The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

The second death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

When Albert Campion, gentleman detective, gets an urgent message from an old friend to come to the village of Kepesake, he’s not surprised to learn it’s because there’s been a murder. However, when he comes to view the corpse, he’s more than surprised – he’s shocked! The dead man is “Pig” Peters, a former schoolmate of Campion’s who used to bully the younger boys, including Campion himself. But the shocking thing is that it’s only a few months since Campion attended Peters’ funeral. So how can he possibly be here, freshly dead? And what is the meaning of the cryptic anonymous notes that both Campion and another old schoolmate are receiving?

I haven’t read many of Allingham’s books, mainly because I don’t much like Campion as a detective. Like Lord Peter Wimsey he has an aristocratic background and the snobbery level in the books is high, especially in her supposedly comic portrayal of Campion’s valet and sidekick, the unendearingly common Magersfontein Lugg. Even his silly name makes me grit my teeth. To make up for these annoyances, however, Allingham provides intriguing mysteries, usually fair play, although so devious that I can rarely work them out until all is revealed.

Challenge details:
Book: 25
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1937

This one is unusual in that Campion tells us the story himself – usually the books are written in the third person. I quite enjoyed getting inside his head for a change. He often comes over as a sort of silly ass, an upper-class twit whose brilliance everyone underestimates because of the Wodehouse-ish (or Wimsey-ish – I’m never quite sure which it is that Allingham is attempting to parody) way he talks and behaves. But the first person approach takes the edge off the silliness, and I actually found him far more likeable when we could see his thought processes, especially since he tells us when he got things wrong.

Margery Allingham

The slight downside of the first person, though, is that Allingham has to tread the line carefully neither to reveal too much nor to make it too obvious when Campion is holding things back for the purposes of the big reveal. She does pretty well, on the whole, but I did manage to guess the who and the why and even had an inkling of part of the how. There was still enough that I couldn’t work out, though, to keep me turning the pages quite happily until Campion explained it all at the end.

I’m still not sure why Allingham gets ranked as one of the Queens of Crime – for my money she’s not a patch on ECR Lorac, for example, who is a “forgotten” author. But I suspect that’s more down to my subjective taste regarding style than an objective judgement about quality – I really don’t like the snobbery that comes with aristocratic detectives – and there’s no doubt Allingham has her fair share of dedicated fans. I don’t think I’ll ever class myself as one of them, but I find her quite entertaining for an occasional read. And, overall, for me this was one of the more enjoyable of the Campion novels.

Book 4 of 20

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Deadheads (Dalziel and Pascoe 7) by Reginald Hill

A thorny problem…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Patrick Aldermann seems to lead a charmed life. Every time anyone gets in his way fate intervenes and they die. When Patrick’s boss, Dandy Dick Elgood, suggests that perhaps Patrick gives fate a hand, Dalziel hands the case over to Peter Pascoe. Peter will have to decide if there’s any truth to Elgood’s fears by looking back at some of the convenient deaths to see if there were any suspicious circumstances missed at the time. But this is complicated by the fact that Peter’s wife, Ellie, has struck up a promising new friendship with Daphne, Patrick’s wife. Dalziel has his own personal interest – once upon a time he tried to seduce Patrick’s mother…

By this stage in the series, Hill has hit his stride and the recurring characters have developed the depth and complexity that make them so enjoyable. Sometimes Hill concentrates more on one of his leads than the others, giving the bulk of the book over to either Dalziel or Pascoe, or later in the series, to Wield or even Ellie. In this one, Pascoe is the leading character, but it’s very much an ensemble piece, with each having their own story within the story, so to speak. We get to know Ellie better as we see her try to juggle between her friendship with Daphne and her loyalty to Peter. Always what we would now call a social justice warrior, her left-wing, anti-Establishment, feminist views sit uneasily beside her role as policeman’s wife, but she’s an independent-minded woman with enough of a sense of humour to cheerfully navigate the dilemmas in which she often finds herself.

There’s a new cadet attached to CID on a short training placement – young Shaheed Singh, known as Shady by his colleagues. I’ve said before that Hill in his day was at the forefront of addressing the changing face of British society in crime fiction. With Singh he gives a very credible picture of a young lad, Yorkshire born and bred, but treated always as different because of his skin colour and Asian heritage. Hill never takes any of the subjects he tackles to the extremes, be it gender, sexual orientation or race, and that’s why I love him – one of the reasons, anyway. Singh gets fed up with the racially-tinged jokes directed at him by his colleagues, but he recognises that they’re basically the result of casual thoughtlessness rather than any real attempt to hurt.

Patrick Aldermann is an intriguing potential villain. Having inherited Rosemont from his rich great-aunt – victim of one of the fortuitous deaths that ease his path through life – Patrick is devoted to his huge garden. He seems to love his wife and children too, though perhaps with less passion than the roses on which he spends all his spare time and money. Could this apparently good-natured if rather emotionally undemonstrative man really be responsible for the murders of several people? Or is it all simply coincidence? As Peter investigates, he stirs up some murky secrets but they merely add to the confusion around Patrick’s guilt or innocence.

Reginald Hill

Meantime, CID are also investigating a spate of burglaries in the area, while Dalziel is off to London for a conference on community policing in mixed societies, giving us the opportunity to hear some of his un-correct but very funny views on political correctness! So Peter and Wieldy have their hands full, even without this case that might not be a case at all.

Another excellent instalment in this series, with one of Hill’s more playful plots. I’m always a bit reluctant to recommend reading this series in strict order, since I do think the first two or three have dated rather badly and might be a bit off-putting to newcomers. But these middle books would all make good entry points – although the character development is important, each of the books at this stage of the series works fine as a stand-alone (which is not true of some of the later books). Highly recommended, book and series both.

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Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

There’s only one word for it…

🙂 🙂 😐

When Jim Henderson receives an invitation to spend the weekend at Thrackley, the country house of a man called Edwin Carson, he’s puzzled. Although the older man claims to have been a friend of Jim’s long dead father, Jim doesn’t remember ever meeting him or even hearing his name. However, Jim’s found it difficult to get employment since he came back from the war, so the idea of some free food and free accommodation are very welcome, especially when he discovers his old school friend Freddie Usher has also been invited. Carson is a collector of jewels, and it’s not long before the reader discovers his methods of collection aren’t always honest. Over the course of the weekend, Jim will find himself surrounded by thefts, missing persons, murder and attractive women.

When I say that I preferred this to the only other book of Melville’s that I’ve read, Quick Curtain, I have to qualify that by pointing out that I thought Quick Curtain was pretty awful. This one isn’t awful, but it’s not good either. The plot is a mess, full of inconsistencies, holes, continuity errors and coincidences. There’s no mystery aspect since we know early on that Carson is a villain, so it all comes down to whether he’ll escape or be caught. It’s redeemed somewhat by the enjoyable banter between Jim and his old school friend, and by the light-hearted romance that Jim has with Carson’s daughter, Mary. This keeps it readable, so that despite my harrumphing every time the plot took another leap away from credibility, I managed to stick with it quite easily to the end.

And what an end! Sometimes the word silly doesn’t cut it, while farcical implies a level of skill that is distinctly missing here. Throw in a lot of big reveals, have some terrible things happen and no one seeming to much care, have the police totally laid back about the various criminal acts that have been carried out by the guests, and really, what is the right word to describe this shambles? The one that seems best to fit is preposterous. And what’s even more preposterous is that it seems to have been quite a hit when it came out, even being made into a movie. (Note to self: don’t watch it…)

So not awful, but close…

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

Book 2 of 20

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The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Starring Marina Gregg…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

From the oldest inhabitants to the newest of newcomers in the new housing development, all of St Mary Mead is agog. Gossington Hall has been sold, and the buyer is the famous movie actress Marina Gregg and her fourth – or is it fifth? – husband, film producer Jason Rudd. The villagers’ first chance to see the star up close is when Marina hosts a charity event in support of the St John’s Ambulance Society. While most of the villagers are restricted to attending the fête in the grounds of the Hall, a select few are invited to join Miss Gregg inside for cocktails. One of these lucky people is Heather Badcock, local representative of the Ambulance Society and lifelong fan of Marina Gregg. In fact, it’s while she’s boring Marina with a long story about how they met once before long ago that Mrs Badcock is taken suddenly ill, and then dies. Mrs Bantry, the previous owner of the Hall, witnesses the whole thing and rushes off to relay the story to her old friend, Miss Jane Marple…

First published in 1962, this is one of the later Christie stories, at the tail end of her own golden age, just before the quality of her books began to show serious decline. There is a bit of rambling and repetitiveness in this one, but not too much, and the portrayal of the changes to the village and a very elderly Miss Marple coping with modern life are great. I always feel that in these later books especially, Christie used Miss Marple as a conduit through which to muse on her own reactions to ageing and the changes in society.

Marina Gregg was played by the beautiful and much-married Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 film, opposite a marvellous performance from Kim Novak as Lola Brewster, her rival and now to be her co-star. This is a bit of a deviation from the plot of the book but the two women ham it up for all they’re worth and make the parts so much their own that now, when I read the book, it’s them I see in the roles. I always felt that Marina’s life mirrored Elizabeth Taylor’s own scandalous (for the time) life, and wondered if Agatha Christie had had her in mind while writing. However, wikipedia tells me Christie probably had a different actress in mind, but Marina will always be Elizabeth Taylor to me! (Do not look this up on wikipedia if you intend to read the book, as it is a major plot spoiler.)

Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to the case. He already knows Miss Marple from a previous case so has no hesitation in discussing this one with her and seeking her assistance in understanding the locals. It’s good to have Mrs Bantry back too – one of my favourite occasional characters. I find it a little sad to see Miss Marple quite so old and physically frail in this one, although her mind is still as sharp as ever. But the star is the star – Marina Gregg’s personality and presence dominate the book, and Christie gives an excellent and credible portrayal of the mixture of egocentricity and vulnerability of this woman, always on show, never able to be scruffy or rude, loved by so many but unable to find true happiness in her private life.

….“She’s suffered a great deal in her life. A large part of the suffering has been her own fault, but some of it hasn’t. None of her marriages has been happy except, I’d say, this last one. She’s married to a man now who loves her dearly and who’s loved her for years. She’s sheltering in that love, and she’s happy in it. At least, at the moment she’s happy in it. One can’t say how long all that will last. The trouble with her is that either she thinks that at last she’s got to that spot or place or that moment in her life where everything’s like a fairy tale come true, that nothing can go wrong, that she’ll never be unhappy again; or else she’s down in the dumps, a woman whose life is ruined, who’s never known love and happiness and who never will again.”
….He added dryly, “If she could only stop halfway between the two it’d be wonderful for her, and the world would lose a fine actress.”

The plot is great, with one of Christie’s best motives at the root of it. It is fair play but I’d be amazed if anyone gets the whole thing – the who perhaps would be possible, but the why is brilliantly hidden in plain sight. One of my pleasures in re-reading these Christies is knowing the solution and so being able to spot how cleverly she conceals the real clues among the red herrings. She hardly ever cheats and it’s a joy to see a mistress of the craft at work. And, of course, Joan Hickson is, as always, the perfect narrator for the Miss Marple books. Great stuff!

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Execution (Giordano Bruno 6) by SJ Parris

Treason and plot…

😐 😐

Giordano Bruno has returned to England from Paris to bring a message to Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. A plot is underway to assassinate Elizabeth and install Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Walsingham is aware of this already but sees a use for Bruno – to impersonate a priest who has arrived to bring Spanish aid to the conspirators. Walsingham also thinks Bruno might be helpful in finding out who murdered Clara Poole, a young woman who was one of Walsingham’s spies.

I’m afraid I found this incredibly slow and dull, and finally gave up just after the halfway point. Partly this may be because I already know the story of the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth quite well, and didn’t find this brought anything new to the table. I assumed that, given how well known the plot and its outcome are, the real story would be about Clara’s murder, with the Babington strand merely acting as an interesting background. But the emphasis, at least in this first half of the book, is almost entirely on Bruno’s infiltration of the conspiracy. Partly also, though, it’s because it moves at a glacial speed, being far too long for its content. Much of it is action-free, with too much dialogue. There’s one long, long section that takes place over a meal in an inn and is purely made up of all the characters discussing the plot so that Bruno and the reader know everything that has happened to date and who trusts and mistrusts whom – a lazy ploy of all tell and no show.

There’s no doubt that the research is good. The details of and background to the Babington conspiracy seem accurate, as far as I know, and the portrayal of the rather fanatical Walsingham is done very well. I don’t know much about the real Giordano Bruno so can’t say how accurate the fictional one is, but he’s quite a likeable protagonist. The descriptions of the London of this era ring true, and mostly the language is fine – neutral standard English rather than any attempt at Elizabethan dialect – with only the occasional jarringly anachronistic turn of phrase.

SJ Parris

As so often I seem to be swimming against the tide with this one – it’s getting almost universal praise from other reviewers so far, most of whom seem to be dedicated fans of the series. So perhaps it works better if you already have an emotional attachment to the recurring characters, or perhaps if you don’t know about the Babington plot going in. Though I can’t imagine anyone remotely interested in the Tudor period who wouldn’t already know what happened to Elizabeth and Mary respectively, making it obvious whether the plot succeeded even if you hadn’t heard of it before; and knowing the outcome means there’s no suspense. With such a well known event as the background, the murder story or Bruno’s personal story would have had to be much stronger than they are to dominate the foreground.

Despite abandoning it, I don’t feel it deserves the 1-star I usually give to books I don’t finish. It’s well written and well researched – I fear it simply didn’t hold my interest.

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

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

An Alpine holiday…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Book cover and link to Amazon product pageA group of young people are off on a trip to the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. With sixteen places in the group, it’s been a mammoth job to get everyone organised and some last minute cancellations mean that a few places have been filled by friends of friends, not directly known by other people in the group. So when some money goes missing from one of the hotel rooms, suddenly suspicion begins to threaten what had been up till then a most enjoyable jaunt. Meantime, back in London, a body has been found burned beyond recognition in a house fire. The police soon have reason to suspect this was no accident however, and the print of a ski-stick in the ground outside the house has Inspector Rivers intrigued…

Carol Carnac is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote the Inspector MacDonald series of police procedurals under another pseudonym, ECR Lorac. Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been republishing so I was intrigued to see if I liked her as much in this incarnation, with Inspector Rivers as the lead.

The skiing party is a lot of fun, with the main characters being on the whole an extremely likeable bunch of privileged but not horribly snobbish English people, delighted to escape from the post-war rationing and dismal January days at home for pristine snow and sunshine, skiing by day and dancing the nights away. As Lorac, I’ve commented many times on how great she is at creating the settings she chooses, and that’s apparent in this one too. The freezing weather in both the beautiful Alps and in dank and dreary London is brilliantly described and contrasted, and adds much to the enjoyment.

The one real weakness of the book is the size of the skiing party. Sixteen characters are far too many in a short book – most of them never become more than names, and many have no part in the story at all. Very few of them have space to develop distinct personalities and I was still having to think hard to remember who was who even as the book neared the end. The introduction tells us Carnac based it on a real skiing party of which she’d been a member, but it would have worked much better in the book if she’d cut the cast list down to a more manageable size.

However, I still enjoyed the picture she gave of these young people participating in what was still a rather unusual sport at that time. While it was still mostly the preserve of the elite, Carnac shows how foreign travel was gradually becoming more accessible to ordinary working people in the years after the war. She also reminded me of the days, which I only just remember, when people were restricted in the amount of currency they were allowed to take out of the country, and how problematic this could make foreign travel.

The London end is equally well done, and Rivers and his sidekick Lancing make an excellent team. The plot is a little convoluted, but works, and shows the gradual change in detection methods towards forensic evidence, with much nifty stuff around fingerprints. Both men are coincidentally skiers themselves, so when the trail leads to the Alps they can’t wait to get over there. And it all leads up as you’d expect to a thrillerish ending on a mountain slope in the middle of a snow-storm.

Thoroughly enjoyable despite the overabundance of characters – I’ll be looking out for more of her books in her Carnac persona now too.

20 Books of Summer logoBook 1

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

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All That’s Dead (Logan McRae 12) by Stuart MacBride

Back in the club…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Book cover and link to Amazon product pageLogan McRae has just returned to work after a year off on the sick because of serious knife wounds he received in his last case. Still part of the Professional Standards team, McRae is tasked with looking into a claim that a now senior officer was once involved with a Nationalist terrorist cell. But no sooner has he contacted the officer, DI Frank King, than King is called out to a horrific crime scene – the blood-soaked kitchen of Professor Nicholas Wilson, a prominent and obnoxiously combative Unionist. No body, so first King has to discover if Wilson left the kitchen dead or alive. And due to the sensitivity of the allegations made against King, McRae is told to work with him and keep an eye on him. Meantime, social media has gone wild with rumours about what has happened to Wilson and threats of more violence to come…

I loved the first several books in this series and then felt that MacBride had allowed the humorous element that always existed in them to take over from the plotting, leaving them feeling wildly caricatured and completely lacking in credibility. However when I was sent this one for review, I was happy to revisit McRae and the team for the first time in several years to see if the old magic could be revived. And I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it a lot!

MacBride is never an author I’d identify with realism or credibility. He takes an aspect of Scottish life or the criminal world and exaggerates it madly, and I always hope that no one outside Scotland thinks our country or our police force are actually like this. But he does it mainly to make for more exciting plots and for comic effect, so I can usually go along for the ride. In this one it’s all based on the idea of Nationalist terrorism, which doesn’t happen in the real world, and specifically on “Alt Nats” – a term that is only really used as a jibe to annoy those at the fanatical end of the Nationalist cause. Nationalists and Unionists do call each other names and shout at each other on social media, but neither side (as far as I know) have active terrorist cells – if they do, they must be really incompetent ones or you’d think we’d hear about them! So the plot is fundamentally unbelievable, and actually that means it’s more fun than would have been possible if Scottish terrorism was really a thing. MacBride treads quite carefully and cleverly through the Independence quagmire, and I suspect probably manages the almost impossible feat of not offending either side – or perhaps of offending both equally, which works just as well!

It may just be that I’ve been away from him for a while but I felt he’d pulled the recurring characters back a little from the extreme caricaturing that lost me eventually in the earlier books. The appalling DI Steel is still outrageously rude and foul-mouthed but she does at least try to stay within the rules most of the time now. McRae’s team are always good fun. DS Rennie wants to be McRae’s best “sidekick” while DC “Tufty” is torn between becoming a computer geek or appearing in a CGI movie as a space alien. McRae is the sane one amidst all these eccentrics, but only by comparison. However, it’s good to see that in my absence he’s found himself a nice girlfriend and a bit of domestic happiness.

Author photo
Stuart MacBride

Putting credibility of the basic premise to the side, the plotting in this also felt stronger to me than the last couple I’d read. It’s pretty dark and extremely gruesome, but the general atmosphere of humour stops it from ever becoming grim. MacBride’s signature is entertainment and when he’s at his best, he delivers in spades. The writing is great, as always, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy his use of contemporary Scots banter and dialect – again always exaggerated, but very funny, and not at all problematic for non-Scots to enjoy.

All-in-all, not sure it’s his very best but I enjoyed it hugely, and with MacBride that’s what it’s all about! I’m delighted to resume my membership of the Logan McRae fan club, and am happily looking forward to his next outing now.

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

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Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

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The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

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The Cutting Place (Maeve Kerrigan 9) by Jane Casey

Boys will be boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a mudlarker finds bits of a body washed up on the banks of the Thames, Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan finds herself with a particularly tricky murder on her hands. The lack of a complete corpse makes identification difficult, and there’s no indication of where the crime may have been committed. However, with the help of her team and a couple of lucky breaks, Maeve is soon on the trail of a secretive all-male club, full of the rich and privileged who use their wealth and power to behave outrageously and get away with it.

This is the ninth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, one of the very few series I have followed all the way through and still look forward eagerly to each instalment. Partly this is because Maeve is such an attractive character – the books are written in the first person from her perspective (past tense) and, while she frequently gets herself entangled in dangerous situations, she is resilient and so remains refreshingly normal with her sense of sometimes wicked humour intact. Partly, too, it’s because of Casey’s skill in plotting. The books tend to concentrate on some aspect of contemporary life – in this one, the issue of male privilege and how it can lead to the sexual abuse of women – but Casey manages to avoid becoming overly polemical or to be too obviously making “points”. And partly, it’s because Maeve is one of the very few fictional female police officers who isn’t constantly having to battle sexual discrimination in the workplace. Maeve and her colleagues, male and female alike, work as a competent team, with the usual banter that takes place in any mixed gender setting but with mutual respect all round. Just like I imagine most real police teams in the 21st century probably behave, in fact. First and foremost, although the plots are by no means cosy, the interplay between the recurring characters keeps the books entertaining, a thing that much of contemporary crime seems to have forgotten how to be.

Maeve now has a new boyfriend, Seth, while Josh Derwent is still with his girlfriend, Melissa, and has settled into the role of father to her young son. But the ongoing will-they/won’t-they tension between Maeve and Josh continues, although Maeve would deny its existence. I have to admit that I am not Josh’s biggest fan – or rather, I love him as a character but don’t particularly admire him as a man. Having started out as a male chauvinist pig of the first order, he has gradually softened as the series has progressed and I know that the vast majority of long-term fans seem to hope that one day Maeve and he will ride off happily into the sunset together. I’m afraid I can’t help being concerned about his controlling and often physically domineering behaviour towards Maeve, which in this book is ironic since part of the plotline concerns a toxic controlling relationship. Personally if I had a work colleague or even a friend who felt that he had the right to question my boyfriend’s exes to see whether the boyfriend was suitable for me, I would not be a happy pixie, but Maeve seems to find Josh’s extreme over-protectiveness and gross interference in her life quite manly and attractive, and so do her fans, so I shall stand in the corner and try not to sulk. Despite my reservations, I do enjoy their banter and the good thing about fictional controlling men, as opposed to real ones, is that they can change over time.

I was delighted that Maeve’s mother puts in an appearance in this one, partly because their relationship is so well done and believable, and partly because it’s such a refreshing departure for a detective to actually have a normal, supportive family at her back.

Jane Casey

I don’t want to say much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it’s done with Casey’s usual skill, treading close to the credibility line at points but always managing to stay just on the right side of it. Mostly what I love about these books, though, is their sheer readability – the easy flow that looks effortless although I’m quite sure it isn’t, the banter between Maeve and Josh and the wider team, the pacing that relies on a sure and steady reveal of information as the book progresses rather than the ubiquitous and unlikely twists of contemporary crime fiction, and the excellent quality of the writing itself. As always, I found this one pure pleasure to read and now begins the long wait for the next one. Nose to the grindstone, please, Ms Casey! Highly recommended, but if you’re a newcomer, do read the series in order – the character development is a major part of the enjoyment. And then you can come back and tell me which side of the great Josh debate you’re on…

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

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The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

A mystery to me…

😦

This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. There are twelve stories and I made it through almost four of them before I decided I’d rather be cleaning the cats’ litter tray.

Sometimes when I dislike a popular book or author, I can see why the world loves them even although I don’t. But not with Father Brown, I fear. Nonsensical plots, frequently poor writing and ridiculous scenes of the priest with a few words bringing hardened criminals to repentance leave me struggling to find anything to admire in these. Throw in Chesterton’s supercilious disdain for anyone from a creed other than his own – i.e., Roman Catholicism – with his sanctimonious sneering reserved especially for atheists and Jews, and I find the stories often actively unpleasant as well as unentertaining.

Let me give you an example, which includes major spoilers for one of the stories, The Queer Feet. A group of rich gentlemen have a monthly dining club during which they use their own valuable set of fish knives and forks. On this evening, while they dine in one room of a restaurant, Father Brown sits locked in in another, writing a letter on behalf of a dying man. (Why locked in? No idea, other than that the plot requires him to be unable to open the door and look out.) Hearing footsteps outside in the corridor, he miraculously extrapolates from the sound of them a) that something queer is going on b) that it must be someone pretending to be a gentleman part of the time and a waiter the other part and c) that therefore this individual must be stealing the valuable cutlery about which Brown miraculously seems to know and d) that the criminal is getting way with this imposture because gentlemen and waiters all wear black jackets and it is therefore impossible to tell them apart. Having worked all this out on the basis of the sound of the footsteps, and having then discovered that there’s a second door in his locked room which has been unlocked all along *eyeroll*, Brown tackles the dangerous criminal, and with a few words persuades him to repent, turn over the loot and depart to lead a better life. I think my favourite line, showing Chesterton’s poor grasp of either writing or arithmetic – perhaps both – must be:

The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told.

Challenge details:
Book: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

Still, at least that line made me smile, unlike this, from the following story, one of several snide remarks about Jews and their supposed love of money:

…squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Café Riche.

Other reviews inform me he’s even worse later about Indians and Chinese people. Of its time, of course, and I’d doubtless have been able to overlook it had I been enjoying the stories more.

Then there are the moments when he reaches for the heights of grandiose melodrama, and misses by a mile:

Lady Galloway screamed. Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now. They saw the proud, white face of the Scotch aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house. The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

What can I say? Obviously other people see something quite different when they read these stories or they wouldn’t be as lastingly popular as they are. For me, they’re a 1-star fail, but statistically speaking there’s a good chance you’d love them. Go figure.

Goodreads ratings

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Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Simply not cricket!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mysteries from the Golden Age, this contains 15 stories, as usual with a mix of well-known and lesser known authors. As the title and cover imply, the theme in this instance is sport, and a different sport features in every story. There are the sports that are well known for skulduggery – horse racing and boxing, for example – and the sports which are usually, or were at that time, held to be the squeaky clean preserve of the English gentleman – rowing, rugby and, of course, cricket. In some of the stories the sport matters in terms of the plot, while in others it merely forms an interesting background to a more traditional mystery.

As always, I found the quality variable, although in this one most of the stories fell into the middling range for me, between average and good, with just a couple standing out as excellent and only one which I thought was so bad it didn’t really merit inclusion. There were only one or two where I felt my lack of understanding of the sport in question got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, and since I’m not very sports-minded this would probably be even less of a problem for most people.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I enjoyed most:

The Boat Race Murder by David Winser – Set in the run up to the all-important annual race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, this is a story of competitiveness and ambition taken to extremes. It’s very well written, told by a first-person narrator who was in the Oxford team. It does assume a bit more understanding of the technicalities of rowing than I possess, but it gives a great and very authentic feeling background to what it’s like to be an “Oxford Blue”, the hard work and teamsmanship, and all the pressures and celebrity that come with being at the top of an elite sport.

The 1930 Oxford Crew

Death at the Wicket by Bernard Newman – During a match, a cricketer is struck by the ball and later collapses and dies. It appears to have been an accident, but was it? Our narrator is not convinced and sets out to investigate. The cricketing story here assumes the reader understands the dangers and ethical questions around “bodyline” bowling – a technique that came in the 1930s whereby the bowler deliberately aims the ball with the intention of intimidating the batsman, leading to many injuries. It was (is?) considered deeply unsporting. However, the story is well written and ultimately depends on human nature rather than cricketing shenanigans, so is enjoyable even for people who don’t know their googly from their silly mid-off.

The Drop Shot by Michael Gilbert – as two men watch a squash match, one tells the other of another match years earlier that resulted in the death of one of the players. This is very well told and doesn’t require any knowledge of squash to understand the plot. It’s not a mystery – more of a morality tale about greed and competitiveness, and how fate makes sure one gets one’s comeuppance in the end. I enjoyed it a lot.

Dangerous Sport by Celia Fremlin – the sport here is really incidental to the story, being merely that a school sports day provides the backdrop to one of the major events. It’s the story of a mistress who is tired of her lover lying to her, especially since he’s not very good at it. She likes to catch him out in his lies, but has gradually come to realise that his wife and family will always be more important to him than she is. So she decides to do something about it. This suspense story has an almost noir feel to it, in that no one is likeable and there’s no hope for a happy ending. It’s extremely well told and psychologically convincing, especially of the thoughts and feelings of the mistress. I shall look out for more from this new-to-me author.

And it also has a Holmes story, which seems to be a regular feature of these collections, certainly for the last several anyway. This time it’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter (rugby) – not a particularly strong mystery but, as always, a very well told and interesting story.

So plenty of variety and lots to enjoy, and a great way of participating in some strenuous sports without leaving the sofa. Recommended.

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

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Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Variation on a theme…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of her boyfriend, Hannah’s life is spiralling out of control. She’s behaving recklessly and drinking too much, and her friends and family are getting very tired of her. So when she receives a reminder about a booking she and her boyfriend had made to stay for a few nights in a guest-house in Ireland, she decides to go. But as soon as she arrives spooky things begins to happen, while bad weather and storms means she and her fellow guests find themselves cut off from the outside world. And then the deaths begin…

There seems to be a little trend of books at the moment taking the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a group of people carefully collected together in an isolated spot by someone with a grievance who then sets about bumping them off one by one. It’s certainly an excellent set-up and the trick is to do something original within the overall structure so that it doesn’t just seem like a copy of the great original. Frost’s basic story isn’t particularly original – after all these years of psychological thrillers it would be hard to find an angle that no one else had used – but she handles it well and uses the general spookiness of the house to good effect to create an atmosphere of enjoyable tension.

I must admit I groaned a bit at the beginning. A few years ago I got so fed up with the identikit misery-fest thriller sub-genre that I wrote a joking pastiche of it, involving a hungover alcoholic woman whose family and friends all hated her and whose life was a mess because of something unspecified that happened “that day” in the past. The first several pages of this book read almost like a pastiche of my pastiche, up to and including the obligatory drunken vomiting scene. Happily, while it continues to tread fairly well-worn ground throughout, Frost writes well (and in past tense – hurrah!), and makes the excellent decision to remove the opportunity for getting drunk from Hannah as soon as she arrives at the guest-house. Once she sobers up, she becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable lead character – a lesson all drunks, fictional or otherwise, could learn from!

Abbie Frost

The underlying story is dark and again perhaps too well-trodden to really surprise, but although I guessed parts of the plot and saw some of the twists coming, it’s done well and, once the rather slow start is out of the way, the pacing picks up so that it becomes a page-turner. The characterisation is a bit patchy – some of the characters are very well done, others less so, but happily I lost my initial antipathy to Hannah herself and gradually found myself on her side.

It’s not one to think too hard about or to analyse too deeply. There are, perhaps, too many bits that require a hefty suspension of disbelief. But the pacing and spookiness make it an entertaining read overall and it all culminates in an exciting and nicely over-the-top thriller ending. Once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot, finding myself reluctant to put it down, which is exactly the effect a good thriller should have.

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

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Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Double the pleasure…

Every now and then the British Library produces a twofer in their Crime Classics series – two full-length novels by the same author in one volume – and these always feel like an extra special treat, especially when the author is one of the ones who has become a readers’ favourite, as John Bude apparently has. I must admit, although I’ve enjoyed the previous Bude novels I’ve read, he hadn’t become one of my personal stars, but I hoped maybe these two would raise him up to that status. And they did! I loved both of these very different novels…

Death in White Pyjamas

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having made his fortune in business, Sam Richardson is now enjoying his middle years by using his wealth to support a small theatre company, led by director Basil Barnes. Barnes’ artistic drive and Richardson’s knowledge of the type of thing he himself likes to see performed on stage make for a winning combination, and Richardson’s wealth allows Basil to hire a core group of established actors and actresses along with a few promising newcomers. In the winter months they perform in the London theatre Richardson has bought, and during the summer closed-season he throws open his country home to any of the regulars who need a little break or for the group to gather for early rehearsals of the next season’s plays. This summer most of the company are staying at Richardson’s house, while Basil has bought a little cottage close by and is in the process of fitting it out to his own taste. However, as in any group, there are tensions and jealousies under the surface, and murder is waiting in the wings…

This is one of these mysteries where we slowly get to know all the characters and possible motives before the crime is committed, so my advice is – don’t read the blurb on the back or the introduction until after you’ve read the book! Half the fun is seeing all the convoluted threads that seem to give each of the characters reasons to want rid of one or more of the other ones, and the identity of the eventual victim is not at all clear until the murder actually happens. It almost gives two mysteries – the first, who will be killed, revealed around halfway through, and then the second, who is the killer?

The characterisation is great. There are all the theatrical stereotypes – the old character actor, the beautiful young ingénue, the aspiring playwright, the predatory director, the money-minded producer – but they’re all brought beautifully to life with a lot of warmth and humour, so that they don’t feel at all stale. Once the victim is known, the whodunit is reasonably easy to guess, but the howdunit aspect is great fun, and as with the best vintage crime there are happy endings for those who deserve them and justice for those who don’t. Excellent!

Death Knows No Calendar

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his old friend Lydia Arundel is found dead in her locked artist’s studio with a gun close at hand, Major Tom Boddy finds he can’t believe that she was the type of woman to ever contemplate suicide. So he sets out to investigate, armed only with his extensive knowledge of detective fiction and ably assisted by his batman, Syd Gammon. Although he has his suspicions from an early stage, he soon realises there are several people with the motive to do away with Lydia, a woman whom men fell in love with too easily, and who enjoyed her power over them too much. But even if he works out whodunit, he knows he’ll never be able to persuade the police that she was murdered unless he can solve the mystery of how the crime was done…

There’s more than one “impossible” scenario hidden in this gem of a book, which will please fans of the locked room style of mystery. But for me the greatest joy is in Major Boddy’s character – he’s one of these traditional old colonials who is scared of nothing and assumes nothing is beyond him. When he sets his mind to a task, he sees it through. But he’s also kind-hearted and, typical of the fictional type, gives the impression of being rather baffled by human behaviour, especially of the female variety. There’s so much humour in this book – I smiled and chuckled my way through it. As well as the locked room aspect, the setting is another much-loved vintage crime staple – the small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, or think they do at least. As in Death in White Pyjamas, the identity of the killer is easier to work out than the method of the crime, and in this one the amateur detection efforts of the Major and Syd are hugely entertaining. I think I enjoyed it even more than Death in White Pyjamas.

So two great books in one volume – I hereby officially declare myself a John Bude fan and now can’t wait to read more of his stuff. Doubly recommended!

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

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A Killing Kindness (Dalziel and Pascoe 6) by Reginald Hill

To thine own self be true…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Sergeant Wield visits the mother of murder victim Brenda Sorby, he finds that Mrs Sorby has called in gypsy clairvoyant Rosetta Stanhope to try to contact her dead daughter. Politely, Wield listens in, but when the local press get hold of the story it is blown up as the police having called in a psychic because they’re baffled, and Superintendent Dalziel is not pleased! The press have a point, though – Brenda is the third apparent victim of the murderer the press have dubbed the Choker and the police are indeed baffled. There seems no obvious connection between the victims, and while the first two were carefully laid out by the murderer, poor Brenda was found dumped in the local canal. However, all three women were strangled, and after each murder the local paper received an anonymous phonecall quoting a line from Hamlet. Then, as Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield search for leads, a fourth murder takes place…

The thing I love about this series is how it evolves over time, both in terms of the recurring characters, and in the quality of the plotting. This one dates from 1980, a full decade after the first book and a decade that saw the beginning of lots of changes in social attitudes. Hill could have simply changed the characters of his two leads as many writers tried to do with varying degrees of success. But instead he allows them to grow and adapt. At this point, Dalziel remains the rude, boorish, foul-mouthed dinosaur, but Pascoe, now married to the feminist Ellie, has matured into a semi-decent bloke, who might still expect his dinner to be on the table when he gets home but isn’t too put out when it’s left for him in the oven instead, while Ellie is off out with her feminist friends. For the early ‘80s, this almost counted as being a New Man! Even Dalziel will gradually reveal that most of his boorishness is an act and that he might be even more advanced than Pascoe in his heart. Dalziel doesn’t care if his officers are male or female, gay or straight, white or black – he’s equally rude and offensive to them all, but they can count on his total support should anyone else try to mess with them.

Having brought Ellie in a few books earlier to counterbalance the sexism and boost the feminist angle, in this one Hill brings Wieldy to the fore. I can’t say definitively that Wield is the first sympathetic depiction of a gay policeman in mainstream British crime fiction, but he’s certainly the first I came across and it was pretty astounding at the time. Especially since the portrayal of him is so good – not in any way stereotyped, not suggesting that being gay makes him weak or feminine or “perverted” or any of the other negative characteristics that fictional gay people were so often given at that period. Wield is a normal guy who happens to be gay. For younger people used to that kind of portrayal of gay people, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary it seemed back in the day. And the joy is that Wieldy is so easy to like! Again, I have no evidence that Wield changed perceptions of homosexuality in Hill’s readership but I’d be amazed if he didn’t. He’s one example of the way Hill constantly pushed at the boundaries, but subtly and with warmth and humour, rather than beating the reader over the head with polemics and “messages”.

Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is excellent – probably the first in the series where I felt Hill got it completely right. It’s complex and convincing, and dark. While it involves the murder of young women, it avoids the salaciousness and voyeurism that often accompanies that, and the killer’s motivation is original. I’m desperately trying to avoid anything which could be a spoiler, so I’ll simply say that the motivation aspect gives the book the psychological depth that became a trademark of Hill’s work as the series developed. That’s what makes Dalziel and Pascoe such a good team – Dalziel knows how to bully evidence out of the unwilling, but Pascoe knows how to use empathy and understanding to tease out the reason for the crimes.

When I first read this series, it was around this book that I first joined in and I must say I’d recommend it as a good starting point to people coming to the series fresh. While all the books are readable, there’s no doubt the very early ones feel a little dated now, and not as polished, whereas this one stands up very well to modern eyes, I think. I found that I was more forgiving of the sexism in the earlier ones when I backtracked to them after learning to love the characters once they had become more developed, and from this point on the series just gets better and better. There are twenty-four of them in total, so if you haven’t already read them, you really ought to make a start soon – they get my highest recommendation!

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

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

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the body of a man is discovered in the Dumb River in a small town in East Anglia, stabbed through the chest, the local police have a problem. Torrential rain has caused the fenland district to flood and they are fully stretched helping residents and farmers get themselves and their animals to safety. Luckily Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard is in the area and he agrees to take on the murder investigation. The murdered man turns out to be Jim Lane, who runs a hoopla stall and travels around the south of England from fair to fair. A little investigation soon reveals that he has another identity too, though – James Teasdale, a married man from Yorkshire, whose wife and family believe he is a commercial traveller. Littlejohn must discover which of his lives has led to his death…

This is my favourite of the Bellairs novels I’ve read so far. Both settings are handled very well – the flooded fenlands and the hard-drinking, mostly working-class Yorkshire town. Teasdale has married “above” himself, and his selfish wife and her money-grabbing father never let him forget it, making sure that his daughters grow up to look down on him too. So Littlejohn understands why James has developed a second life as Jim the fairground man. Not only does it allow him to make more money than his failing arts and crafts shop in Yorkshire, but in this environment he has the respect of his fellows and is well-liked. Littlejohn rather wonders that he hasn’t broken all ties with his family, but James clearly feels a sense of duty towards them. However, now, as Jim, he has met another woman, one who admires and respects him, and James/Jim’s loyalties are torn.

There is a mystery here, but it’s not really laid out as a traditional whodunit, with lots of suspects with different motives and conflicting clues, and so on. Instead, it’s more of a police procedural, as we follow Littlejohn and his colleague Sergeant Cromwell painstakingly collecting information through interviewing people and putting this together with what the forensic evidence shows. This makes the characterisation particularly important, and it’s done very well. Written in the third person, we mostly see the story from the perspective of Littlejohn, occasionally shifting to Cromwell. Littlejohn seems better developed here for some reason – Bellairs allows us to see his uncertainty as to how to proceed at points, and his dependence on Cromwell as someone with whom to talk things over as well as being a skilled investigator in his own right. But all the secondary characters are very well drawn too – all James’ unlikeable snobbish relatives up in Yorkshire, and the much more sympathetic girlfriend and friends from his fairground life. The flooding adds an extra touch as we see the community come together to help each other, and the harassed local police trying to provide assistance to Littlejohn while dealing with matters that seem more immediately urgent.

George Bellairs

Up in Yorkshire, where the rain is also falling (it is Britain, after all), the hideous family give us quite a bit of humour at their expense, although Bellairs gradually allows both Littlejohn and the reader to see the rather tragic underside of their lives, brought on by themselves and their unjustifiable regard for their “position” admittedly, but nevertheless leaving them rather isolated from their community and even from each other. It’s an excellent, if rather cruel, portrait of selfishness.

At just two hundred pages, it neither outstays its welcome nor leaves the reader feeling short-changed – it’s the perfect length for its plot. Highly recommended, and I hope the BL keeps the Littlejohn novels coming…

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

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The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

The clue’s in the clue…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage crime from the winning partnership of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains fourteen stories sharing the theme of scientific detectives or clues. There’s a lot of imagination on display as the authors seek to find unique problems to put before their detectives – everything from Sherlock Holmes and his expert knowledge of cigar ash, to laryngoscopes, anaphylactic shock, new-fangled “contact glasses” and a different twist on identifying corpses from dental records. There’s a mix of well-known authors, authors who are becoming better known again thanks to the work of Edwards and the BL, and a couple I’ve not come across before.

And as always, there’s a considerable variation in quality. In total, I gave just 3 of the stories 5 stars, but another 5 rated as 4 stars. There were a couple I really felt weren’t up to a standard to make them worthy of inclusion, and all the others came in around the 3 star mark. The early collections in the BL Crime Classics series tended to have the settings as the theme – London, country houses, people on holiday, etc – while the more recent ones have focused on the type of mystery. It’s purely subjective, but I preferred the earlier themes – the settings allowed for a mix of motives and methods, whereas the later ones being centred on particular sub-genres of the sub-genre make the variety narrower, and often have the focus on alibis or clues rather than on the interactions of the characters. So it all depends on reader preference, as usual, and I suspect people who like this kind of story would rate some of the stories higher than I have.

Here’s a taste of a few that I enjoyed most:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – it seems to be becoming a tradition that these anthologies kick off with a Holmes story and this is a good one. A man is murdered and his son is suspected, but Holmes quickly discovers there may have been a third person on the scene. It all hinges on footprints, cigar ash, and the dying victim’s last words… “a rat”!

The Horror of Studley Grange by LT Meade and Clifford Halifax – Lady Studley asks Dr Halifax to come to the Grange because she’s worried about her husband’s health. But Dr Halifax is equally worried about Lady Studley who seems to be very ill. This turns into a decent horror story, complete with ghostly apparitions, but in a scientific mystery it won’t surprise you to know the horror is of human origin. The whodunit is a bit obvious, but the detection of the how and why aspects is fun and it’s very well told.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers – I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I vastly prefer Sayers in short story mode than in her novels, probably because she gets to the point more quickly and so there’s less time for Lord Peter Wimsey to become annoying. This one is a fun story that begins when Lord Peter is visiting his dentist, who has been asked to identify a burned corpse from his dental records. Of course, Lord Peter tags along which is just as well, since he spots something the experts have missed! It’s played for laughs with a lot of humour around the horrors of dentistry and in the description of the victim’s awful wife. Very enjoyable and of course well written.

Blood Sport by Edmund Crispin – this is very short but good fun nevertheless. A woman is shot and the local lord is suspected, since apparently he was getting up to hanky-panky with the victim, who was no better than she should be. But the detective spots a discrepancy around the cleaning of a gun which sends him off in a different direction. Reminded me that I really must read more Crispin.

As always it includes an informative general introduction from Martin Edwards, plus mini-biographies of each of the authors. So if scientific clues and detectives are your thing, then there’s plenty in this to enjoy.

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

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