Month: March 2016

Moody Review Round-Up

In the strictest sense of the word, I don’t really do reviews. I don’t like to. I feel drastically under-qualified, and as an author myself, massively hypocritical when judging other people. This is why, as you might have noticed, I only ever publish good reviews on here. If I don’t like something, then I won’t write about it.

Perhaps that’s wrong – there’s certainly value to be found in critical evaluation. But in a blog full of death it’s nice to have some positivity, and to bastardise Lesley Gore, it’s my murder blog, I’ll be nice if I want to.

With this in mind, I thought I’d do a brief recommendations round-up of books I have read and loved, long before this blog was a dark shadow on the very edge of your peripheral vision.

A lot of these are books which have been out a good long time, and pulled me deeper into the abyss of murder mysteries and sharpened my interest in psychology. When I’ve not read a book for a long time what I tend to remember about it is mood, and these books are dark, psychological, and moving. Oddly enough, three of these books live together on the same shelf on my bookcase.

The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

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A young woman who feels a connection to the victims of a serial killer searches for the key to uncovering his identity.

I started reading this in bed, late at night and quickly had to stop. I saved it instead for periods of bright sunlight because I am a giant wuss, and this is absolutely chilling. Like reading someone’s nightmare.

The Drowning People – Richard Mason

Proof (if proof were needed) that these are my badly cropped scans. £2.00! Bargain!

Proof (if proof were needed) that these are my badly cropped scans. £2.00! Bargain!

Reflections in the aftermath of a murder.

Discovered in a charity shop and couldn’t live without. Beautiful, bewitching and painful in equal measure. Foolish young things in love refusing to think of the consequences of their actions. One of those books which has stuck with me, and that regularly comes to mind.

True Things About Me – Deborah Kaye Davies

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A woman drawn into a destructive and addictive relationship struggles to find a way out.

I  kept it on my shelves for a while, then when I was feeling at my lowest ebb I ran a bath, poured myself some vodka, and read it in one sitting. When I was done I cried into the cold water, and the next day I began to sort myself out. There are books which change your life, and this irrevocably altered mine.

The Observations – Jane Harris

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A maid with a past she’d rather keep hidden is asked to carry out increasingly odd tasks by her new mistress, and encouraged to keep a diary of her most intimate thoughts.

My first foray into claustrophobic historical mysteries, and the first time I read “fuck” in a book, if I remember rightly. Unusual as well in that it’s a first person account told by a highly literate maid. Amusing and frightening by turns.

 

There are many more, of course, and I’ll likely do a couple more round-ups over the next few months. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What would you add to the list?

Captured Shadows

REVIEW – Beyond the Dark Veil : Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive – Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger

Grief is an odd and difficult thing. Until recently I was lucky enough not to have lost anybody close to me, and when I did, the raw rip of grief was something I struggled to understand even as it devastated me. It isolates you in your pain, and yet it unites you with every human in history.

Never has every human in history felt closer than when reading this collection of Victorian Post-Mortem and Mourning Photography, from the Thanos Archive.

It's impossible to do justice to this glossy, golden, embossed beauty of a book in a photograph

It’s impossible to do justice to this glossy, golden, embossed beauty of a book in a photograph

This is a beautiful volume, the kind that is a pleasure to hold in your hands as you run gentle fingertips over the shallow embossing on the cover. I really felt it was a thing of great importance before I even opened it – a feeling which only grew as I read, going through all 200 thick pages in one sitting and almost breaking my own heart.

There’s a theory I’ve always liked, that when you die, you live on for as long as there is somebody to remember you. You survive in memory, if not in spirit, which is one thing which makes this collection of Victorian mourning photography so hauntingly beautiful. By locking eyes with the long past dead or nearly dead, do we resurrect their souls, allowing them to live on for as long as we remember them?

Probably not. But the theatre of Victorian mourning is something beautiful, and the culmination of habits humanity has refined over millennia. These traditions, as explained in this hefty tome, fell out of favour during the first and second World Wars, when so many died it would have been too much mourning for society to take, and the fear was it would break the nation’s spirit.

For a book mainly comprised of high quality prints, it’s an absolute trove of information, and I gleaned four pages of notes from my read-through. I always think it’s easier to learn fact by reading fiction or watching a documentary – something immersive rather than dry – and this largely picture-based book had the same sort of effect. It’s learning by osmosis rather than forcing facts into your brain and hoping they stay there.

This post has been a real struggle to write. Nothing has flowed as it should, and I know I haven’t done this book justice. It was the most powerful and moving thing I have ever read, and several times during my read-through I wondered why I was putting myself through it. It isn’t necessary to immerse myself in so much death. Perhaps it isn’t wise, either. But the more I learn, the more fascinated I am by the culture which surrounds it, and the history of people’s association with death. It fascinates us all, it is the great unknown. The tradition with which we surround death is the culmination of millennia of trying to understand what we can never hope to.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. It isn’t an easy read, but there is something to be said about confronting your own mortality in so forthright a manner. Similarly, there is something oddly comforting about seeing the preserved memories of those who had been so loved, still showing that love after over a century later. Like these 200+ people, perhaps we will not be forgotten, even when those who knew and loved us have long since passed.

Find Beyond the Dark Veil on amazon.co.uk

Little Belgians and Moustachioed Victorians

REVIEW: Death on a Branch Line – Andrew Martin

Last month I bought myself the complete box set of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Not only had nobody thought to buy me them previously (!) but this formed a very important part of my *research*.

The research period of any novel or series is an odd one. It’s extremely flexible in terms of what you (I) can justify as research. For instance, I am going to write mysteries set in Victorian Leeds, so I am researching plot structure, and the time period. So I can binge watch 6 episodes of Poirot and justify it as working, even if I’ve made my way through the best part of a bottle of wine while I was at it. I’m looking at the structure, darling.

OK, I admit this is stretching it, but my goodness, Poirot is cracking good fun. David Suchet is tremendous as the little Belgian, and I’ve reignited my childhood crush on Captain Hastings (he’s just so nice, why don’t the ladies like him!?). Not to mention the tour de force that is Miss Lemon, my secretarial idol.

And this happened, taking one of the top spots of "Best things that have ever happened in my life, ever ever".

And this happened, taking one of the top spots of “Best things that have ever happened in my life, ever ever”.

In fairness to myself, I have learned a lot about character development from these binges, come to a few realisations on plotting and structure, and on what works for me and doesn’t. Which is great – just think how much I’ll learn watching the remaining 40+ episodes! Oh yes, Poirot is exercising my little grey cells. Also discovered through the wonderful medium that is Twitter that Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings) has a thriller coming out soon.

But my research hasn’t solely comprised of Poirot. Even I can’t justify that. It’s also extended to a Victorian mystery, Death on a Branch Line.

One scorching day in York Train Station, Jim Stringer, railway detective, finds himself in conversation with a condemned man. Not convinced of the man’s guilt, Jim believes him when he warns of another death in the offing at his home, in the isolated village of Adenwold. In the company of his wife, Lydia, and in the middle of a scorching heatwave, Jim takes to the rails to investigate.

Come to think of it, I can't recall if he's described as moustachioed in the text, but who doesn't like a blushing Victorian?

Come to think of it, I can’t recall if he’s described as moustachioed in the text, but who doesn’t like a blushing Victorian?

Now then. This was really, really good. A character-driven mystery which was genuinely perplexing and chocka with historical detail. There’s a quote on the back that aligned it with a BBC serial, and that is exactly how it was. A three parter around Christmas, perhaps? Come on, BBC! Get to it!

Perhaps the reason this hasn’t happened yet is one of the main reasons I liked it. Liberal amounts of swearing. 

And it works. This is written first person, from Jim’s PoV, and all that swearing sounds completely natural. A railway detective working on a difficult case in a heatwave would be dropping F-bombs all over the place.

Even better than the liberal amounts of swearing (and I never thought I would write those words) was the wonderful and three-dimensional portrayal of Lydia, Jim’s wife. This is particularly notable given that she is referred to as Lydia about three times, and all the rest as “the wife”. She’s a suffragette, which Jim is tolerant of, but doesn’t understand, and absolutely pivotal in the solving of the case. And here’s the thing, Jim treats her as you’d fully expect a railway detective to treat his wife. He assumes she’s wrong about things and is speaking out of turn, while at the same time being very proud of her, very much in love with her, and not a little bit in awe. What I was left with was the impression of a woman who I admired, and wanted to know more about. This is one book in a Jim Stringer series, and I will read more only because I want to know more about Lydia.

I’m not sure what made me pick this up in the first place, because I have a “railways are boring” mentality, but this book actually made railways interesting to me. Perhaps I don’t just like lady books after all…!

Find on Amazon.co.uk here…

200 Litres Of Atmospheric Air

REVIEW: Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented – Walter Hayden, William Tebb & Edward Perry Vollum

I always have a hard time visualising units. Take 200 litres of air. That’s, what – 100 two litre bottles of Vimto? How much does that look like? It seems like a lot (particularly of Vimto), but let me tell you this, when it comes to atmospheric air, it is not enough.

I have this thing about running out of air. I hate video game levels where they’re underwater and you have to swim through an air bubble before Sonic dies. Not that I mind so much when Sonic dies, because he’s extremely annoying. Still, though. Every time the clock starts to tick down I feel claustrophobic, my chest gets tight and I start to hold my breath without realising. I even do it in that bit in Finding Nemo when they’re above water. What the hell, Katherine!?

In spite of all this, Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented seemed to me like a good read – my idea of a fun time. And don’t get me wrong, it was. It’s a contemporary Victorian report with a rash of examples of people being mistaken for dead and buried alive.

And it is so very chilling.

Warning to bat fans - image not indicative of content. Sad lack of bats in the text.

Warning to bat fans – image not indicative of content. Sad lack of bats in the text.

This book is a collection of anecdotes and newspaper clippings from throughout the nineteenth century, about people who gave every appearance of being dead but, in fact, were still alive. There are some incredible descriptions of people saved from an early grave just in the nick of time, and an equal or greater number of discoveries that happened just too late. And that’s only the ones who were discovered. Here’s the thing – you are highly diverted until you remember, these are (purportedly) true accounts. Then the air seems a little thin.

So I’m now actively concerned about being buried alive. A very real risk when you appear to be dead but are in fact not, which clearly happens all the time.

I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t been used more in fiction – and it hasn’t in any of the Gothic mysteries I’ve come across – but I can’t help but think that if it had, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’d have tossed the book aside with a snort of derision and been a little bit cross about it for a couple of days.They expected me to believe that, I’d have scorned, and I would have been wrong to do so. It’s one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction, which is a shame because I’d quite like to use it in a book. Perhaps in passing, rather than as a major plot point? What do you think, would you believe it?

The 200 litres mentioned in the intro was relevant – it’s the average amount of air you have when you’ve been sealed in a coffin, and it will last you 20-40 minutes. Which is more than I’d expect, but nowhere near enough.

I’m immersing myself in this death stuff, not just for morbid kicks but because I’m researching Victorian mortuaries and funeral practices for t’next book series. I’m finding it difficult to get information on some of the more nitty-gritty aspects, like body preservation. I know all about jet beads and crape, but I’m struggling finding out the more medical aspects. Any sources you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about! I think a trip to Thackray Medical Museum is in the offing…

Find Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented on Amazon.co.uk…

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