Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 7)

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

The blurb of See What I Have Done concludes with the tag-line “You know the rhyme. You don’t know the story.” It’s alarmingly accurate, because before I read this fictional retelling of the life and crimes(?) of Lizzie Borden, I knew basically nothing about her beyond the schoolyard chant.

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one

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Turns out, there’s a bit more to the story than that. Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were indeed hacked to death with an axe in there Massachusetts home, on 4 August 1892. Lizzie was the one to discover her father’s body, calling out to the maid that ‘someone’s killed Father’. After a brief investigation, Lizzie was charged with the murder and put to trial – only to be acquitted, largely because the jury found it hard to fathom that a delicate, feminine little lady could commit such a heinous crime.

So, officially, the murders have never been solved, and they’ve been rich fodder for pop culture ever since. There’s been movies, TV shows, musicals, plays, novels, and of course the skipping rope rhyme. So, Sarah Schmidt ventured onto well-trod ground when she wrote See What I Have Done.

Schmidt’s version of the story is told through the eyes of four narrators: Lizzie; her sister, Emma; her maid, Bridget; and a creepy stranger, Benjamin. Each of them has their own motivation for wanting the senior Bordens dead, each of them has their own secret knowledge about the nature of the crime. Schmidt doesn’t style See What I Have Done as a whodunnit, though, and there’s no neat answer to ‘solve’ the crime by the end. Instead, she gives the reader glimpses into possibilities, what could have happened, and leaves us to drawn our own conclusions about the identity of the murderer. Really, it’s not even her focus – the focus is the Borden family.

In Schmidt’s retelling, the Bordens were all kinds of toxic. The father is prone to fits of violence, the stepmother is narcissistic and cruel, the spinster sisters are desperate to escape but inextricably entangled in each other, and given all that, it’s unsurprising cracks formed in the family unit. The claustrophobia of the Borden house is symbolised in the recurring motif of the pot of mutton stew, bubbling away on the stove for days and making each member of the Borden household sick in turn (presumably a clever nod to the accusation that Lizzie Borden tried and failed to poison her parents before taking to them with an axe).

See What I Have Done is full of rich, sensory descriptions, particularly smells that will have you wrinkling your nose. You’ll lose track of how many times characters vomit, how many times they find flecks of blood, and how often they feel stifled by the heat. It’s highly effective, but hardly a pleasant reading experience. Schmidt’s clear talent for vivid writing almost works against her, in that sense.

As with any book with multiple narrators, there’s one that steals the show – in this case, it’s Lizzie, unreliable and unsettled and dishonest as she might be. She’s childlike in the most chilling way, the kind of immature brat that can’t see past the end of her own nose but you could totally believe would kill her parents in a petulant fit. You’d think that having her narrate the story (in part, at least) would force Schmidt’s hand in revealing her innocence or culpability – not so. With some clever narrative sleight of hand, Lizzie’s guilt remains ambiguous. It’s not even clear whether she knows whether or not she did it.

The strength of Lizzie’s voice meant that there was some unrealised potential, in my opinion, in the perspectives of Bridget and Benjamin. See What I Have Done could have even been a two-parter, with the first volume of the story unfolding between Lizzie and Emma, then revisited with Bridget and Benjamin, giving us more scope to explore their stories. I was also disappointed to see the trial and Lizzie’s acquittal effectively skipped over, retold from a distance in a few short paragraphs towards the end of the novel.

I suppose I can see Schmidt’s reasoning, though – the trial has been well covered in other fictional accounts of this sorry saga, and it would’ve been a distraction from The Point of See What I Have Done. Schmidt isn’t exploring who committed the murders of the senior Bordens, she’s interrogating why they might have happened, and where our sympathies could lie between the main players. It makes for a confounding and uncomfortable read, but one that provides great fodder for a book club discussion.

My favourite Amazon reviews of See What I Have Done:

  • “I disapointingly trudged through it as I read a novel that was basically about nothing much except Lizzie being a ADHD woman-child with a licking fetish.” – paintedrnlady
  • “I don’t know how it’s possible to make Lizzie Borden boring but this was about as exciting as reading a calculus textbook.” – suekitty13
  • “children might need sound effects, but adult readers do not need to be told that the clock went tick, tick. Or something went thump, thump, or rattle, rattle. Amateurish writing. I gave up after a few chapters.” – POV
  • “See What I Have Done is just a rehash of the facts of the time and the murders with Ms Schmidt’s opinions and imagination added to the story.” – Ann Bresnan

The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a time-travel, body-hopping murder mystery – every bit as complicated as it sounds, all the more for the fact that it has more than one title. It was originally published as The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle in most English-speaking territories, but then renamed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for U.S. publication (due to its unfortunate similarity to The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, coincidentally released around the same time). So, if you’re already confused, you’re not the only one.

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The story starts with our narrator running through a forest, forgetting who he is, and immediately witnessing a murder. All that before coffee? A rough start to the day! It turns out this isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. He’s doomed to repeat this day again and again, each time in the body of a different guest in a crumbling mansion, until he solves a murder. His memories are wiped each time, the clock resets, and he has to put all the pieces together before it happens again. His only ally appears to be ‘Anna’, the woman whose name he was shouting in the forest when his memories disappeared.

All the guests, including the ones our narrator will be embodying, have gathered at Blackheath manor for a morbid party of sorts. Each of them were present at a similar party at the same house nineteen years earlier, where one of the Hardcastle children was murdered. History is going to repeat itself, and our narrator (clue-y guy that he is) determines that the two deaths must be related.

Oh, and just to up the stakes even further, our narrator learns – from a creepy guy in a medieval plague doctor mask who’s following him around – that there are two other people ‘competing’ with him to solve the murder, and only the first to do so will be allowed to leave Blackheath. The remaining failed amateur detectives will have to stay trapped in the cycle forever. And there’s another guy (“the footman”) trying to murder them all before they crack the case, anyway.

So, I have a lot of thoughts. The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, at its bones, is a great concept, but I think Turton was a bit ambitious in the execution. There’s a LOT going on, a lot of secrets and at least three central mysteries, and most of the time the narrator is just as confused and clueless as the reader. In my view, mysteries only really work when you feed the reader enough information to get a foothold – we need that purchase to be truly invested in the outcome. As it stands, Evelyn seems nice enough and all, but it’s hard to get worked up about who murders her when it’s only one of about a thousand questions with no forthcoming answers.

Here are some of the mysteries I noted down as I was wading through The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle:

  • Plague Doctor = who?
  • Footman = who?
  • Anna = who/why?
  • Evelyn’s mother = where?
  • Evelyn’s murderer = who/why/how?
  • Thomas’s murderer = who/why?
  • The narrator = who/why?
  • The whole dang situation = why?

Another mystery – not explicitly mentioned in the plot, but particularly baffling to me – is why are none of the ‘hosts’ women? All the guests that our narrator embodies are men. Was Turton simply afraid of having to describe the lived experience of having breasts, on top of everything else going on in his book? (That said, given how unkindly he described the only fat character in the novel, perhaps it’s a blessing he didn’t try his hand at a different gender.)

In sum, The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a multi-player Black Mirror-esque game of Cluedo, with time travel and body swapping and a ticking clock. The Times called it “an astonishingly polished debut”, but conceded that “the plot of this complex, fascinating and bewildering murder-mystery is impossible to summarise” – two points that seem at odds, to me. Turton might have been better off waiting until he’d honed his craft with simpler novels before attempting something so tricky – either that, or simplifying the plot, cutting out the murderous footman and a few other barely-necessary foils, to make it easier for the reader to appreciate his bold concept.

I did think, while reading it, that The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle would work better on screen, where you get the visual cues of faces and settings and more time to tease out the complicated knots in this plot. Netflix did acquire the rights and begin production on a seven-part series back in 2020, but apparently they announced last year that they’re scrapping the project – too bad. I hold out hope that someone else will pick it up, because The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle as a book has been translated into 28 languages and sold over a million copies, so surely the audience is here for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle:

  • “Its as if the author wrote the entire book in chronological order and then threw the manuscript into the air and the editor picked them up in random order and published it in that random order.” – Disappointed Viewer
  • “Terrible. Unbelievable characters doing pointless, ridiculous things.” – Kkat
  • “If I had a “do-over” of my day, it would be to not have acquired and read this book in the first place.” – rotroha
  • “The only mystery about this book was why I was reading it.” – R.H.L.M. Ramsay

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal

If the title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows doesn’t catch your eye, I don’t know how to help you. Knowing nothing else about this book, I knew I had to read it. Somehow, the title raises a bunch of questions, but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the tin. Brilliant!

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If I had to sum up the thesis of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, I’d say it’s: every woman has a hidden life, and every community has things they don’t talk about. Sometimes, those secrets collide.

Nikki is a twenty-something woman living in London, straddling the worlds of her immigrant parents and her modern contemporaries. She’s a bit directionless (as twenty-somethings tend to be), having dropped out of law school to ‘find her passion’. That search has taken her to a small apartment above a pub where she works a few nights each week, much to her family’s chagrin.

Nikki’s sister has chosen a different path: a respectable profession (nursing) and entering into the marriage market. She asks Nikki to post an ad on a Southall temple message board for young people seeking arranged marriages, and there Nikki finds an intriguing ad of her own. The Sikh Community Association is seeking a creative writing teacher to teach story writing to women – and Nikki, out of curiosity more than anything, takes the job.

But this is Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, so I’m sure you can guess that the storytelling workshop doesn’t work out exactly the way Nikki expects. The proper Sikh widows who attend the class are barely literate, and they’re expecting to learn the English alphabet and grammar, not narrative perspective and literary style. They soon discover, thanks to a gag gift they discover on Nikki’s desk, the world of erotic stories, and realise they’d have a lot more fun telling their own than learning their ABCs.

The erotic stories these Punjabi widows tell aren’t just wink-wink euphemistically sexy – they’re straight up spicy. It turns out these women are hiding a lot under their white dupattas. As the women delve deeper into their fantasies and the radical act of openly communicating their desires, Nikki grows concerned about the community’s reaction to her classes – specifically the Brotherhood, the young men who style themselves as the ‘moral police’.

The title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows might mislead some readers (it misled me, I’m not too proud to admit it) into thinking this is purely a comedic novel, an older-women-behaving-badly romp with lots of literal lols. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s also meaningful, and there’s a lot of depth to it if you’re reading it as a feminist text. It’s a book about how women experience and express desire in cultures that are policed by men. It’s about sexuality as a source of confidence, both in and out of the bedroom. And it’s about the power to determine one’s own life, and pursue one’s own happiness.

I particularly appreciated the diversity of the arranged marriages depicted in Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – both how they happen, and how they turn out. For a long time, the dominant Anglo narrative about arranged marriages was that they were universally awful (especially for women), and shackled two people together for life, site unseen, simply because their parents said so. Then, as far as I can see, there was a bit of an over-correction, and we had a run of stories about modern arranged marriages that worked perfectly because the couple fell in love for real. In Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, there are both very traditional arranged marriages and more contemporary and flexible arranged marriages, ones that work well and ones that don’t. More diversity in our perspective and understanding can only be a good thing, and this book definitely contributes to that.

Reese Witherspoon picked Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows for her reading list in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. As she said, it’s “a mystery, a romance, a family drama… and yes it’s 🔥 🔥 🔥!” – total Reese catnip.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows:

  • “too raunchy to be interesting” – M. Edwards
  • “just silly. misleading title to entice buying.” – KAVANJIT SINGH
  • “The book had romance and murder! Would recommend” – sam
  • “The so called “Erotic Stories” didn’t blow my skirt up.” – I Can Tell

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, and he had a long row to hoe to get it out into the world. He persisted through no fewer than 76 rejections before finally pulling together this manuscript that was accepted by a publisher.

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The novel’s central character, Thursday Next, is a detective in an alternative world (circa 1985). England has been at war with Imperial Russia in the Crimea region for over a century, the occasional time travel wormhole opens up in the countryside, and there’s a whole branch of the police force dedicated to solving literary crimes. That’s where Thursday works, and how she ends up pursuing a super-villain through the pages of Jane Eyre.

This isn’t the kind of sexy morally grey villain you’ll find in your cartoon cover romantasies, though. Acheron Hades is impervious to bullets, can walk through walls, manipulates people into killing themselves, and worse. His schtick in The Eyre Affair is stealing the original manuscripts of classic works (Martin Chuzzlewit and the aforementioned Jane Eyre), and using the technology he stole from Thursday’s uncle to pull key characters out of the story. He holds them to ransom, as readers around the world bemoan the loss of their favourites from the pages.

While all that’s going on, Thursday’s father occasionally stops time in order to visit her and ask about pivotal moments in history – he’s on the run from the Chronoguard, the cops that oversee time travel, and his wife worries that he’s having an affair with a woman a hundred years ago. There’s also an ongoing society-wide debate as to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with door-knockers stopping by to evangelise for their leading theory periodically.

So, yes, The Eyre Affair is a bit kooky – big Terry Pratchett vibes, all throughout. It’s a bit hard to follow, especially at first, though I suspect that’s more my fault than Fforde’s. Seasoned fantasy readers would surely understand the world and follow the plot no problem, but having little experience in the genre myself, I found it all a bit overwhelming.

It’s not just fantasy, though. The Eyre Affair works in elements of science-fiction, mystery, thriller, satire – even romance. It’s like Fforde took an element from each of his 76 rejected manuscripts and cooked it into one. That didn’t really help with the “hard to follow” thing. You don’t realise how much you rely on the tropes of a given genre to understand what’s going on until you read a book that throws the rules out the window.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Eyre Affair was a mixed bag for me. I liked the small details Fforde worked in, like the dodos revived from extinction to be kept as house pets and the character named ‘Jack Schitt’. I didn’t like the gratuitous gun violence and the casual fat phobia and ableism (which probably would’ve flown unchecked twenty years ago when The Eyre Affair was first published, but not so much today). I’d recommend this one to fans of Pratchett (and Douglas Adams, come to that), but tell the average non-fantasy reader that they can probably skip it if they’re short on reading time.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Eyre Affair:

  • “It’s funny, I was just reading an article about how indie authors are ruining the book industry. How about mainstream books that charge too much and they suck?” – MEA
  • “The characters have silly names, the plot is unbelievable and it’s just tedious over all. I will never believe the reviews again.” – pdh
  • “Contrary to other reviewers, this book is NOT Douglas Adams, NOT Jonathan Lethem, NOT Monty Python, NOT Stephen Hawking, NOT gripping, NOT witty, and certainly NOT Bronte. AVOID.” – Mark Malamud
  • “Look, alternate time lines and such don’t faze me; I’m a Trekkie and a Whovian, so you want to stir things up, I say, have at it. This however is just plain silly and pretentious. You still want to read it ’cause you figure you are no doubt smarter than I am? It’s entirely possible, but do your bank account a favor and check it out of the library.” – Peach Blossom Lane

The Woman In The Library – Sulari Gentill

I missed The Woman In The Library when it first came out in 2022, but I was thrilled to be invited to join the Ultimo Press readalong in the lead-up to the release of Sulari Gentill’s next novel (The Mystery Writer, out next month!).

I don’t want to overstate things, but I think The Woman In The Library is going to be one of the best books I read this year. It’s a meta-fictional mystery, a book-within-a-book, with two puzzles playing out on the page. This twisty and mischievous novel was a true delight to read.

Hannah Tigone is a crime writer, working on a novel that begins in the Boston Library. Four strangers get to talking after a woman’s scream in the next room breaks the silence. Later, they discover that the woman who screamed was murdered – could one of them be the killer?

Chapter by chapter, Hannah forwards her work-in-progress to her writer friend Leo, who is struggling to sell his own manuscript and hopes that providing feedback will stimulate his creative juices. As the story plays out, you’ll realise that Leo might not be exactly what he seems…

The Woman In The Library has whiffs of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, but with an alchemy that seems entirely Gentill’s own. The big clang comes on page 132, and from there it’s a thrilling ride all the way to the finish. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough – and my breath could not be more bated for The Mystery Writer!

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