Book Review

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The Chaplin Conspiracy, by Stewart Ferris

This is the third book in the Ballashiels Mysteries series; the previous one, The Dalí Diaries, was reviewed here; and to clarify the confusion expressed in the earlier review, the first book in this series was The Sphinx Scrolls. The latest story continues seamlessly, without a moment’s pause, from its predecessor, so there has to be a minimal amount of biographical information about the characters given for the benefit of readers who have come to this entrant in the series unprepared. The presentation of this book is very similar to that of the earlier one, apart from the page numbers looking more elegant, but that is as far as I will go here; other than to commend the change of printing to a British firm. The core characters are the same, apart from one somewhat bizarre, and rather random [using the modern definition] addition: Rat Scabies, the erstwhile drummer in The Damned, who is in this book as the greatest expert in Britain on the subject of a late nineteenth century French priest, by the name of Bérenger Saunière, who was reputed to have died a millionaire in 1917, without revealing the location of his fabulous wealth—hence the adventurers’ fanatical interest.

One has to assume that the author must have more than merely a fan’s devotion to inspire him to use this plot device; perhaps, given that he is a relatively young man, he might know the musician personally through some circumstance, other than being a devotee of the music; unfortunately the explanation for this is non-existent: there is only a very brief expression of gratitude on the front flyleaf “for agreeing to take part in this book”, with his website URL. I know very little about the musician, despite being aware of some of the group’s output in its heyday, so whether this is a plausible career/lifestyle choice for him is impossible to know: musicians do progress to other, perhaps more rewarding activities, subsequent to their fleeting appearance in the limelight, but this one is undoubtedly esoteric! This knowledge is called upon, because the priest is fleetingly seen to have appeared in a short, amateur film found by Lord ‘Ratty’ Ballashiels in an attic room, featuring the eponymous Chaplin, but in a year when the priest was reputed to have been dead for some time: naturally, this intrigues the treasure-seekers, seeing this as some sort of clue, so they set off to France and, of course, this is where their troubles start. These troubles include two new characters: American treasure-hunters, and one of them is coldly murderous.

Unfortunately, Ratty has a deadline: his beloved, but ancient & crumbling mansion is scheduled to be demolished in under a week’s time, to make way for a new motorway; this is not the only circumstance in which Ratty feels his life bears an uncomfortable similarity to the plot of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; he is also wanted for questioning by the British police about the discovery of a dead body, after the wing of the mansion in which the film was viewed was consumed by fire, because the old & dangerously flammable film stock burst into flames during a repeat viewing. Perhaps it was simply familiarity with the characters which made this instalment a somewhat more enjoyable read; there is humour, as before, but it is leavened by the jeopardy of the situations in which the protagonists find themselves, which are probably only very slightly contrived. The plot does stray into Dan Brown territory, but that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I don’t think revealing that this narrative ends on a clear indication of a further instalment should spoil the plot in any way: as for when this further publication might become available to an eager readership, there is no way of knowing—there is no helpful “coming soon” synopsis, or introductory chapter taster, at the end of the book to inform us. The paperback version I read was published, as previously, by Accent Press Ltd., Cardiff, in 2018, ISBN 978-1-786-15185-8.

Book Review

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The Dalí Diaries, by Stewart Ferris

Although this book can be read as a stand-alone story, it is actually book two in the Ballashiels Mysteries series, so it is possible that some details given in the first book [although it is not clear from the list at the front which that is] might have enhanced my understanding & consequent enjoyment of this story, but unfortunately, an earlier book was not available to me; the subsequent one is, however. I can’t comment on the others, of course, but this one is very much a Curate’s egg. The story, overall, is quite good, and its premise is not entirely implausible, but the book is let down by some very specific failings which I, pedant that I am, cannot ignore.

Although the cover design is impressive, the layout of the text has the appearance of a self-published book [upon which I think I have remarked previously], which is actually very unfair to self-publishers, as I am myself, indeed, one; what I mean to say by that is that the font, and the paper on which it is printed, have a somewhat unsophisticated appearance; which is a totally subjective judgment, for which I should probably apologise, but there it is. The book is clearly not self-published [details below], so I have to ascribe my assessment to artistic prejudice [notwithstanding my design qualification]; I was somewhat disappointed, however, to read the little note on the final flyleaf detailing the printing in Poland by Amazon Fulfillment [sic]: not very environmentally sustainable, for a British company.

While I am in ‘knocking’ mode, there were more than a few grammar & spelling ‘howlers’: “a fine toothcomb”; “focussed” [should be focused]; incorrect use [all too common, regrettably] of the possessive singular of a name ending in ‘s’ — the protagonist’s family, Ballashiels — “Lady Ballashiel’s visit” should be Ballashiels’s — granted, it might look & sound clumsy, but it is correct! Finally on this subject, a matter which constantly irks me; not because I am in any way a flag-waving, Empire-loving Jingoist; but I do feel that a British writer, writing fiction about predominantly British protagonists, should write in the British idiom — i.e., using British English spellings; so it was very disappointing to find [no disrespect intended to any American readers] a litany of American English spellings & usages: chomp, stomp, draft [draught], donut, airplane [aeroplane], wrenches [spanners], parking lots, washroom [in a pub!], cellphone, drapes, and waiting in line. I don’t wish to offend, but this is my considered opinion.

I am guessing, from the presumably recent photograph on his website, that Ferris is still a young man, so I must assume that he has grown up reading American spellings and didn’t think [or have the foreknowledge] to question them, but that said, shame on Swansea University, which awarded him a degree in English Literature, for not correcting him; otherwise, perhaps he is writing for an American audience? No comment 🙃. Anyway, to the story. A quasi-Bertie Wooster character is living in elegant penury in an ancient manor house, but his life is somewhat aimless after his mother went missing in 1975. She disregarded her own mother’s warning not to open a sealed room in the house and the associated dire consequences: one of which appears to be that she disappeared without trace, whereabouts unknown. Lord ‘Ratty’ Ballashiels has acquired a lodger, albeit in a dilapidated gamekeeper’s cottage, who is known as “the Patient”, a result of his origin as a source of spare parts for “the high-flying twin he had never known”, designated thus by his doctor father: a Mengele. Ratty released him from his home in the Guatemalan jungle in a previous story.

The main thrust of the story is that Ratty’s grandmother was acquainted with Salvador Dalí, and committed some of her experiences to a diary, which Ratty has read, but it does not throw any light on his mother’s disappearance; although the Patient has a theory… Another, associated thread is there is to be a satellite launched, containing a time capsule, in which, among other artefacts, is a message to be read when the satellite returns to earth, after its orbit has sufficiently decayed, in fifty thousand years: the message requests that the recipients acknowledge receipt, at a specific date & location in the past [for them: the present for the story, 2013], presuming that backwards time travel will, by then, be possible, if only for data streams. That is about as much as can be revealed here, but the aforementioned concerns aside, it is quite an engaging narrative, so I would be prepared to accommodate other members of this canon; or, indeed, other stories by this author, if only to confirm my prejudice about his writing style 😉. The paperback I read was published by Accent Press Ltd., Cardiff, in 2017, ISBN 978-1-7861518-6-5.