Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tightly Spun Traditional Mystery, British, 1933: Barbara Cleverly, A SPIDER IN THE CUP

This week the new Barbara Cleverly title in the Joe Sandilands Investigation series reached publication via Soho Crime -- good news indeed! A SPIDER IN THE CUP is the 11th in the series, and the steady, sane, compassionate character of this inspector, by now Assistant Commissioner, anchors this fast-moving and suspenseful crime novel.

It's 1933 in England: a time of recovery from the Great War, and of enthusiastic embrace of the playfulness coming across the Atlantic: madcap dancing, women with short hair and short skirts, and the amazing movie King Kong -- even Joe can quote the movie's famous line spoken over King Kong's dead body: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes ... it was Beauty killed the Beast."

Joe adds lightly to the line, "A lesson we beasts should take to heart, Bill," as his irritation with former a former colleague rises. Bill Armitage had another name when Joe knew him last, but the man's peculiar mix of capability and betrayal has Joe on edge just as much now as before.

And this time, they're supposed to be working together, protecting an American senator attending political talks in England. But Senator Kingstone is a risk taker, as well as a passionate man, and when it appears that his lover has been kidnapped, perhaps tortured, Kingstone and Joe Sandilands struggle to name the perpetrator. An Englishman, probably, from the Shakespearean quote that arrives as a threat -- one to which the senator adds another part of a speech from that political suspense classic, Julius Caesar: "Then I, and you, and all of us fell down, / Whilst bloody treason flourished over us."

Significantly, the conference Kingstone is attending, where he's struggling to grasp and affect relationships among European leaders, is also starting to confront the possibility of a second German power rising from the ashes of the previous war. This ominous shadow is as present as the evil that's sparking the crimes Sandilands confronts. Cleverly, as in her other 10 books in this series, adroitly paints the temper of the times as backdrop to her detection drama. Treason seems all too likely.

You don't need to read any of the other books in the series before this one -- it has few connections to the preceding volume. But readers who are already fond of Joe's loyal family members and their "very English" lives can expect some delights, as Joe takes steps to keep Kingstone safe, then lays an old-fashioned trap of his own for the international criminals on his track. Agatha Christie fans, Jacqueline Winspear readers, and those following one or both of the Charles Todd series may also find A SPIDER IN THE CUP deeply satisfying.

Cleverly's books are among the ones I look forward to each year, knowing I'll get a good read with believable twists and suspense, and an investigator whose character inspires me to be a bit braver, more committed, and more effective. If you can't fit this one into your summer reading, I hope you add it to the stack by the reading chair, for intrigue and adventure in the weeks ahead.

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