Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.

 

I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

Mon ami, Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

StylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie

Originally published, 1920.  I read a Bantam Books paperback, printed around 1976 (cost $1.75 at that time!).  182 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 novels.  Crime Titles.

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Hercule Poirot, especially now that I feel I know him a little better.  His rationality, little gray cells, and famous “method” all provide a feeling of safety in the face of the most convoluted, red-herring-ed murder tale.

But Poirot had to be born sometime, and it was in this short novel that Christie introduced him to the world.

It was also Christie’s first published novel.  She wrote it during WWI, while volunteering in a hospital pharmacy.  The novel was supposedly written as the result of a bet to see if she could compose a mystery where the reader would be unable to spot the murderer.  It took Christie five years to find a publisher, and proved to be one of her greatest triumphs; it has never been out of print since 1920.

The novel is set in a great country house, Styles Court, inhabited by the wealthy Cavendish family, their guests and servants.  The domineering, widowed matriarch, Emily, has recently married a much younger man who is beneath her social class.  The misalliance has created a rift in the Cavendish family, many of whom fear the loss of their inheritances.  Then, Emily is poisoned with strychnine — either in her coffee, her evening cocoa, or perhaps in her bedtime tonic.  It’s all incredibly complicated, with dozens of clues, everyone a possible suspect, several medical men with conflicting ideas, lawyers and Scotland Yard on board.

Poirot to the rescue.  Evidently Emily had been responsible for Poirot’s presence in the village:

“…it is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here…she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.  We Belgians will always remember her gratitude.”

But Poirot is no mere refugee — he is “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police” — readily identified by young Mr. Hastings, who is recovering from war wounds at Styles Court.  Out of loyalty and gratitude to Emily, Poirot sets out to find her killer.  In his turn, Hastings becomes a kind of factotum and companion to Poirot, and is basically our stand in.  Whenever the mystery becomes incredibly complex and confusing, Hastings voices the readers’ frustration to Poirot:

“I was hardly as clear as I could wish.  I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten.  Poirot smiled kindly on me.

“The mind is confused? Is it not so?  Take time, mon ami.  You are agitated, you are excited–it is but natural.  Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place…..”

I have to confess that at times I appreciated, rather than enjoyed, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  I found many of the characters thinly drawn, almost chess pieces moved around on a huge board by a master hand.  Or sometimes I felt like I was inside a puzzle square — the kind you try to move tiles around in a particular order, but are thwarted because you can only move them in particular directions.  If Miss Cavendish was in the library with the cocoa cup at 9:30 then she couldn’t have been the person to burn the incriminating letter in the billiard room at that time, and so forth.

But the characters of Poirot and Hastings are endearing and real.  Poirot is the meticulous detector of truth and lies and Hastings is us, stumbling behind and trying to understand what is going on.  I wonder if Christie came up with these characters and formula in response to the Great War.  Did she feel a need to bring order and meaning to the destruction of a genteel, ordered way of life enjoyed by the English upper class before WWI?  For Poirot soothes the confused, horrified Hastings who represents that class and is reeling from a horrific crime — not necessarily the death of Emily Cavendish-Inglethrop — but a much larger horror.

And no, I wasn’t able to spot the murderer.  Of course we have to leave that to Poirot.

 

Christie’s Best: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

RogerThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1926.  I read a Pocket Books Mystery edition printed around 1986.  255 pgs including list of characters.

Guardian 1,000 Novels:  Crime Titles

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was named the “best crime novel ever written” in 2013 by the members of the Crime Writers Association — a group of professional crime authors.

Christie published the story in 1926.  It features one of her most famous characters, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  Christie had introduced Poirot only six years earlier, in another Guardian 1,000 title:  The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The story seems almost formulaic:  the picturesque English village stocked with  characters we all know by now:  the village doctor, the wealthy land owner, butlers, maids, the playboy and the ingenue.  A wealthy widow, Mrs. Ferrars, is tormented by rumors that she poisoned her husband.  She commits suicide, but not before sending an important letter to her fiance, Roger Ackroyd.  Ackroyd calls his friend, village doctor, James Sheppard, and asks him to come over to Ackroyd’s estate near the village to discuss the matter.  Once Sheppard arrives, Ackroyd admits that Mrs. Ferrars was being blackmailed by someone, but doesn’t say who.   Sheppard returns to his own home, uneasy at his friend’s revelation, and discusses the situation with his gossipy spinster sister, Caroline.  The phone rings and Sheppard answers it, then dashes away — telling his sister that Ackroyd’s butler had just discovered him murdered.

Strangely, when Sheppard get to the house, the butler says he had not telephoned.  Sheppard and the butler run to Ackroyd’s study and have to bash the locked door to get in.  Indeed, inside is Ackroyd, stabbed to death with a curio-handled, but razor sharp dagger.  A window is open and foot prints are outside in the dirt.  A chair has been pulled forward in a strange way.

Detail after detail is revealed in this strange tale, including the descriptions and motivations of all of Ackroyd’s family and guests — many of whom have a reason for killing him.  Most suspect is Ackroyd’s heir, young, broke, and feckless Ralph Paton, who looks even guiltier when he goes into hiding.  It is Paton’s footprints that are found outside the window.

The case seems clear-cut.  But this is a murder mystery so you know the most obvious suspect can’t have done it.  Compounding this fact is a whole catalog of mysterious clues:  a discarded wedding ring with the initial “R”, a strange man spotted near the estate gates the night of the murder, a parlor maid who seems to have ideas above her station, the mysterious call to Dr. Sheppard and the convoluted stories concerning all the people who would have benefited by Roger Ackroyd’s death.

Luckily, Hercule Poirot has happened to retire to the village, and his reputation as a master detective in the Belgian police force prompts Ackroyd’s niece to enlist his help.  This ruffles the bumbling English police on the case, but they relax somewhat when Poirot reveals he wants none of the credit for solving the case.  With this framework established, Poirot begins to investigate, assisted by Dr. Sheppard, who begins writing a diary of all developments in the case.  In addition to getting to the bottom of his friend’s murder, Sheppard has another motivation for helping Poirot with the case:

“I felt the pressure of his hand on my arm, and he added in a low tone:  ‘Do you really wish to aid me?  To take part in this investigation?’

“Yes indeed,” I said eagerly.  ‘There’s nothing I should like better.  You don’t know what a dull old fogey’s life I lead.  Never anything out of the ordinary.”

In assisting Poirot, Sheppard not only narrates the story, but continues his extensive documentation of the case as the two of them dig further into the facts and the hearts of everyone who knew Roger Ackroyd.  Poirot’s famous “method” of using his “little gray cells,” is put through its paces as facts are sifted, organized,  saved or discarded.  And Dr. Sheppard, as it turns out, is certainly saved from his fate of living a dull old fogey’s life.

STOP NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS….

Today’s readers enjoy twisted, shocking endings.  But when Christie published this story in 1926, crime novelists hadn’t fully adopted this technique and her masterful, but chilling ending to the story took many by surprise and sparked  controversy and criticism.  Because as methodical Poirot pulls the threads of the story together, the reader realizes that it is the narrator, gentle and low-keyed Dr. Sheppard who is the brutal murderer.  Having lived in the company of the murderer through the entire book without realizing it feels as shocking today as it must have been to the 1926 audiences who read it for the first time.

In the final interview, Poirot gives Sheppard the choice:  confess or find another way out, perhaps similar to the one Mrs. Ferrars — whom the doctor had been blackmailing — had chosen.  The book concludes with a final chapter where Sheppard finishes his book, and speaks directly to the reader to clear up all the final questions we’ve had.  We also learn that when his tale is finished, the good doctor will take the same poison his blackmailing victim chose.  We realize that the story Dr. Sheppard has been writing will become the narrative of Poirot’s greatest triumph, and not the story of a failed investigation, as Sheppard had hoped.

As it turns out, the story is one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs, too.

‘Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth.  The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it.’ — Hercule Poirot.”

 

 

Tragic Triage: Five Days at Memorial Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

five daysFive Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

Sheri Fink

Crown Publishers.  2013.  559 pgs including detailed footnotes and index.

Other books I’ve read by Fink:  none.  She received the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for her 2009 article in the New York Times magazine on this same subject.

Fink is a Stanford University-trained doctor and PhD researcher.  She has provided aid and medical relief in combat zones.

This is  one of the most disturbing books I have ever read.  It is also a book that will have to substitute for a criminal trial, since the people accused of ending the lives of helpless hospital patients were never brought to justice.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worse natural disasters in U.S. history.  Almost 2,000 people lost their lives in the 2005 storm and subsequent flooding.  This book is about the effect of the storm on Memorial Hospital,  located in uptown New Orleans.  When the levies broke, Memorial was completely surrounded by flood waters almost to the second story — trapping patients, staff and visitors and destroying the emergency electrical generators located in the basements.  Plunged into darkness, heat and chaos, the stranded staff endured five days of terror and confusion.  While stories of valor and clear-thinking emerged (the entire NICU was evacuated by helicopter with every baby saved) a darker picture emerged as the flood waters receded.

After all staff and patients had been evacuated, 45 bodies were discovered in the hospital chapel — the highest number of any of the New Orleans hospitals caught in the flood.  Autopsies revealed a deadly level of morphine and other sedatives in the bodies of a number of the deceased, and patient records determined that these drugs had not been prescribed.

What was determined much later, through detailed investigations and even the free admission of several of the doctors — was that seriously ill, fragile patients were euthanized instead of being evacuated, because there seemed to be no way to move them out of the hospital.  Their continued presence and stubborn clinging to life meant the staff could not leave the heat-choked, stinking hospital.  And in the doctors’ minds, they were going to die anyway.

“I gave her medicine so I could get rid of her faster, get the nurses off the floor…There’s no question I hastened her demise.’  — Dr. Ewing Cook, (p. 161).”

Memorial Hospital, New Orleans

Memorial Hospital, 2007. Photo Credit: Infrogmation. Creative Commons license.

The majority of the patients who received the high doses of morphine and midazolam occupied the floor of the hospital set aside for nursing home occupants.  They were primarily elderly and had DNR (“Do not resuscitate”) orders in their charts.  But even a younger, very obese patient was euthanized.  Many patients were alert and cognizant.  Several had family members present who were forced away from their bedsides — either by police who were supervising the evacuation, or by staff members.   Chillingly, they all died the same morning — even while rescue helicopters were landing on Memorial’s roof.

The first half of this book is a compulsive, page turning read depicting the events of the storm and the five days of confusion, terror, and death.  The second half traces the criminal investigation, the bungling of the district attorney, the publicity campaigns on behalf of the accused nurses and doctor and eventually, the grand jury’s failure to indict.  This half of the book is somewhat more difficult to get through, but detailed footnotes and a chart of significant individuals and their affiliations helps keep everyone straight.

There are so many layers to this book.  You can read it as a horrific crime  story — from the point of view of the perpetrators and the victims.  It is a stern warning about the lack of emergency planning.  In a larger sense it is the tragedy of an inept local and federal government who failed to respond to a disaster.  It is  also a study in the ethics of disaster management and triage.

But one questions kept coming back to me:  why did the staff at this hospital react in this deadly way?  For these acts were personal choices carried out by several doctors and nurses — and other staff knew the euthanasia was taking place.  Why did Memorial’s staff choose death as an option, when other approaches were possible?  To me, one of most fascinating and tragic “what-if’s” of this tale relates to the comparison between events at Memorial, and those at Charity, another New Orleans hospital.

Katrina evacuations near Charity Hospital, New Orleans.  Photo Credit:  Frogmation.  Creative Commons License.

Katrina evacuations near Charity Hospital, New Orleans. Photo Credit: Frogmation. Creative Commons License.

Charity had a larger patient census and fewer staff during the storm, and was also flooded and stranded.  But fewer than ten patients died at Charity during the storm and its aftermath.

Why the choice of life over death at Charity?  Why the better outcome?  Fink describes specific choices made by the leadership at Charity that were strikingly dissimilar to Memorial:

  • Charity kept their regular shift schedule and as much as possible, continued normal medical care.   Staff were released to sleep and rest.  In contrast, Memorial went into “survival mode” where normal routine was abandoned.
  • Charity evacuated their sickest patients first; Memorial assigned the sickest patients, and those with DNR orders into a perilous “Category 3” status.  Most of the deaths occurred here.
  • Charity had drilled for a category three hurricane.  Memorial’s plan existed primarily in binders no one consulted.
  • Most interestingly to me, Charity kept a positive, upbeat tone with frequent staff meetings throughout the day that included everyone — from doctors to janitorial staff.  Management also forbade rumor spreading.  A “you can only say it if you see it” policy was enforced.  The staff even put on a talent show by flashlight to support morale.  In contrast, dark rumors ran rampant at Memorial.  Staff thought they were under martial law (they were not) and were convinced the hospital was going to be invaded every moment by rampaging gangs.  Leadership was confused and diffused.  Several c-suite staff from corporate headquarters were actually present at the hospital during the storm, but they had found a refuge in a remote office that through some fluke of electrical circuity still had power and air conditioning.

This book made me angry.  Not only the levies collapsed in New Orleans, but at Memorial — standards of ethics, morality, and even human decency collapsed as well.  There are many lessons from this tragic crime.  One of the simplest is that there is always a place for strong, sensible and clear leadership in every crisis.  If only the leaders (if they existed) at Memorial could have stepped up — then some sane choices would have been made and those who depended on the quality of others’ choices would have survived the five days.

The Killing of Katie Steelstock

Killing of Katie Steelstock coverThe Killing of Katie Steelstock

Michael Gilbert

Harper and Row.  1980.  241 pgs.

Published in the U.K. under the title, The Death of a Favourite Girl, which I like better.

Other books I’ve read by this prolific master of the courtroom drama and police procedure:  see my earlier review of Anything For a Quiet Life.  I’ve got Black Seraphim on the TBR pile now and I really have to get my hands on his masterpiece:  Smallbone Deceased.  

No, this is not on the Guardian List (sigh) but something by this brilliant writer should be — especially since there is a crime section!

I just love this sort of writing:  snappy, quick-witted and so evocative.  A great read with a twist at the end.

Pretty Katie Steelstock has become a British TV star but she still comes home to her country village along the Thames to enjoy an occasional tennis game and dance at the club.  Unfortunately, Katie doesn’t come home after this dance — instead her bludgeoned body is discovered along the towpath on the river bank.

Chief Superintendent Charlie Knott descends from London to take the case — and also to look for a stepping stone to his next promotion.  It looks like Knott has his suspect — and his promotion — when some unexpected evidence turns up.  Seems as though Katie isn’t your typical girl next door done good and  there is much, much more to this case than first meets the eye.  Enjoy!

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_River_Thames,_Moulsford_-_geograph.org.uk_-_695707.jpg This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Andrew Smith and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_River_Thames,_Moulsford_-_geograph.org.uk_-_695707.jpg
This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Andrew Smith and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Going, going, gone….a whole day gone reading Gone Girl

goneGone Girl

Gillian Flynn

Crown Publishers.  2012.  419 pgs.

So much to do:  MBA assignments, work from the office, stuff around the house — yet for some dark reason I picked up a copy of Gone Girl that my friend had left with a “must read!” message on it.  Started reading around 9:00 am and finished around 9:00 pm.  An entire day engrossed in a world as deep and twisty as the Mississippi river that serves as part of the novel’s backdrop.

Amy and Nick Dunne are on the eve of celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary in Carthage, Missouri.  Transplanted Manhattanites, the Dunnes have retreated to Nick’s home town on the banks of the Mississippi in the hopes of rebuilding their lives after the loss of Nick’s journalism career and to help care for his aging, ill parents.  Amy, too, is in the process of regrouping.  The child of a two famous authors, lovely Amy has spent her life as the inspiration and living symbol of the Amazing Amy series — an iconic series of books featuring a perfect little girl.  At one point in time, almost every “library in America owned an Amazing Amy book.”  Unfortunately, like the rest of America, Amy’s celebrity parents have overspent their means and have now depleted most of her trust fund.  The last Amazing Amy title, which focused on Amazing Amy’s marriage to her fictional sweetheart, was a flop.  Nick sums up their situation to himself:

We were literally experiencing the end of a way of life, a phrase I’d applied only to New Guinea tribesmen and Appalachian glassblowers.  The recession had ended the mall….Carthage had gone bust; its sister city Hannibal was losing ground to brighter, louder, cartoonier tourist spots.  My beloved Mississippi River was being eaten in reverse by Asian carp flip-flopping their way up toward Lake Michigan.  Amazing Amy was done.  It was the end of my career, the end of hers, the end of my father, the end of my mom.

Then, Amy disappears.

The subsequent police investigation, national media frenzy and the slow creep of suspicion towards Nick as a likely suspect takes up the remainder of the book.   But unraveling what happened to Amy will be as difficult as looking beneath the surface of the muddy Mississippi.  Who is or was Amy?  Amazing girl and wife?  Or something else?  Who is Nick?  What happened behind the door of their perfect McMansion on the river?  Finding the answers to some of these questions will do more than solve a crime; they also may answer some of Flynn’s probing into American life in the beginning of the 21st century.  Are we real people — innocent or guilty — or the amalgamation of what we see on TV or on the Internet?  As Nick thinks:

It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters…l would have done anything to feel real again.

Discovering what is real about Amy will take Nick, and the reader, into a world as frenzied and dark as a sensationalistic cable TV show.  From plush Manhattan law offices to illegal catfish harvesting in the Ozarks, the reader works through one layer after another in the hopes of uncovering the truth.  Flynn alternates between two first person narrators, always skillfully advancing the story and holding the reader’s attention through short chapters, diary entries, notes and hanging endings.

This book was Amazing — and I don’t think I will think of that word the same way ever again.  My only quibble with Flynn is the ending — I felt its ambiguity was appropriate, but it stayed a little too out of focus for satisfaction.  But you will have to make up your own mind.  One day gone spent in this world was enough for me — this was an amazing, suspenseful, dark read.

Exif JPG 422

The Mississippi River at Hannibal, Missouri. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Author: Andrew Balet. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mississippi_at_Hannibal,_MO.jpg

Deathly Quiet

Anything for a Quiet LifeAnything for a Quiet Life

Michael Gilbert

Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.  1990.  222 pgs.

Other books by I’ve read by Michael Gilbert:  none so far, this will be remedied soon!  Gilbert was a prolific writer — turning out mysteries, police procedurals, and legal stories from 1947 to two years before his death in 2006.  His masterpiece is supposed to be:  Smallbone Deceased.  His obituary from the Guardian details his very interesting life.  How did I miss this guy??

This collection of nine stories features successful London attorney Jonas Pickett who has decided to semi-retire and move his law practice down to a quaint and peaceful seaside town, Shackleton-on-Sea.  Of course, Shackleton-on-Sea is not as quiet and peaceful as it appears….and some pretty un-restful murders-crimes-deaths ensue.  Pickett finds his legal skills and investigative know-how as much in demand in his new retirement home as they were in London.

This delightful short collection features not just Jonas Pickett but the rest of his crew:  a law partner, cool and unflappable Sabrina Mountjoy, his secretary, lively Claire Easterbrook and his bodyguard/giant Sam Conybeare.  Evidently Jonas is such a cool boss that these three all just follow him from London and set up housekeeping close by in the little resort town.  Sabrina, Claire and Sam all have their own back-stories and their idiosyncrasies enliven and enrich the stories — all of which might be read independently, but Gilbert weaves other local characters in and out, giving the collection a nice sense of continuity.

I loved this book because it completely transports you to another time and place.  It was written in 1990, but the action might have taken place anytime — even much earlier.  Crimes from World War II come back to haunt one of the town’s residents.  Buried treasure from the medieval period is uncovered — or somebody tries to uncover it.  A gypsy queen sets up camp on a common area of the town, and begins to predict the future — very accurately as it turns out — of one of the town’s prominent families. What ever the mystery or crime, Jonas and his team set out to solve it — and as it turns out this sort of retirement is actually what Jonas probably enjoys much more than spending his days on the golf course.

At the beginning of the book, Jonas is viewing the town from the cliffs over it facing the ocean and he and Claire talk about the view of the town.

“It’s rather snug,” said Claire, “Squeezed in between these two arms of the cliff. … It looks as though a really fierce storm would bring the sea rolling in and wash it away.”

“About six hundred years ago it did just that.  The old town’s under the sea.  They’ll tell you they sometimes hear the church bell ringing down under the waves.  It’s a sign that something terrible’s going to happen.”

Spooky!!!  Suffice it to say, we hear those bells ringing in the book, several times.

© Copyright L J Cunningham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence