Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

that sex scene was 💀


Having enjoyed two of Mosley’s latest novels (Trouble Is What I Do and Blood Grove) I was looking forward to delving into his earlier work. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first book in his Easy Rawlins series and, while it has many of Mosley’s best traits, overall it isn’t quite as compelling or complex as say the #15th book of this series. Set in the 1940s Los Angeles Easy is in his late twenties and has recently been fired from his job at a defence plant. A white man offers him money if he can find Daphne Monet, a young woman who often hangs out in Black locales. Easy accepts and soon finds himself in over his head. His employer is a clearly dangerous man and he isn’t the only one wanting to find Daphne.
What follows is very much a classic noir detective story populated by seedy characters and nighttime landscapes. In his line of questioning, Easy ruffles a few feathers and makes an enemy or two, all the while trying to locate Daphne, a beautiful woman who has clearly been up to something.
Mosley’s social commentary was the most interesting part of this story. He depicts the everyday racism and injustices Easy experiences and has experienced, from his run-ins with two racist policemen out to ‘get him’, to the condescending way he is treated by white strangers and acquaintances alike. Mosley also depicts the PTSD that Easy and other characters who fought in WWII experience, referring more than once to the violence and brutality of war.
While I liked his use of tropes in his other novels, here they lacked subtlety. Take Daphne. The woman is this Femme Fatale who acts like an angel but soon enough reveals what a ‘vixen’ she is. There was this horrid sex scene which made me want to scratch my eyes out and could only have been written by a man (if you know, you know) and I did not entirely like how Mosley resorting to the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype (doomed because of who she ‘really’ is). His female characters in general left a lot to be desired, they are very much objects (sex objects more often than not).
If anything this proves just what a long way Mosley has come as a writer. His storytelling and characterisation are much more accomplished in his most recent work, however, even here you can clearly see signs of his talent (his crackling dialogues, his exaggerated yet wholly effective metaphors, his story’s strong sense of place, and his piercing commentary). Still, if you haven’t read anything by him, I encourage you to give his newest novels a go before venturing into his older stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The main reason why I read The Witch’s Hand was Maggie Stiefvater’s 5-star review for it (what can I say, I trust in Stiefvater). And I’m so glad I did! Way back when I had an ahem Scooby-Doo phase (not only did I watch 20+ Scooby-Doo animated films but I also ended up devouring the two Mystery Incorporated seasons…all over the course of one summer. I know, I had a problem.) so I was immediately drawn to The Witch’s Hand: we have the small-town setting (with a, you guessed it, creepy lighthouse) + a bunch of kids trying to solve a mystery. We follow orphaned twins Pete and Alastair Montague who spend most of their time solving mysteries. Their latest case may be more complicated than their previous one as it may involve a witch and magic.
The retro art really suited the setting (1960s) and I liked the banter between the various characters. Yes, the bad guy was a bit too Disneyesque for my taste but I also appreciated the YA tone of the story (as opposed to middle-grade) and its atmosphere. I look forward to reading the next instalment as I would be happy to read more of the Montague twins and their antics.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Breach of Peace by Daniel B. Greene

I am always hesitant to read books by youtubers or other public figures I like as alas they tend to disappoint (and then I kind of guilty for not liking their stuff). Luckily, Daniel Green’s debut is promising indeed.

Set over the course of one day, Breach of Peace begins with one of our main characters walking in on a brutal crime scene. When an imperial family is butchered Inspector Khlid, an Officer of God, is assigned the case. Greene keeps his cards close to his chest so that we learn slowly of Inspector Khlid’s world (which vaguely reminded me of BioShock for some reason).
Alongside Inspector Khlid we meet two of her colleagues, Samuel, who happens to be her husband, and Chapman, who is a bit of a wild card. They all approach the case differently and the tension between them, particularly between Samuel and Chapman, adds an edge to their interactions.
Within these pages, there is violence, monsters, corruption, and betrayals.
Breach of Peace presents its readers with flawed characters, an atmospheric setting, and a gripping storyline. While we do get the occasional moment of humor, this novella is dark with strong roots in the noir genre.
This novella is quite clearly setting up the story for the future The Lawful Times novellas so readers who prefer self-contained stories may be better off skipping this one (or you could always wait for the rest to be published).
There was the occasional turn of phrase that was a wee bit conventional and there were aspects of the world that I wish had been explored some more but overall this is a solid novella that ultimately managed to subvert my expectations (I mean….that ending was something). I will definitely be reading the next one!

my rating: ★★★½

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Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

“Life is one long side street with about a million crossroads, Sorry used to tell me when I was a boy. Every hour, sometimes every minute, you got to make the choice which way to go. Some of them turns don’t matter but don’t let that fool ya. The minute you start to think that one way is just like t’other, that’s when the shit come down.”

Blood Grove is hard-boiled crime at its best. Walter Mosley’s smooth and level-headed narrator is a Black private investigator in 1960s LA. Easy is, excuse my pun, easy to root for. While Easy is close friends with some not so morally upright individuals, his integrity and empathy set him apart from other hard-boiled PI. The mystery is intriguing if labyrinthine, and I enjoyed seeing how things would unravel. Easy’s latest case is a knotty one. A young white veteran clearly suffering from PTSD claims he may or may have not killed a man who was attacking a young woman. Easy, who fought in WWII, feels sympathy towards this clearly traumatized young man and so begins his investigation.

Throughout the course of the novel, we encounter big and small crime bosses, racist and incompetent policemen, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and Femme Fatales. Mosley’s commentary on race, sexism, inequality, corruption, war, and violence felt at times all too pertinent to our own times (showing how some things change, and some things don’t). I found Easy’s unflappability reassuring and the inclusion of his home life (such as his bond with his daughter) made him all the more endearing.
Not only does Easy’s narration have style but the crackling dialogues and vivid descriptions (“If a smile had a sound his would have been a death knell.”) make for some spectacular reading material. Also, for those wondering whether you have to read the previous novels in order to be able to appreciate this one, I, personally, did not have any trouble ‘catching’ on to things. Mosley doesn’t reiterate the events that occurred in the previous novels but he gives us an idea of who’s who.
If you are a fan of Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or if you, like me, loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland you should definitely read this.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

 

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1) by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.

My rating: 3 ¼ stars

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