The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

A war to end all wars…

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Elizabeth Smith has lodged with the Armstrong family in Tufnell Park in London for several years, becoming a friend to them all, and especially to Grace, the daughter of the house. While Grace is away from home on a visit, Elizabeth receives a letter – a highly unusual occurrence for this rather isolated woman – and a visit from a strange man, whom the servants felt was threatening. By the time Grace returns, Elizabeth has destroyed all her personal property and left, leaving no forwarding address. Grace is a little hurt, but mostly she’s concerned – it all seems so out of character for Elizabeth. And then a body is found in the Thames. When it is confirmed that it is Elizabeth and the police seem content to call it suicide and let the matter drop, Grace finds she can’t let go – she must find out more about Elizabeth’s past and what drove her to leave as she did.

Set just after the end of the Great War, this is as much an examination of the impact of the losses so many endured as it is a mystery. Scarlett evokes her post-war setting excellently, both physically and emotionally. She shows a society where no person has been untouched by loss – even those lucky enough to have their sons or husbands return to them have to deal with the psychological aftermath, or in many cases with lives shattered by life-changing injuries. But she also shows the resilience that somehow allows people to go on, to start fresh and to begin the slow process of rebuilding lives or building new ones. She shows society changing, with the working classes unwilling to go back to the rigid class systems of before and less deferential than they once were. Servants are hard to come by, since women have had the experience of doing more exciting and better paid jobs in factories and offices during the war, and don’t relish returning to the drudgery of domestic labour. For the middle and upper classes, the old rules of social interaction between the sexes are gone too – no more chaperones, nightclubs springing up, ladies drinking cocktails and smoking! For by far the most part, it’s entirely credible and free of anachronism, with just an occasional word choice that doesn’t quite feel right.

Unfortunately near the end two of the compulsory themes of the decade are dragged in – homophobia and sexual abuse. I assume authors can’t get publishing contracts without them, a bit like the new Oscar rules. At least racism was omitted for once. It’s not that I object to any of these themes – I’d just like them not to be quite so ubiquitous. I love chocolate fudge cake, but I don’t want it with every meal. Believe it or not, there are other aspects of the human condition worth exploring. And in this case, I felt the subjects of loss and renewal were more than sufficient, especially since she dealt with them so well.

Apart from that box-ticking exercise, I found the story interesting and compelling. Grace, who is our main character, has herself lost both a brother and her fiancé, and the story of her slow process of grief and gradual recovery is sensitively done. She too has had grim wartime experiences, working with severely injured men as a VAD nurse, and is now, still only at the age of 22, working with a nursing magazine, hoping it might lead to an opening into journalism. She is a strong, resilient and likeable character whose investigations stay well within the limits of believability throughout. With the help of her friends and the family servants, she begins to trace back through Elizabeth’s life on the basis of the few scraps of information they have all gleaned from this very private woman over the years. As Elizabeth’s past is slowly uncovered, we are led to some dark and shocking revelations.

Helen Scarlett

It’s a slow unravelling of the mystery, but steady, so that I didn’t feel it dragged at any point. The pace allows for plenty of space to explore different reactions to the cataclysm of the war, from those men directly affected trying to deal with mental and physical injuries, to those who had endured a long wait ending perhaps with the awfulness of the telegram telling them their son or brother or lover would not be coming home. Scarlett reminds us that for many the verdict was missing, presumed dead, leaving a tiny glimmer of hope that cruelly drags out the process of acceptance. She shows us how this feeds into the rise of spiritualism, as people desperately seek some kind of closure – the possibility at least of saying goodbye, when there isn’t even a grave to visit. We see how society is divided into those who find comfort in the belief that the fallen had died gloriously for a great cause and those who feel it had all been an unforgivable waste, and how each side of that divide unintentionally adds to the hurt of the other. And yet through all this, Scarlett avoids mawkishness and over-sentimentality.

So, despite my mild disappointment at the late introduction of over-used themes, overall I loved this one. A strong mystery contained within an authentic in-depth look at a specific and significant period in time, and peopled by characters I grew to like and care about. I will certainly be reading more from this talented author, and recommend this one highly.

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

Amazon UK Link

Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

Death of a sadist…

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Bill Brent is disturbed in the middle of the night by what sounds like a scream coming from outside the window of the room below his. He rushes down and discovers the body of his host, Horace Manning, stabbed in the back as he sat at the desk in his study. Outside a storm rages, the storm that has forced a reluctant group of guests to spend the night in the house, and Bill finds the phones are down. Then when two of the younger guests offer to drive through the storm to fetch the police, they discover all the cars have been immobilised, with their tyres slashed and their tanks emptied. The guests must spend the next twenty-four hours in the house waiting for the storm to blow over, knowing that one among them is a murderer. We are then taken back twenty-four hours to meet all the characters, discover why they were in the house and learn that many, if not all, of them had good reason to want Manning dead…

Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction that sometimes books are forgotten for good reason, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. But I’m happy to also agree with him wholeheartedly that this is not one of those – this one fully deserves to be re-introduced to a new generation of readers. I can only assume it has been allowed to lapse into obscurity because it was the author’s only novel. Billie Houston was apparently one half of a very successful vaudeville act along with her sister Renée, in which Billie tended to play a boy to Renée’s girl. She wrote this novel backstage during performances. Unfortunately her stage career was cut short by illness, though she lived to a good age and in later life became a championship level chess-player. I’m also delighted that she and her talented sister, who had a much longer career that took her into the world of movies, hailed from my home town of Glasgow. I’ve spent far too much time in the last week looking both sisters up on the internet and searching for rare clips on youtube – again it’s surprising that two people who were big stars in their day now seem to be almost entirely forgotten, even here where they were presumably most famous.

Renée and Billie Houston

Anyway, the book! It’s remarkably well written and, perhaps unsurprisingly from someone used to writing comedy sketches, there’s quite a lot of humour amidst the darkness. The characters are rather stock ones for the most part but nonetheless very well drawn, and most of them are likeable. The exception is the victim, who is a horrible sadist, and so we need not waste tears over him. In fact, one is only surprised that it took so long for someone to do the world a favour and do away with him! Horace Manning is a scientist, working on a deadly gas to be used as a weapon of war. He has only one child, his daughter Helen, and although he has never physically abused her he has ruled her by psychological terror – he reminded me of Mrs Boynton, Christie’s wonderful sadist in Appointment with Death.

Now Helen is in love and Tony Fane, her young man, has sought Manning’s approval for their engagement which, to everyone’s surprise and disbelief, he has given. He invites the whole group over for dinner – Helen and Tony, Tony’s parents, Tony’s sister Kay (whom I couldn’t help feeling was something of an alter-ego for the author), and a couple of assorted friends who were present at the Fanes – Bill Brent, who along with Kay plays the role of amateur ‘tec and hero, Teddy Fraser who is in love with Kay, and Dr Henderson – Hendy – who is an old friend of Manning and Helen. The servants also play their part in the story, more so than is often the case in Golden Age mysteries – Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who also lives in terror of Manning and stays only out of love for Helen, the two maids, Alice and Mary, and Strange, the chauffeur,

But it is clear that Manning doesn’t intend to let Helen go as easily as that, so a feeling of impending doom hovers over the dinner table, while outside the storm that will trap them in the house approaches. And after dinner Manning does something so awful that everyone’s distrust of him turns to hatred, giving everyone a motive.

(Slight spoiler: this awful thing involves animal cruelty. It is a short episode and not too graphic, and despite my hatred of animal cruelty in books I was able to read on past it without feeling too upset. I think the fact that all the other characters had the same reaction of horror as I did made the author’s own opinion of it clear, and it is an important part of the plot. But be warned!)

Billie Houston

I admit it becomes ridiculous in the last thirty pages or so, but by that time I was having far too much fun to care. I guessed early whodunit and why, and was proved right, but again didn’t mind. The characterisations are so enjoyable, from blustering Sir Anthony Fane to his long-suffering wife, constantly shocked by the very modern manners of her children, to the young people with their various romantic entanglements that all need to be worked out by the end. Kay is delightful, and Bill is true romantic hero material. The rest of the women spend an inordinate amount of time fainting and swooning and being told to lie down and have a nice cup of tea, but it all added to the fun! I am truly sorry that Houston never wrote another, but I’m very glad the British Library has given us all the opportunity to enjoy this one.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

Why do Golden Age criminals keep poisoning chocolates??

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Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard has been sent to the village of Sodbury Cross to look into a case that has baffled the local police for some months. Several people who had bought chocolates from the local sweet shop one day had fallen ill, and one child died. It transpired that some of the chocolates had been poisoned. The local gossip has fixed on Marjorie Wills as the guilty party – the young niece of a local peach farmer, Marcus Chesney. The local police don’t object to this suggestion but haven’t been able to find any evidence that Marjorie, or anyone else for that matter, switched the chocolates in the shop. When Elliot arrives in Sodbury Cross, he discovers that he has met Marjorie before, or seen her, at least, while on holiday in Pompeii, and he’d developed a bit of a fancy for her. So that gives him an added motivation to find the real culprit… assuming Marjorie is innocent. Marcus Chesney, meantime, thinks he’s worked out how the chocolate switching was done, and sets up a dramatic performance to prove his theory to his assembled relatives and friends. It all goes wrong when, during the performance, Chesney dies – poisoned! Everyone involved in the case was watching at the time, but they all saw different things…

While this is mostly a howdunit, there’s plenty of interesting characterisation and focus on the psychology of poisoners to stop the how aspects from making it too dry. The initial poisoning appears to have been completely random – anyone could have bought and eaten the poisoned chocolates. This suggests insanity on the part of the murderer. However the second poisoning, of Chesney, suggests a much more intricately planned and deliberately targeted murder, more indicative of a sane, intelligent mind. Along the way Carr has his characters discuss many real life cases as they try to get at the root of what is behind the crimes and whether the murderer is insane or not, and this is an added interest although some of the cases he mentions, which were probably well known at the time this book came out in 1939, have faded from the public consciousness now – or my consciousness, at least! But he gives enough information about each of these cases for the reader to be able to follow the discussions about them.

The howdunit aspect is more interesting than I usually find them. It depends less on fantastical devices and crazy methods than most “impossible crimes”, which made me quite happy! Instead the focus is on the unreliability of witnesses, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc., and, while it’s all a very complex way to commit a crime as howdunits usually are, it actually makes sense once all is revealed, for once. And because it’s not about widgets that miraculously open windows when an arrow is shot up a fireplace at the moment the clock strikes a quarter past nine (yes, I do get fed up with that kind of nonsense in Golden Age howdunits!), but instead is about what people have seen as opposed to what they think they have seen, it’s quite possible for the reader to follow along with the various theories and revelations.

Elliot is a likeable detective, although his decision to hide his pre-existing attraction to the chief suspect is a bit morally dubious. However, he reveals all to Gideon Fell, who happens to be in the neighbourhood. I haven’t quite got my head around who exactly Gideon Fell is. The police seem to use him on a semi-formal basis as some kind of consultant, but is he an ex-policeman? Or a private detective? Or simply a gifted amateur? The two or three books I’ve read so far don’t seem to clarify this – one day I might have to read the first in the series to find out. Anyway, everyone seems quite happy to have him involved. His personality in this one is rather less annoying than sometimes, and again I think that’s because the psychology is more important than the widgetry on this occasion.

John Dickson Carr

I enjoyed this one a lot. While I always admire Carr’s writing, especially his ability to create a tense, sometimes creepy, atmosphere, I sometimes find he gets too bogged down for my taste in the how at the expense of the why, which always interests me more. This one focuses about equally on both aspects, allowing me to admire the intricacy with which he plots while also having a proper mystery around motivation and psychology to keep me interested. I still feel his criminals could find much simpler methods to commit their crimes, but I know lots of people love the puzzle aspect of his books. I love him much more when, like here, the questions of who and why are at least as important as how.

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

Amazon UK Link

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

But solving them isn’t…

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As he travels to London by train, Luke Fitzwilliams finds himself sharing a carriage with an elderly lady who reminds him of his favourite aunt. Miss Pinkerton chatters in the way elderly people do (in Christie books, anyway), and Luke listens with half an ear as young men do (ditto). She tells him that she’s going to London to visit Scotland Yard, and then shocks him by saying she’s going to report a series of murders in her village of Wychwood. He doesn’t believe her, of course, but encourages her to go to the Yard anyway since he thinks they probably know how to deal with dotty old dears with vivid imaginations. A couple of days later he is sad to read in the paper a notice of her death, killed by a car on that day in London. But then a couple of weeks later he reads another death notice, this time of Dr Humbleby in Wychwood, the man Miss Pinkerton had mentioned as being the murderer’s next intended victim. So Luke decides to go to Wychwood to investigate…

Luke is an ex-policeman of the colonial kind, so investigation is something he’s used to. He manages to get an invite to stay with the local bigwig, Lord Whitfield, by pretending to be the cousin of Lord Whitfield’s fiancée, Bridget Conway, who happens to be the cousin of a friend of his. Complications ensue when he immediately falls for Bridget. He soon tells her the real reason he’s there and she helps him with local knowledge and introductions to the various people who might have been in Miss Pinkerton’s social circle. Because the whole story is so nebulous he doesn’t contact the police till quite late on, at which point Superintendent Battle plays a very small role. In the way publishers do at the moment, this is now listed as one of the “Superintendent Battle series”, but it really isn’t – it’s a standalone and Luke is the central character. Both Luke and Bridget are enjoyable leads, and there are lots of interesting secondary characters, many of them acting suspiciously in one way or another.

Agatha Christie

The plot is up there with her best, fair-play but still baffling, and with a great motivation for the murderer who, as Miss Pinkerton promises in Chapter 1, is “just the last person anyone would suspect”! There are two different kinds of pleasure for me when re-reading Christie. Either I’ve forgotten the plot and the solution, so have the fun of being baffled all over again, or I remember whodunit so have the pleasure of spotting the clues as I go, and admiring the way Christie deploys them. This was one of the latter for me, and it has some of her very best clues! In fact, the crucial clue almost equals the brilliance of the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which I have often declared to be my favourite piece of misdirection of all time. It’s right there, in front of the reader’s face, and yet not only does the poor reader miss the significance, it actually sends her off in completely the wrong direction. I don’t know any other writer who can do that with the apparent ease of Ms Christie – it truly is a joy to see such skill in action.

Great stuff, and Hugh Fraser’s narration of the audiobook is as wonderful as always. Pleasure guaranteed!

Audible UK Link

P.S. I’m running dramatically behind this week – will catch up with all your posts and comments over the weekend. Apologies!


Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson

Highs and lows…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When a beat policeman stops a man running down the road late one night and demands to know what he’s up to, the drunken young man tells a rambling story of a door that opened and closed as if by itself in a shop that should have been locked up for the night. The policeman investigates, and discovers the body of Mr Dodsley, shot in the head, in the office at the back of his bookshop. Meantime, the House of Commons is having a late sitting amid an air of anticipation – “coming man” David Grafton is scheduled to lead the debate on an amendment which, if successful, may bring down the government. While waiting for the debate to begin, he is reading Death at the Desk, the new debut mystery novel written by his daughter, Margery, who happens to be engaged to the son of Mr Dodsley…

This one is a real mix of high and lows. The best bits are great, but the bits between are a real slog to get through. It starts with the lengthy conversation between the drunk and the policeman, that seems to go on and on for ever. Then it jumps to Parliament, where Ferguson skilfully evokes the late-night atmosphere in the gentleman’s club-like environs of the Commons, as the MPs discuss Grafton’s chances of success in the debate. Next day we meet the Grafton family at home, and they are a bunch of interesting, well-drawn characters – the ambitious Grafton himself, his social-climbing second wife, his son, just reaching adulthood and more interested in cars than politics, his secretary, who is also a friend of the son, and we learn that Margery’s engagement to Dick Dodsley has caused an estrangement, since the son of a bookseller is in the wrong social class for this upwardly mobile family.

Sadly, we then leave the Graftons and they almost entirely disappear for most of the rest of the book, except for Owen, the secretary, and Margery, the estranged daughter. Now we move to the police investigation, and I’m afraid that’s where it becomes a slog. Far too much time is spent on cigarette ends, timings, etc. There are too many clichés, such as the broken watch fixing the time of the murder (or does it?), the mysterious code in Mr Dodsley’s diary, and so on. It becomes ever more convoluted and less interesting as it progresses. The police are joined in their investigation by a private investigator, Francis McNab, who had been hired by Mr Dodsley to look into the theft of some valuable second-hand books.

There continue to be highs – it comes to life when various people are being interviewed by the police, since Ferguson has a knack for characterisation and is good at setting people within their social class, always so important at that time. But these highs are always followed by another of the interminable bits where the police and McNab discuss the same clues again and again. The basic plot is well worked out. However, despite the fact that I wouldn’t say it was fair play, somehow the guilty party seemed fairly obvious from early on, as did the probable motive, and neither of these were as interesting as the early Parliamentary setting suggested they might be.

On the whole, then, I feel this one can be summed up as ‘unfulfilled potential’. I’d be willing to read more from Ferguson because of his skill with setting and characterisation, but in the hopes that next time he’d avoid too many clichés in his plotting and cut out some of the repetition and drag in the investigation.

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

Amazon UK Link

A Man Lay Dead (Inspector Alleyn 1) by Ngaio Marsh

Murder with added Russians…

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Nigel Bathgate has been invited to a house party at Frantock Hall, the home of Sir Hubert Handesley. It is his first visit, made in the company of his older cousin Charles Rankin who is a long-time friend and regular guest of Sir Hubert. Likewise, the other guests are regulars too, so they all share an intricate web of relationships, friendships, affairs and jealousies. Sir Hubert has planned for this to be a murder weekend, where one guest will be appointed murderer and choose a victim, with the other guests playing detective. But after the lights go out as planned to signal the murder, the guests are shocked to find one of their number, truly dead, lying at the bottom of the stairs with a dagger through the heart. Enter Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn of the Yard…

This is an entertaining romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and nor must the reader! It’s always interesting to get a glimpse of how a long-running detective series starts out. Sometimes the detective springs fully formed onto the stage. Sometimes it takes a book or three for the author to settle into a style. This is one of the latter. While Alleyn is fundamentally the same man as in the later books, here he’s relentlessly light-hearted, always with a smart quip even when it seems entirely inappropriate, and horribly smug about his own superior mental prowess – not in an endearing-Poirot way, more in an I-want-to-punch-him way.

Inspector Fox, Alleyn’s right-hand man in most of the series, hasn’t yet been created, and Nigel Bathgate is given the role of sidekick instead. Nigel is a very young journalist whom Alleyn doesn’t know prior to this case, so it’s extremely odd that Alleyn takes him into his confidence when he has an entire police force of subordinates available to him, but never mind! Nigel is quite fun and promptly falls in love with fellow guest, Angela North, who is a modern young woman in the style of Tuppence Beresford. Nigel himself is not entirely unlike Tommy Beresford, and his role vis-a-vis Alleyn is reminiscent of the role a certain Captain Hastings plays elsewhere. I think it’s reasonably easy to see where Marsh’s early influences came from! In reality, Nigel’s role is to allow Alleyn to explain his thought processes for the sake of the reader, and it works despite the unlikeliness of it. The books do feel more realistic later in the series, however, once this sidekick role is handed over to Fox, a fellow police officer, although Bathgate continues to pop up quite often throughout the series if I remember rightly.

The plot! Hmm, well, let’s be kind and call it fun. The victim (whom I won’t name since it takes a while before the murder happens and we don’t know who will die) turns out not to have been a very nice person, so lots of people have motives, be it ill-treated lovers or jealous spouses of said lovers, or people who hope to inherit either money or some of the precious objects in the victim’s collection of rarities. And does the presence of not just one sinister Russian, but two, portend some kind of secret society with strange reasons for grudges? Of course it does! But is their grudge against the victim or are they up to something equally nefarious but coincidental? It always makes me laugh how often sinister Russians appear in Golden Age mysteries – they are responsible for a lot of the more preposterous plots of the time. I fear in this one the whole Russian strand was more like a comedy sketch than an actual plot, and became a little wearing in the number of clichés packed into it. Talking of preposterous brings me to the murder method. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely way to kill someone I’ve ever read – the Golden Agers were inventive, after all – but it’s high up the list.

Ngaio Marsh

I always feel a lot of leeway has to be given to the first in a series, especially when it’s also the author’s first novel. If it persuades a reader to come back for the second book, it has basically done its job, and happily the entertainment level in this one is high enough to make the reader willing to overlook some of the less polished aspects and leave her wanting more. And we’re in the happy position of knowing that Alleyn and Marsh went on to have a successful and highly regarded partnership. I’m enjoying revisiting this old favourite series and look forward to seeing Marsh’s style develop over the next few books.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, who does a fine job for the most part, although his Angela sounded a little too much like Lady Bracknell or Aunt Dahlia for my taste. But he did the comedy Russians well!

Audible UK Link

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Did he fall or was he pushed?

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Bobby Jones, fourth son of the vicar of Marchbolt in Wales, is playing a round of golf on the links near the Vicarage when a stray ball leads him off the course towards the cliff. As he looks over for his lost ball he sees the crumpled body of a man. He and his golf partner, who is the local doctor, rush to help but the doctor sees quickly that there is no hope – the man will soon be dead. The doctor goes off to seek help, and Bobby stands vigil with the dying man. Just before the end, the man recovers consciousness briefly and utters one phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby and his friend, Lady Frances Derwent, soon find reason to doubt the coroner’s verdict of accidental death, and set off to find our more about the dead man and what brought him to Marchbolt. And incidentally to find out the meaning of the dying man’s last words…

This is a lovely romp, half mystery, half thriller, with a delightful pair of amateur sleuths that are very like my favourites Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The plot gets progressively more convoluted as time goes on, with murders and forgeries and impersonations and drugs gangs and women in peril and sinister men and… and… and… But Christie, at the height of her powers in 1934, never loses control of it for one moment, and the pace never lets up so that the reader is carried merrily through all the complications along with Bobby and Frankie, chasing down each red herring but gradually getting closer to the truth.

As often in her thrillers, there’s a romantic element in this and it’s clear from the start that Bobby and Frankie are destined for one another. However, like any good lovers, they will have to negotiate obstacles before they can realise their destiny! Bobby is ex-Navy and currently unemployed, looking out for an opening. He feels he is too lowly to aspire to the aristocratic Lady Frances. She is more egalitarian – in theory – but Bobby is probably right that in reality she wouldn’t be exactly happy in the very reduced circumstances which are all he could offer. So as well as the central mystery, there’s the equally absorbing question of how Christie will find a way to bridge this social gap for them. Just to mess things up even further, both of them are attracted along the way to other characters, not seriously, but enough to make each other amusingly jealous. They are a lot of fun, and again like Tommy and Tuppence, Frankie is spunky and daring, and as often as not Bobby is following her lead.

Agatha Christie

Despite the fact that it’s primarily light entertainment and full of humour, the plot is actually quite good, and the eventual answer to the question of why didn’t they ask Evans is another of Christie’s excellent clues! It had been so many years since I last read it I really couldn’t remember the plot at all, and Christie was able to baffle me all over again. I’m not sure it could be described as fair play exactly since the crucial clue isn’t given till very late on, but I did get to the solution a little before Frankie and Bobby, though not much, and the ending is nicely thrillerish. Will Frankie and Bobby find their happy-ever-after, though? You’ll have to read it to find out! Great fun!

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

Amazon UK Link

Sinister Spring by Agatha Christie

Watching the detectives…

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Over the last few years, HarperCollins have been bringing out a series of lovely hardback collections of Agatha Christie short stories. Some have been reprints of existing collections, like The Tuesday Club Murders (aka The Thirteen Problems) or The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, while others are a mix of stories culled from various collections and put together to create a seasonal theme, such as Midsummer Mysteries and Midwinter Murder (which I haven’t read). This is their latest and, as you can tell from the title, it’s perfect for this time of year (unless you’re on the upside down half of the world!). If you’ve read a lot of Christie collections you may well find you’ve come across most of the stories before, but I always enjoy reading them again anyway and there are usually two or three in each collection that are new to me. Because these are taken from various other collections, there’s a real mix of detectives – Poirot and Miss Marple, of course, but also Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne and Harley Quin, plus a couple of stories that don’t star one of her recurring ‘tecs.

There are twelve stories in this one, and since regular Christie readers might want to know whether there are enough unfamiliar stories to tempt them, here’s a list of all twelve with tiny synopses that hopefully will be enough to let you know if it rings bells. My rating is in brackets:

The Market Basing Mystery (4) – Poirot, Hastings and Japp are on a little break in Market Basing when a man is found dead. It looks like he’s shot himself, but the doctor thinks this isn’t possible. A man is arrested and it’s up to our three sleuths to determine whether he is guilty or innocent.

The Case of the Missing Lady (5) – A Tommy and Tuppence story from Partners in Crime. In this one, Tommy is playing Holmes. An adventurer returns from the North Pole to find that his fiancée is missing. Can T&T track her down? Manages to be both tense and humorous – delightful twist!

The Herb of Death (4½) – One from The Tuesday Club Murders, I think. (I’m basing all these references to original sources on my unreliable memory, so forgive errors and omissions!) Mrs Bantry tells of a house party where foxglove got mixed in with the sage. All the guests recovered but one – a young girl called Sylvia. Was it bad luck or deliberate murder, and if so, why? Miss Marple will soon tell us…

How Does Your Garden Grow? (4) – Poirot receives a letter from an old lady requesting his help in an unspecified matter, but before he sees her, she dies. With the help of Miss Lemon, he starts quietly investigating her household to see if her death was suspicious or merely convenient. Rather reminiscent of the plot of one of her novels.

Swan Song (4) – An unexpected death during a performance of Tosca kicks off this dark and well-told revenge tragedy – a standalone with none of the usual ‘tecs.

Miss Marple Tells a Story (5) – From Miss Marple’s Final Cases. A woman is murdered while sleeping in a hotel bedroom. Her husband is accused, and his lawyer turns to his old friend Miss Marple for help. She soon works out why it seems no one noticed the murderer enter the room. An excellent howdunit!

Have You Got Everything You Want? (5) – Parker Pyne is on a train journey to Venice when a fellow passenger asks for his advice. She is travelling to meet her husband, but before she left she saw a message on his blotting pad which has left her fearful that something is planned to happen just before they reach Venice. Well-told and quite humorous, especially the ending!

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (4) – A howdunit about a woman whose priceless necklace is stolen while she and her husband are dining with Poirot. Another one where the plot is overly familiar to provide much in the way of surprise.

Ingots of Gold (4½) – Another Tuesday Club one, I think, this time told by Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond. It’s quite convoluted for a short story, involving two lots of missing bullion – one from Spanish Armada days, and one from a recent shipwreck. Set in Cornwall, it’s well told and entertaining.

The Soul of the Croupier (5) – The story of an ageing Countess, past lover of many rich men who showered her with jewels. But now her charms are beginning to fade, and she’s desperate for money, having long ago turned all those jewels to paste. While there is a mystery starring Harley Quin, it’s really the oddly sympathetic depiction of the Countess that raises this one above the average.

The Girl in the Train (5) – Light Wodehousian romp as our young hero, George Rowland, gets mixed up in the elopement of a Balkan Princess, plus a spy ring, and falls in love. Silly, but fun!

Greenshaw’s Folly (5) – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. When the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved! An excellent story, taken from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

As you can see, all the stories rated between 4 and 5 for me – it is Christie after all! So unless you’re already familiar with most of the stories, this would be a great way to sample her range of detectives. And the hardback editions all have lovely bright designs which make them an attractive gift idea for the Christie fan in your life!

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

Amazon UK Link

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Written in a secret code?


Normally at the beginning of a review I write a little blurb to give an idea of the plot. Unfortunately I have zero idea what this book is about. I only know it bored me to sleep several times, so I eventually gave up before I ended up in permanent hibernation. So let’s see what Goodreads thinks it’s about…

A mole, implanted by Moscow Centre, has infiltrated the highest ranks of the British Intelligence Service, almost destroying it in the process. And so former spymaster George Smiley has been brought out of retirement in order to hunt down the traitor at the very heart of the Circus – even though it may be one of those closest to him.

Oh, is that what it’s about? That sounds moderately interesting. And there’s no doubt that many people think it’s brilliant, heaping praise on it as the best espionage fiction ever written in this world or any other, full of suspense and tension. Amazing. I missed all that, I’m afraid. Maybe I was too busy trying to work out what all the unexplained jargon means – lamplighters, scalphunters, et al. Or perhaps I was distracted by the frankly offensive portrayal of the various beddable, sex-hungry, needy women who put in an appearance in the first third of the book. Or maybe it was the ludicrous dialogue – no one speaks like this. Or the jumping back into flashback after flashback. Or the twenty thousand names without attached characters (I may have exaggerated the number slightly). Or the dreary misery of it all. Woe, woe, and thrice woe.

Odd, because I loved The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. But I couldn’t bear this one. I stuck it out to 33% and then gave up, read the plot on wikipedia who kindly also explained the jargon, and decided I was glad I didn’t stick it out since even the plot summary nearly put me to sleep again. Clearly a mismatch between book and reader and if this kind of thing is your kind of thing I’m sure you won’t allow my reaction to put you off.

Book 2 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for February and despite my reaction I still think it was a great choice – I should have loved it and it would have been the one I voted for too. So thank you, People! And at least it’s off my TBR now…

Amazon UK Link

Death of an Author by ECR Lorac

Behind the nom-de-plume…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vivian Lestrange has become a publishing sensation with his literary mystery novels, especially his most recent smash hit, The Charterhouse Case. He is a recluse, however, refusing to meet journalists or even provide a publicity photograph. Eventually his intrigued publishers persuade him to meet them in person, and to their amazement he turns out to be a young woman! And then Vivian Lestrange disappears…

A very short blurb for this one because it’s so much fun I really don’t want to spoil it by giving too much away. It’s all about noms de plume and authors pretending to be someone other than they are, and the question raised again and again is whether it is possible to determine the sex of an author if all you have to go on is his or her writing. Lorac has her characters muse on whether we would know Dorothy L Sayers was female on the basis of her books alone? Is Conrad’s writing so masculine that no woman could have written his books? I loved this aspect because it’s a question I’ve often mulled, like most readers, I assume. Did anyone ever really believe George Eliot was a man, or do I just feel her books are unmistakeably feminine because I know she’s a woman? More recently, I don’t remember people saying Robert Galbraith’s first book couldn’t have been written by a man, but now that we know that’s a nom de plume for JK Rowling, it seems obvious they come from the pen of a woman. Of course, it has added piquancy because ECR Lorac is a gender neutral nom de plume and I have never been able to find a photograph of her. I know believe she was a woman because Martin Edwards tells me so, but I don’t know that her writing is distinctively feminine – her books are usually low on romance, for example. But then they’re also low on action thrills, often seen as the hallmark of male crime writers in that generation, and largely even still today.

Some of it is done slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I imagine probably reflected Lorac’s own experience within the publishing world. The men who claim that Lestrange’s books couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman clearly think that because the books are so good. How could a woman possibly put herself inside a male character’s head, they ask, dumbfounded, never wondering how male writers manage to think themselves into a female character. How could a mere woman understand so much about the less salubrious side of life, to come up with plots about vicious crimes and criminals? Lorac has other characters who answer those questions from the female perspective – i.e., that men really need to get over themselves and recognise that the days of women being pampered little Dickensian simpletons are long over. (I paraphrase!) Great fun!

The disappearance of Lestrange is investigated by two detectives – the local man, Inspector Bond, and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Warner. They work very well together, although they both hold wildly different theories of what’s happened. Again I have to be vague to avoid spoilers, but Bond believes Lestrange could indeed be a woman while Warner is adamant that the books could have been written only by a man. This means both men are carrying out separate but joined investigations, each trying to prove his own theory but open to the idea that the other man may be in the right. I swayed back and forward all the way through, and wished I could have read Lestrange’s novel to see if I could tell his/her gender for myself!

(Just as an aside, I mentioned a while ago that I now have a subscription for these books, and each month so far a little extra has been included – a bookmark matching the book cover or something like that. This book came with a postcard showing a book cover of Lestrange’s book, The Charterhouse Case, done as a BL Crime Classics book. A lovely touch that made me smile once I realised how it connected to the story.)

The plot itself is convoluted to the point where sometimes I had to read bits again, but it’s very clever and it all works. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but in this case I enjoyed the journey so much it didn’t bother me. One of the things I love most about Lorac is her unpredictability – she’s not afraid to try different things and often comes at her stories from an unusual angle. This one is delightfully different to her MacDonald books, and I loved it. I sound like a stuck record when it come to Lorac but… highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Mysterious Mr Badman by WF Harvey

Blackmail and murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Athelstan Digby is holidaying in Keldstone, in Yorkshire, where his young nephew Jim is thinking of buying the local doctor’s practice. Digby is lodging with a couple who own the local bookshop and when they both want to attend a funeral one afternoon, Digby offers to look after the shop for them. During the course of the afternoon three different customers all come in looking for the same book – not the latest bestseller, but a rather obscure book by Bunyan called The Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby can’t help since the shop doesn’t have a copy, but he’s intrigued. And he’s even more intrigued when a boy comes in later in the day with a bunch of books to sell, one of which just happens to be Mr Badman

This is another rather quirky one from the British Library – they seem to be going through a little spate of really obscure one-off books at the moment. Billed as a bibliomystery, in fact the Bunyan book and the bookshop have very little to do with the plot once the initial set-up is done. The real mystery concerns a letter found inside the book, which alerts Digby to the idea that a high-ranking politician may be being blackmailed. Reluctant to involve the police, he and his nephew Jim, along with a girl whom Jim is in the process of falling for, set out to investigate, with the idea of putting a stop to the blackmail. But then a man is found dead – one of the men who’d been looking for the book – and while the police think it was suicide, Digby, with his knowledge of the letter, suspects it was murder.

I found I had a bit of an issue with the moral stance the author seems to take over the blackmail. I don’t want to go too deeply into it for fear of spoilers, but I felt that the victim of the blackmail didn’t deserve Digby’s efforts to keep his name free of scandal. We live in a less deferential society now, and the idea of covering up dodgy behaviour simply because the dodger happens to be a high-ranking politician is more jarring than perhaps it was back then. The result was that I rather hoped the “good guys” would fail in their cover-up, so wasn’t able to wholeheartedly cheer them on.

WF Harvey

Otherwise, however, I found it quite an entertaining read. Both Digby and Jim are likeable characters and it was a good contrast to have one old and one young. Digby does the thinking while Jim takes care of the action side. The girl, Diana, is a good character too, who plays an active part in the investigation. The plot is a kind of mix of mystery and thriller that rattles along at a steady pace, which helps to disguise the inconsistencies, plot-holes, coincidences and basic lack of credibility! I quickly decided the best way was to avoid analysing it too deeply and simply go with the flow, which was made easier by the general quality of the writing.

Not one that will go down as a classic of the genre, then, but an enjoyable way to fill a few hours.

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

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club



While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Toil and trouble…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The people who attend the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, dead after spending many years in prison for the murders of several teenagers, aren’t there to mourn so much as to assure themselves he is really dead. Florence Lovelady is one. Now a senior police officer, back then she was a raw WPC who was responsible for bringing Larry to justice, at great cost to herself. But when she visits the house Larry used to live in, she finds something that makes her realise that the story of the murders isn’t over yet…

This is told in two timelines, starting in 1999 (which in terms of the book is the present day), then going back to 1969 when the murders were happening, and then coming back to the present for the last section. The “present” sections are given in the present tense, while the “past” sections are in past tense, so at least there’s slightly more logic to the use of the present tense than many times when it’s used, but it’s still annoying. However, Bolton is such a good writer she can carry it off if anyone can. All sections are first person accounts from Florence.

The setting is the village of Sabden, nestling at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, famed for being the site of the infamous witch trial in the 17th century. Bolton uses this historical event as a starting point to bring the idea of witchcraft and the supernatural into her story, and to explore the idea of modern witchcraft. If, like me, you don’t believe in the power of crystals and the magical uses of herbs and so on, you will have to be willing to suspend your disbelief at points. Fortunately it doesn’t play a large part in most of the story and Bolton is very good at leaving it ambiguous enough for the rationalists among us to justify all that happens rationally – for the most part. And it creates a deliciously creepy atmosphere, with a growing sense of dread and some real cliff-hanger moments that make reading the next chapter essential!

The 1969 part of the story is excellent. Three teenagers have gone missing, separately, about a month between each disappearance. Tensions are rising in the town at the police’s failure to find either the children or their abductor, and the police are at a loss. Graduate Florence brings with her new-fangled ideas about analysing data to spot patterns and so on, and is rubbing up her colleagues the wrong way. Combined with the usual sexism of the period, this means she has to battle hard to have her voice and her ideas heard. (FF delicately stifles a yawn.) But she’s a determined type, and even her bosses soon have to admit that sometimes her suggestions make sense. And then she finds one of the teenagers, dead unfortunately, and the missing persons case becomes a hunt for a murderer.

Sharon Bolton

The 1999 sections are considerably less successful in my opinion, with Florence behaving in ways that I found hard to believe any senior police officer would. The woo-woo-witchcraft element is also stronger here, especially in the last section. While the story remains compelling and full of atmosphere, the credibility falls away sharply, and I shall draw a kind veil over the last couple of ludicrous chapters, which had they not happened at the very end would probably have led to me abandoning the book.

So overall I loved about 97% of this and thought the ending was silly, hence the loss of a star. If you’re happy with nonsense – sorry, I mean, magic – in your crime novels, you probably won’t have the same issue. I haven’t decided yet whether to read the next book, The Buried, which has just been released – while I enjoyed Florence as a character and loved the setting and atmosphere, I’ll wait for other reviews to give me an idea of whether it returns to real life or remains in the world of potions and spells…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 2…

Another double review to help clear my backlog, though this particular pair really demand to be reviewed together…

Dialogues of the Dead (Dalziel and Pascoe 19)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When an AA man dies after apparently falling from a bridge, it is assumed to be an accident. Then a young musician crashes his car into a tree and dies, again put down to accident. But at the local library, librarians Dick Dee and Rye Pomona are going through the massive pile of entries to a short story competition in the local paper when they come across anonymous stories that show another side to these deaths, and it appears they must have been written before the deaths were reported in the media. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to investigate, there’s another death, then another, and it appears obvious the team have a serial killer on their hands. The killer is soon nicknamed the Wordman, since each death is accompanied by another short story. Meantime, new member of the team, “Hat” Bowler, is falling in love…

I had forgotten just how good this one is! It’s a wonderful blend of light and dark, and full of Hill’s trademark love of words and wordplay, which this time he puts at the centre of the story by filling the Wordman’s written “confessions” with literary “clues”, and by involving the librarians – Dick Dee especially loves to play word games. There’s a huge cast – essential, since so many of them will be bumped off and there need to be enough left as suspects. It’s mainly set among the self-styled great and good of the town, and Hill has excelled himself in creating characters who stay just the right side of caricature. Dalziel is on fine form, which means the book is full of humour, but Hill is expert at suddenly changing the mask from comedy to tragedy – the murders are dark enough, but the Wordman’s confessions take us deep into a troubled and damaged mind.

The denouement is tense and thrilling, and the solution shocks. And we’re left with the reader knowing more about what happened than Dalziel and Pascoe. They think that everything has finally been wrapped up, maybe not neatly, but securely. However…

* * * * *

Death’s Jest-Book (Dalziel and Pascoe 20)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s impossible to see this one as anything other than as Part Two of Dialogues of the Dead. Unlike many of the books in the series, this one does not stand on its own – anyone trying to read it without having read the one before would probably be completely lost, or at the very least feel as if important stuff had been left out. As a result, I’m not giving a little blurb, since almost anything I say about this one could spoil the last one. I’d also say to anyone who’s reading the series in order, make room to read these two one after the other – they’re both intricately plotted and having the details of the first one fresh in your mind helps when reading the second.

Oddly, although it is a sequel of sorts, this one doesn’t work nearly as well as the first, in my opinion. Hill had obviously become fascinated by the character of Franny Roote over the course of the series – a man who appeared in one of the early cases and reappears in several of the later ones, becoming a kind of nemesis for Peter Pascoe. In this one we get screeds of letters he writes to Pascoe which take up probably around a third of the book, and while they’re interesting, often amusing and, of course, well written, they slow the main plot down to a crawl. I’m afraid I never found Franny quite as entertaining as Hill clearly thought he was, although he provides an interesting study in psychology both of himself and of Pascoe’s reaction to him. I’m not sure the psychology is completely convincing, though.

The other aspect that weakens this one is very hard to discuss without spoilers, so forgive my vagueness. As I said above, at the end of Dialogues of the Dead, the reader knows more than the characters. This continues throughout Death’s Jest-Book, which is basically the story of Dalziel and the team gradually realising that their knowledge is incomplete and trying to fill the gap. Hat’s love story continues too but, knowing what we know, we more or less know how that will work out. So all through we’re watching the characters learning about things the reader already knows. Of course it’s more complex than that makes it sound, and there’s still all the usual stuff that makes Hill so enjoyable – the writing, the language, the regular characters, secondary plots, moral dilemmas – but the pace is very slow, and plot-wise it doesn’t build the same level of tension. It’s good – just not as good as the first part of this story, and being a sequel of sorts it’s impossible to avoid making that comparison.

* * * * *

In summary, then, together the two books form one massive story – both books individually are chunksters. Dialogues of the Dead is excellent and could be read separately as a standalone, although the reader is likely to feel that there are some loose ends. Death’s Jest-Book is good but with some structural weaknesses, and is very much a sequel or second part. It doesn’t work well as a standalone, and should be read soon after Dialogues of the Dead while the details are fresh.

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer by Reginald Hill

Christmas comes early…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of eleven short mysteries from the pen of the supremely talented Reginald Hill, none of which have ever appeared in a collection before. HarperCollins and the Reginald Hill Estate got together to produce it, and Tony Medawar did what he does so well in the Bodies from the Library series – tracked down stories that had appeared over the years in newspapers and magazines, and had then to all intents and purposes disappeared from print. The book is foreworded by Val McDermid who admits to her lifelong admiration for Reginald Hill, and to being inspired by him. She writes knowledgeably, warmly and affectionately, and summarises the book as “the best Christmas present any reader could ask for”. I heartily concur!

The book begins and ends with Christmas mysteries, each starring Dalziel and Pascoe and the team, and both are a festive delight. These most famous of Hill’s characters appear in another couple of stories too, while the rest of the stories are non-series tales, showing off Hill’s imagination, plotting skills and range. McDermid considers him a master of the short story form, a thing I’d never really considered before since I know him best for his two major series, Dalziel and Pascoe and the Joe Sixsmith series, and his standalone thrillers. But again, on the basis of the stories presented here, I fully agree. Every one of these stories is a delight, whether Hill is indulging his humorous side or showing the darker aspects of crime. I restricted myself to reading one an evening, and my excited anticipation each time was fully rewarded.

In such a box of delights, it’s hard to pick favourites, but here’s a flavour of a few that hopefully will give an idea of the variety in the collection:

Market Forces – George has murdered his wife by putting a hatchet through her head. Now he has to consider the task of disposing of the body. Rather unoriginally, he decides to bury her beneath the floor of the cellar. But when he digs down, his spade hits a slab which turn out to be, well, burial size. He exerts his strength and manages to lift it, inadvertently releasing the demon who had been trapped there for many years. The demon can’t be truly free though, until it has granted its saviour one wish. But demons are tricky things, and this one isn’t perhaps the most intelligent demon in the underworld… This is full of humour with an absolutely delicious twist that made me laugh out loud. Great fun!

The Thaw – Carpenter is in his cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, waiting for a thaw. Snow had fallen at Christmas and continued on through the winter so that the ground has remained covered for months. Now, in March, it looks as though finally the weather is getting milder. While he waits, we learn why he’s waiting, and the reason is grim. I don’t want to give spoilers so shall say no more, but this is a bleak story, full of human weakness, guilt and duplicity, and the harshness of the snowbound setting makes it darkly atmospheric.

Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Brass Monkey – A Christmas Dalziel and Pascoe story involving the theft of a Cellini monkey, this is light-hearted fun with a rather emotive edge, in that it reprises the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when British and German soldiers briefly laid down their arms, sang carols together and played impromptu football matches. All the team is there for this one – Wieldy, Novello, even Hector, and Dalziel is on his best form!

Proxime Accessit – which roughly translated means “nearly made it”. Dennis Platt is a school teacher, greatly respected in his hometown of Dunchester. But Dennis feels he is living the wrong life. His childhood friend, Tom Trotter, always beat him at everything, and now Tom is a famous actor, married to a woman Dennis loved first. He feels Tom has stolen the life that should have been his. When the town council decide to present Dennis with an award, they ask Tom to do the presentation and he, being Dennis’ friend, readily agrees. But Dennis knows that this means all the attention will be on Tom, even on this day which should be Dennis’ day. And so he decides that Tom must be prevented from making the speech. Again this is very well done, and with some humour, but there’s a sad undertone to it in Dennis’ dissatisfaction with a life that, to outward appearances, seems to have been quite successful in its own right.

When the Snow Lay Dinted – another Christmas outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, this time very definitely played for laughs. Peter, Ellie and Rosie are going to a hotel for Christmas and in a moment of weakness, Peter invites Andy along. Partly because he’ll be alone otherwise, with no one to cook for him, and partly because he sees that wine and spirits are included in the price, Andy goes. There is a theft from the hotel and Andy sets out on the trail of footprints, while all the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Peter, of course, follows – in his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Well, you get the picture! Lots of fun, and it ends with a lovely interchange between young Rosie and her Uncle Andy which sheds a sweet light on their friendship – sweet, but not saccharin!

Ever since Hill died, I’ve wished there could be just one more book, somehow, sometime. Not one “finished” by someone else, but one written entirely by the master. My wish has been granted! (And I didn’t even have to release a demon…) A wonderful collection!

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

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Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

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

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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Bleeding Heart Yard (Harbinder Kaur 3) by Elly Griffiths

Great expectations…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During a school reunion, prominent politician Garfield Rice is found dead in the boys toilets, apparently from a drug overdose. However, it soon becomes apparent that he has been murdered, and the case is handed to Inspector Harbinder Kaur – her first case since taking a promoted post in West London. Coincidentally one of the other people at the reunion is Cassie Fitzgerald, a member of Harbinder’s new team, and Cassie has a secret. Back when she was a pupil at prestigious Manor Park school, a boy died. It was listed as a tragic accident, but Cassie knows the truth – that she killed him. Now it looks to her as if Garfield’s death might have something to do with that earlier death, and she has to decide how much she’s going to tell Harbinder…

Expectations can be a real pain sometimes. The first two books in this series were so original and excellent that I had extremely high hopes for this one. This meant that, though this is a perfectly acceptable cross between a police procedural and a psychological thriller, my main reaction to it was disappointment. That may also be to do with the fact that it’s the third book I’ve read this year where the current crime arises out of a dark secret surrounding something that a tight-knit and elite group of pupils did at school. And Sharon Bolton did it so much better in The Pact.

(FF muses: I’ve joked about this before, but I do wonder – does a memo go round from publishers at the start of each year telling authors what subject they must include in their books? It seems beyond coincidence when one year every second book is about a group of people trapped in a snow-bound chalet, and the next year every second book is about a school reunion of some kind…)


Harbinder has moved away from her parents’ home at last and is sharing a flat with two other women. She’s both happy and a little nervous about her new job and her new life. She’s loving being in London but is homesick for her family and friends back home. Griffiths handles all this well, without over-dramatising it. Harbinder remains just as likeable in the previous books, but, again, since so many crime series are set in London I feel the South Coast setting of the earlier books in the series gave them an element of uniqueness which is missing from this one. However, she uses her London setting well, especially the deliciously-named Bleeding Heart Yard – a real place, mentioned also in Dickens’ Little Dorrit – and the legends surrounding its name.

We see the action from three main perspectives – a third-person present-tense account from Harbinder’s view, and two first-person past-tense narrators. Cassie is one of those, and the other is Anna, another of the pupils/reunioners. I found their voices indistinguishable, though fortunately each chapter is headed with the name of the character whose perspective it’s from. All the tense and viewpoint jumping is of course obligatory in modern crime, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

The plot is quite enjoyable although it strays well past the credibility line on more than one occasion. Without wishing to veer into spoiler territory, there is one point where Harbinder steps so far over the line of how anyone, especially a senior police officer, would react on being told of a serious crime that my jaw dropped. I actually guessed whodunit and why about halfway through, which is rare for me, but I think it was luck rather than it being too obvious. The thriller-ish ending is entertaining despite the total lack of credibility.

Elly Griffiths

Oh dear, this is one of those occasions when my review has turned out more critical than I intended. I did find this an enjoyable read, despite all of the above. The pacing is good and keeps the reader turning the pages, and there’s a good deal of humour, especially around Harbinder getting to know her new colleagues and flatmates. She begins to settle in to her London life, and we see signs of her developing new friendships and possibly even a romance, but she still goes home for visits so the reader is kept up to date with her family and older friends from the previous books. Had this been the first book in the series I’d probably be praising it more highly, but it simply didn’t wow me the way the first two did. I’ll still be eager to see where Griffiths goes with the series in future books though.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur 2) by Elly Griffiths

Shades of Agatha…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Peggy Smith dies in her flat, nothing could seem more natural, since Peggy was a 90-year-old woman with a heart condition. But something doesn’t feel right to her young Ukrainian carer. Natalka had visited her earlier in the day and she had seemed in good health and spirits. However, the official verdict is natural causes and although Natalka and two other friends of Peggy express their doubts to the police, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur sees no reason to think otherwise. Until, that is, the appearance of a mysterious man with a gun, who breaks into Peggy’s flat and steals a book…

In the first book in this series, The Stranger Diaries, Griffiths paid homage to the ghost story writers of the Edwardian era and produced an excellently spooky Gothic story. Here she is riffing on the mysteries of the Golden Age and does just as good a job, though as a result the tone of this book is very different to the first. This one has a proper mystery with clues, a group of suspects, a trio of likeable amateur ‘tecs, and a touch or two of romance. Partly set in Shoreham, a small seaside town on the South coast of England, and with a fun road trip culminating in a visit to a book festival in Aberdeen, the tone is light, with lots of humour and plenty of warmth. It wasn’t what I was expecting after the first novel, but I loved it! There’s lots of hat-tipping to the Golden Agers, and indeed it is a Golden Age novel that is stolen from Peggy’s flat. But why?

Peggy is dead before the book begins so we don’t meet her in person. But we get to know a lot about her life as the story progresses, and she’s a woman with a past! Not only that, she had a wide acquaintanceship among contemporary mystery novelists, having become a ‘murder consultant’ – she could be relied upon by novelists stuck for an idea to come up with interesting methods to bump off their victims.

Elly Griffiths

While Harbinder sets up a conventional police investigation, Peggy’s friends take the vintage route of amateur investigation. There’s Natalka, who also has a past of her own that we’ll gradually learn about. Edwin is an elderly neighbour who had become friends with Peggy, often doing crosswords together, or taking short walks with her to the nearby Coffee Shack on the seafront. And there’s Benedict, ex-monk now looking for love and the owner of the Coffee Shack. Natalka, Edwin and Benedict are an unlikely detective trio, but Griffiths makes it work – the warmth and friendship among them makes this a lovely, heart-warming read, despite all the murders. Because, yes, of course there will be other murders – what Golden Age novel stops at one? The trio decide to talk to the various authors who used Peggy as a consultant, hence the road trip to Aberdeen.

The plot is intricate and well done, so I don’t want to say any more about it for fear of spoilers. But it maintains its Golden Age feel all the way through, although all of the characters are modern people in a modern setting. Harbinder herself is as likeable as she was in the first book, still living at home with her ageing parents, and still not having summoned up the courage to tell them she’s gay. I’m so late reading this one that there’s another book in the series due out at the end of this month and the blurb makes me feel Griffiths may have changed the style again for it – can’t wait to read it and find out, and also to see how Harbinder’s life develops! Yet another hugely enjoyable series from Griffiths’ ultra-prolific pen – I wonder if she has a whole team of murder consultants at her command, or just a great imagination…

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