Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

The original Resistance…

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Victoria Lamartine is on trial for murder. The Frenchwoman played a role in the Resistance in WW2 and after the war came to London in search of the young English officer with whom she’d had a wartime affair. She was working as a chambermaid in the Family Hotel in Soho when another wartime acquaintance came to stay, Major Eric Thoseby. That night, Thoseby was found stabbed to death in his room in a style reminiscent of the Resistance’s methods, and Vicky was found standing over his body. Her counsel wants her to plead guilty and beg for mercy, but Vicky’s having none of that! So just before the trial proper is about to begin, she dismisses her legal team and her solicitor asks young lawyer Nap Rumbold to take the case. Nap has just a week to find something to prove her innocence, and he must go to France and dig around in the murky history of war to find it…

This is billed as an Inspector Hazlerigg mystery but he’s barely in it. The focus is on Nap and a friend of his, Major Angus McCann, who run around doing the investigative work in France and England, while famous QC Hargest Macrea does his best to undermine the prosecution in court and string the case out as long as possible to give Nap and Angus time. The story flits between them, so that it’s part action thriller, part legal drama.

I’ve loved both of the other Michael Gilbert novels I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased and Death in Captivity, so my expectations were perhaps too high going into this one. Although it’s good overall, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the other two. The plotting is a bit looser and the characterisation doesn’t have the same depth. The mix of drama and darkness leavened by occasional humour is still there though and the writing is of the same high quality.

The plot is rather convoluted and I don’t think it could really be described as fairplay – there are hints along the way, but not actual clues that a reader (well, this reader) could grasp. It’s almost a locked room mystery in the sense that there is only staircase leading to the victim’s hotel room and there were always people around who in theory would have seen anyone go up. Having caught their suspect the police haven’t bothered to consider other possibilities, so it’s up to Vicky’s new defence team to cast doubt on the prosecution’s evidence or, better yet, find an alternative solution.

Vicky had a child during the war, which later died. She claims the father was the officer she had been in love with. The prosecution claim that in fact Major Thoseby was the father, and Vicky had murdered him for abandoning them. Vicky is an interesting character, and through her story we get a glimpse of life in France under the Occupation for those who weren’t fully committed members of the Resistance but who helped them when they could – ordinary people, in fact. I felt Gilbert didn’t make the most of her – she fades into the background a bit as the story progresses. Gilbert also treats her rather cruelly at one point purely to make a dramatic scene. It’s very effective, but it left me feeling that he was using her simply as a plot vehicle rather than considering the humanity of her situation. (Vague – avoiding spoilers – sorry.)

Michael Gilbert

The French bit is fun, with Nap quickly getting into danger in the best thriller tradition, and much wartime murkiness to be uncovered. Nap is a likeable character, though somewhat underdeveloped in this one – I believe (from other reviews) he may appear in other Inspector Hazlerigg books so perhaps this is an effect of reading them out of order. Meantime Major McCann is doing his bit to break the locked room mystery back in London. But the star of the show is the QC, Macrea, and the courtroom chapters are particularly good as he spots inconsistencies, demolishes evidence and generally runs rings round the prosecution.

So not quite as excellent as the other two Gilbert books the BL has so far re-published, but still an enjoyable read with much to recommend it and, taken together, the three show that Gilbert is an author who thoroughly deserves this opportunity to be appreciated by a new generation of readers.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Book 5 of 20

A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

Dark secrets…

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There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…

By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.

However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.

As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.

Reginald Hill

Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.

While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!

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The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Blinded by love…

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Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…

This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.

Challenge details:
Book: 44
Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder
Publication Year: 1922

The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)

This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.

Eden Phillpotts

I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.

Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

Case Histories (Jackson Brodie 1) by Kate Atkinson

Nor fish nor fowl nor good red herring…

😐 😐

A child goes missing one night from the tent where she is sleeping. A girl is murdered, seemingly as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young mother is driven to her wits’ end by her fractious baby and we all know what happens during periods of temporary insanity. These three cases from years ago are suddenly all brought to the door of ex-police detective and current private investigator Jackson Brodie, and he must try to find the explanations his clients are seeking while juggling his own messy private life.

The first three chapters of this are stunningly good, as Atkinson lays the groundwork to each of the three cases. The last few chapters are fairly good as she wraps them all up, not neatly nor particularly skilfully, but at least to a reasonably satisfying level. The vast swathe of repetitive sex and death obsessed tedium in the middle is unfortunate.

I realise that many people love this book, so obviously as always this is merely my subjective opinion, but I found it a complete mess. I’m not at all sure what Atkinson was attempting to do with it. It’s certainly not a crime novel – there is almost zero detection in it. Brodie simply wanders around bemoaning his lot and eyeing women up to see if they’re sexually attractive, then jumps miraculously to the right conclusions. Well, I say miraculously, but actually since I’d already guessed the solution to two of the cases hours earlier, maybe it wasn’t that amazing after all.

It’s not really insightful enough to count as literary fiction either – I hesitate to use the word banal, but I fear it is the one that was running through my mind while I was reading. Contemporary fiction? Well, perhaps, but it really has nothing much to say about contemporary society. There’s plenty of sex and sexual fantasies, but more in the “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies” sense than anything that could push it into the romance category! There were moments when I wondered if Atkinson had been spending too much time with fourteen-year-olds since most of her adults seemed to think like them.

Book 1 of 20

The number of deaths described is extraordinary. Not just the cases, but nearly every character’s fathers, mothers, children, siblings, pets – all dead, all dead! Murders, suicides, cancer, road accidents – life in Cambridge is clearly nasty, brutish and short. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ghost town”. And of course, we get all the grief to go along with all these deaths, which isn’t what you’d call cheery exactly. And for those who have managed so far to maintain a precarious hold on life, their loving relatives spend all their time imagining all the horrible deaths that might happen to them. Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.

The characterisation is reasonably good of a few of the main characters, but there is also what feels like a cast of thousands who never become filled out in any way, so that I found myself having to search for previous mentions of them to find out who they were when they suddenly re-appeared briefly a hundred pages later. To be honest, it felt to me like three pretty good short stories that for some reason Atkinson had clumsily attempted to tie together to make a novel, filling all the rest of the space with weary and pointless meanderings. And there’s a limit to quite how often coincidence can be used before it becomes annoying.

Kate Atkinson

Nope, I don’t get it. Clearly other people are seeing something in this that I’m not. The potential is there – Jackson could be a decent character if he ever stopped brooding about sex and death and did a bit of detecting, and the basic stories are certainly interesting even if the resolutions are weak. However, since I foolishly requested the next three books in the series from NetGalley on the assumption that I was certain I’d love them, I’ll read the next one in the hopes that the series improves, although my expectations are now in the basement. Apologies to all who loved it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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The Blotting Book by EF Benson

An excellent vintage…

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Morris Assheton is due to come into his inheritance when he’s twenty-five. However, a clause in his father’s will allows him to take control of his money earlier, should he marry a woman of whom his mother approves. Morris has met and fallen in love with just such a woman, so his trustee, Edward Taynton, suggests he might want to look over the accounts of the trust. Young Morris has other more important things to think of, though – his future wife, and his new car which he loves with at least as much fervour. This is lucky for Edward, since he and his partner Godfrey Mills have been gambling unsuccessfully with the trust funds. So all seems well, but things are about to go wrong and when they do, it will all lead to murder…

More of a long novella than a novel, this isn’t really a mystery, or at least the possibilities are so limited that most readers will be able to work out whodunit with a fair degree of certainty pretty early on. Instead, it’s an entertaining and quite insightful character study of the three main characters, Morris and the two trustees, and mostly of Edward Taynton.

Edward isn’t a bad man – in fact, his gambles were meant as much to benefit Morris as himself and he still hopes to make good the losses before the trust is wound up. He’s worked hard to give himself a comfortable life, and hopes to retire soon to enjoy life before he’s too old. But we see how he’s affected by pressure as his secret looks in danger. He makes some odd decisions, but happily manages to justify his behaviour himself. A kindly, friendly man whom everyone likes and respects – with a streak of narcissism hidden beneath the surface.

Morris too is a pleasant character, leading a contented, pampered and happy life and with every reason to expect that to continue. However, when things go wrong, suddenly he becomes filled with a rage that surprises everyone, including himself, by its intensity. Godfrey, Edward’s partner, is somewhat less well drawn, and to a degree is a bit of a plot device. He too suddenly behaves in a way that surprises his partner, but I didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as the other characters so didn’t feel the same surprise.

Challenge details:
Book: 6
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1908

The murder happens quite late on and Benson builds a great atmosphere of approaching dread, with some fine dramatic writing…

Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up.

EF Benson

After a police investigation in which the police show themselves to be sharper than the murderer anticipated, the whole thing winds up in a courtroom drama where there’s an excellent revelation around a physical clue that turns the prosecution’s whole case on its head at the last minute. It is fair play in that the reader was made aware of the clue at the appropriate place, but this reader, while I had spotted that it was A Clue, couldn’t work it out, which always adds to the fun!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It can easily be read in an evening and my interest never flagged despite having very little doubt as to whodunit or how it would end. It’s the character of Edward that makes it entertaining – he may be a cheat and a fraudster, but I found him good company anyway. Highly recommended.

I downloaded this one from the excellent www.fadedpage.com

Deadland (DS Alex Cupidi 2) by William Shaw

Ramping up the tension…

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When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

Alex Cupidi is a great detective. She isn’t an angst-ridden maverick, but there are enough complications in her personal life to make her interesting, and her relationship with her daughter is entirely credible. Zoe is seventeen, mostly adult but still part child, and Alex is finding it difficult to get the balance right between protecting her and letting her find her own way in life. The situation is complicated by Zoe’s zealous championing of causes which sometimes bring her into confrontation with the forces of law and order. Shaw handles this excellently, never taking it too far, and there’s plenty of love in the relationship to help smooth over any areas of conflict.

The police procedural aspect is just as good. Shaw lets us know about the painstaking detail that goes into an investigation without allowing the story to get bogged down in it. Alex’ colleague and friend, Jill, has got herself into a tricky personal situation, and this lets us see another side of Alex, trying to juggle loyalty to her friend with the professional demands of the job.

One thing I particularly loved was that Shaw includes people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations without making a big deal of it. I’m so tired of authors feeling they have to write “about” diversity – until we start treating diversity as normal, it never will be. So hurrah for an author who makes it unremarkable…

(This is the second time I’ve made a comment like this recently, the other being in relation to the entirely believable, positive background portrayal of racially diverse Birmingham in Lucie Whitehouse’s Critical Incidents. A new trend, perhaps? If so, a very welcome one.)

The plotting is great – complex and fast-paced, but never to a degree where the reader feels lost. It takes Alex and Jill into the rich and shady world of art-trading, where vast amounts of money changing hands provides opportunities for all kinds of dodgy dealing, and the wealthy shelter behind their security fences and sense of entitlement. But through Tap and Sloth we also see the other end of the social spectrum, where a meal in a burger bar can seem like a feast. There’s no faux “that day” suspense in this one. Instead, Shaw makes us care so deeply about the two boys that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable. There’s a lot of warmth and humour in their friendship – two misfits who’ve each found someone they can rely on, even love.

Shaw makes excellent use of his Kent setting, both in town and out on the wild and forbidding marshland landscape of Dungeness. He lets us see all the contrasts in wealth in this area, the secluded and luxurious homes of the rich, while the old seaside hotels and boarding houses along the Kent coast are now hostels housing many of the refugees and migrants recently arrived on our shores.

William Shaw

This is one of those rare masterclasses in crime writing that should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring authors. I loved everything about it, especially the sections of the boys on the run, and raced through it because I needed to know whether they would make it. Did I come out of it smiling or sobbing though? I’m afraid you’ll have to read it for yourself to find the answer to that question. One thing I will tell you – I’ll be backtracking to read Shaw’s earlier books, and adding him to my read-on-publication-day list for future ones…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, riverrun at Quercus.

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The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1) by Agatha Christie

Reds under the bed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the passengers on the Lusitania scramble for safety before she sinks, a man approaches Jane Finn. Pressing a package into her hands, he tells her that it’s of vital importance to the war effort that the contents are passed to the American authorities, and asks her to take it since women and children will be evacuated first, making her more likely to survive than him.

Some years later, the war is over and two young friends meeting by accident on a London street go to a tea room to talk over old times and new. Tommy Beresford has been demobbed from the army, while Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley is back in London now her services as a war nurse are no longer required. Neither has had much success in finding jobs, so half-joking, half-serious, they come up with an idea to form a joint venture – to advertise themselves as The Young Adventurers willing to take on any job offered…

But a man in the tea room has overheard them talk and, before they can place the ad, he approaches Tuppence with a job offer. Soon the two young people will find themselves embroiled in an adventure full of mysterious crooks, Bolshevik revolutionaries, missing girls, American millionaires, secret treaties and British Intelligence. And the brooding evil presence of the sinister Mr Brown, the criminal mastermind who is behind the plot – a man no-one seems to know by sight but whom all fear by reputation…

As regulars know, my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, so that will give you some idea of how much I love this pair of detectives. Christie didn’t write many T&T books, but each has its own charm, especially since, unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, so that we see them develop from youth to old age over roughly the same period as Christie herself did. The Secret Adversary is the first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

Reading it now, nearly a century later, some aspects of it are unintentionally amusing, like dear Ms Christie’s obvious mistrust of Labour politicians, belief in the good old right-wing establishment, and a fear of those terrible socialists so great it would almost qualify her to apply for American citizenship! But this was during the Red terror following the Russian Revolution – the book was published in 1922 and there is much talk in it of a possible general strike which the socialists hope to orchestrate in order to start a British revolution. Four years later in the real world, the General Strike of 1926 didn’t quite do that, but it came close for a while, and was only broken by the middle classes volunteering to do the essential work of the strikers. My point is that the plot seems a bit silly now, but wouldn’t have back then – Christie was reflecting the legitimate fears of conservative Middle England.

Le Carré it’s not, however. Underneath all the spy stuff, there’s an excellent whodunit mystery, plotted as misleadingly as any of her later books. It’s decades since I last read this and the joy of having a terrible memory is that I couldn’t remember who the baddie was, and I loved how Christie led me around, suspecting first this person, then that one, then back again. Yes, at one point I suspected the right person, but purely by accident, and I’d moved on to the wrong person before the big reveal!

Agatha Christie

The major enjoyment of the book, though, comes from the delightful characterisation of the two main characters, and their budding romance – a romance the reader is well aware of long before the two participants catch on! Tommy is a typical British hero of the time, strong, rather stolid and unimaginative, but patriotic and decent, determined and resourceful. Tuppence is so much fun – headstrong and courageous, she works on intuition and instinct, and is one of the new breed of modern girls who are more likely to bat the bad guy over the head with a jug than swoon helplessly into the hero’s arms. She’s the driving force in The Young Adventurers while Tommy is the stabilising influence, and they’re a wonderful partnership. Lots of humour in their banter with one another keeps the tone light even when the plot darkens.

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and, as always, he does a great job. He gets the chance to “do” an American millionaire and a Russian spy along with all the British characters, and has a lot of fun with the somewhat stereotyped characterisation Christie gives of them. All-in-all, pure pleasure either as a read or a listen – highly recommended! My cats recommend it too…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, can’t see the Hugh Fraser version on the US site, though there are other narrators available.

Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.

There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.

The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.

Michael Gilbert

However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.

This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When George Furnace, instructor of the Baston Aero Club, is found dead in the wreck of his crashed plane, everyone assumes it was a tragic accident, even though he was a skilled airman. Everyone, that is, except the Bishop of Cootamundra, who has signed on to take lessons at the flying school so he can fly himself around his vast diocese back in Australia. The Bishop has some knowledge of medicine, and he notices something strange about Furnace’s corpse. Enter Inspector Creighton of the local constabulary, closely followed by Inspector Bray of the Yard…

There are three main elements to this entertaining mystery – who, why and how – with some added confusion over whether this really was a murder at all. At points, there are reasons to think Furnace may have committed suicide, unlikely though that seems for a man of his character, and there’s still the possibility the Bishop is wrong and it was an accident after all. But Furnace’s death soon becomes almost secondary, since Creighton and Bray quickly discover in the course of their investigations that there seems to be an international criminal conspiracy going on around the airfield, in which they suspect some of the flyers are involved, either knowingly or as dupes of the mysterious Chief of the criminal gang. But which are which? Suspicions and accusations abound and the plot is increasingly complicated to the point where I had lost all capacity to keep the facts separate from the new theories propounded every few pages by Creighton, Bray, the Bishop and just about everybody else who appears in the book!

This is one of those mysteries where it’s important to switch off one’s credibility monitor and simply go with the flow. The mystery all depends on the detectives and forensic experts missing or misinterpreting clues all over the place. First published in 1934, I’d expect forensic pathology not to be up to modern standards, but here we have to accept that they can miss minor details like bullet holes and mix up times of deaths to a frankly ridiculous level. So long as you don’t mind the general implausibility, though, it’s fun accepting the “facts” as given and trying to work out how Furnace’s death came about, that being the key to finding out who killed him and why.

Challenge details:
Book: 58
Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries
Publication Year: 1934

The first half of the book is set in and around the flying club, so has the feel of a closed circle of suspects in traditional Golden Age style. However once the international angle becomes apparent, Creighton and Bray follow leads up to Glasgow and over to Paris, before it all comes back to the flying club in the end for the final dénouement. This adds extra interest and also gives Sprigg the opportunity to talk a lot about flying and planes, which, as a pilot himself, he does knowledgeably and entertainingly, his love for flying shining through. (It’s sad to note that Sprigg died a few years later, flying as a volunteer pilot in the Spanish Civil War, aged just 29.)

The characterisation is what makes the book, though, and carries the reader quite contentedly through the plotting complexities. The book is full of “types” rather than stereotypes – the ex-WW1 pilots, the adventurous flyers out to break records in this still new field, the decent if stolid local policeman, the more incisive methods of the Yard detective. Then there are the staff and pupils of the flying school, and the locals who get involved in one way or another. Lady Crumbles walks over everyone in her mission to do good to people whether they want to have good done to them or not. Sally Sackbut runs the school with alarming efficiency. Tommy Vane is cheerful if incompetent as a pupil, finishing every lesson with a quick dash to the bar for a double whisky. Lady Laura Vanguard and Mrs Angevin are rivals as flying adventurers and also divide the attention of the males of the club, each having their own admirers. And the Bishop bumbles along, not very good at flying, not as good as he thinks he is at detecting, but always willing to listen to other people’s troubles and to offer them sympathy and advice. They’re all enjoyable and mostly likeable, even though we know some of them must be the baddies.

Christopher St. John Sprigg

In my view, the plotting and structure of this are too messy for it to count as a top rank classic of Golden Age crime, but it’s full of gentle humour and has a warm-hearted tone despite the dark deeds. I enjoyed reading it and am sorry that Sprigg didn’t get the chance to have a long writing career – the youthful exuberance and writing skill he shows in this one may well have allowed him to become one of the greats in time, as he developed more discipline over plotting. Despite his short career, though, Martin Edwards tells us that he wrote several other mystery novels, and a check on Amazon shows that some of them are available as Kindle e-books. I look forward to reading more of them.

I downloaded this one from www.fadedpage.com – a growing resource for out of copyright works.

Critical Incidents (Robin Lyons 1) by Lucie Whitehouse

Strong start to a new series…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Robin Lyons has been dismissed from her job as detective inspector in the Met for disobeying orders and releasing a man her superior believed to have committed a murder because her instinct told her he was innocent. She intends to appeal the dismissal but in the meantime she has to find some other source of income to support herself and her teenage daughter, Lennie. So she’s on her way home to Birmingham, to live with her parents and to work for an old family friend, Maggie, another ex-police officer who now investigates insurance and benefit fraud, and occasionally other things. The first case Robin becomes involved in is the disappearance of a young woman whose frantic mother can’t get the local police to take the matter seriously. But then a crime much closer to home occurs, when Robin’s best friend Corinna is killed and her husband Josh goes missing. Robin can’t help wondering if it’s related to what happened ‘that day’ many years ago, so finds herself doing a bit of investigation into Corinna’s death too.

This book contains some of the features that have made me increasingly unenthusiastic about contemporary crime fiction in the last few years. There’s the ubiquitous ‘that day’ feature, when the crime involves something from the past coming back to haunt the present, but the reader isn’t told what actually happened in the past until the story is almost over, in a bid to create false suspense. There’s the utterly tedious casual swearing which serves no purpose. (It made me laugh that in fact at one point Robin, who never knowingly uses an alternative where the f-word will do, is appalled by the casual swearing of the kids in the local high school and wonders why standards have fallen so badly – yeah, possibly because everything teenagers read or watch is full of swearing maybe? Just a thought…) There’s the personal involvement of the detective with the crime, meaning we have to hear an awful lot about Robin’s grief over the death of her friend – never entertaining to me. And the book is roughly a hundred pages too long for the story it contains, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary filler in there.

However, there are a lot of good things about it too. The story is interesting and, despite being overlong, the pacing is good so that it didn’t drag through the mid-section. It’s very well written, both in terms of the descriptive writing and the believable dialogue. Third person, past tense – a big hurrah from me for that! I thought Whitehouse’s depiction of her Birmingham setting was excellent, giving a real feel for the physical city and for the culture of what is probably the most racially diverse city in Britain outside London, with a huge and long-established Asian community. Happily, Whitehouse shows that, while racism still rears its ugly head on occasion, the majority of the citizens rub along fine together enjoying the added richness of a mixed culture. I found it a convincing and positive portrayal.

The characterisation is a mix. There are too many minor characters to keep track of and they never come to life, so that whenever one was mentioned I had to pause to try to remember who they were and how they fitted into the story. However, the major characters are very well developed, especially Robin and her parents. Robin is hard to like, opinionated, somewhat selfish and convinced that she knows better than everyone else. This is the first in a series, though, and it’s reasonably clear Robin is on a learning curve – that her recent troubles are giving her a level of self-awareness she’s never had till now. The tension between her and her mother is particularly well done – two women who annoy each other as much as they love each other, but who now have a chance to build a better relationship… or a worse one.

Lucie Whitehouse

Overall, despite a few weaknesses, I enjoyed this and thought it was well above average. This one reads like a private eye novel, but the series is billed as a police procedural so I anticipate that future books will see Robin back in harness. First books in series are always tricky since so much introduction and backstory is necessary, but I felt Whitehouse handled those aspects very well, creating some characters I will be happy to meet again. Recommended – a series I look forward to following.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate at HarperCollins.

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Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

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Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a Sunday newspaper tantalises its readers with promises of a juicy story about a blue movie ostensibly made in a quiet, respectable English town, the residents of Flaxborough are horrified to see that the accompanying photograph is of their town’s main street. So when top muck-raking journalist Clive Grail and his team arrive in the town, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. In fact, the mayor decides this would be a golden opportunity to use the antique duelling pistols he has just purchased, and issues a challenge to Grail. This may have been intended as a publicity stunt, but things take a more sinister turn when one of the characters dies…

I loved the Flaxborough Chronicles in my youth and have been enjoying reading some of them again as they’ve been published for Kindle by Farrago. However, the series wasn’t of the same standard across its whole length of twelve books – in the first couple, Watson was finding his feet, then there’s a glorious section of six or seven in the middle when he was on top form, before they fell away a little in the last few. Being book 10, this isn’t one of the best. My tendency is always to compare these lesser ones to the best of the series (Broomsticks over Flaxborough, for instance) but this is unfair. Compared to many other books of the same period, even Watson’s less good ones shine.

Part of the problem is that the humour of the earlier books comes from Watson allowing us to peek behind the net curtains of respectability of the middle-classes of the 1950s. By the end of the series, we’re in the ‘70s, and society had changed so much in the intervening years that that kind of show of respectability and class deference had pretty much disappeared, and I never felt Watson really got to grips with how to lampoon the late ‘60s and ‘70s in quite the same way. The delicious, wickedly salacious wit with which he mocks the shenanigans of the ultra-respectable burghers of the town in the ‘50s takes on an edge of crudity in the more liberal ‘70s, and the slang used by his younger characters in particular doesn’t ring wholly true.

Having said that, he still provides an entertaining story, full of characters who are deliberately caricatured and overdrawn. As the newspaper team begin to realise that the story they expected to get isn’t turning out quite the way they anticipated, they have to scramble to save their reputations and jobs, since the paper won’t be pleased if they don’t come up with the goods. Meantime, the townsfolk are split between those outraged at the idea of their town being linked with porn, and those who find it all quite titillating. Inspector Purbright must try to keep the peace by stopping the mayor from carrying through on his threat of a duel, and then must investigate the sudden death which takes everyone by surprise.

Colin Watson

The investigation element of this one is pretty poor. We see the story mainly from the perspective of the newspaper team, with Purbright and his team becoming heavily involved only at the end. Purbright seems to get at the truth too easily and the reader isn’t really shown the connecting links – we’re merely presented with the conclusion. It holds together and makes sense, and in retrospect there are some clues, but on the whole the solution comes out of the blue. Also, while Chubb and Love and the other police regulars show up, we spend very little time with them, and Miss Teatime fans will be sad to know she doesn’t appear in this one at all.

Overall, then, not one of the best but still entertaining enough to be well worth reading. Each of these books stands alone, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Existing fans will be more willing to make allowances for its comparative weaknesses than newcomers, I think. But the series as a whole is not to be missed! New readers might be better to start at the beginning with Coffin Scarcely Used.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Farrago.

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Cruel Acts (Maeve Kerrigan 8) by Jane Casey

A thriller, a chiller and a serial killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. Maeve quickly discovers in the files that there was a third woman who may have been a victim of Stone’s too, but he was never charged with her murder for lack of evidence. Maeve’s sense of empathy for this victim makes her determined to find out the truth of what happened to her too. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

Well, it’s been a long wait for this latest instalment in Jane Casey’s excellent Maeve Kerrigan series, but this is well worth waiting for. As always, it’s told in the first person (past tense) by Maeve, so that we get her often humorous take on the people around her, especially Derwent. Their relationship has settled into a rather more equal friendship now that Maeve is more experienced, but that doesn’t stop Derwent from lecturing her about her personal life, being over-protective, embarrassing her at every opportunity and generally winding her up. For all that, she knows there’s no-one she’d rather have beside her when things get dangerous.

The other regulars are back too. Una Burt, Maeve’s boss, still doesn’t much like her and the feeling is mutual. Liv appears a bit more in this one – another colleague and Maeve’s best friend. Godley is back, though he plays only a small role. Maeve still looks up to him, but in a more mature way than the hero-worship she felt for him in the early days. And the new girl on the team, Georgia, is back too, just as obnoxious, and just as jealous of Maeve’s success. Followers of the series are doubtless thinking, yes, but what about Maeve’s love life? Is Rob back? Or is there a new man on the scene? Or are Maeve and Josh…? You don’t really expect me to tell you though, do you? 😉

In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but I was right to trust Casey to handle it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. Although women are killed, the reader is not put in the room with them as it’s happening – there’s nothing prurient or gratuitous in the writing; no lengthy descriptions of torture scenes designed to titillate. That doesn’t stop it from being heart-in-mouth thrilling and chilling at points, though. The prologue is wonderfully scary and the thriller ending is tense and dramatic, with several scenes dotted throughout that also had my anxiety levels rocketing.

When it turns out that Leo Stone has an alibi for the time of the latest disappearance, Maeve and Derwent have to consider whether he was innocent of the earlier murders or if there’s a copycat out there. I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one. I didn’t work it out – I rarely do – but all the clues are there. I always think that Casey plots like a Golden Age author, giving the reader a fair chance to do a bit of armchair detecting, although in every other respect her stories and characters are entirely modern.

Jane Casey

I also love that Maeve tries hard to stay within the rules. While her personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have. The women are not always struggling to be taken seriously by sexist bosses, which delights me since I think it’s such an out-dated image in most of our public services now, and completely overused in crime fiction. Casey simply has men and women working together as a team as if… gasp… it’s normal! But she still allows room for a bit of banter and the occasional flirtation, and she doesn’t feel the need to make the women superheroes or the men weaklings.

While this could easily be read as a standalone, I do recommend reading this series in order to get the full nuances of all the various relationships within the team, and especially to understand Maeve and Josh’s complicated friendship. For existing fans, you’re in for a treat with this one – isn’t it great to have Maeve back? Highly recommended, and I sincerely hope Ms Casey is hard at work on the next one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Bob Horniman has taken over as partner in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, following the very recent death of his father, the senior partner, Abel Horniman. Abel was an organisational fanatic, so there’s a place for everything in the office, and everything is in its place. That’s the theory anyway, until one day Bob and his secretary are looking for papers relating to an estate of which his father was a trustee. On opening the relevant deed box, they find the papers are missing, and in their place is the rather decayed body of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee. Enter Inspector Hazlerigg and his team…

Gilbert was a lawyer in real life, and he has a lot of fun here with the portrayal of a mid-rank law firm – successful enough, with a solid clientele of the rich and respectable, but not dealing in glamorous criminal law. Rather, these lawyers make a living out of wills, estates, trusts and property conveyancing. When it becomes clear that Smallbone has been deceased for several weeks, Hazlerigg’s first task is to determine who was working in the firm over the likely period. He spots a name he knows – Henry Bohun, a newly qualified lawyer who joined the firm on the day the body was discovered, meaning that he is almost certainly innocent. Hazlerigg knows something of the man, that’s he’s intelligent and resourceful with a good war record, so asks him to become a kind of “inside” man for the investigation. And, while we see a fair amount of Hazlerigg and his men, Bohun quickly becomes the main protagonist of the story.

The plot is interesting and reasonably fair-play, though I got nowhere near the solution. The format is rather different from the usual mystery novel, in that, while everyone who was working in the firm is a suspect, none of them are really given known motives. The hunt for the motive is played out alongside a lot of checking of alibis and so on to work out who would have had the opportunity to kill Smallbone. There’s also far less emphasis than usual on the detective interviewing the suspects – we often learn what suspects have said second-hand, through conversations between various policemen or Hazlerigg and Bohun. I must admit I found this all kept me at more of a distance from most of the characters than I prefer, though the young lawyers all come vividly and enjoyably to life.

Challenge details:
Book: 67
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1950

But the book has other delights which more than make up for this minor lack. As a new boy, Bohun is more involved with the lowly employees than the exalted partners, and the portrayal of the young, exclusively male, lawyers and the female secretaries is great. Sexism is of course rampant, as it was in offices back in those days, but here it’s treated as fun, with the young men flirting and the women either responding favourably or rejecting them brutally. We get to overhear the women’s view of the men amongst themselves, and also the men’s opinions of the women. It’s all done for humour, so there’s no meanness or nastiness about it, and it keeps the tone delightfully light-hearted for the most part. However, we also see power at play, and how easily employees can be bullied by their bosses with no real means of fighting back.

Meantime, Hazlerigg’s team are checking out other aspects of the case. We follow Sergeant Plumptree as he tries to sift through all the various alibis of the staff, and Mr Hoffman, an accountant, who is examining the trust of which Smallbone was a trustee, and also the wider financial affairs of the firm. Surprisingly, Gilbert manages to make these rather dry subjects highly entertaining. Poor Plumptree has a tough job pinning down the whereabouts of his suspects and we’re shown the plodding, painstaking and often frustrating nature of the work, but all done with an edge of humour. Hoffman is helped in his task by Bohun, that man of many talents, and between them they show how tiny discrepancies can give the clue that leads to the unravelling of the most tightly woven plot.

Michael Gilbert

This is my first Michael Gilbert, so I don’t know how usual it is for Hazlerigg to take a rather muted role in the investigation, but I really didn’t feel as if I got to know him much at all. However I enjoyed Bohun as a kind of amateur sidekick to the police, and found the office flirtations and rivalries highly entertaining. The whole thing is very well written, with that lightness of tone despite dark deeds that I find so characteristic and appealing about Golden Age crime – this was published in 1950, so a little later than true Golden Age, but it feels as if it fits square in that category nonetheless. The British Library has republished three of Gilbert’s books this year, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

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Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Dr Edmund Bickleigh is married to Julia, a woman some years older than him and far above him in the social status stakes. Her domineering manner feeds into his inferiority complex, but he compensates by having a string of affairs with the surprisingly willing young ladies of his Devonshire village. Gossip is a problem, of course, but Julia is willing to look the other way since she’s not the least bit in love with Edmund herself. So all remains well, until Edmund meets the one woman that he knows is his real, true love – the woman he should have married, would marry now if only he were free. Divorce is a problem – reputation is everything for a professional man. So there’s really only one course left to pursue…

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.

Francis Iles is one of the several names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who under the name Anthony Berkeley wrote The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I recently thoroughly enjoyed. This book, Malice Aforethought, was, according to the blurb, the first novel in which the name of the potential murderer is revealed from the beginning. (I’m not sure if that’s a fact – Martin Edwards doesn’t mention it in his discussion of the book in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels, and I’d have expected that he would if it were true. Anyway…)

The first half of the book tells of the lead up to the murder attempt and is full of rather sly mockery of Dr Bickleigh and all the other characters. Edwards lists it under the heading The Ironists, and this seems like a good description for the style. It’s written in the third person but told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the doctor, so that the reader can’t be sure how distorted the picture of the other characters is by his perception of them. As often happens in books that set out to be ironical or satirical, there are really no characters in this that are likeable, and I must say I found the women in particular come off really badly – either silly, mindless girls desperate to be admired and loved, or gossiping middle-aged spinsters, or domineering/dominated wives. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if this was Dr Bickleigh’s view of women or the author’s, but when I remembered that I have in fact read other books by this author under different pen-names which didn’t strike me in the same way, I acquitted Iles and decided it was a rather clever indication of Dr Bickleigh’s compensation for his feelings of inferiority.

Challenge details:
Book: 80
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1931

I enjoyed the first half a lot as we follow Dr Bickleigh through his various romantic entanglements until he reaches the ecstasy of total infatuation with the new girl in town. Julia behaves more like a stern mother than a wife, disapproving of Edmund’s behaviour rather than exhibiting any signs of jealousy. The odd thing is that everyone appears to like Edmund, and that seems to be more than his distorted perception. He appears to have an outward charm that conceals his narcissistic, selfish interior self effectively from the world. We are shown how he uses fantasies to bolster his self-confidence but that those fantasies seem to have gone so far as to over-inflate his ego. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked Julia, I vastly preferred her to this obnoxious little creep, who failed to charm me in any way at all! So I found an unexpected sympathy for the proposed victim, which I’m not at all sure we are supposed to feel.

Francis Iles

There’s some doubt up to the halfway mark as to whether the murder attempt will come off or fail, and that added the necessary element of suspense to hold my interest, so I won’t spoil it by telling. But after we know whether Julia survives or not, the second half is spent with Edmund trying to cover up his plot, and I found it dragged interminably. Of course, largely this was because I disliked him so much I hoped he would be found out, but also the story spiralled further and further beyond my credulity line as it went on. The reasonable psychology of the first half disappears in the second, and from being mildly amusing, Edmund descends to being simply annoying. I spent the final third wishing it would hurry up and get to the end and when it did, it didn’t surprise me as much as it was intended to, I think.

So a game of two halves for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the first and was thoroughly bored by the second. But then, irony has never been one of my favourite things, so I have no doubt it will work better for plenty of readers.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

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The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Dead Shall be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

A twofer…

For some reason, the British Library has given us a double helping in this volume, with two full-size novels both starring Inspector Littlejohn.

The Dead Shall Be Raised

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is set during WW2 and tells the story of a murder that happened twenty years earlier, during WW1. Inspector Littlejohn has travelled to Yorkshire to spend Christmas with his wife, who is living there to get away from the bombing of London. But no sooner has he arrived than a corpse is dug up, and is soon identified as Enoch Sykes, a young man who disappeared twenty years ago at the same time as his one-time friend Jerry Trickett was found shot dead. The assumption was that Enoch had killed Jerry in a fight over a girl and then fled. But now it appears the case is more complicated and Inspector Littlejohn is happy to work alongside the local police to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that more than one of the locals had reason to resent Enoch and Littlejohn will have to use all his skills to find the murderer.

The book starts off with Littlejohn travelling to Yorkshire by train, immediately giving a great feeling for the restrictions and difficulties of getting around during the war. Once in the village of Hatterworth, the descriptive writing is equally good and we are taken into village life straight away as the Littlejohns attend the parish carol service. When the investigation gets underway we are introduced to the other characters, and Bellairs makes each of them believable, from the old innkeeper who saw the two victims on the night of the crime, to the retired policeman who carried out the original investigation, to old Mrs Sykes, Enoch’s mother, and at the other end of the social scale, Mrs Myles, once their employer. It is deep midwinter, and Bellairs makes us feel the snow and bitter cold as the detectives trudge around talking to witnesses and suspects.

I did enjoy this, but somehow it didn’t completely catch fire for me. It’s very well written and although the pool of suspects is small, the solution is more complex than it first appears that it might be. I think it was maybe that Littlejohn, though likeable enough and certainly good at his job, is a bit bland. I didn’t get much of a feel for what he was thinking or feeling, or of what kind of man he was. That felt a bit strange since all the secondary characters were so well drawn, so it may be that Bellairs was assuming his readers would already know all about Littlejohn from previous books – this, I believe, was the 4th in the series. A 4-star read, then, but it certainly left me keen enough to want to read the other book…

* * * * *

The Murder of a Quack

😀 😀 😀 😀

George Bellairs

Since I’m never keen about reading books in the same series immediately after each other, I left a gap of a few months before reading this second one, and found I fell back into the author’s world very happily and was pleased to meet up with Inspector Littlejohn again, so clearly he’d left a better long-term impression than I initially thought he would.

Nathaniel Wall, an elderly, well-regarded bonesetter, is found murdered in his surgery. He has been strangled, then hanged in an attempt to make it look like suicide. The local police promptly call in Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard. This gets off to a great start again, as Bellairs describes the local policeman enjoying a rare moment of peace and then being called out to investigate when Wall’s housekeeper returns from an overnight visit to her sister to find the surgery door locked. Bellairs is really good at creating an atmosphere from the beginning, which immediately leaves the reader wanting to know what happened.

The idea of the bonesetter intrigued me too – something I haven’t come across before. This is again set during WW2 (though the war has no relevance to the plot), before the creation of the National Health Service and before medicine became so strictly regulated. Today we’d think of Wall as an osteopath primarily, though he also dips into other fields of medicine including the more “alternative” one of homeopathy. His family have been bonesetters for generations, though his nephew has succumbed to modernity by qualifying as a doctor. While this nephew is a dedicated professional, the local qualified doctor is a drunken incompetent, who strongly resents that so many locals prefer to visit the “quack” Walls rather than him. It’s an interesting comparison of the skilled but unqualified practitioner and the feckless professional, with all the sympathy going to the former.

The plotting and characterisation are both done well again, as in the first book, but it’s definitely the setting and atmosphere of both that appeals to me, and in this one, I felt I got to know Inspector Littlejohn a little more fully. Well written, above-average police procedurals, and I’ll happily look out for more from Bellairs.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mystery shorts from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited and with a foreword by our usual excellent guide to all things vintage, Martin Edwards. This one contains eleven stories, all with a Christmas theme, often of family get-togethers for the holiday. Some of the British Library regulars are here – ECR Lorac, John Bude, Julian Symons, but there are also many who are new to me or whom I’ve only come across as contributors to other anthologies. I often find the stories from these lesser known ones are the best in the collections, and this is the case here. I wonder if this might be because they specialised in the short story form, whereas the bigger names are more comfortable with the full-length novel? But that’s merely speculation.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the stories I enjoyed most, which will give you some idea of the variety in the collection:

By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson – this is told from the murderer’s perspective and a nasty piece of work he is too! He is in lust with his cousin’s wife, plus his cousin, usually willing to help him out financially, has decided to draw the line and refuse him any more “loans” which never seem to get repaid. It’s a tradition in this military family that all the men die “by the sword” and our murderer is happy to go along with this. However, there’s more than one sting in the tail of this rather dark and well written story. And the author is particularly good at creating layers, so that we see through the murderer’s self-obsessed viewpoint but also can guess at things he misses.

Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare – a man is being blackmailed and is sure the blackmailer is one of his step-siblings. He’s already caused the death of the one he first suspected, but now he’s received another demand. So he sets out to kill the one he now suspects – sister Bessie. Naturally things don’t go according to plan… another one that’s very well told.

Blind Men’s Hood by Carter Dickson – one of the things I enjoy about these collection is that they often include stories that crossover into mild horror. This is a great little ghost story, brilliantly atmospheric. Our protagonists, a young man and his girlfriend, turn up at a friend’s country house for a Christmas gathering. The house is empty – all the inhabitants have gone off to a church service but for one young woman, who tells them the story of a long-ago murder. It’s beautifully done, with some lovely spooky touches.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – Symons is rapidly becoming one of my favourites of the authors the BL is reviving, and this rather longer story shows his style well. Our protagonist is a bookseller as far as the world knows, but in secret he is also something of a criminal mastermind. He is putting together a little team to rob a local store of a jewellery collection that forms the centrepiece of its Christmas display. Despite his meticulous planning, things don’t quite work out as he intended. There’s a lovely mixture of light and dark in this story, and the Christmas theme is enhanced by men running about in Santa costumes.

Overall, eight of the eleven stories got either 4 or 5 stars from me and none got less than 3, which makes this one of the strongest of the collections so far. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to reviewing it in time for Christmas just past, but it’s one I highly recommend for the nights leading up to next Christmas, or for the rebellious non-traditionalists among you, it would even be possible to read and enjoy it now…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

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When Christopher Barrington is orphaned at the age of twelve, he is taken in by his mother’s rich aunt, Lady Wainwright, and becomes a member of the family at Belting, their country house. His mother had been estranged from her family so Christopher hadn’t met either Lady Wainwright, or her two surviving sons, Miles and Stephen, before. She had had two other sons, too, David and Hugh, both of whom had been killed in the war. As with many families who lost sons to the war, the dead boys have been put on a pedestal, while the living ones constantly suffer from comparison. In this case, though, it seems as if Hugh and David may have been their mother’s favourites even before they died. Time passes, and by the time Christopher is almost grown up, Lady Wainwright’s health is failing and she isn’t expected to live much longer. And then a letter comes out of the blue, purporting to be from David. He claims to have been held as a war prisoner for many years, and has since been trying to recover in Paris. Lady Wainwright is thrilled and ready to welcome him home, but Miles and Stephen are convinced he’s an impostor, after their inheritance. Christopher, our narrator, tries to discover the truth…

This book was first published in 1965, though set some years earlier in the ‘50s, and reads much more like the novels of the likes of Ruth Rendell or PD James than the earlier Golden Age novels. While there is a central mystery and clues for the reader to spot, it’s much more based on character studies of the various family members and of Christopher himself, and gives a great and, to me, entirely believable picture of the last throes of this type of minor aristocracy, quietly decaying into the middle-classes. It’s a slower read than some of the earlier mystery novels because it takes time to let us get to know the family before it reaches the point where the story really kicks off.

There’s also a coming-of-age aspect to it, as Christopher begins to be treated more as an adult by the family at Belting and, in turn, starts to look at them with the more critical eye of maturity. It’s told by him as an adult looking back, so he has the benefit of greater insight into himself and the people he meets than he might have had at the time. Although he’s been with the Wainwrights for six years when the story proper begins, he’s spent much of that time at boarding school, so he has something of the objectivity of the outside observer. He’s very convincing for a boy of that age and class, I felt – well educated and with the confidence that social status and money bring, but with a kind of insecurity in his dealings with girls and women, as is not unnatural for a boy with no sisters or mother who has spent his teen years in an all boys school. It’s only when he begins to talk to people outside the family to try to find out more about the mysterious David that he finds to his surprise that not everyone respects old Lady Wainwright nor is impressed by his own standing as a member of the family. It isn’t laboured, but it’s an interesting insight into the growing egalitarianism of the time, as the uppity proles began to think maybe they were just as good as the privileged blue-bloods after all.

Julian Symons

Looking at reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been surprised to see that this is getting pretty average ratings. I thought it was an excellent novel, very well written and insightful. It reminded me a good deal of Gordon Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35, in that, while both are undoubtedly crime novels, I feel both are also literary fiction, with our old friend “the human condition” taking precedence over the mystery aspect. Both have an excellent sense of place, and of class and social status within small spheres of society. I think it may be suffering from expectations – as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, I think some people have been disappointed by it not being a traditional whodunit. But the more I read of these books, the more I realise that the best of them were far more than that, often with much to say about the time and society in which they were set. And, for me, this is one of the best of them. Having now been highly impressed by both the Julian Symons’ novels I’ve read, I’m baffled as to why he’s fallen into relative obscurity and hope the reissue of these books will find him a new generation of admirers, of whom I’m certainly one. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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