Monday, October 21, 2019

Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson: Reading Room Review

Catriona McPherson is a born storyteller. She can no sooner stop from spellbinding readers with her writing than she can from entertaining them when she speaks. I've often wondered if she was born with a story flying out of her mouth instead of a cry. She creates the tales that grip a reader and haunt their dreams. Could a story be any better than that? Of course not. McPherson's latest thriller, Strangers at the Gate, is as chilling as the cold, wet weather that blows through the hollow of its Scottish setting. This is the magic of a Scottish author writing about the harsh, beautiful country that is itself a character of unsettling presence, a character to love, but to respect for its fierceness and its peril.

Finn and Paddy have come to the small village of Simmerton from the large, busy city of Edinburgh after accepting what appear to be perfect jobs, their dreams coming true before Finn ever imagined they would. It's a big change, but when Paddy had told her of the offer for him to become partner in a law firm, a partner before he was 40, and shortly after that, she was offered a full-time position as deacon the local Church of Scotland there, Finn knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The proverbial ship had come in, and moving to Simmerton was the only logical decision, especially with the offer of the rent-free gate house on Paddy's boss' estate for them to live in. It was a falling into place like few others. The name of the estate, Widdershins, did give Finn pause to wonder, as it was an unlucky name, and the closeness of the mountains and trees crowding into the valley and blocking out the sun produced a rather an ominous feeling, but the opportunities overshadowed the, well, shadows.

Within days of moving into the gate house, Finn and Paddy are invited to dinner by Lovatt Dudgeon, Paddy's boss, and Lovatt's wife Tuft at their house up the drive. The Dudgeons live in the dowager house, as the main estate house was consumed by fire many years prior. After a rather harrowing walk for Finn down the drive, with strange noises that Paddy convinces her are innocuous country reverberations, Finn is delighted that Tuft is such a breath of fresh air. Tuft makes Finn feel like Simmerton is going to indeed be a "golden" place. But, Finn's optimism is short-lived when she discovers she has forgotten her hand bag while walking back home, and she and Paddy return to the Dudgeon's house to retrieve it. Arriving back at the Dudgeon's, Finn and Paddy find the door open, so they go into the house to check things out, and what they find is a brutal murder. No one has seen them come in, so instead of calling the police, Paddy convinces Finn to return to their gate house, where he will explain why they can't call the police, something from his past that he doesn’t want scrutinized. So, they sit on their gruesome discovery and wait for someone else to come forward. Going about their days, trying to act normal, is a tall order for Paddy and Finn, as they wait for murder to be announced Meeting their nearby neighbors brings only more strangeness into their lives, and everyone seems to have a personal agenda and secrets that compound the suspense. I was wrong more than once in thinking I'd figured out what was and had happened, and I couldn't be more pleased to have been kept guessing.

Strangers at the Gate has quickly become one of my favorite suspense thrillers. No one does atmosphere better than Catriona McPherson. As Finn describes the saturation of her very being with the rain, I felt that same saturation in the atmosphere of the story. Characters are always a strong point of this author, too, and Finn is a deacon only Catriona McPherson could create. While she is not your mother's deacon, Finn is, with her full-spirited, smart, witty, and resourceful personality, still a disciple of the church and what is right and good. In the end, she must call upon all her strengths to survive both the ghosts from the past and the evil in the present. The plot of this tale is complex, delightfully twisty, but never unfairly.

Strangers at the Gate is my #1 recommendation for a Halloween mystery/thriller read, but it is a great read at any time. It is one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to reread it next Halloween. Truth be told, I've already reread the first thirty pages of it, and I can tell you that in rereading it, the cleverness of Catriona McPherson's writing will pop out at you all over again in those carefully chosen words, which we call clues.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced reader's copy from the author, and I am giving my honest, gobsmacked reaction and review to this book.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Strangers in the Attic: A Halloween Tale by Catriona McPherson

Halloween is my favorite time of year.  The leaves have all changed colors, there's a crispness to the air, the Halloween candy over-floweth, pumpkins and goblins and ghosts and witches and bats are everywhere, and scary stories are read with a special apprehension.  I have old favorite stories, like "The Legend of Sleep Hollow" by Washington Irving and Halloween Party by Agatha Christie , and I have new ones that are absolutely, wonderfully chilling.  My favorite new scary read this year is Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson.  I'll be posting a review for it the first of next week, but let me just say now that it might be my favorite book by this brilliant author, and that's saying a lot because I love everything I've read by her.  I highly recommend Strangers at the Gate for your Halloween read this year.   It will be this coming Tuesday, Oct. 22nd, so there's plenty of time to pre-order it still and read it by the fire with the lights turned low.  

And, now for a special treat, before Strangers at the Gate comes out, Catriona has written an account of her own spooky encounter in "Strangers in the Attic."

Strangers in the Attic by Catriona McPherson

It’s lovely to be back in the Reading Room. Thank you for having me, Kathy. And thank you for asking me to write a spooky blog for this spooky month.

Strangers at the Gate has some shivers and jumps in it – or so people are saying (thank you!) – and I certainly made myself freak out now and then as I wrote it, all alone in an isolated house up a dirt road, with just a black cat for (slightly ironic) comfort.

But it was nothing compared with the worst “all alone in an isolated house with only a cat” freak out. Gather round, closer to the firelight, and I’ll tell you . . .

In Scotland, we lived in  creaky old farmhouse in a valley, with no other houses in sight. There were no lights at all visible from our windows after dark, just trees and black sky. And my husband travelled a lot, so I was alone there much of the time. I read Stephen King there, slept with the windows wide open, never worried about anything much. Until the night I decided it would be a good idea to watch Panic Room.

                                                    the old farmhouse

Now Panic Room, for those who don’t know, is a film about a woman all alone in a big house in the dark. Well, she wasn’t really alone: she had her daughter. And actually I wasn’t really alone: I had two cats.  It was them that started the trouble.

There I was watching Jodie Foster slowly realize that there were intruders in her house, when all of a sudden both cats sat bolt upright, ears back, and stared at the living room door. Then they slunk down off the couch and went creeping along the corridor, bellies close to the floor.

I followed them. When I got to the kitchen they were peering round the door that led through a back hallway to the old dairy – a place of peeling paint, crumbling plaster and cobwebs. Together the three of us made our way there and looked around. Or should I say, around and up? Up the ladder that led, via a trap door, to the cheese loft. 

“Huh,” I said. “That’s weird. Why’s the trap door open, Pop-?” I glanced down to the floor. “Poppy? Spud?” But the cats had fled.

(not actual attic)

Now then. I could have got my car keys and driven forty miles to check into a hotel. I could even have walked straight out the back door and gone along the road to the nearest neighbors. I could have phoned my husband, or a friend, or the cops. But all of these plans included me having to say “Funny coincidence. Hahaha. I happened to be watching Panic Room when I realized there were intruders in my house too!” And then I’d feel like a chump and never hear the end of it.

What would you have done? Left the house? Gone up the ladder? Finished watching the film? Or would you have done what I did, which was as follows: switch the telly off, get the two fire pokers from beside the living room fireplace, go to bed and try to stay awake, planning – when “he” came down the ladder and crept through the house to find me – to throw a poker at him across the bedroom. Then, I thought to myself, he’d think I was defenseless, on account of how in most households pokers come in units of one, like kettles. So he’d advance, cackling maniacally with his eyes glowing red, and I’d bring the other poker out from under the covers and clobber him to mush with it.

Perfect plan. 
 Scottish Weapons

I didn’t have to put it into action because, surprisingly, he left in the night without bothering to come and find me. Or it was a pigeon. I still don’t know why the trapdoor was open, mind you. And a couple of weeks later, when I was all alone in the house again, and I paused The Sixth Sense to make a cup of tea, and had to go down to the old dairy to the fridge to get some milk, I didn’t look up. Would you?


                                       Halloween is sunnier at the new house. 

Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which STRANGERS AT THE GATE is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.

Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie: Reading Room Review

There’s a question that surfaces every so often for readers. What books would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island. As with most questions concerning favorite books, I fudge a little and give myself some license to expand the question. So, I choose the entire Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid mystery/crime series by author Deborah Crombie. Granted, there are a few other series that would be sitting with my supply of coconuts, but Gemma and Duncan will always be there. Every book in this series has been an immersive experience in exceptional characters, old and new, engrossing setting, and gripping story. Under the direction of Deborah Crombie’s masterful pen, the words flow into phrases, the phrases into sentences, and the sentences into pages of unforgettable journey with two of the best characters in crime fiction. There is life in these stories that sweeps the reader into complete engagement. And, the latest entry in this series, A Bitter Feast (#18), is one of the best books of one of the best series. Yet, having said that last statement, if I were to go back and read an earlier installment in the series, it’s probable that I would also deem it one of the best. How great is that? Always knowing that you will love a book and it will be a best read.

Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James and their three children have been invited to the Cotswold estate of Melody Talbot’s parents. Melody is Gemma’s proved detective sergeant and has always been rather reticent to discuss her wealthy background, Melody’s father being the publisher of a major London newspaper, and her mother being the money behind the paper. So, the invitation to spend a weekend at Beck House in one of England’s most beautiful locations, the Costwolds, is a lovely getaway for Duncan and Gemma, and it’s a step forward for Melody in dealing with blending her two lives. Doug Cullen, Duncan’s right hand man, is also in the guest party. They all arrive in different ways and at different times, and Duncan’s arrival turns out to be quite the perilous one that leads to a busman’s holiday for Duncan and Gemma. 

Melody’s mother, Lady Adelaide, is hosting a charity luncheon for the community, catered by the local chef, Viv Holland, who is also the proprietor of the Lamb Pub. Chef Viv has gained a loyal local following after returning from some years in London to her home area and making a concerted effort to use local produce and goods in her dishes. The luncheon could bring national attention to Viv’s culinary skills, something she finally feels ready for. Author Deborah Crombie has created some of the most memorable new characters, those outside of the constant family of characters, in the different books, keeping the series fresh while satisfying readers’ need for the familiar, too. Viv Holland is the latest in those memorable new characters, and A Bitter Feast is very much Viv’s story, as her life past and present connects directly to the plot’s unfolding and resolution. 

The problems, as must always arise, start with Duncan’s perilous journey to Beck House when he is involved in an auto crash with two fatalities, one of whom has a history with Chef Viv. Duncan is quite shaken in the crash, but he still gets involved in the investigation into it, as does Gemma. An investigation into the accident becomes necessary mostly due to the discovery that one of the two fatalities, from the same car, was dead before the accident occurred. That particular fatality has ties to Viv when she lived in London and involves information she would rather see stay in the past. But secrets from the past are a hard ghost to keep buried, and when the danger to others intensifies, Viv worries she hasn’t outrun her past. 

Told from multiple points of view, it is captivating to see how cleverly all the information comes together to answer all the questions and solve all the mysteries. As I noted earlier, this story belongs to Viv, and it is with Crombie’s smooth transitions readers will travel back with Viv to her London days and what brought her back to the village of Lower Slaughters in Gloucestershire. The inner workings of a high-end restaurant and the food descriptions in the book are fascinating. The artistry and passion of a chef’s work is evident, and the drive to achieve a Michelin star is an intense struggle. Insight into Gemma’s and Duncan’s and the police’s investigation, their process, of the crimes allows the reader to feel the suspense of getting closer to the killer. The staff of Viv’s pub and Viv’s daughter provide additional information that connects to those murdered and the murderer. 

Another multiplicity that the author deftly handles is that of a number of intriguing characters. Under Deborah Crombie’s direction, there is never any confusion nor difficulty in remembering the characters, as they are blended beautifully into the thrilling plot. We have Duncan and Gemma and their children—Kit, Toby, and Charlotte—and, readers will enjoy an expanded part for Kit in this story. The characters from Viv’s pub, which she co-owns with Bea Abbott, and Viv’s daughter all play important parts. Then there are Melody’s parents and Melody, their staff, and the village residents helping to move the plot forward, with Melody’s father making introductions between Duncan and the local police. It’s another first-rate cast that performs brilliantly. And, of course, nobody does setting any better than Deborah Crombie. Her books set in the different parts of London make the reader see, feel, and taste the place. She does no less for the Costwolds, bringing the beauty of this tranquil setting right into your heart. 

The many fans of this series will heartily attest to the pleasure of reading from book one to this book, #18, and getting to know Gemma and Duncan and the other familiar characters. But, here is the hidden gem to A Bitter Feast. It could be read as a stand-alone story. Again, there’s nothing quite like reading the development of characters from one book to the next, but a reader who hasn’t read the previous 17 novels could read this current book with immense satisfaction. However readers come to A Bitter Feast, long-time fans or new readers, the result is an outstanding read. For me, A Bitter Feast was a delectable feast indeed.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of A Bitter Feast from the author.