well.

The book did lead up to a pretty thrilling conclusion, and the story moved along at a rapid pace.  Shannon's relationship with Mark, who is much more religious than she is (even with a pastor as a father!) also develops in an interesting manner.  The two shootings (the boyfriend and the front lawn guy) are both sort of glossed over and not really explored much, to my mind.  Of course, those are sort of peripheral events, but still, I would have liked them to be explained and tied up in a neater fashion.  That's a small quibble with an otherwise enjoyable and suspenseful read!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Critical Condition from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

When I first read about the Burley Cross Postbox Theft, it sounded like a book for me.  A postbox is vandalized and the letters found discarded in a yard in a sleepy English village.  The police must investigate to figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Because quite a large number of letters have been left behind, the police must attempt to determine what is missing and why.  For some reason, the police investigators decide that they must read all of the recovered letters.

Unfortunately, the entire book consists of letters, both from the police and the residents.  This wouldn't be a problem, except that there are SO MANY of them, and most of the writers have an annoying tendency to ramble, put in lots of unnecessary asides (one even has footnotes) and otherwise lead the reader far, far from the story.  There are so many letters that it's basically impossible to keep all the people in the story straight, without some sort of diagram or chart of the village and who lives where.

Once the mystery of the burgled postbox is finally revealed, of course it transpires that the vast majority of letters had nothing to do with the theft, but rather, I suppose, were an effort to demonstrate the intense rivalries, jealousies and gossip that takes place in a small town.  I would have liked more story and fewer characters to keep track of.  Some of the letters were amusing, but still, there were simply too many of them!  The events in the story take place around Christmas time in 2006, but even so, I would think that people had somewhat slowed down in the posting of letters by that time.

Final Verdict for Burley Cross Postbox Theft:    Two Gherkins, for being a mildly amusing but wildly confusing account of a small-time crime in an awfully wordy village

Friday, April 11, 2014

Most of us who had a brush with going to prison would choose to run as far away from it as possible and never look back.  When Brenda Spahn faced the prospect of a long jail term, she made a pact with God:  if she could avoid prison, she would spend the rest of her life doing his work.  The book Miss Brenda and the Loveladies tells the story of what happened when Miss Brenda decided to devote her life to helping women newly released from prison.

Before her brush with the wrong side of the law, Brenda Spahn seemed to have it all:  a flourishing business, wonderful children, a new successful husband, several expensive houses, and more clothes than she could ever possibly wear.  Having grown up in poverty, she had made a vow to be successful, and she had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.  When one of her business associates was arrested and facing jail time, she claimed that Brenda was falsifying returns in her tax preparation business.  The authorities didn't do much investigating (from Brenda's perspective), but just came in and started putting her entire family under a microscope.  She finally agreed to a plea bargain which allowed her to stay out of jail, but which also meant she had lost much of what she'd spent her life building up.

Still, she didn't lose her faith and she determined to keep her bargain with God.  She decided to start visiting jails to see what she had so narrowly escaped.  While initially terrified of the incarcerated women, once she started volunteering at the prison, she quickly realized that most of the women had been abused their entire lives (and that the abuse by authority figures was continuing in prison).  She was dismayed to see people get released, only to return quickly to prison.  After learning that the women were given no support or efforts at rehabilitation when they left prison, she realized she had found her calling: to establish a "whole-way house" (as opposed to the traditional "half-way house") where the women would receive support, training, counseling, and spiritual guidance.

As luck would have it, her real estate executive husband just happened to have a seven-bedroom, six bath house that wasn't selling.  Miss Brenda decided this would be the perfect place to do her work.  She had anticipated that the women sent to live there would be like the ones she was used to working with in work release programs -- non-violent, motivated women who would be receptive to help.  The prison authorities decided, however, that this foolish woman should be taught a lesson quickly, and sent her seven of the toughest cases they could find .  These seven women had been convicted of a variety of crimes and were hostile, angry and suspicious.

Brenda soon learned that most of the women had suffered from such severe abuse and neglect as children that they had no idea how to do the simplest tasks.  Making beds, setting the table and doing laundry were things they had never done before.  She also learned that years of institutionalization had left them fearful and rigid.  During their first outing, to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and toiletries, the women were dazed and intimidated by the wide variety of products available to them.

Brenda soon realized that each woman needed responsibility to be trusted with various tasks. At first the women felt that they were being brought in to be "maids" and work for free, or else that "Miss Brenda" was collecting some sort of government assistance for taking them in and getting rich off them.  Soon, however, they began to respond to being responsible for doing laundry, or cooking, or watching Brenda's young son.  Once someone trusted them, they became more confident and less resentful.

Things were going well until a newspaper article, meant to showcase the good work being done, instead alarmed and inflamed people who lived in the neighborhood.  These people reacted with fear and hostility to the idea of all these criminals and drug addicts living next door to them.  While this caused a minor blip in the work done by Miss Brenda, she soon found that it was instrumental in allowing her to expand her reach to help even more women.

Along the way, Brenda finds that, although the Loveladies (so named because this was Brenda's maiden name) learned a new way of life from her, she and her family also learned many valuable lessons from them as well.  I was really inspired by Brenda's spunk and tenacity.  Even when she was afraid, she never doubted that she had been called to do this work.  She endured the belittlement of authorities, anger from her family, fear from the neighbors and her own doubts to found the "largest faith-based transitional center for women and their children in the country."  Not bad for a woman whose biggest concern not long before was where to go for her next luxury vacation!

For more information about the center, visit their website: The Lovelady Center 

Disclaimer:  I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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