As a cargo ship is unloading at the docks in London, an accident causes a cask to fall and split. Two employees of the shipping company spot that some gold coins have fallen from it so not unnaturally they decide to have a little poke around inside to see if there are more. There are, but more shockingly there is also a dead hand which appears to be attached to an equally dead woman! So begins this ridiculously over-complicated, utterly tedious investigation into the death of someone I didn’t care about at the hands of one of the tiny group of suspects about whom I cared even less. If only the cask had been full of red wine, I could have got paralytically drunk and been happy…
Dear me, that’s the nearest I’ve come to death by boredom in a while! I’ve read a few of Crofts’ extremely procedural procedurals now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, but this one is in a class of its own. Pages and pages and pages of shipping routes of casks, three detectives going over and over and over the same pieces of evidence again and again and again, zero characterisation of victims, suspects or detectives – truly it is a mystery to me how anyone manages to make it all the way through to the end of this with their sanity intact. I gave up at 53% when it became clear to me that I would soon be screaming out loud rather than just inside my head. I was “interested” enough to flick to the last chapter to find out which of the suspects had done the deed, and when I got there I realised I’d been right along – I really didn’t care!
Challenge details: Book: 16 Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age Publication Year: 1920
And since I’m moaning, let me have a brief rant about the dialogue. People do not speak as if they are a business letter. No one – NO ONE – ever – in the history of the universe – has ever said in conversation, and I quote:
“That cask, as you see, was invoiced out via Havre and Southampton on the 30th ultimo, and yet it turned up in London on Monday, the 5th instant,…”
Good grief! And then there’s the convoluted journey of the corpse-containing cask, which turns up in Paris, London, Southampton, Le Havre and Rouen, some of them several times. Why? WHY?? Why would a murderer go to these ridiculous lengths to get rid of a body? What’s wrong with burying it in the woods or, since it crosses the Channel at least three times as far as I could gather, dumping it in the sea? And I don’t wish to lower the tone, but would a corpse travelling about in a cask for days in the height of summer remain… ahem… fresh??
(I realise the answers to the above may be given in the 47% of the book I didn’t read, but despite my mouth-frothing ranting, I DON’T CARE!!)
This was apparently Crofts’ first book, so a very strong argument against reading books in order. He undoubtedly did improve, even if his later books occasionally also bore me into fits of the screaming abdabs. At least he got over the desire to make his characters talk as if they were dictating letters to their secretaries. Apparently writer and critic Julian Symons classed him as one of “the humdrum school” of mystery novelists – on the basis of this one I feel Symons was being too kind. But Martin Edwards is even kinder when he uses the euphemism “meticulous” to describe the endless mind-numbing tediosity of repeated details. Amazingly the book has sold over 100,000 copies. I downloaded my copy free and yet still feel I’ve been overcharged…
If you’ve been having too interesting a time recently and feel the desire to be bored rigid for a change, you too can read this – it’s available here. But get your own cask of medicinal wine first – I’ll need all of mine…
Anne Day is delighted to be offered the job of housekeeper at Frayle, the home of the Grinsmead family. However, she soon discovers there are tensions in the household. Mrs Grinsmead seems mistrustful and suspicious of everyone. At first, Anne puts this down to a persecution complex but gradually she begins to wonder if perhaps Mrs Grinsmead has some cause for her worries. But Anne’s still not prepared for the tragedy that will soon strike. Enter Inspector French of Scotland Yard!
It’s a fairly small group of suspects who might have committed the crime – if crime, indeed, there were. (I’ve not said what happened because quite a big proportion of the book happens before the actual crime, and a lot of the suspense in the book is in wondering who the victim will be.) There are Mr and Mrs Grinsmead – she nervy and paranoid, as I’ve said, he attractive and superficially quite kind but really rather cold and selfish. Anne herself is something of an innocent, willing to accept people at face value but with an occasional flash of insight. Anne feels sorry for Mrs Grinsmead and soon becomes her confidante. Then there’s Edith Cheame, the governess of the couple’s little children, who, Anne soon realises, has very little concern for anyone but herself. The cook, the maid and the chauffeur round out what seems like a huge staff for a country solicitor, but of course they’re not important enough to play any role other than as witnesses. There are also various friends and neighbours who play their part, as well as old Mrs Grinsmead, Mr Grinsmead’s mother. (Lots of Grinsmeads and my spellchecker hates them all… 😉 )
This novel contains not one but two locked room mysteries – one that is way too fiendish and technical for my poor mind to have had any hope of solving, and the other which seemed to me to be rather blindingly obvious; so much so, that I felt I must be missing something since I almost never work out how locked room mysteries are done. The perspective alternates between Anne and Inspector French, although all told in the third person. I enjoyed the Anne bits very much, since it’s through her we learn about all the various residents in the house and their possible motives. The French bits didn’t work so well for me, as they involve him painstakingly going over and over the technicalities of how the locked room bits were worked. That’s a subjective complaint, though – I’m always more interested in the why than the how in crime fiction. For people who enjoy the puzzle aspect of impossible crimes, I’m sure this would work much better. However, despite that, the book held my attention and, although I had my suspicions from about halfway through which eventually turned out to be right, I was unsure enough about it to still be in suspense until all was revealed. I must say I don’t think French covered himself in glory in this one, though – he seemed to take an awful long time to get there.
This is my second Inspector French novel and I enjoyed the other one considerably more. This is just as well written, but I simply didn’t find the story as interesting. I’m still keen to read others in the series though, and meantime recommend this one to the puzzle-solving enthusiasts out there.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…
This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.
At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.
He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)
I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.
It’s 10-year-old Rose Morley’s first trip on an aeroplane so she’s excited, despite the fact that the reason for the trip is to go to Paris where her mother has had an accident and is in hospital. With her are her father, Peter, and her elderly and rather ill grandfather, Andrew Crowther, whose manservant and general carer Weatherup is with him too. Before they take off, they get a telegram to say Rose’s mother will be fine after all, so they can enjoy the journey with no fear. But when they arrive in Paris, it turns out that grandfather Andrew is not sleeping as they had all thought – he’s dead. And it’s soon discovered that he’s been murdered.
This is an interesting take on the crime novel, and innovative for its time. We may have seen crimes from the perspective of the murderer fairly often now, but apparently this was one of the first when it was published in 1934. Following the rather brilliantly described flight to Paris, at a time when planes were still held together by little more than chewing-gum and prayer, the book flashes back a few weeks in time and we meet Charles Swinburn, nephew of the murdered man. It’s from Charles’ perspective that the story unfolds from there on.
Charles had inherited his uncle’s successful manufacturing business but the depression of the 1930s has brought him near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he’s also fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful but mercenary Una, who makes no secret of the fact that she will only marry a rich man. So when his attempts to raise a loan meet with failure, Charles begins to imagine how convenient it would be if his rich uncle would die so that Charles can get his hands on the inheritance he’s been promised. The reader then follows along as Charles decides to turn this dream into reality.
I found the first section of the book fairly slow. Crofts describes Charles’ business difficulties in great and convincing detail, with much talk of profit margins and wage bills and so on. It’s actually quite fascinating, giving a very real picture of a struggling business in a harsh economic climate, but since I spent a goodly proportion of my life working in business finance, it all began to feel like I was reading financial reports, and I found myself inadvertently formulating business plans in my head to save the company. I’m sure it wouldn’t have that effect on normal people though… 😉
However, once Charles decides to do the deed, I became totally hooked. It carries that same level of detail over into the planning of the crime, and I should warn you all that I now know lots of incredibly useful stuff should I ever decide someone needs to be murdered – just sayin’. In the planning stage, it’s almost an intellectual exercise for Charles and he goes about it quite coldly. But in the aftermath of the crime, we see the effect it has on him – not guilt, exactly, but a kind of creeping horror at the thought of what he’s done. And when Inspector French arrives on the scene to investigate, we see Charles swaying between confidence that he’s pulled off the perfect crime, and terror that he may have missed some detail that will give him away. I won’t give any more away, but there are a couple of complications along the way that ratchet up the tension and the horror.
There’s a final short section, an afterword almost, when we see the investigation from Inspector French’s perspective. To be honest, this bit felt redundant to me – I felt it would have been more effective had it finished before that part. I suspect it may only have been added because French was Crofts’ recurring detective, and perhaps Crofts thought existing fans would have felt short-changed if his part in the story didn’t get told.
So, a slow start and an unnecessary section at the end, but the bulk of the book – the planning, the crime itself, and the investigation as seen through Charles’ eyes – is excellent. I like Crofts’ writing style – it’s quite plain and straightforward, but the quality of the plotting still enables him to make this a tense read. The question obviously is not who did the crime, but will he be caught? And, like Charles, I found myself desperately trying to see if he’d left any loopholes. In fact, it was a bit worrying how well Crofts managed to put me inside Charles’ head – I wouldn’t say I was on his side, exactly, but I was undoubtedly more ambivalent than I should have been. The format leads to some duplication as we see the same events from different angles and perspectives, but this was a small weakness in what I otherwise thought was a very well crafted and original novel. Highly recommended – another winner from the British Library Crime Classics series. Keep ’em coming!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Renowned jewellery company, Nornes Ltd., is in trouble. The long recession has driven them into losses and now that it’s over business isn’t picking up as much as they’d hoped. The directors have to make a decision quickly – to raise extra cash to allow them to struggle on in the hopes of better times ahead, or to go into voluntary liquidation, sell off their stock, and each take a financial hit. They decide to hold a secret meeting at the home of the managing director in Guildford to discuss matters, and invite the company’s accountant along to give them his advice. But things are about to get worse. First the accountant is found dead – murdered – the morning after he arrives, and then they discover that somehow the company’s safe has been emptied of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels. Chief Inspector French is in charge of the investigation into the theft, and must work with his colleagues in Guildford to see if the two events are linked, as seems likely…
As with the other Crofts novels I’ve read, this is as much howdunit as whodunit, with two separate mysteries to solve. Firstly, how could the accountant have been murdered when it appears no one could have gone to his room without being seen around the time of death determined by the doctor? And secondly, how could anyone have been able to bypass the strict security measures surrounding the keys to the safe in order to steal the jewels? French feels that he has to answer these questions before he has any hope of discovering who did the crimes.
These books are extremely procedural police procedurals, probably more true to life than most crime novels. Unfortunately I find that tends to make them a bit plodding. French goes over the same questions again and again, worrying away at tiny bits of evidence, painstakingly checking statements and alibis, following trails that lead nowhere, until eventually he has a moment of inspiration that puts him on the right track, and from thereon it becomes a matter of finding sufficient evidence to prove his theory in court.
In two of the three French books I’ve read so far, I’ve also had the unusual experience for me of working out at least part of the howdunit long before French gets there, a thing I’m usually rubbish at, which suggests to me they must be relatively obvious. In this one, I had spotted how the murder must have been done by about the halfway mark, although I’d never in a million years have worked out how the robbery was carried out. As French suspected would happen, though, working out how the murder was done pointed directly at the villain, so I also had a good idea of whodunit from early on too. So I spent a good deal of the book waiting for French to catch up. All of this rather made the long middle part of the book drag for me.
However, the beginning is interesting as we meet the various suspects and learn about the company’s difficulties. The solution to the safe robbery is ingenious and certainly something I’ve never come across before. And the end takes on mild aspects of the thriller as French and his colleagues try to trap their suspects into giving themselves away. Again it’s done strictly realistically, showing how the police would actually operate. This is interesting and gives the book credibility, but I must admit it doesn’t make for heart-pounding excitement.
I think it’s probably a subjective taste thing – I can see how this detailed investigative technique could work well for the puzzle-solvers among us, but for me there wasn’t enough concentration on the characterisation, while the motive – straightforward robbery for financial gain – is never one that interests me much. So a middling read for me, but one that will doubtless be more appreciated by true howdunit fans.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, especially recently. However I still have several books for it on my TBR, so I shall struggle womanfully on! Here’s the third batch for 2022 and the fourteenth overall…
The Rasp by Philip MacDonald
An author unknown to me, and the blurb has appealing aspects, like the murdered politician (it’s been a tough few weeks here in the UK! 😉 ), and bits that thrill me less, like the emphasis on alibis. However it has reasonably high ratings on Goodreads, so we’ll see.
The Blurb says: A victim is bludgeoned to death with a woodworker’s rasp in this first case for the famed gentleman detective Anthony Gethryn.
Ex-Secret Service agent Anthony Gethryn is killing time working for a newspaper when he is sent to cover the murder of Cabinet minister John Hoode, bludgeoned to death in his country home with a wood-rasp. Gethryn is convinced that the prime suspect, Hoode’s secretary Alan Deacon, is innocent, but to prove it he must convince the police that not everyone else has a cast-iron alibi for the time of the murder.
Book No: 20
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1924
Martin Edwards says: “The zest of MacDonald’s prose contributed to the book’s success, and compensated for flaws such as Gethryn’s very lengthy explanation of the mystery at the end.”
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The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh and Henry Jellett
I enjoyed Ngaio Marsh back in the day but haven’t revisited her in years. But her plots were always fun, and the audiobook narrator, Philip Franks, sounds good. Another murdered politician and this one is the Home Secretary! I shall preserve a tactful silence, but my UK friends will know what I’m thinking… 😉
The Blurb says: Ngaio Marsh’s bestselling and ingenious third novel remains one of the most popular pieces of crime fiction of all time. Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse Jane Harden are almost too nervous to operate. The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary – and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead.
Within hours he does die, although the operation itself was a complete success, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn must find out why…
Book No: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935
Edwards says: “Marsh undertook her one and only collaborative novel in partnership with a doctor. While undergoing surgery in her native New Zealand she had been attended by Henry Jellett, an Irish gynaecologist who became a friend. She started work on the book during her convalescence with Jellett supplying the necessary technical expertise.“
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The Duke of York’s Steps by Henry Wade
To the best of my recollection I’ve never come across this author before. Not sure the blurb appeals much, but it has pretty good ratings from the few people who’ve reviewed it on Goodreads. Dead banker this time… *zips lips*
The Blurb says: A wealthy banker, Sir Garth Fratten, dies suddenly from an aneurysm on the Duke of York’s Steps. His doctor is satisfied that a mild shock such as being jostled would be enough to cause Sir Garth’s death. It all seems so straightforward, and there is no inquest.
But Fratten’s daughter Inez is not satisfied. She places an advertisement in the London newspapers that comes to the attention of Scotland Yard, and Inspector John Poole is assigned to make enquiries.
Poole’s investigation leads him into a world of high finance where things are not as they seem; a sordid world in which rich young men make fools of themselves over chorus girls.
Book No: 61
Subject Heading: The Long Arm of the Law
Publication Year: 1929
Edwards says: “Poole is familiar with the detective work of Holmes, Poirot and Hanaud, but regards the approach of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French as much more ‘true to life’. Crofts’ influence on Wade is reflected in the careful unravelling of an ingenious conspiracy, but even at this early stage in his career, Wade displays more interest than Crofts in bringing his characters to life.“
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Death on the Down Beatby Sebastian Farr
This was one I was having difficulty finding, but happily the British Library have just published it as part of their Crime Classics series. The plot sounds interesting, but Martin Edwards’ comments on it have me worried – see below!
The Blurb says: As a rousing Strauss piece is reaching its crescendo in Maningpool Civic Hall, the talented yet obnoxious conductor Sir Noel Grampian is shot dead in full view of the Municipal Orchestra and the audience. It was no secret that he had many enemies – musicians and music critics among them – but to be killed in mid flow suggests an act of the coldest calculation.
Told through the letters and documents sent by D.I. Alan Hope to his wife as he puzzles through the dauntingly vast pool of suspects and scant physical evidence in the case, this is an innovative and playful mystery underscored by the author’s extensive experience of the highly-strung world of music professionals. First published in 1941, this new edition returns Farr’s only crime novel to print to receive its long-deserved encore.
Book No: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941
Edwards says: “Farr choose the epistolary form for an unusual story in which the loathsome conductor of the Maningpool Municipal Orchestra is shot dead during a performance of Strauss’ tone poem “A Hero’s Life”. Instead of a floor plan of a country house, the reader is provided with a diagram showing the layout of the orchestra, and no fewer than four pages of musical notation – all of which contain information relevant to the plot.”
This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the second batch for 2022 and the thirteenth overall…
Calamity Town by Ellery Queen
This one just failed to win a recent People’s Choice poll, but here it is getting its day in the sun anyway. I read a few Ellery Queens back in the previous millennium, and liked rather than loved them. It’s been a long time though, so I’m keen to see how they strike me now…
The Blurb says: Looking for trouble, Ellery Queen descends on a small town.
At the tail end of the long summer of 1940, there is nowhere in the country more charming than Wrightsville. The Depression has abated, and for the first time in years the city is booming. There is hope in Wrightsville, but Ellery Queen has come looking for death.
The mystery author is hoping for fodder for a novel, and he senses the corruption that lurks beneath the apple pie façade. He rents a house owned by the town’s first family, whose three daughters star in most of the local gossip. One is fragile, left at the altar three years ago and never recovered. Another is engaged to the city’s rising political star, an upright man who’s already boring her. And then there’s Lola, the divorced, bohemian black sheep. Together, they make a volatile combination. Once he sees the ugliness in Wrightsville, Queen sits back — waiting for the crime to come to him.
Book No: 93
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1942
Martin Edwards says: “Wrightsville life, and the passions swirling within its troubled first family, are splendidly evoked, and the literary quality and style of the novel meant that it represented a landmark in the long series of mysteries written by and starring Ellery Queen.”
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Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman
A new author to me, but not a new story – apparently this is the book that became the classic Ealing comedy film, Kind Hearts and Coronets…
The Blurb says: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is a 1907 darkly comic novel written by Roy Horniman, telling the tale of the eponymous anti-hero’s campaign to cut back his family tree and inherit the aristocratic status of his hated relatives.
Told from his condemned cell, the story charts – in surprisingly lurid detail – how Rank goes from the status of poor relation, to advancing in life by killing off the six relatives standing in the way of him succeeding to his family seat.
Set against a backdrop of Edwardian snobbery, upper-class ritual, and casual antisemitism, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is darker than the film it went on to inspire.
It is also a fast-paced, engaging, and beautifully-rendered thriller – both disturbing and funny in equal measure.
Book No: 5
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1907
Edwards says: “Horniman devoted much of his life to vigorous campaigns for unpopular causes, and overall, it seems fair to regard his book as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, rather than some form of endorsement of it, while there is something quite modern about the book’s flourishes of irony.“
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The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club
This collaborative effort sounds like it could easily be a hot mess, but it has pretty high ratings on Goodreads and I’m hoping for a lot of fun seeing how each author approaches it…
The Blurb says: Inspector Rudge does not encounter many cases of murder in the sleepy seaside town of Whynmouth. But when an old sailor lands a rowing boat containing a fresh corpse with a stab wound to the chest, the Inspector’s investigation immediately comes up against several obstacles. The vicar, whose boat the body was found in, is clearly withholding information, and the victim’s niece has disappeared. There is clearly more to this case than meets the eye – even the identity of the victim is called into doubt. Inspector Rudge begins to wonder just how many people have contributed to this extraordinary crime and whether he will ever unravel it…
In 1931, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and ten other crime writers from the newly-formed ‘Detection Club’ collaborated in publishing a unique crime novel. In a literary game of consequences, each author would write one chapter, leaving G.K. Chesterton to write a typically paradoxical prologue and Anthony Berkeley to tie up all the loose ends. In addition, each of the authors provided their own solution in a sealed envelope, all of which appeared at the end of the book, with Agatha Christie’s ingenious conclusion acknowledged at the time to be ‘enough to make the book worth buying on its own’.
The authors of this novel are: G. K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley.
Book No: 27
Subject Heading: Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!
Publication Year: 1931
Edwards says: “In her introduction, Sayers explained the authors approach: “Here, the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. Except in the case of Mr Chesterton’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind.“
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The Medbury Fort Murderby George Limnelius
Another author I don’t know at all! Sounds a bit grim…
The Blurb says: The Medbury Fort Murder, first published in 1929 for the Crime Club, is a ‘golden-age’ murder mystery involving the killing of an unpopular British Army officer stationed at an out-of-the way post in England. Loathsome Lt. Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort situated on the Thames. Lepean was not at all admired among his fellow soldiers. The arrogant, sneering soldier was a known user of women and is revealed early on to be a ruthless blackmailer. There are at least four men who had very good reason to kill Lepean, two of them were being blackmailed. Was it one of them who slew the soldier or someone else?
Book No: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929
Edwards says: “The cast of suspects is small, but Limnelius handles his narrative with aplomb, engaging the reader’s sympathy with both the hunters and the hunted. His no-nonsense treatment of sex and violence is hardly in keeping with the lazily conventional view of Golden Age fiction as ‘cosy’, and the attention he pays to characterisation is equally striking.”
At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I still seem to be storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…
Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…
Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on track with so many targets at this point of the year – it can’t last! Poor old Reginald Hill is falling behind – must make more effort. I should be able to catch up with the Classics Club and finish by my extended deadline of the end of the year – only a couple of chunksters left and all the rest should be fairly quick reads. The shortfall in new releases has reduced considerably this quarter and (theoretically) will be smashed by the time I’ve read all the review books on my 20 Books of Summer list. The fact that I’m abandoning lots of new fiction isn’t helping, though! The TBR Reduction is awful – I can’t see me meeting those targets without magical intervention. But hey! Who’s counting? 😉
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The Classics Club
I read three from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…
76. Way Station by Clifford D Simak – I loved this well written, thought-provoking science fiction novel, with shades of Cold War nuclear fear, lots of imaginative aliens and a kind of mystical, New Age-y touch. 5 stars.
77. The Conjure-Man Diesby Rudolph Fisher – This, the first mystery novel written by a black American and with an exclusively black cast of characters, delighted me with its vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem. Lots of humour and a great plot. 5 stars.
78. The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – A slow-going but interesting look at the beginnings of the Scottish herring industry, following on from the devastation of the Highland Clearances. I enjoyed this one, not least because several of my blog buddies read it with me. 4 stars.
Not good on the quantity, perhaps, but high on quality!
78 down, 12 to go!
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Murder Mystery Mayhem
Managing to keep on track with this challenge at the moment more or less – I’ve read three this quarter, but only reviewed two of them so far. However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…
43. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude – One in Bude’s long-running Inspector Meredith series, I find these a little too painstakingly procedural for my taste, although the plot and setting of this one are good. 3½ stars.
44. The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts – Talking of too procedural, I abandoned this one halfway through on the grounds of being determined not to die of boredom! Crofts’ first, and the best I can say about it is he improved in later books. 1 generous star.
45. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – Great writing and a perfectly delivered plot mean that this one’s reputation as a classic of the genre is fully deserved. More psychological than procedural, and with a wonderful depiction of an early version of “trial by media”. 5 stars
45 down, 57 to go!
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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge
I only read two for this challenge this quarter but in my defence one of them was a massive biography of Franco, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had one left to review from last quarter…
5. In Diamond Squareby Mercè Rodoreda. The story of young wife and mother, Natalia, living in Barcelona while her husband is off fighting in the war. It’s a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Packed full of power and emotion – a deserved classic. 4½ stars.
6. Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath. As Franco lies on his deathbed in Spain, Francis McNulty is convinced the dictator is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain as a volunteer medic on the Republican side and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth. 5 stars.
Two short books, two different squares, and two great reads, so hurrah for this challenge!
6 down, indefinite number to go!
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The People’s Choice
Unbelievably I’m still up-to-date with this challenge, so three reviews for this quarter plus one that was left over from the previous quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?
March – The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves – The first of the Vera Stanhope series – the underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character. But oh dear, the book is massively over-padded and repetitive, and I found it a real struggle to wade through. 3 stars.
April – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – A parody of the rural rustic novel popular at the time, there’s a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. It outstayed its welcome just a little as the joke began to wear rather thin, but overall an entertaining read. 4 stars.
May – The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – The first of the Cormoran Strike novels sees him investigating the death of a supermodel, with the help of his temporary secretary, Robin. I’m feeling repetitive myself now, but this is another with a good plot buried under far too much extraneous padding. Galbraith’s easy writing style carried me through, however. 4 stars.
June – Sweet Caress by William Boyd – In the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decides to become a professional photographer, and her elderly self looks back at where her career took her. Sadly this one didn’t work for me at all and I eventually abandoned it. 1 star.
Even if there were no five stars, there was only one complete dud, so I think you did pretty well, People! And they’re all off my TBR at last – hurrah!
6 down, 6 to go!
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I’ve done a little better this quarter and have also started looking ahead to try to make sure I have something for each box. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. The dark blue ones are from last quarter, and the orange ones are this quarter’s. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)
England – The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Small Town at the moment, since the setting plays an important part in the plot.
Iceland – The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars. Another that could work for Small Town, or Europe, but I’ve slotted it into Island at present.
Malaya – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute – 5 stars. Could be Australia as well, so Oceania, but I’ve gone with the Malayan section and put it into Walk.
Australia – The Survivors by Jane Harper – 4 stars. Another that would work for Oceania, but since the Beach plays a major part in the story that’s where I’ve put it.
Scotland – The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – 4 stars. Since this is all about herring fishing, I don’t imagine I’ll find a better fit for the Sea box.
Still a long, long way to travel, but there are some interesting reads coming up for this one…
7 down, 18 to go!
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Whew! Apologies for the length of this post, but I guess that indicates a successful quarter. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!
Brothers John and William Rothers share the family home and lime manufacturing business at Chalklands Farm in Sussex. William’s wife also lives there, which is unfortunate, or convenient, depending on your viewpoint, since she seems to be at least as close to John as she is to her husband. Then John decides to go on a short driving holiday, but he doesn’t get far – his car is found abandoned a few miles from home and there are signs of violence. No sign of John though, alive or dead. Inspector Meredith has recently been transferred to the area and is put in charge of the case. First he’ll have to determine if John has been kidnapped or murdered before he can hope to discover whodunit…
I’ve loved a couple of John Bude’s books and been pretty unimpressed by a couple more, so wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. And it fell in the middle for me – reasonably enjoyable but not nearly as entertaining as he can be. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s the Inspector Meredith books that don’t work too well for me. Not that I don’t like the Inspector – as a character he’s fine and in this one there’s some entertaining stuff between him and his teenage son which gives him a more rounded feel than in some of the other books. It’s more the investigative technique that puts me off, very painstaking and slow, with lots of examining and re-examining clues as each fresh piece of information comes to light. I’m aware I’ve said similar things about a few of the Golden Age police procedurals, especially the Inspector French novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, so I was interested to learn from Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Meredith is indeed modelled on French. However Edwards says that Meredith “possesses a sharper sense of humour” and an “innate humanity”, with both of which I agree. This kind of detailed procedural is clearly a specific style of mystery story popular at the time, and Bude certainly does it better than most.
Challenge details: Book: 35 Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden Publication Year: 1936
He’s also very good at settings and here he brings the area of the Sussex Downs to life, with the sparsely populated rural district playing a major role in the solving of the mystery. First published in 1936, there was still little enough traffic on the roads for people to notice and recognise passing vehicles, and even remember them some days later. Local gossip plays its part too, with there being few enough people around for everyone to have a fair idea of what everyone else might be up to, or at least to think they do.
The solution seems a bit obvious from fairly early on, unfortunately, but the meat of the story is really in how Meredith goes about his investigation. As he struggles to find proof of a murder having been done much less to prove who may have done it, we see his frustration and the pressure he is put under by his superiors. But Meredith is a patient man, willing to admit when a theory isn’t working out and to go back to the beginning to formulate a new one.
Overall, then, enjoyable enough to while away a few hours but not a top rank mystery novel, which has been pretty much my reaction to all of the Inspector Meredith novels I’ve read so far. I think in future I’ll try to stick to Bude’s standalones where, in my limited experience of him, he seems to show much more inventiveness and humour, and achieves a better pace.
This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge, and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far. Here’s the first batch for 2021 and the tenth overall…
At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason
I’ve never come across AEW Mason before, but the blurb sounds quite appealing. An inspiration for Poirot, eh? We’ll see…
The Blurb says: Aix-les-Bains is a gorgeous place to spend a vacation, and Harry Wethermill is happy to be on its lake, enjoying his time away from it all. Just when it seems life could not get any better, he meets Celia Harland, the stunning companion to the wealthy Madame Dauvray, and falls for the girl immediately. Harry’s courtship soon takes a dark turn, however, when Madame Dauvray turns up gruesomely murdered, a fortune’s worth of jewels missing from her room, and Celia nowhere to be found.
Fortunately for Harry, he has connections to the brilliant Inspector Hanaud, a detective from the Paris Sûreté. Soon the stout sleuth is on the case, vowing to follow the truth no matter where it leads. Is Celia as innocent as Harry believes? Or does her beautiful face mask the black heart of a killer? Nothing will escape the grasp of Inspector Hanaud, one of the mystery genre’s most distinctive heroes and an inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Book No: 8
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1910
Martin Edwards says: “Hanaud is a memorable creation, and his friendship with Ricardo one of the most attractive early variations on the theme of detective and admiring stooge.”
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The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts
I’ve read a few of Crofts’ Inspector French books recently but this will be my introduction to Inspector Burnley. Their methods sound very similar…
The Blurb says: A strange container is found on the London docks, and its contents point to murder. The cask from Paris is bigger than the rest, its sides reinforced to hold the extraordinary weight within. As the longshoremen are bringing it onto the London docks, the cask slips, cracks, and spills some of its treasure: a wealth of gold sovereigns. As the workmen cram the spilled gold into their pockets, an official digs through the opened box, which is supposed to contain a statue. Beneath the gold he finds a woman’s hand—as cold as marble, but made of flesh.
He reports the body to his superiors, but when he returns, the cask has vanished. The case is given to Inspector Burnley, a methodical detective of Scotland Yard, who will confront a baffling array of clues and red herrings, alibis and outright lies as he attempts to identify the woman in the cask—and catch the man who killed her.
Book No: 16
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1920
Edwards says: “The meticulous account of the detective work, coupled with the ingenuity of the construction (and deconstruction) of the alibi were to become Freeman Wills Crofts’ hallmarks, and they set his debut novel apart from the competition. Over the next twenty years, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.“
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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
Hmm… I’ve tried and failed with another of Tey’s books so, despite the intriguing blurb and its reputation as a classic, I’m a bit dubious about this one. But that means if it surprises me it can only be in a good way…
The Blurb says: Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable that is, until the police turn up with a demure young woman on their doorstep. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window.
But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is stumped. And it takes Robert Blair, local solicitor turned amateur detective, to solve the mystery that lies at the heart of The Franchise Affair…
Book No: 87
Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact
Publication Year: 1948
Edwards says: “The plot’s origins lay in the strange case of Elizabeth Canning, a maidservant of eighteen who disappeared for almost a month in 1853, and claimed that she had been held against her will in a hay loft.“
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Darkness at Pemberleyby TH White
As a child, I read and loved White’s series about King Arthur, The Once and Future King, but I had no idea he’d written a mystery novel – just the one apparently… and it sounds pretty dreadful. I really do wonder sometimes what criteria Martin Edwards used to make his selections. He describes this one as ‘preposterous’…
The Blurb says: An unpleasant don called Beedon is found shot in his locked room in St Bernard’s College, Cambridge. The corpse of an undergraduate is also discovered, and the case appears to involve murder followed by suicide. The crime is suitably ingenious, but Inspector Buller solves the case rapidly, and confronts the culprit. He is rewarded with a prompt confession – in private. The bad news is that although the villain has killed three times in quick succession, Buller is quite unable to prove his guilt.
Disheartened, Buller resigns from the police force, and travels to Derbyshire to meet two old friends. At Pemberley, he tells the lovely Elizabeth Darcy (descended from ‘the famous Elizabeth’) and her brother Charles the story of his disastrous last case. Charles has personal experience of bitter injustice, and attempts to take the law into his own hands. Buller and the Darcys find themselves menaced by a deranged yet infinitely cunning murderer…
Book No: 88
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932
Edwards says: “…the story takes several wildly improbable turns as the characters become increasingly embroiled in what Elizabeth describes as ‘this Four-Just-Men business’. Preposterous as the story becomes, it fulfils Gollancz’s promise of originality.”
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All blurbs (except one) and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The blurb for Darkness at Pemberley and the quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.
Still on the right track! The TBR has fallen by a massive 1 to 190! I really think I’m getting the hang of this now..
Here are a few more that should float my way soon…
Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I haven’t read any of Fagan’s books to date, but this one sounds as if it could be wonderful… or awful! Only one way to find out…
The Blurb says: The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close hurtles the reader through personal and global history – eerily reflecting modern life today.
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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley
Courtesy of HarperCollins. I have vague memories of reading a couple of Bagley’s books back in my early teens and enjoying them, but have never revisited him in my adult years. So I was delighted to receive a copy of this one – time to recapture a piece of my lost youth!
The Blurb says: Bill Kemp, an ex-serviceman working in London as an insurance investigator, is sent to the Caribbean to determine the legitimacy of an expensive life insurance claim following the inexplicable death of businessman David Salton. His rapidly inflated premiums immediately before his death stand to make his young widow a very rich lady! Once there, Kemp discovers that Salton’s political ambitions had made him a lot of enemies, and local tensions around a forthcoming election are already spilling over into protest and violence on the streets. Salton also had friends in unexpected places, including the impossibly beautiful Leotta Tomsson, to whom there is much more than meets the eye. Kemp realises that Salton’s death and the local unrest are a deliberate smokescreen for an altogether more ambitious plot by an enemy in their midst, and as the island comes under siege, even Kemp’s army training seems feeble in the face of such a determined foe.
Unseen for more than 40 years and believed lost, Domino Island was accepted for publication in 1972 but then replaced by a different novel to coincide with the release of The Mackintosh Man, the Paul Newman film based on Bagley’s earlier novel The Freedom Trap. It is a classic Bagley tour de force with an all-action finale.
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The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
When Roth is at his best there is no one better at political fiction, and this is reputed to be one of his best. I’m not sure the blurb writer has grasped that it’s an alternative history, unless I missed the Lindbergh Presidency. But it sounds frighteningly relevant…
The Blurb says: When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh publicly blamed the Jews for pushing America towards a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but, upon taking office as the 33rd president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler.
What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new novel by Pulitzer-prize winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst.
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Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts
Courtesy of HarperCollins again. This is the third of a little batch of three Inspector French books they sent me. So far I’ve liked one and loved one, so my expectations for this one are high…
The Blurb says: A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
I’m still reading considerably less than usual, though I’ve noticed my enthusiasm growing a little again in the last few days, so fingers crossed! Thank goodness for vintage crime, Christie audiobooks and horror stories – my saviours at the moment! So a couple of books out, a couple of books in and the TBR and I remain stuck on 199…
Here are a few more that I should get to soon…
Winner of the People’s Choice Poll
The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
Another exciting race this week! Black Water Rising leapt into an early lead, but The Crow Trap snuck up on the inside fence and soon stormed into a unassailable position! Good choice, People! I’m (almost) sure I’ll enjoy this one! It will be a January read…
The Blurb says: At the isolated Baikie’s Cottage on the North Pennines, three very different women come together to complete an environmental survey. Three women who, in some way or another, know the meaning of betrayal…
For team leader Rachael Lambert the project is the perfect opportunity to rebuild her confidence after a double-betrayal by her lover and boss, Peter Kemp. Botanist Anne Preece, on the other hand, sees it as a chance to indulge in a little deception of her own. And then there is Grace Fulwell, a strange, uncommunicative young woman with plenty of her own secrets to hide…
When Rachael arrives at the cottage, however, she is horrified to discover the body of her friend Bella Furness. Bella, it appears, has committed suicide – a verdict Rachael finds impossible to accept.
Only when the next death occurs does a fourth woman enter the picture – the unconventional Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, who must piece together the truth from these women’s tangled lives…
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Into the London Fog edited by Elizabeth Dearnley
Courtesy of the British Library. Another anthology from the BL’s Tales of the Weird series, this one taking us on a hopefully terrifying tour of the various districts that make up London. Fog was designed for horror, so the porpy is taking precautionary tranquilisers…
The Blurb says: As the fog thickens and the smoky dark sweeps across the capital, strange stories emerge from all over the city. A jilted lover returns as a demon to fulfill his revenge in Kensington, and a seance becomes a life and death struggle off Regents Canal. In the borough of Lambeth, stay clear of the Old House in Vauxhall Walk and be careful up in Temple—there’s something not right about the doleful, droning hum of the telegram wires overhead…
Join Elizabeth Dearnley on this atmospheric tour through the Big Smoke, a city which has long fueled the imagination of writers of the weird and supernormal. Waiting in the shadowy streets are tales from writers such as Charlotte Riddell, Lettie Galbraith, and Violet Hunt, who delight in twisting the urban myths and folk stories of the city into pieces of masterful suspense and intrigue. This collection will feature a map motif and notes before each story, giving readers the real-world context for these hauntings and encounters, and allowing the modern reader to seek out the sites themselves—should they dare.
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Grave’s End by William Shaw
Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I’ve only read one book by William Shaw so far and loved it, so have high hopes for this one…
The Blurb says: An unidentified body is found in a freezer. No one seems to know or care who it is or who placed it there.
DS Alexandra Cupidi couldn’t have realised that this bizarre discovery will be connected to the crisis in housing, the politics of environmentalism and specifically the protection given to badgers by the law. But there are dangerous links between these strange, reclusive, fiercely territorial creatures and the activism of Cupidi’s teenage daughter Zoe and her friend Bill South, her colleague Constable Jill Ferriter’s dating habits and long forgotten historic crimes of sexual abuse – and murder.
DS Alexandra Cupidi faces establishment corruption, class divide and environmental activism in this gripping new novel by a rising star of British crime fiction.
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Inspector French: Sudden Death by Freeman Wills Crofts
Courtesy of HarperCollins. I’ve loved the couple of Crofts’ books I’ve previously read, so am looking forward to this one, especially since vintage crime has become my slump-busting comfort reading at the moment!
The Blurb says: To mark the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, ‘The King of Detective Story Writers’, this is one of six classic crime novels being issued in 2020 featuring Inspector French, coming soon to television.
Anne Day is the new housekeeper at Frayle, the home of Mr Grinsmead and his invalid wife. To Anne’s horror, her intuition that something is very wrong in the house culminates in an unexpected death. With the police jumping to devastating conclusions, Inspector French arrives to investigate. With the narrative switching between Anne’s and French’s perspectives, giving alternately the outside and inside track of an ingenious and elaborate investigation, will tragedy strike a second time before the mystery is solved?
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…
Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…
The Blurb says:London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.
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The American by Henry James
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!
The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.
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Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts
Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…
The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career.
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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio
Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan
I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series…
The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.
Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’
Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
The challenge is to read and review all 102 of the books Martin Edwards includes on the main list in his excellent book on the development of the crime novel – The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Yes, 102. Don’t ask me why a book called “…100 Books” actually lists 102, but the spreadsheet never lies, so 102 it is!
I’ve decided not to list all 102 Books up front. The book has only just been published and somehow it seems unfair – almost like a major spoiler. So instead I’ll put links to all the books as I review them, so gradually – very gradually – it will grow to become a complete list. I’ll be reading them in totally random order as and when I acquire them, but on this master page I’ll organise them in the order and under the subject headings in the book. I reckon it will take me a minimum of four or five years to read them all, so if you can’t wait to know all 102 of the titles, then you’ll have to buy the book!
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!
Although very happily married to Tommy, Tuppence Beresford is finding life rather monotonous, so when their old friend Mr Carter of the Intelligence Services puts a proposition to them, the young couple jump at the chance. Mr Carter believes a private detective agency is being used to pass messages in some kind of shady espionage plot. The owner has been arrested and Mr Carter wants Tommy to impersonate him and pass on information about any odd contacts he gets. Thus Tommy becomes Mr Blunt of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives and, having no intention of being left out, Tuppence is transformed into Miss Robinson, his confidential secretary. While they wait to be contacted by the spy ring, they investigate the various cases brought to them by troubled clients…
“I can look after her all right, sir,” said Tommy, at exactly the same minute as Tuppence said, “I can take care of myself.”
This is a bit of light-hearted fun from Christie, in which she shows her love for the mystery fiction world of which she was such a shining light. The book is in the form of short stories, each an individual case, with the background espionage plot only really appearing once or twice throughout. Tommy and Tuppence, having no experience of detecting, decide to learn the craft from the masters, so in each case they take on the personas of a different fictional detective and his sidekick.
I’m pretty sure when I first read this long, long ago, I’d have recognised a couple of the most famous, and assumed all the rest of the fictional ‘tecs were simply names made up by Christie. But after being steeped in Golden Age mysteries for the last few years, I now realise they’re all real – well, real in the sense that they are all based on fictional detectives or on the style of authors who would have been well known to Christie’s contemporary readers. Inspector French is there, and Inspector Hanaud, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, Roger Sheringham, Dr Thorndyke, Reggie Fortune, Edgar Wallace, and a few I still don’t recognise. Holmes, of course, and Christie even includes Poirot himself! She doesn’t go overboard with the references – she name-checks the ‘tecs and makes a few amusing observations about their style or mannerisms, but when the cases get underway Tommy and Tuppence revert to being themselves.
….As the visitor left the office, Tuppence grabbed the violin and putting it in the cupboard turned the key in the lock. ….“If you must be Sherlock Holmes,” she observed, “I’ll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labelled Cocaine, but for God’s sake leave that violin alone.”
The cases themselves are quite slight and vary in quality and style. Some are humorous, some more serious, up to and including murder. A couple have a slightly spooky edge – something Christie always does well. T&T are a great partnership, though the format of this tends to mean that Tommy gets to be the lead more often, since he’s playing Blunt and all of the fictional ‘tecs are men. But Tuppence uses her ingenuity and intuition, not to mention using her social skills to mingle with the people involved in the cases and pick up bits of gossip. Albert, their usual assistant, is in it too, but only makes a real contribution to a couple of the stories.
….“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.” ….“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men. Women are so much more thorough.” ….“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.
Truthfully, I’m not sure how much appeal this collection would have to anyone who didn’t already know and love Tommy and Tuppence from their first appearance in The Secret Adversary, but for fans it’s an entertaining addition to the full-length T&T novels, and the references to the other Golden Age ‘tecs is an added bonus for vintage crime enthusiasts, giving an insight into Christie’s own reading tastes. Hugh Fraser’s narration is, as usual, wonderful, and the format of lots of short stories gives him the opportunity to portray a vast selection of characters, from society women to foreign spies, all of which he does with great gusto. Lots of fun!
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The fictional ‘tecs I still haven’t come across are…
Malcolm Sage created by Herbert George Jenkins
Francis and Desmond Okewood created by Valentine Williams
Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan created by Isabel Ostrander
Thornley Colton created by Clinton H Stagg
A new challenge? Hmm… no!! Not another one!! Although it’s tempting… 😉 Have you read any of these? Are they worth hunting down?