Two’s company…

Still being a million miles behind with reviews, I’m going to do a few double posts over the next few weeks, containing two short reviews each, to cut into the backlog. First up, two mystery novels, one which I enjoyed very much and one which didn’t hit the spot for me…

Death at La Fenice (Brunetti 1) by Donna Leon

In the beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is appearing at La Fenice opera house in Venice when he is poisoned with cyanide during the second act interval. The show goes on front-stage with a stand-in conductor, but backstage Commissario Guido Brunetti is already discovering that Wellauer was roundly disliked by almost everyone who knew him. But who disliked him enough to murder him, and why? Brunetti decides that the only way to find the murderer is to learn everything he can about the victim, so he begins to delve into Wellauer’s past, where he will uncover some disturbing secrets…

I’ve read a couple of the recent entries in this long-running series and enjoyed them well enough, but not to the extent of being particularly inspired to read more. However, this first one turned up in an Audible sale and the narrator, Richard Morant, sounded good so I thought I’d give it a try. And I must say I thought this was vastly better than those later ones!

For the first novel in a series, the development of Brunetti as a character is excellent, and we begin to get a picture of his extended (and happily functional) family life. Venice comes alive, not so much in the sense of physical descriptions though they’re there, but as an atmosphere and a culture, a fully-rounded society. Leon talks knowledgeably about opera and music generally, and gives a good picture of a culture where the arts are both highly valued and well and widely understood. And the plot is excellent – it is dark, indeed it shocked me at a couple of points, but Brunetti’s humanity and sympathy towards the various suspects stops it from becoming too bleak. It’s a little weak on the investigative side, perhaps, but Brunetti’s colleagues avoid the mild caricaturing that I wasn’t so keen on in the later books – they are much more believable as real people here. I can now understand why so many people have become hooked on this series, and I look forward to reading more of the earlier ones.

Audible UK Link

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The White Priory Murders (Sir Henry Merrivale 2)
by Carter Dickson

Footprints in the snow…

😐 😐

James Bennett has been invited to a house party in the White Priory, home to the Bohun brothers, John and Maurice. The star guest is Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who has just walked out of a Hollywood contract so she can act in a play written by Maurice Bohun. The house is full of people connected to Marcia – fellow actors, people from the movie company, lovers actual and hopeful – and Marcia loves to be the centre of attention. In fact, it’s a real mystery why it’s taken so long for someone to murder her…

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr, loving some of his early books and not getting on well at all with his more famous locked room mysteries. This is one of the latter – in this case, the “locked room” is a pavilion in the ground of the White Priory where Marcia planned to spend the night alone (maybe), and is found dead with only one set of foot-prints, of the man who found her, in the snow outside. I must admit I’m weary of the one/no set of footprints in the snow trope beloved of locked roomsters, so my heart sank as we began to go through and discard all of the usual possibilities – secret tunnels, fresh snow falls, people dropping in from hot air balloons overhead (OK, I made that one up, but at least it would be different).

I’m afraid I found this dull, as I often do with locked rooms, and I didn’t like any of the characters including the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, retired policeman. All the intricacies of alibis and who could have got to the pavilion and how left me both confused and bored, and there’s lots of jerky dialogue that mainly consists of people being rude to each other. I eventually abandoned it at 60% and flipped to the end to discover whodunit. A week later, I’ve forgotten.

I’m sure this would work fine for people who enjoy locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. Unfortunately it just happens not to be my kind of thing.

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

Amazon UK Link

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:

https://shop.bl.uk/collections/crime-classics/products/british-library-crime-classics-subscription

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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Death of Jezebel (Inspector Cockrill 4) by Christianna Brand

Knights in shining armour…

😀 😀 😀

A grand exhibition is taking place in post-war London and part of the show will be a pageant starring eleven mounted knights in armour and a damsel in a tower. Among the cast and crew are three people whose irresponsible actions a few years ago led a young man to commit suicide. Perpetua (Peppi) was engaged to Johnny Wise, but for fun her “friend” Isabel, known to her “friends” as Jezebel, decided to get Peppi drunk and throw her into the willing arms of womanising actor, Earl Anderson. On discovering this, Johnny drove his car into a wall. Now the three begin to receive threatening notes and it appears someone is out to avenge Johnny’s death. And then Jezebel is murdered…

This is only my second Christianna Brand and to be honest I didn’t think it came even close to the wonderful Green for Danger. The plot is relatively simple in the sense that we know the motive from the beginning. But it becomes a hideously complicated howdunit based on which of all these knights or other crew members might have been able to murder Isabel in full view of the audience, helped by the fact that they were effectively all unrecognisable in their armour. Solution after solution is presented, only to be knocked down again by some piece of evidence Cockrill or the local Inspector Charlesworth had forgotten or subsequently learn. Suspect after suspect confesses, only to have their confessions disproved by minute pieces of evidence.

Maybe it all hangs together in the end, but truthfully my eyes had glazed over long before it reached that point. My first problem was that, while the three had behaved a little badly, I felt that Johnny seriously over-reacted when, instead of punching Earl and dumping Peppi, he topped himself, and as such I didn’t feel any of them deserved to be murdered. Secondly, I didn’t like anyone so I didn’t care about the murders nor about whodunit. And lastly, I certainly didn’t care about how it was done, since each of the failed solutions seemed as likely, or that should probably be unlikely, to me as the final one.

Christianna Brand

On the upside, Brand writes well and amusingly. There’s lots of humour in the book, mostly around the unspoken rivalry between Cockrill and Charlesworth. Cockrill is attending a police conference in the area and becomes involved because he knew Peppi long ago, when she lived down in his patch in Kent. He’s used to being a big fish in the Kentish pool, but in the Great Metropolis he discovers most people have never heard of him or, if they have, it’s because of a case where he famously made a complete hash of it. Charlesworth is a younger man and Cockrill is determined to beat him to the solution. It was the entertainment value of this rather one-sided rivalry that kept me reading after the plot had ceased to interest me.

Overall, I enjoyed it well enough but it didn’t meet my perhaps too high expectations. It won’t stop me reading more of the Cockrill books, though – as well as these two novels, I’ve read several of Brand’s short stories in various anthologies and always enjoyed them, so I feel this one was a blip, probably because the intricate how of crime never interests me as much as the why.

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

Amazon UK Link

Crook o’Lune (Inspector Macdonald 38) by ECR Lorac

Old Macdonald wants a farm…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is looking ahead to retiring from the police and is searching for a small farm to buy, farming having been his family background. He’s staying with friends in the Lune Valley in Lancashire while he looks around, and they recommend a farm that is likely to come on the market soon, Aikengill in High Gimmerdale. The old owner is recently deceased and his heir, his nephew Gilbert Woolfall, is a businessman in Yorkshire, so the locals expect he’ll want to sell up. At the moment, he’s spending time going through his uncle’s papers – a lengthy task since his uncle was a bit of an amateur local historian. But then there’s a fire at Aikengill, in which the housekeeper dies. The local police know Macdonald of old so ask him to help them investigate and Macdonald soon determines that the fire was deliberate…

In her own short foreword to the book, Lorac tells us that the places in the book are real although she may have occasionally changed the names, and in fact the house called Aikengill in the book is her own home in the Lune Valley. Her sense of place is always one of her major strengths and never more so than when she’s writing about this rural farming area, which she clearly knows intimately and loves. The book is full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Macdonald tramps o’er hill and down dale in pursuit of evidence, and we get an authentic inside look at the working lives of the sheep farmers and smallholders who farm the land.

The plot is also interesting, and rests in part on the long histories of families who live in an area for generations – a real contrast to her London-set mysteries, especially the ones set in the war years, when she often uses the mobility and impermanence of urban living to build her plots around. She has to be one of the most versatile writers from that period, handling rural and urban with equal knowledge and insight, and her skill in this gives her novels an authenticity of atmosphere whatever their setting.

First published in 1953, this one also gives a picture of a Britain still struggling to recover from the war, with the remnants of rationing still lingering and the nature of farming having changed with the drive to increase food production and food security. We also hear about the young men being called up for National Service, and how not all of them were happy to go. She’s excellent at setting her novels in their own time and showing a gradually or sometimes suddenly changing world, and like a lot of vintage fiction her books give a real picture of a period, more authentically than all but the best historical fiction.

We learn more about Macdonald as a person in this one too, because of the element of him looking to move to the area. We already knew from previous books about his love for this hilly country and his background in farming, but Lorac takes us deeper into his thoughts this time. He also interacts with friends – I only remember him with colleagues and suspects before, so this aspect makes him seem more human, as having a life beyond work.

Another one that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’ll say it again – how can it be that Lorac became “forgotten” when other writers of equal or less talent have remained in print all these years? An injustice that the British Library deserves thanks for putting right. Highly recommended, as always!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Seat of the Scornful (Gideon Fell 14) by John Dickson Carr

Cat and mouse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his daughter announces she is engaged, Mr Justice Ireton insists on meeting the young man. The first meeting doesn’t go well since the judge recognises Tony Morell as someone he has come across before, in the course of his job. The second meeting goes even worse. A phonecall to the local telephone exchange begging for help brings Police Constable Weems rushing to the judge’s holiday bungalow, where he finds Morell dead and Mr Justice Ireton sitting calmly in his chair, gun in hand…

The couple of Gideon Fell novels I’ve read previously have been “impossible crimes” and the emphasis has been on the puzzle rather than the people. This one is entirely different in tone, much more of a standard mystery, and as a result I liked it far more. It still has strong aspects of the howdunit to please the puzzlers out there, but there is also a group of characters with various motives for wanting rid of Morell. Gideon Fell himself seems less rude than in our previous meetings, and in fact has an almost Poirot-esque twinkle over the two young people we all soon hope to see become a romance. He is also rather clearer in how he works his way to the solution of the mystery, again relying more this time on the personalities and motives of the people involved, rather than sticking entirely to the technical aspects of how the crime was done.

Morell is a man with a reputation. A few years earlier he had become the centre of a scandal involving a rich young girl whom he had tried to blackmail into marriage. Now he says he wants to marry Connie, the judge’s daughter, and it’s not surprising the judge is not thrilled by that idea. But nor is Fred Barlow, the judge’s protegé, who fancies himself in love with Connie too. Or perhaps someone is exacting revenge for that earlier scandal, or maybe there are other secrets in Morell’s life that have made him a target. In a sense, this is the opposite of a “locked room” mystery – Morell’s body is found in a room to which many people could have had access, and who could have then disappeared into the night without being seen by any witnesses. So Inspector Graham and Dr Fell have to try work out the culprit from the physical evidence – who could have got access to the gun? Why is there a little pile of sand on the carpet? Why is the telephone broken? – and from what they learn about Morell’s background, through interviewing the various people who knew him or knew of him.

The book is also much stronger on characterisation than the other Fells I’ve read. The judge is a man who seems to enjoy the power his position gives him too much. His daughter, Connie, is dependent on him financially but chafes against his rather cold expectations of how she should behave. Fred Barlow is loyal to the judge for his past support, but is clear-eyed enough to recognise the strain of sadism the judge employs on the criminals who appear before him, and perhaps also on those closer to home. Inspector Graham is a solid, painstaking officer, not at all cowed by having to investigate a judge and his family and friends. Even PC Weems is well developed, as a young man just starting out in his career and sometimes feeling out of his depth but showing promise of developing into a good detective in time.

John Dickson Carr

First published in 1941 the book is set before the war, and among the group of younger characters there is still a mild feeling of the decadence that Carr employed so well in his earlier Bencolin novels. While it doesn’t have a strong element of horror in the way some of his other books have, there is a lot of tension in the latter stages and some scenes that have a definite air of eerie peril. I enjoyed it hugely and raced through it. Although the number of suspects is fairly limited I still changed my mind several times along the way, and found the ending satisfying, when Fell reveals the solution of both who and how, and tells us how he reached it. Good stuff, and I’m glad to have finally grown to admire Dr Fell after a fairly rocky start with this series. I’m now looking forward to reading more with my enthusiasm for Carr’s work fully restored!

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

Amazon UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

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

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

Amazon UK Link

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Book:
71
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19
32

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

Amazon UK Link

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer

One for bibliophiles…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Sergeant Jack Wigan is on his way home from work one night when he comes across a drunk man swaying about in the middle of the road. He decides not to take him into custody, instead telling him to go home, and then accompanies him to make sure he gets there safely. The drunk man is Mike Fisk, a “runner” in the book trade, who’s been celebrating finding a rare and valuable edition of Keats’ Endymion. The two men hit it off and become friends, and Wigan is inspired by Fisk with an interest in rare books. Then one evening when he goes to call on Fisk, he finds him dead, stabbed and lying in a pool of blood with the book he was reading on the table before him – a rare book on the occult…

Martin Edwards tell us in his foreword that this book has had a kind of cult status for many years, and copies of it are hard to find and very expensive. This is the first time it has been reprinted in decades. The few initial ratings on Goodreads are not inspiring – they suggest the book may have been better left forgotten.

But when did I ever agree with the majority on books? It’s an oddity, certainly – not the greatest prose and the plot is rather loose and rambly, and there’s a weird thread running through it where sensible and rational people all seem to find the idea of raising the devil and demons not just possible, but quite likely. But for all that, I found that once I got used to the rather plain writing style I enjoyed it, and as it progressed towards the end, I got fully caught up in the story and found the tension building nicely.

Sergeant Wigan is a decent man with a strong sense of justice. Because of the knowledge he has gained of the rare books business, he is seconded to work on the investigation into Fisk’s death. The Inspector in charge of the case soon has a suspect in sight, and concentrates all his efforts on getting a conviction. He succeeds, and the man is sentenced to hang. But Wigan is unconvinced of his guilt, and sets out on his own time to find the true culprit before the sentence can be carried out. So it’s a race against time, with the clock ticking louder and louder as the fateful day set for the hanging draws nearer…

Apparently Farmer was himself a collector of rare first editions as well as being a former policeman, and he puts these experiences to good use in the novel. We get an idea of the life of a uniformed sergeant, running his squad, understanding his patch, and using his knowledge of the local criminals to keep the public safe. (It’s the 1950s, when these things were largely true. In fact, if anyone out there is as ancient as me, Wigan reminded me very much of Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green, the first TV police procedural in Britain.)

The rare book business is shown as home to all kinds of skulduggery and disreputable people, some truly loving the books but others simply seeing them as a way to make money from gullible collectors. Farmer shows us all levels, from the man selling books from a barrow, to the large traders selling from shops and catalogues, to the American millionaire, willing to pay any price or break any law so that his library will be better than anyone else’s. Farmer makes a few comments that suggest he may not have been pleased at so many rare British books making their way into American collections, and also hints a little sniffily that some collectors never read the books they display so proudly. It all felt very authentic to me, written by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. And there’s lots of enjoyable references to specific rare first editions, and an indication of how authors rise and fall in the fashionable stakes of the collectibles market, sometimes on something as simple as a new film or TV adaptation of one of their books.

The plot itself is fine, though with that weird occult thread that is a bit jarring at points. Happily, however, the villain is human, as is the motive. I don’t think it’s fair-play, but the race against time aspect makes it feel like a cross between a mystery and a thriller, so that didn’t bother me. Overall, it’s not of the quality of the best mystery novels in either writing or plotting, but Wigan is an appealing character, the look at the book trade gives it an added interest and its very oddity gives it a kind of unique charm. Well worthy of its place in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and recommended as something a little different from the usual run.

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

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Post After Post-Mortem (Inspector Macdonald 11) by ECR Lorac

The psychology of crime…

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The Surrays are a golden family, all highly intelligent and successful in their chosen fields and all happy in each other’s company. But recently the middle sister, Ruth, has been causing a little concern to her older brother, Richard, whose trained eye as a psychiatrist has noted that she seems to be struggling with stress. Her latest book has just been completed and will doubtless meet with the same critical acclaim as her previous work, and Richard suggests to their mother that she might try to tempt Ruth to go away for a holiday with her. But before this can happen, Ruth is found dead in her bedroom at her parents’ home, complete with sleeping pills, farewell note and a new will, leaving little doubt that she has taken her own life. Following the inquest which returns the expected verdict Richard returns to his own home, where he finds a letter from Ruth, written on the evening of her death and delayed in the post, in which she seems quite happy and is making plans for the following week. Although he’d rather not cause his family, especially his mother, any further anxiety, Richard feels he must show the letter to an acquaintance of his, Inspector Macdonald of the Yard, who confirms that the letter is reason to investigate Ruth’s death more closely…

Each time I read one of Lorac’s books I find it harder to understand how it is that she became “forgotten” when so many other writers, of equal or less talent, have remained more securely in print and public favour. I wonder if it’s that she tried so many different things, rather than finding a successful formula and sticking to it? As I was reading this one, I was convinced it must be quite a late novel, post-war, probably well into the ’50s. It concentrates far more than Golden Age novels usually do on the psychology of the various characters – on the effects of success and expectations, self-discipline and the impact of feeling driven to achieve. In that aspect, it reads more to me like the novels of PD James, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons and their generation rather than the mystery stalwarts of the between-wars era. I was surprised therefore when I read the foreword (after I’d read the book, of course) to discover that it was published in 1936, when I suspect it must have felt well ahead of its time – perhaps so much so that it didn’t quite fit with the expectations or preferences of mystery readers of the time. Pure speculation, of course, but I do feel you never quite know what you’re going to get with Lorac, in the way you do when you pick up a Freeman Wills Croft, a John Dickson Carr or even an Agatha Christie.

Inspector Macdonald is quickly convinced that Ruth’s death was murder, and he has a variety of suspects to consider. As well as the parents, the family includes Ruth’s two brothers and two sisters, and there was a small house party at the time with three men whom Ruth had invited, each connected to her writing career in one way or another. On the face of it, the members of this happy family could have had no reason to kill a beloved sister, but Macdonald feels that more than one of them is hiding something, perhaps to protect their mother from more hurt but perhaps for darker reasons. The same applies to the three guests – each seems reluctant to share information with Macdonald that he feels may be relevant, but that they feel may simply serve to tarnish the reputation and legacy of Ruth as a writer. Ruth herself was something of a contradiction – a brilliant intellectual with much to say in her novels about the human condition, but in her personal life emotionally naive and even repressed. Her recent infatuation with a man who seemed entirely not her type had appeared out of character to those who knew about it, and his rejection of her had broken through her usual cool reserve.

We get to know Inspector Macdonald quite a bit more deeply in this one, and he comes over as someone with empathy for those affected by crime, but with an over-riding belief that justice for the victim takes precedence over the feelings of the bereaved. We also see him take a personal dislike to one of the suspects, and his own self-awareness of that and determination to ensure he doesn’t let it sway his judgement. While he is looking for clues in the psychological make-up of the suspects, the reader is being given clues to his own psychology, and it’s all interestingly and credibly done. Detective Reeves is in it too, and again we get to know him rather better as an individual this time than in other books where he’s appeared.

I think it is more or less fair-play and I felt a bit smug because I spotted one of the crucial clues, although I couldn’t quite get from it to either the who or why. Perhaps a little darker than some of her other books as stories that go into the psychology of crime often are, I found it absorbing and very well constructed, so that there were no dips in interest level along the way. I say it every time, but Lorac really is the brightest star in the BL’s sparkling firmament and even if the series had done nothing else, bringing her back to her deserved prominence would still have made it well worthwhile. Highly recommended.

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Jumping Jenny (Roger Sheringham 9) by Anthony Berkeley

Gallows humour…

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Amateur detective Roger Sheringham is attending a fancy dress party at the home of a friend. The party’s theme is that all the guests should come dressed as famous murderers or their victims, and to add to the fun of the occasion the host has built a gallows on the roof terrace, and suspended three hanged dummies on it. It is this gallows that, by the end of the evening, will become the focus of the investigation into the death that brings the evening’s jollity to an end…

This is an “inverted crime” – that is, the reader sees the murder being done and knows whodunit, and then follows the detectives as they investigate. The victim is a woman, Ena Stratton – an attention-seeker and drunk who has annoyed just about everyone at the party in one way or another, mostly because they all feel sorry for her poor husband for being married to her, especially since he’s in love with someone else. So when she’s found dead, they’re all happy to think that she has killed herself and rid their pampered little world of an annoyance. But Sheringham isn’t so sure her death was at her own hands. So, as you would, he decides to tamper with the evidence to ensure that if one of his pals bumped her off they get away with it, and the death is neatly filed away as a convenient suicide.

Charming, isn’t it? Someone commented to me on a previous Berkeley review that he doesn’t like women, and I responded that I hadn’t read much of him yet and hadn’t become aware of that. I have now! The treatment of Ena in this one is way beyond typical sexism of the time – there is much talk of how it would be great if her husband could just get her locked away in an asylum, so that he’d be free to carry on his affair openly in her absence. Unfortunately, while the two doctors present at the party agree she’s a nuisance, neither of them is willing to declare her insane. Sheringham thinks that her husband should have beaten her into submission long ago – literally. So the party-goers’ delight at her unexpected death is unbounded – problem solved! Everyone is agreed that if her husband killed her, he was totally justified. Even the bit that the reader knows and the guests don’t – i.e., exactly what happened that led to the murder and who did the deed – is presented as if it is in some way justified by the fact that Ena is annoying. Poor Ena!

Anthony Berkeley

Having said all that, the book is as well-written as always and is enjoyable to read, with plenty of humour, some of it on the macabre end of the spectrum. Sheringham’s bid to mislead the police backfires somewhat, so that he finds himself as a suspect. (I hoped he’d be charged, convicted and hanged, personally – karma would have done its duty.) From then on, he spends his time encouraging everyone to commit perjury left, right and centre to prove the suicide theory, which they all cheerfully agree to do. And in the end, Berkeley throws in a final twist, which did nothing to redeem anyone in this reader’s eyes!

Berkeley was simply having some light-hearted fun here and clearly didn’t intend for the reader to take the book too seriously, and I found it quite easy and fun to go along for the ride. But I fear I shall no longer admire Sheringham as a person, though I will still enjoy him as a character. The whole thing is so far over the credibility line all the way through that even the ridiculousness of the final twist seems in keeping with the rest of the nonsense. So not one to take seriously, and not so much morally ambiguous as morally vacuous – but still highly entertaining…

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

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Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

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

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These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

After being rather rude about detective fiction to a man he later discovered was Graham Coombe, a publisher of the genre, Inspector MacDonald is surprised to be invited to a little party at Coombe’s house. The party is to be a treasure hunt, with a group of thriller writers and a group of more heavyweight writers competing to solve clues which will lead them to the treasure. Coombe thinks it will be amusing to have a bona fide detective there too, especially one who is on record as suggesting that real detectives are better at solving things than fictional ones. MacDonald hesitates, but in the end decides to go. So he’s on the spot when one of the guests is killed…

This is quite different in style to the other Loracs I’ve read. She was clearly having fun at the expense of her own profession and there’s some mild humour over various styles and personalities which Martin Edwards suggests in his introduction may have been influenced by her chums in the Detection Club. But it’s not as light-hearted as it at first seems – there’s a serious plot in there too.

Each guest at the party is given a literary pseudonym and part of the game is for them all to work out who each other is in real life, most of them never having met before. While this conceit is quite amusing, I must say it led to a good deal of confusion for this poor reader. For the first few chapters we are introduced to “Samuel Pepys”, “Jane Austen” and so on, and then after the murder they all start to be called by their “real” names, which, as is normal in the world of novel-writing, are often pseudonyms too. So with each character having at least two names, sometimes more, I spent a ridiculous amount of time going back to the list which is happily provided a few chapters in, of which pseudonym matches which “real” name. This also made me realise that I wasn’t building up a real picture of most of the characters, or they should have been recognisable by that regardless of which name was being used for them.

The plot is as complex as the names and really couldn’t be described as fair-play, I feel. However, since I can rarely work out whodunit and don’t make much of an effort to try, this didn’t bother me. The book has a traditional “closed circle” of suspects – it’s clear that it must have been someone in the house during the party who committed the first crime. It also has the kind of complicated murder method more common in a howdunit style of mystery, but in this one MacDonald very quickly works out the how and the reader is allowed to know too. Of course, there is a second murder, and it has aspects of the locked room mystery, again with a complicated method. So there’s a lot going on, too much, I felt, and too many coincidences at play.

Normally Lorac’s settings play a major part in her books, be it London in the Blitz or the rural Lune Valley. This one hasn’t got that – although Coombe’s house is in London it has more of the feel of the “country house” mystery, with most of the action taking place in people’s drawings rooms.

I enjoyed it more than this review is probably suggesting, but I didn’t think it was quite up to the standard I’ve come to expect of her. I liked that we got to see MacDonald off duty in the first section of the book, making him feel a bit more rounded as a character. And I always enjoy the way he’s a team player, involving his junior officers fully and neither ridiculing nor patronising them, as some Golden Age police ‘tecs do. So plenty to like about it, but I’d tend to suggest it’s one for existing Lorac fans – new readers would be better to start elsewhere, probably with one of her wartime books where I feel she excels.

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

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Whenever one of these British Library anthologies, be it crime, science fiction or horror, pops through my door, I rub my hands in glee, knowing that at least some of the stories will be great and I’ll be treated to a raft of authors, both old favourites and new acquaintances. This one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels. All those who, like me, loved The Red House Mystery and felt it was such a pity AA Milne only wrote one mystery novel will be delighted to know there’s a short story from him in this collection, and a fine one it is too!

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high. The lowest rating I gave was three stars (meaning OK), but by far the majority were either good or excellent. Eight out of the sixteen earned the full five stars. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

With such a cornucopia of goodies, it’s extremely hard to pick just a few to highlight, but here goes – three picked fairly randomly from my favourites to give a flavour of the variety…

A Question of Character by Victor Canning – Geoffrey Gilroy is a moderately successful thriller writer, but his wife, who had never written before their marriage, has now become a publishing sensation. When he finds himself being referred to as “Martha Gilroy’s husband”, he decides she’s got to go – a nice little murder will salve his vanity, plus it will allow him to marry his mistress, a woman who happily shows no inclination to write books of any kind. He plans the murder meticulously, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans! This is great – it becomes a fast-paced thriller half-way through and builds up some real page-turning tension.

Book of Honour by John Creasey – Malcolm Graham, our narrator, is a book distributor in colonial-era India. One day he gives a little money to a poor man, Baburao, who is trying to sell cheap postcards to eke out a living. Baburao uses the money to set up a rickety shelf from which he sells books. He approaches Malcolm, who again helps him, this time by allowing him to select some of his company’s books to sell, on credit. Baburao uses this favour wisely again, until eventually he has set up a thriving business as a bookseller, with his own shops. But Baburao never forgets his poor origins, and spends his time and money helping those in the famine camps. There is a crime in this one, and it’s rather a heart-breaker, but the overall story is of these two good men, Malcolm and Baburao, and their mutual respect and growing friendship. I thought it was excellent, full of humanity and warmth.

You’re Busy Writing by Edmund Crispin – Ted Bradley is a thriller writer who longs for peace to write. He sets himself a target of 2,000 words a day, but between his cleaning lady and her laundry worries, the telephone and random visitors at his cottage, he finds he’s constantly losing his flow just at the point when he’s come up with a killer metaphor or thrilling clue! On this day he’s already been interrupted countless times when a couple he barely knows turn up at his door, invite themselves in and make it clear they intend to spend the whole day and evening there, drinking his booze and keeping him from his work, until it’s dark enough for them to elope together, deserting their respective spouses. Let’s just say Ted finds a drastic way to solve his problem. Very funny, laugh out loud at some points, and one can’t help feeling it’s written from Crispin’s own experience, although hopefully he found other ways to rid himself of unwanted interruptions!

One final thought – the last four stories in the book are four of the very best. I’ve said it before, but anthologists should always aim to start with a great story or two to get the busy reader’s attention and goodwill, and then keep the rest of the best to end with, and that way the reader will promptly forget if any of the ones in the middle were a bit disappointing. This anthology starts with the weakest story of all in my opinion, but, dear reader, it’s worth rushing past that one because goodies await you in abundance! Highly recommended.

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

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Quickies…

…aka Admitting Defeat…

During my blogging slump in the middle of the year I was still reading but didn’t have the oomph to write reviews or even take my usual fairly extensive notes. So some books slipped through the cracks, and I’ve finally accepted that I’m never going to review them now (given that I’ve pretty much forgotten all the details!). So I’m going to follow the shining example of several other bloggers, and do a little batch of quickies…

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Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

😀 😀 😀 😀

Set on the Kent marshes in the depressed and depressing little town of Gunfleet in the 1960s, this is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel about the death of a young girl. It’s told as a kind of flashback through the eyes of the main character, Agnes, as she sits in the peace of the church just after she’s learned of the discovery of the girl’s body on the marsh, thinking back over the summer and piecing together the events that have led to this moment. Kelly wrote one of my favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series, The Spoilt Kill, and in terms of quality of writing I think this one may even surpass that one. However, I found this relentlessly bleak, especially when the underlying cause of the death is revealed.

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

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The Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk

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This is an action thriller set in Israel at the height of the Middle East conflict of the late 60s/early 70s. Our hero is that standard of thrillers – an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events, as he gets mistaken for an American diplomat with the same name and suddenly finds himself the target of… well, just about everybody, really! I enjoyed it – as well as having all the usual thriller elements of murder, espionage and a touch of romance (or lust – well, it was the ’70s!), I felt that Falkirk gave a pretty well-balanced view of the situation in the Middle East at the time, without taking one side or the other too much, or getting bogged down in too much detail. The pace is fast, but the quality of the writing and authentic feel of the setting lift it above the normal run of pulp thrillers.

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

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A Lonely Man by Chris Power

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two British men meet at a writers’ talk in Berlin and fall into a kind of friendship. Patrick tells Robert (our protagonist) that he had ghost-written a book for a Russian oligarch, now dead, maybe by suicide, but Patrick thinks it more likely that he was killed by Putin’s henchmen, and he believes that now they’re looking for him. Robert doesn’t know if he believes any of this, but he’s been desperately looking for a plot for his next book and this sounds to him as if it has potential. So he starts trying to squeeze more details out of Patrick, while pretending he’s just offering a friendly ear. But is Patrick a fantasist, or is there real danger? This starts out well and then loses its way in the middle, and the rather silly ending destroys any remaining feeling of ambiguity. However, the basic writing skills are all there and I’d happily read another by him to see if he improves in terms of plotting.

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

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The Promise by Damon Galgut

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As Amor’s mother is dying, Amor overhears her extract a promise from her husband that he will give their Black servant, Salome, the house that she lives in. The book is told in four parts, each about a member of the family, and how they manage to avoid fulfilling this promise over the years. How I wish I had written a review of this one because I loved it! I found each of the stories in it absorbing, and the whole gives an excellent depiction of how South Africa developed in the years following the end of apartheid. Had I reviewed it, it would doubtless have appeared on the shortlist for my Book of the Year Awards, and may even have won. I can only apologise to Mr Galgut, and hope that the Booker Prize he got for it will be some small consolation for missing out on the prestigious FF Award.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage via NetGalley.

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Well, that’s them off my list and off my conscience! Normal service will now be resumed… 😉

Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

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Another anthology of vintage mystery stories from the British Library and Martin Edwards, this time themed around animals, birds and insects but happily they are all in the nature of clues rather than victims! There are fourteen stories in total, as usual including some very well known authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace, some that were new to me, such as Garnett Radcliffe and Clifford Witting, and some that have become stalwarts of this series, such as HC Bailey and F Tennyson Jesse.

This was an even more mixed bag than usual for me. Although there were several excellent stories, there were an equal number that I felt were quite poor. Overall my individual ratings for each story averaged out to just over 3½ for the fourteen, so that’s the rating I’m giving the book (rounded up). However, the better stories are very enjoyable, so if you don’t mind varying quality there’s still plenty in here to make reading it time well spent.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – This is an unusual one in that it’s told by Holmes himself, and Watson isn’t in it. Holmes has retired to the Sussex coast and is present when a teacher from the local school staggers up the beach, mutters something that sounds like “the lion’s mane” and promptly dies. His back is covered in weals as if from a scourge. Suspicion falls on another teacher, but Holmes has his own theory. I can’t tell you what creature is involved in this one since it would be a major spoiler!

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe – a colonial tale. A Rajah keeps a pit of vipers where he sentences criminals to die. There is a pole in the pit where the condemned person can hang above the vipers until their strength gives way and they fall to their doom. It’s a spectator sport! Our narrator tells of one man, unfairly sentenced, and builds some great tension as the man hangs over the pit. The story is complete tosh and has some unfortunate outdated racial stuff, but it’s well written and very entertaining and has a delicious sting in the tail which genuinely took me by surprise.

The Yellow Slugs by HC Bailey – a Reggie Fortune story. He is called in by Superintendent Bell to a troubling case. A small boy was seen trying to drown his little sister. Both survived and are in hospital. There seems little doubt that the boy meant to kill her, but Reggie wants to know why. He believes that there must have been a very strong reason for a child of that age to act that way, especially since the boy seems to love his sister. This is a chilling and disturbing story. I’ve read a couple of Fortune stories where children have been involved and they seem to bring out his strong sense of justice and an underlying anger, presumably the author’s, at some of the social concerns of the day. The title tells you which creature is involved, but you’ll need to read it if you want to know how!

The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt – A student is in lodgings when he is visited by a friendly but thieving jackdaw, who makes off with anything shiny he can find. But there’s a man going around the neighbourhood shooting birds, and he seems to be unable to tell the difference between jackdaws and crows (which everyone seems to think it’s OK to shoot).The student is scared for the jackdaw’s safety so decides to try to save it. This is very well done and all the stuff about the jackdaw’s behaviour is lovely. The mystery is weaker, but the entertainment of the story is all in the telling. No major plot spoilers, but for the worried I can confirm the jackdaw isn’t harmed.

So some excellent and varied stories and, as always, despite the varying quality in these anthologies, they are a great way of being introduced to new authors to look out for.

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

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The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

Run, Rabbits, Run…

😦

Hugh Everton bumps into some old acquaintances in a hotel bar and accepts an invitation to dine with retired Judge Bath and his much younger and glamorous wife, Lucy. Tensions are high, since it becomes clear that Everton and Lucy once had a fling, and the other two guests, Atkinson and Cady, both seem to be watching the clock carefully, as if waiting for something to happen. And something does! A few minutes after the Judge has retired to bed, a shot is fired, and he is found dead on his bedroom floor. But by the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared…

While the world of vintage crime is a wondrous thing in which I’ve spent many happy hours over the last few years, occasionally I’m reminded that some authors become “forgotten” for a reason. I had a mixed reaction to Bennett’s earlier entry in the BL’s Crime Classics series, The Man Who Didn’t Fly, but this time my reaction was pure – this has to rank as one of the worst books in the series to date. I got so tired of it that I more or less gave up two-thirds of the way through, skimming the last few chapters to find out whodunit, although I can’t say I cared much.

There are three problems with it – major problems, that don’t leave much in the way of positives. The first is the truly dreadful style. The second is the convoluted and overly complicated plot. The third is the clumsy characterisation of a bunch of truly unlikeable, pretty despicable people – and that includes the hero. Some writers have a natural flow that may not be especially literary but is great for telling an interesting story. Others write so well that the writing itself can make up for some weaknesses in plot or characterisation. And then there’s Bennett. It seems to me as if she thought up a story (I’m sure there must be one buried in there somewhere) and then decided to experiment with style, with the end result being that the whole thing reads like a pastiche of the more realist mystery novels that were just then, in 1952, coming into vogue. It’s not dark enough to be noir, but she has attempted to give it that noir atmosphere of amorality and a kind of existential despair. She makes everything deliberately vague, not in a plot sense but in a writing sense, so that the book never flows – all the time the reader is left trying to catch up with things that should be made plain, but aren’t: for example, starting chapters with ‘she’ rather than a character name so that for the first couple of paragraphs we don’t know which character we’re reading about. I found it all intensely irritating.

Margot Bennett

Although it’s written in third person, we see the action almost exclusively through Everton’s eyes. Everton is a weak and cowardly man with a criminal background and a depressed and depressing outlook on life. He doesn’t respect anyone, and so it’s hard for the reader to get past his self-pity and misanthropy to see any good in any of the other characters. Most of the other characters sneer at him, and he sneers right back. But he also sneers at the one or two who try to be nice to him, which makes him deeply unpleasant to spend time with. I’m convinced Bennett thought that having an unlikeable lead character was terribly “modern”, and in that she’s right – that’s exactly why the Golden Age died as authors began to despise the conventions that had made the genre golden.

The plot starts out as a straightforward mystery, a mix of whodunit and howdunit, but soon descends into a convoluted mess, incorporating everything from blackmail to fugitives from the failed Fascist regimes of Europe. If she’d stuck to the basic plot it might have been a fairly good, if run of the mill, murder mystery, but each new chapter seemed to be adding another rabbit for the reader to chase, with the result that this reader lost all interest in trying to keep track of the original bunny.

No, I’m afraid this one was a major miss for me.

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

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Till Death Do Us Part (Gideon Fell 15) by John Dickson Carr

He didn’t see that coming…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Dick Markham’s brand new fiancée, Lesley Grant, shoots a fortune teller at the village fair, it looks accidental. But then the injured fortune teller reveals himself as a famous Home Office pathologist, and tells Dick that he had recognised Lesley as a serial poisoner of her previous husbands and lover, but that the police have never been able to get enough evidence to arrest her. Naturally Dick is shocked and unwilling to believe this, but he realises he knows very little about Lesley – she appeared in the village of Six Ashes just a few months earlier, and he knows nothing of her life before that. So reluctantly he agrees to help find the proof the police need. But later that night, the pathologist dies, in exactly the way he described Lesley’s former crimes as having been done – his body found in a locked room, his death by poisoning made to look like suicide. Then the famous amateur detective Gideon Fell arrives in the village…

I’ve loved Carr’s earliest books starring his French police detective, Henri Bencolin, but this was my first introduction to the detective he is best remembered for, Gideon Fell. In style, this is more in line with the normal Golden Age tradition, without the delicious atmosphere of decadent horror that pervades the Bencolin books. Carr is considered one of the greatest proponents of the locked room mystery, or impossible crime, and the emphasis in this one is very much on that aspect, although there’s plenty of room for some good characterisation and lots of clever misdirection.

On first meeting, I found I wasn’t wholly enamoured with Gideon Fell. He’s one of these arrogant know-it-all detectives, who is extremely rude to everyone around him, and he keeps his cards close to his chest except for the occasional enigmatic utterance. Perhaps he’ll grown on me as I read more of the books. Dick Markham, however, is a very likeable lead character, and his confusion over his feelings about Lesley is done very well. There is a mild love triangle, in that there is another woman everyone in the village expected Dick to marry before Lesley came along, and she provides another layer to Dick’s jumbled feelings. Lesley herself, as is necessary in a chief suspect, is not so well revealed – Carr very successfully keeps her ambiguous so that I swayed back and forwards many times as to whether she was guilty or innocent. If she is innocent, there are plenty of other characters who may have done the deed, though Carr doesn’t concentrate much on possible motives for them – the focus is more on how the deed was done than why. The same problem applies if Lesley is guilty – how did she do it?

John Dickson Carr

The locked room solution is excellent, and I think fair play for those who have the kind of mind that can work these things out. I almost never can, and this was no exception, but at least I understood the explanation at the end of how it was done and felt it was all quite feasible, which is considerably more than I can say for a lot of impossible crimes. The whodunit solution I found to be a bit of an anti-climax after all the intriguing ambiguity and false scents which came before, though again in retrospect I think Carr gave enough clues for the discerning reader to be able to beat the detective – not this reader though! But despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I enjoyed it very much. Often I find locked room mysteries are so focused on the puzzle they can be a bit dull, but Carr gives enough weight to the characterisation and Dick’s inner turmoil to keep it interesting. Personally I prefer the style of the Bencolin books, but that’s merely a matter of subjective preference due to my love of the horror aspects of those. For people who love a more traditional locked room mystery, then I can quite see why Fell would be the detective of choice. I look forward to getting to know him better.

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

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The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

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

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Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two-Way MurderAll the young men in the neighbourhood are on their way to the Hunt Ball at Fordings, and most of them also appear to be well on the way to falling in love with lovely young Dilys Maine. It’s a foggy, misty night and local man Nick Brent offers to drive Ian Macbane, a visitor to the district, to the Ball. But Nick makes it clear Ian will have to find another lift back, since he intends to drive Dilys home. As he and Dilys return along the low road, they see something lying in the middle of the road which on inspection turns out to be the body of a dead man. Gentlemanly Nick tells Dilys to walk the remaining short distance home so she can avoid getting involved in giving a statement to the police, since her strict father doesn’t know she’s at the ball. When the police turn up they quickly realise the dead man has been murdered, but before they can find out whodunit they will have to identify him…

In my usual way, I waited till I’d read the book before I read the introduction, so was completely unaware while reading that this book was from a “lost” manuscript, never before published. Martin Edwards had heard about it from a book-dealer friend some years ago, but it’s only now, when he has for some years been editing the British Library Crime Classics series and has done so much to return ECR Lorac to the prominence she deserves, that the BL agreed to publish it. Edwards tells us they have given it a light edit, simply to remove a few repetitions and duplications, but it is substantially as written. In my view, it is right up there with her best, which means it’s very good indeed.

It has a slightly odd structure in that the main investigative viewpoint changes as the book progresses. At first, a rather unlikeable “by-the-book” policeman, Inspector Turner, is in the lead, taking statements and jumping to conclusions and generally being annoying. Then for a bit Ian Macbane is in the limelight, as he sets out to do a bit of amateur detection, driven on by his desire to protect Dilys. Finally, for the bulk of the book, Inspector Waring of the local CID takes over. He’s a complete contrast to Turner – his method is to chat to the locals, pick up on gossip, listen to rumours, and generally feel his way through all the deceptions and half-truths the suspects and witnesses are feeding him, mostly in this unfathomable desire all the men seem to have to protect beautiful but pathetic Dilys (who in my humble opinion would have been vastly improved by having to take responsibility for her own life occasionally).

I liked Waring very much – Edwards speculates that perhaps he was a new venture for Lorac, getting away from her long-running series detective, Inspector MacDonald. Unfortunately she died not long after this book was finished so we’ll never know if she had planned to give Waring more outings. I like MacDonald too, but Waring has rather more personality and works more on instinct and knowledge of human nature, rather than the somewhat more procedural feel of the MacDonald stories.

There’s a fair amount of mild humour in the book and a smidgen of romance, just the right amount. But the important thing is the underlying mystery, and it’s excellent. Lorac shows how unreliable witnesses are when they’re trying to keep all kinds of secrets that have nothing to do with the crime itself, and Waring has a natural talent for sorting the wheat from the chaff and getting to the truth. I loved the crucial clue – very original, I thought – although obviously I can’t tell you anything about it. I had gradually come to suspect the right person, but quite late on and only after several false starts, and I still couldn’t work out how the thing had been done, or why. Waring remained a few steps ahead of me all the way through, and explained everything to my satisfaction in the end. Is it fair play? Yes, I think so – I think I had all the information that Waring had, just not the brainpower to work it out!

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Since a lot of it involves people driving around the district on various roads or walking along bridle paths, I longed for a map – I suspect if it had been published in Lorac’s lifetime there may have been one. But Lorac is always great at her settings so I was able to gradually develop a mental map of the area as well as a clear picture of the various types of people in this small rural community – the farmers and business owners, those with a long pedigree and the newcomers, the dissolute and the self-appointed righteous guardians of other people’s morals.

A real find for Martin Edwards, and I’m grateful to him and the British Library for giving us all the opportunity to enjoy it. Lorac continues to be the brightest shining star in the BL’s sparkling firmament. Great stuff!

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

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