Category Archives: Mystery

Curious Objects and Unforeseen Consequences

Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous object found in an unusual place can spark an equally unusual train of thought that leads to the creation of something quite unexpected. Thus it was that a year ago I happened to be holidaying in France in a rather idyllic gîte that had retained a number of its original features. One of these was its bread oven, which had long ago ceased to be used for its intended purpose, and now remained solely as an object of decoration. Whereas I was content to leave it be and pay it but the most cursory attention, my wife, imbued with a Pandora-like curiosity, insisted upon easing the grille from its mouth and looking within. Thankfully, although this action did not unleash a stream of untold horrors upon us, it, and what was inside – a handful of aged curios which included this pair of old boots – did unleash the imagination.

We challenged each other to come up with an idea for a story based upon the oven and its contents, and having mulled this over for half an hour or so, we discussed our ideas, which although both taking the supernatural as a central theme, were quite divergent in both their tone and subject matter. It was mine that proved to be the grimmer of the two, and this is what has lately come to fruition in my novelette entitled – perhaps unsurprisingly – The Bread Oven.

Although our accommodation last year happened to be in Normandy, the story was transplanted to neighbouring Brittany, from which it takes certain additional elements. Whereas it is a relatively modest piece in terms of its length, it had to wait until last week to see the light of day, as I’ve been busy with other writing projects in the interim. I’d originally intended to publish it later this year, but interruptions to the composition of my next novel led me to pause and publish this shorter piece first.

The Bread Oven is a contemporary tale, in which the past nonetheless looms large. In part ghost story, in part something else altogether, its opening may contain hints of the strangeness to come, but in all respects otherwise resembles the normal everyday world which we all inhabit. To give away any more would risk spoiling the story, so without further ado I invite you, should you dare, to enter the world of The Bread Oven.

the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks Restoration London.

A review of The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral stands at the centre of this complex historical murder mystery that vividly transports the reader to the London of the Great Fire and its immediate aftermath. Its first chapter literally – pardon the pun – crackles, as the old edifice is reduced to ruins and ashes amidst the roaring of the flames. This is where the novel’s dual protagonists – James Marwood and Catherine Lovett – encounter each other for the first time, and not for the last. It is a novel that plays with identities, real and assumed, weaving fictional characters into the lives of historical personages, with deception and subterfuge at its heart. Rape, murder, greed and religious fanaticism are given free rein to wreak their bloody work, whilst the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks the world of Restoration London.

Both Marwood and Lovett have familial skeletons in the cupboard that leave them vulnerable to manipulation from without, and the reader’s sympathy is engaged as they attempt to find a place in the world for themselves whilst being employed as tools in the stratagems of others. Catherine Lovett makes for an unusual female lead, being possessed of a taste for architectural drawing, but proving to be as free and easy with the knife, as she is deft with the pen.

The book is lengthy, but the shortness of the chapters and the pace of the prose ensures that the reader’s attention is not lost. It is likely, however, to appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to those with a taste purely for crime and mystery, and although I have seen comparisons drawn between this volume and the works of C.J. Sansom, I must say that I prefer this one. That said, that may, at least in part, be down to my personal preference for the world of Restoration England over its Tudor equivalent, a preference expressed in my forthcoming novel The Gwennel Girl: A Cornish Mystery (to be notified of its discounted release, please click here to sign up to my mailing list).

Review of The Lost Village by Neil Spring

In this book, Neil Spring succeeds in creating moments of genuine horror that will make the reader flinch, but there were occasions, I’m afraid, when I flinched in horror for very different reasons altogether. It is a book that purports to have at its heart a supernatural mystery, specifically the haunting of the abandoned village of Imber, so I must make it clear that I have no problem with suspending disbelief in such phenomena for a story of this nature, but there were elements of this novel that simply stretched credulity beyond breaking point. From his description of Imber, for example, gripped by frost and covered in snow, you would think that he had set this tale in the middle of a harsh English winter, but the action unfolds at the end of October. Such weather at this time of year is atypical even for the lofty heights of the Cairngorm Mountains, let alone for Salisbury Plain. He even refers to it being ‘winter’ at one point, even though it is spelt out that the action is taking place around Halloween. Earlier in the story he describes the art deco fixtures of a cinema as being ‘old’, even though the character making this observation is reflecting on their ‘oldness’ in 1932, when Art Deco was the style of the moment.  

With respect to this self-same cinema, he makes mention of his characters hearing the wind whistling around outside whilst they are stood in its auditorium. Can anyone hear the wind when standing in the auditorium unless it should be issuing from the cinema’s speakers? No. To think that this could be the case is ‘a big ask’ on the part of the author, who places this anachronistic ‘big ask’ phrase into the mouth of his twenty-something heroine in the autumn of 1932. I can recall the jarring effect of hearing someone speak this phrase for the first time a few years ago, and concluded that it must have been a recent Transatlantic borrowing smuggled into English to displace the more restrained native ‘it’s a bit much’. Other Americanisms cropped up in the prose of this Welsh writer, slipped into the speech of his 1930s English characters, presumably to appeal to a contemporary American readership. The result left his prose bobbing about in the turbulent and choppy waters of the mid-Atlantic, but appearing far more artificial than the once well-known drawl of Masterchef and Through the Keyhole presenter Lloyd Grossman.  

I found that I warmed neither to his protagonist – Sarah Grey, anachronistically placing career before family – and her erstwhile employer/foil, the ghost hunter Harry Price, who came across as some sort of American gumshoe detective. On the plus side, the story did deliver an interesting twist at the end, but the central premise of the book simply didn’t ring true to me, as the author seemed to be projecting contemporary social norms regarding inheritance law into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The gentry could, and would, pass on the bulk of their estate to their eldest son, even if he did have older sisters; the existence of such sisters would not hinder this practice, and thus the central motivation for the frankly deranged and utterly unbelievable actions of the novel’s antagonist are removed at a stroke.  

Having said all of this, I might be seeming a little harsh, but my remarks and quibbles are intended to highlight how this could have been a better book. Many readers will find it to their taste and like it just as it is, but for me, it could have benefited from the attentions of a more competent copy editor, and a sharper and more-focused plot. It read more like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie than a novel, and I can imagine it making for a diverting enough 90 minutes or so on ‘film’. Don’t be surprised if reading this book summons up the unnerving spectres of Scooby and Shaggy: ‘If it weren’t for those pesky kids!’

The Ghost Hunter by Neil Spring may be purchased here.

Review of The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.

Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.

The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.

The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.

Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.

I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?

Review of ‘The Hidden People’ by Alison Littlewood

An Adult Fairy Tale without a Fairy-tale Ending.

Every now and again, I read a book by an author new to me that makes a real impression, and I wonder why their work, being so well crafted and written, is less lauded and well known than that of many other contemporary authors. The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood was one such book, and if you’ve not read it, and have a taste for the Gothic and folk horror, then I heartily recommend it.

In The Hidden People, Littlewood has woven a lyrical tale of enchantment, delusion and jealousy, in which urban Victorian rationality collides with lingering rural folk belief, with neither emerging unscathed. Whereas the much-lauded The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry aspires to explore these themes and fails to deliver upon its promise, this cannot be said of The Hidden People, for it is by far the better-written and more satisfyingly plotted book of the two. It is a novel steeped in the Gothic, in which the wild and outlandish sentiments of the uneducated country folk are rendered in a rich Yorkshire vernacular, which contrasts with the staid speech of the middle-class London protagonist, Albert Mirralls, whose presence is at best viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into what appears to be an everlasting bucolic summer.

Fairy lore and the spirit of Wuthering Heights loom large in this story, where the power of belief in the malign power of the fairy folk and changelings is convincingly portrayed, leaving the reader guessing as to what is real, and what is not, in a world refracted through the first-person narrative of ‘Albie’ Mirralls. It is his obsession with his cousin, Lizzie Thurlston, that provides the thread which the reader must follow with a compulsive zeal until the final revelation with which the book concludes. There is also a powerful underpinning theme of loss and yearning, which is expressed through the blindness of the central character to what he has, whilst he remains locked into the pursuit of his idée fixe, to the detriment of himself, and to those closest to him. It is a novel sure to appeal to those with a taste for historical fiction, mysteries, and psychological horror. That said, if forced to pigeonhole this work into a single genre, its best fit would be folk horror with a pronounced Gothic streak.

Another historical tale set in Yorkshire and drawing upon local folklore that might be to your taste is the occult mystery Upon Barden Moor, in which an Edwardian summer’s day swiftly yields to something altogether darker.

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Review of ‘Monk’s Hood’ by Ellis Peters

The edition of the book that I read, dating from 1990 (ten years after its initial publication), is riddled with typos, with the first one being displayed on the cover: Monks Hood rather than Monk’s Hood.  Still, despite these minor niggles, the story told by Peters is engaging enough, with Brother Cadfael emerging as a sympathetic and highly unconventional sleuth, for I must own to not knowing of any other twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist protagonist fulfilling such a role. The period detail was very well done, but I found the prose a little lumpy in places. It was well plotted with plenty of potential suspects to divert the attention of the reader, but following the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule I sensed that the appearance of a certain character very early in the story, and his subsequent absence until the latter stages of the book, pointed to him being the culprit. Was he? Well, if you want to find out for sure, you should read it yourself.  

All in all Peters needed a better editor for this book, but for all I know the issues that I have enumerated may well have been addressed in later editions.