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

He didn’t see that coming…

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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…

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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…

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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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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

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The Sussex Downs MurderBrothers John and William Rothers share the family home and lime manufacturing business at Chalklands Farm in Sussex. William’s wife also lives there, which is unfortunate, or convenient, depending on your viewpoint, since she seems to be at least as close to John as she is to her husband. Then John decides to go on a short driving holiday, but he doesn’t get far – his car is found abandoned a few miles from home and there are signs of violence. No sign of John though, alive or dead. Inspector Meredith has recently been transferred to the area and is put in charge of the case. First he’ll have to determine if John has been kidnapped or murdered before he can hope to discover whodunit…

I’ve loved a couple of John Bude’s books and been pretty unimpressed by a couple more, so wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. And it fell in the middle for me – reasonably enjoyable but not nearly as entertaining as he can be. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s the Inspector Meredith books that don’t work too well for me. Not that I don’t like the Inspector – as a character he’s fine and in this one there’s some entertaining stuff between him and his teenage son which gives him a more rounded feel than in some of the other books. It’s more the investigative technique that puts me off, very painstaking and slow, with lots of examining and re-examining clues as each fresh piece of information comes to light. I’m aware I’ve said similar things about a few of the Golden Age police procedurals, especially the Inspector French novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, so I was interested to learn from Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Meredith is indeed modelled on French. However Edwards says that Meredith “possesses a sharper sense of humour” and an “innate humanity”, with both of which I agree. This kind of detailed procedural is clearly a specific style of mystery story popular at the time, and Bude certainly does it better than most.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 35
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1936

He’s also very good at settings and here he brings the area of the Sussex Downs to life, with the sparsely populated rural district playing a major role in the solving of the mystery. First published in 1936, there was still little enough traffic on the roads for people to notice and recognise passing vehicles, and even remember them some days later. Local gossip plays its part too, with there being few enough people around for everyone to have a fair idea of what everyone else might be up to, or at least to think they do.

The solution seems a bit obvious from fairly early on, unfortunately, but the meat of the story is really in how Meredith goes about his investigation. As he struggles to find proof of a murder having been done much less to prove who may have done it, we see his frustration and the pressure he is put under by his superiors. But Meredith is a patient man, willing to admit when a theory isn’t working out and to go back to the beginning to formulate a new one.

Overall, then, enjoyable enough to while away a few hours but not a top rank mystery novel, which has been pretty much my reaction to all of the Inspector Meredith novels I’ve read so far. I think in future I’ll try to stick to Bude’s standalones where, in my limited experience of him, he seems to show much more inventiveness and humour, and achieves a better pace.

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The Corpse in the Waxworks (Inspector Bencolin 4) by John Dickson Carr

Chamber of horrors…

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The Corpse in the WaxworksInspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was apparently famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in horror and decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol.

The idea of being in a waxworks late at night is pretty creepy to begin with, but these waxworks have been made by a master of the art and, in the dim green light of the basement, one could be forgiven for imagining that one or two of them are real. But is it imagination? Is that movement you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye a trick of the light, or…? Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this world of shadows and horrors. Yes, the story veers wildly over the credibility line as it does in all of the Bencolin books, but much in the way of Edgar Allen Poe – there is a madness underneath most of the crimes.

John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr

Bencolin himself is a bit too over the top to be believable – he is all devilish mystery and almost mystical insight. But Jeff is a great foil who provides the humanity that Bencolin lacks. There are only five books in total in the Bencolin series, I understand. Four of them, including this and the other three the BL has previously re-published, were written early in Carr’s career, and he revisited the characters just once years later – I’m hoping they issue it too sometime for completion’s sake. I love the way he mixes the various horror genres into the standard mystery novel and comes up with something quite unique in my experience. Since I still haven’t read anything else by him I don’t know how they compare to the later work he is better remembered for, but they’ve certainly whetted my appetite to find out. This one is excellent and there’s no need to read them in order so if a creepy night in a waxworks sounds like your kind of thing, go for it!

The book also includes a bonus Bencolin short story, The Murder in Number Four – another impossible crime, this time the murder of a man alone in a carriage of a moving train. Witnesses confirm no one could have gone along the corridor to the carriage without being seen, and yet the deed was done. Obviously this doesn’t have the same intricacy as the novels, but it has the same atmosphere of creepiness and Bencolin is as mysteriously brilliant as ever. An added treat!

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

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Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Dynamic duo…

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Murder's a SwineAir-raid warden Clem Poplett scurries out of the rain to enjoy a quick smoke in the well of a block of flats which has been designated as an air-raid shelter. He discovers it’s already occupied by Agnes Kinghof, a resident of the block, who has locked herself out and is waiting for the caretaker to come home so he can let her in with his spare key. As the two chat, Agnes becomes aware of an unpleasant odour. Investigating, they discover a very dead body hidden beneath the sandbags in the shelter. Agnes, truth to tell, is rather thrilled – there’s nothing she and her husband Andrew enjoy more than a little amateur detecting! That same evening, Mrs Sibley, who lives in one of the upper flats, is woken by a tapping at her window and is shocked into hysterics when she sees a pig’s head apparently staring in at her. This delights Agnes even more…

Set in the period of the “phoney war” when nothing bad had started happening to the people of London, and with a delightful detective duo in Agnes and Andrew, this is a light-hearted, frothy entertainment, written for humour but with a surprisingly decent mystery underneath. It is soon discovered that the dead man and Mrs Sibley are connected, and the probable identity of the murderer is also soon known. But for various reasons it appears that that person may be disguised as someone else – one of the people who lives in the block of flats or someone who has easy access to the building. So Agnes and Andrew decide to assist the unfortunately named Inspector Eggshell with his enquiries, whether he wants them to or not. Andrew’s cousin Lord “Pig” Whitestone is a high-up in Scotland Yard, and he very definitely doesn’t want them involved – especially Agnes, since he believes a woman’s place is in the home, looking attractive. Agnes is a modern woman, though, who thinks nothing of shinning up a ladder in the middle of the night in pursuit of a possible murderer, even if it means her sheer Couleur de Rose silk stockings may be ruined!

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the influences for this duo were Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford or Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies. In the intro, Martin Edwards suggests the latter, and I’m happy to go along – there’s the definite cocktail-drinking life’s-a-lark feel about the young couple. Had it been set later in the war this may have jarred, but the authors show that apart from some shortages the war hadn’t started to feel real to the people on the home front this early on. The authors are another married duo – Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson, writing as “Nap Lombard”. It’s very well written with some great comic timing, and quite racy for the period in an entirely innocent and inoffensive way, with lots of mostly humorous hints of sex and stuff going on behind the blackout curtains. In one sense it’s quite sexist, with all the young women trying to be attractive to catch their respective men and all the men being big tough protectors to the little women in their lives. But, like Tuppence Beresford, our intrepid Agnes is the driving force in the partnership so it has a reasonably modern feel too.

It frequently stretches credulity and the ending is quite ridiculous, but honestly it doesn’t matter – the book isn’t aiming for gritty slice-of-life stuff. It’s the kind of thing to pick up when you want a few hours of pure entertainment in the company of some very enjoyable characters. Unfortunately, “Nap Lombard” only wrote two mystery novels – I do hope the BL will publish the other one some day. Great fun! 

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

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The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

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As fog rolls over the Thames a barge bearing a cargo of boxes ostensibly full of rubber breaks free from the tug pulling it, and tips its load into the river, later to be washed up along the banks. Meantime, an old woman dies, apparently from suicide. But Detective Sergeant Chandler isn’t convinced – he thinks it might be murder. As he begins to investigate, his colleagues in the river police are finding there’s something strange about the boxes that are being found along the river…

This book from 1938 has a rather different feel to it than the usual Golden Age mystery. Although there are two separate police investigations going on, it’s not what we’d think of as a police procedural, and yet it’s a bit too slow and thoughtful to be a thriller either. Also, the reader has a much better idea of what’s going on than the police because we are taken round all the various characters involved, being made privy to things the police haven’t yet found out. So there’s no real surprise about the solution to the crime element when it comes.

It’s really more of a look at the social conditions of those people struggling to live on the margins of post-depression pre-war poverty in the docklands beside the Thames. The plot revolves around the trade in illegally smuggled drugs – that’s not a spoiler since it’s made quite clear from early on. Both these aspects feel very realistic, the drugs plot especially feeling much more true to life than the often glamourised or exaggerated picture of it in fiction. Here it’s simply a case of unscrupulous people making money off the miserable addiction of others. Yes, there are murders done when they feel at risk, but no shoot-outs between rival gangs or king-pins taking revenge and so on. This is business – sordid and nasty, but simply business. We are also shown the addict’s view – the misery of it and how people are gradually driven to cross boundaries of behaviour in their desperate need to satisfy their cravings.

We also get a look at the pre-NHS health system, where poor people chose doctors on the basis of how cheap they were, and doctors could do little to alleviate the kinds of illness brought on by poverty and the appalling air of foggy, sooty, dirty London.

All of this is done very well – worked into the story rather than simply dumped on the reader. There is also some quite good characterisation of a few of the working-class residents of the area, in particular of three people caught up unknowingly in the mystery – a young man and the girl he’s trying to woo, and the girl’s young brother, who more than anything wants a ride in the river police’s boat. They humanise the story a little, and it needs it, because otherwise it’s a rather grim and miserable tale. A slice of life that happily most of us will never live, but not so far removed from the everyday as to make it seem unrecognisable.

Josephine Bell

It’s well written and the social commentary aspect is very strong. It seemed to me quite unusual for the era in its concentration on the poor and the working-class – most Golden Age mysteries tend to feature the middle-class, and their working-class characters are often cringe-makingly caricatured. Here they felt true – neither idealised nor denigrated for their poverty or the way they spoke or behaved. Unfortunately the actual crime side of it didn’t work so well for me – it felt rather like an add-on to give the social aspects a focus, and I’m never a huge fan of the type of crime novel where the reader knows more than the detectives. However, it was my first introduction to Josephine Bell, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more, to see if this kind of rather gritty realism is typical of her style.

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

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The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

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M. Henri Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, is visiting London with his young American friend Jeff Marle. They are staying at the notorious Brimstone Club, a gentleman’s club where past members have been reputed not to behave like gentlemen. Anyone can become a member so long as they can afford the fees, and it has seen more than its fair share of shady characters cross its Gothic-like threshold. Bencolin’s old friend Sir John Landervorne, once of Scotland Yard and now retired, lives at the club, and it’s he who tells Bencolin and Marle of the strange occurrence that sets them all on the trail of a murderer who calls himself “Jack Ketch”, a nickname commonly used for the public hangman. One night, lost in a London fog, a young man saw the shadow of a gallows reflected on a wall, and a man climbing the stairs towards the noose. Later that evening, Bencolin and his friends themselves witness something even stranger – a car being driven by a corpse…

This is the third book in Carr’s Bencolin series. (I think – the last one was also billed as the third but is now being called the second, so there’s an extra mystery that remains unsolved! It doesn’t matter though, they all stand alone.) Written when Carr was very young, each of the three I’ve read have a strong horror element to go along with Carr’s trademark “impossible” crime. Bencolin himself is a darkly mysterious detective, brilliant but rather cold. The only things he shows any passion about are catching his villain, and proving his superiority to all other detectives. Marle acts as his unofficial sidekick and narrator of the stories.

Carr makes excellent use of the London fog in this one, and all the stuff about gallows and hangmen is beautifully chilling, especially since the book is set back in the days when hanging was still the punishment for murder. And it soon transpires that Jack Ketch may be seeking revenge for a crime that has gone unpunished by the law. The victim of Jack Ketch’s scheme is an Egyptian, also a member of the Brimstone, who is being terrorised by a series of strange items turning up in his rooms or arriving through the mail – all things that seem to mean something to him and have him fearing for his life. And then he disappears! It’s up to Bencolin to find out the real identity of Jack Ketch before any more murders are done.

John Dickson Carr

I must admit I was a good way into this before I could get my head round the plot at all – there seem to be an awful lot of people and lots of apparently unconnected incidents at first. But it all begins to come together about halfway through, and then moves into a spookily thrilling ending, full of Gothic horrors and an almost, but not quite, supernatural feel to it. I didn’t find the “how” aspects of this one quite as mysterious as usual – I had a reasonably good idea of most of it well before the end – and the motive is never really hidden. But I admit to being totally blind-sided by the “whodunit” solution. I was so sure it was …….. but it turned out it was actually……..! Who’d have guessed?! In truth, I think the rather lacklustre characterisation of everyone except Bencolin and Marle made the guessing quite difficult – this is much more of a puzzle than a character-driven story. When Bencolin explains it all at the end, though, I had to admit it had been fair-play – the clues were all there for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them.

Another entertaining entry in this series, though not perhaps my favourite. The book has the added bonus of a Bencolin short story, The Ends of Justice, which is another “impossible” crime – a distinctly unlikely one, I felt, but that didn’t prevent me enjoying it!

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

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A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

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What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

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The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Bleak realism…

😀 😀 😀

Hugh Bennett is a young reporter, working on a provincial newspaper covering all the small-town stories. On Guy Fawkes night, he is sent to cover the annual bonfire in the village of Far Wether. But there’s been trouble in Far Wether recently, when a gang of youths caused a disturbance at a local dance and were roughly ejected by a local resident, James Corby. During the bonfire the youths return and, in the darkness, Corby is killed. There are plenty of witnesses, but none who can swear to having seen the actual stabbing. The police have to make sense of the conflicting reports, but eventually, after interviewing the members of the gang intensively, they build up a case against “King” Garney, the leader of the gang, and his faithful follower, Leslie Gardner. The evidence, especially in the case of Gardner, is pretty circumstantial, and one of the big national newspapers decides to pay for his defence…

This is well written and very believable, with a good deal to say about the alienation of youth and the psychology of young men who get caught up in gangs. Hugh knows Leslie’s sister, Jill, and is in the process of falling in love with her, so he finds himself becoming personally as well as professionally involved in the case and, having been at the bonfire, he is also a witness. Symons gives what feels like an authentic portrayal of the life of a reporter on a local paper, covering relatively trivial stories and dreaming of making the big-time on one of the national newspapers. Hugh finds himself working with Frank Fairfield, a major crime reporter from one of those nationals, a man with a reputation for good investigative journalism, but who has an obvious drink problem.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. The sordid type of crime and the array of unlikeable characters meant that I didn’t much care whether Gardner was guilty or innocent. First published in 1960, Symons concentrates on gritty realism and social issues, at the expense, in my opinion, of mystery and entertainment. The introduction by Martin Edwards tells us that Symons was inspired by a real crime and I rarely find real crime as enjoyable as imagined crime. However that’s a subjective opinion – many other readers will probably appreciate the emphasis on realism. The moral, upstanding Golden Age policeman has given way to the bullying, violent type who always leave me wondering whether they’re actually any better than the criminals. It may be a more accurate portrayal of the policing of that era, but again it meant I couldn’t find myself fully on the side of “law and order”.

Julian Symons

The latter part of the book covers the trial of the two youths, and this is the best part, with all the traditional surprises being sprung by the defence barrister, while the equally competent prosecutor smoothly responds. Gardner’s family is well developed too, so that we see the tensions among them even before the trial, with young Leslie and his father at loggerheads and Jill, the daughter of the family, trying to mediate. But again I found them all unpleasant people to spend time with, even Jill, whom I suspect we were supposed to like. For Hugh, it’s a bit of a coming-of-age story, as his youthful idealism about journalism takes some serious knocks as he sees the lack of compassion the top reporters have for those caught up in their stories.

So I appreciated the feeling of authenticity Symons manages to create, and am sure this will appeal to people who like their crime fiction to have an air of realism. But for me it was too bleak a read, lacking any elements of warmth or humour to lift the tone.

The book also includes a short story, The Tigers of Subtopia, again about disaffected youth and the reaction of a man who usually thinks of himself as liberal when he feels his own family under threat. I felt much the same about this as about the novel – very well done, authentic and realistic, but too bleak for me.

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

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A Cavalcade of Criminals…

…and a Diversity of Detectives…

Having become addicted to the British Library Crime Classics series quite early on, and being lucky enough to receive review copies of most of the new ones, I’ve read a considerable number of them now, and fully intend to backtrack at some point and fill in the gaps. Now that there are so many of them, I’ve heard one or two people say they’d like to read some but don’t quite know where to begin. So I thought I’d put together a little list of my top ten recommendations. This is an entirely subjective choice – I’m sure everyone’s list would be different – but these are all ones that I loved and that stand out from the crowd in some way, and I’ve selected them to give an idea of the many styles that exist in a genre that we often tend to think of, wrongly, as formulaic.

I could have filled all ten slots with just a couple of authors who’ve become firm favourites now, such as ECR Lorac or George Bellairs, but I decided instead to limit myself to one book per author. And to keep the post to a reasonable length, I’m not providing full blurbs – clicking on any title or book cover that intrigues you will take you to my full review of the book. They are in no particular order – picking an overall favourite would be impossible. Here goes…

The Body in the Dumb River
by George Bellairs

Inspector Littlejohn had a long-running career and this is from the middle of the series, from 1961. I loved the twin settings in the book – the flooded fenlands and a working-class Yorkshire town. The characterisations are very good, as is the observation of our class-ridden society with all its prejudices and snobberies. In style, it’s a police procedural, and Littlejohn and his sidekick Cromwell are a likeable pair.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case
by Anthony Berkeley

Berkeley was a stalwart of the detective novel, but in this one he is having some light-hearted fun at the expense of his fellow novelists. A group of amateur ‘tecs have a go at solving the same crime from the same clues, showing how each clue can be interpreted differently and lead to a variety of equally credible solutions. Humour is the main aim, but there’s a good mystery beneath it, and it seems to have become a tradition for other authors to add their own solution – the BL edition contains Martin Edwards’ own attempt.

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

A twofer! Previously I hadn’t rated John Bude as highly as many other readers, but these two changed my mind and shoved him straight onto my favourites list. The first is set in a country house, amidst a company of theatricals, while the second has the traditional village setting, where everyone knows each other’s business, or thinks they do! Lots of humour, some darker elements and excellent mysteries – highly entertaining.

It Walks By Night
by John Dickson Carr

A madman is on the loose and threatening to murder his ex-wife before she can remarry! This has some wonderfully creepy scenes alongside a rather less credible mystery plot, and seemed to me to draw as much on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age. The writing is great, and Carr creates at times an almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. Spooked me good and proper, it did!

Death in Captivity
by Michael Gilbert

All three of the Gilbert books the BL has so far republished are excellent and could have made this list. They’re all very different from each other, and I’ve chosen this one because the setting is so unique and so well done – the mystery takes place among the inmates in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy during WW2. As well as a traditional murder plot, it has a side plot involving an escape attempt, which I actually enjoyed as much, if not more, than the mystery itself.

The Murder of My Aunt
by Richard Hull

We follow the awful Edward as he plots to murder his equally awful aunt. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. The writing is fantastic, and it’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. And it’s also hilarious!

Murder by Matchlight
by ECR Lorac

Lorac remains the star of the show for me, despite stiff competition. I’m clearly not alone in my admiration, since the BL has now republished more of her books than any other author, I think, and they’re all well worth reading. It’s her creation of entirely authentic settings that makes her stand out, and her wartime settings in particular are excellently done. This one makes full use of the Blitz and the blackout both as part of the plot itself, and also to create a very credible picture of plucky London keeping calm and carrying on.

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
by Gil North

Written somewhat later, in the ‘60s, the Sergeant Cluff books feel more modern than most of the others – a kind of bridge to the grittier crime fiction of today. The story is darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. The writing style takes a bit of getting used to, but his depictions of both his grim northern town and the wild isolated moors that surround it are great, creating a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror towards the end.

Verdict of Twelve
by Raymond Postgate

This one is considered a classic, and with good reason. It has three distinct parts. First we meet each member of a jury and learn about the attitudes and experiences they will bring to their judgement. Only then do we learn about the crime and who’s on trial. And then we see the jury deliberate and come to their decision. The jurors’ stories form a kind of microcosm of society, and cover some unexpected topics for the time, such as homosexuality (still criminalised) and child abuse, although in a more understated way than the often too graphic portrayals in contemporary crime.

The Belting Inheritance
by Julian Symons

Another later one, from 1965, this reads more like the books of Ruth Rendell or PD James than the Golden Age writers. It’s not a traditional whodunit – more of a psychological and social study of the characters, set at a time when society was on the cusp of major changes. It’s an interesting insight into the growing egalitarianism of the post-war period, as the uppity proles began to think maybe they were just as good as the privileged blue-bloods after all. I feel it crosses over into literary fiction, with our old friend “the human condition” taking precedence over the mystery aspect, and the writing is excellent.

* * * * *

So there they are – my Top Ten (or eleven if you count the twofer as two!). Have you read any of them? Are there others you feel should be included? Or if you haven’t tried any vintage crime yet, have I tempted you with any of these?

Have a Great Friday! 😀

Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…

This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.

Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.

Margot Bennett

The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.

Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.

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

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The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The prestigious old firm of Shentall’s Potteries has a problem – it seems someone may be leaking its designs, allowing counterfeiters to flood the market with cheap copies. The current head of the firm, Luke Shentall, has his suspicions of who is guilty, so calls in a private investigator to find proof, or alternatively to prove someone else is the culprit. It’s the investigator, Nicholson, who tells us the story, and he starts in the middle with the discovery of a body in the ark, a vault in which the liquid clay is stored…

This is a very different take on the traditional detective story. The narration gives it something of the style of the noir first-person private eye stories of the US, but without the true noir feel. Nicholson (we never learn his first name) is indeed a man with his own sorrows, somewhat world-weary but still with the ability to believe in the good in people. The other characters however are all fundamentally decent even if they each have their flaws, so that the effectiveness of the story comes from the fact that quite soon neither Nicholson nor the reader really wants any of them to be the guilty party. And especially we want Corinna Wakefield, Luke’s suspect, to be innocent – the reader because she quickly gains our sympathy and liking; Nicholson because he increasingly finds himself developing a deep attraction to her.

The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime. Kelly paints a full and affectionate portrait of the landscape and culture of the Staffordshire area and its traditional pottery industry, showing how the old methods and family-run businesses are gradually giving way to newer techniques, more cost efficient, perhaps, and certainly cleaner than the old coal-fired kilns, but also more impersonal. Shentall’s is one of the old firms, and while Luke has introduced up-to-date machinery and equipment, he works hard to retain the traditional atmosphere and values of this being a family concern – not just his own family, but his employees also passing their skills down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. This is partly why his suspicions have fallen on Corinna – as a talented designer, she has been brought in from the outside, and Luke can’t bring himself to believe that his long-term employees, many of whom worked for his father and even his grandfather before him, could betray the firm.

Kelly shows the soot-blackened buildings, the constantly-burning furnaces that can be seen from the older coal-fired kilns day and night, the pit, known as Etruria, where Wedgwood’s factory once stood, now the site of an iron works. These could easily be made visions of an industrial hell, but Kelly shows them as having a kind of dark beauty and as the beating heart of this community whose existence is inextricably linked with the potteries that provide their pay and their purpose.

I stared down into the pit, at the black buildings silhouetted against the flushed sky, buildings, some of them, flickering within, as if a river of liquid gold were rolling through them. Clouds of steam and smoke drifted across the shadowy vale, rosy steam, lit from the fires below. There was a continuous hollow rushing sound, broken by clanks of shunting. An engine, raised on a bank, black and red, like a slide, moved slowly backwards and forwards. The whole pit seemed to breathe as it worked; for though it was past midnight on Saturday, and the Newcastle neighbours’ windows were dark, naked lights on gantries and signals glittered all over Etruria.

Mary Kelly

The plot is divided into three sections: the first, a short one describing the finding of the body, though we aren’t given the victim’s identity at this early stage; then two long sections, one set before the finding of the body and one after. Because of the more literary, descriptive prose style it took me a little longer than usual to settle in, but once I had I became completely involved in the slow playing out of the story and in the characters that Kelly creates so well – not just the main players, but the other members of the staff and workers of the pottery, each of whom has their own part to play. The mystery is rather secondary to Nicholson’s growing dilemma – his distaste for the job grows as his feelings for Corinna deepen, and his initial pretence of befriending her so he can get close to her feels sordid now that he discovers he would like to be more than her friend. But he’s a hired hand and must do his best for Luke, and it seems more and more that, innocent or guilty, Corinna is at the heart of the mystery.

I thought this was great, and the ending, when it came, arose perfectly from the characterisation and motivations Kelly had so carefully and subtly built throughout. Shall I admit that it actually made me cry, just a little? Not a thing that happens often, especially in crime novels. A travesty that this one should ever have been allowed to become “forgotten” – Martin Edwards refers to it as her “masterpiece” and for once that word seems perfectly chosen to me.

Book 10 of 20

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Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Simply not cricket!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

The 1930 Oxford Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double the pleasure…

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

Death in White Pyjamas

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Death Knows No Calendar

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Gothic mystery on the Rhine…

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Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. When his body is examined it transpires he had been shot before having kerosene poured over him and being set alight. Castle Skull belonged to the famous stage magician Maleger, whose own death many years earlier was somewhat mysterious – he disappeared from the carriage of a train in motion and was found in a river below the tracks. Did he fall or was he pushed? Or did he jump? He bequeathed the spooky Castle Skull jointly to his friends, D’Aunay and the actor Myron Alison and it has been empty except for an old caretaker ever since. Situated on the other side of the Rhine from Alison’s own house, the castle is built in the shape of a death’s-head gazing out over the river, windows placed to look like eyes, and the battlements resembling the teeth of the skull. But why was Alison there, and who killed him? D’Aunay doesn’t have faith in the local police, hence his request to the famous Parisian detective. But the local police have also called in an expert – von Arnheim of the German police, an old adversary of Bencolin’s when they were on opposite sides during the war…

The story is told by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s young American friend who acts as his sidekick. When they arrive at Alison’s house, they find an assorted bunch of people in residence – Alison’s hearty poker-playing sister Agatha, concert violinist Émile Levasseur, modern youngsters Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan who may or may not be in love, and D’Aunay and his beautiful but unhappy wife Isobel. Bencolin and von Arnheim are soon in more or less friendly competition to find the solution to the mystery, but there’s never any doubt in Jeff’s or the reader’s mind as to who will win out in the end. After all, it’s 1931 and we couldn’t have the German win, now could we?

This is the third book in the Bencolin and Marle series, written when Carr was a young man still learning his craft. Like the first, It Walks by Night, this is as much horror as mystery, although the decadence of It Walks by Night has given way to a rather more Gothic feel in this one. There is the same almost hallucinatory air to some passages, brought on by the constant consumption of vast quantities of alcohol – there’s almost a “lost generation” feel, especially to the younger characters: Sally, Dunstan and Jeff himself. Bencolin is frequently described as Mephistophelian, both in his appearance and in his almost supernatural ability to intuit the truth. Maleger’s magic was of the scary kind – Jeff saw him once when he was a boy and found his act terrifying – and it appears he liked to be just as mysterious and frightening off-stage. And the castle itself is the ultimate in Gothic – ancient, deserted, filled with hidden passages and secret chambers, and deliciously spooky.

John Dickson Carr

The plot veers into high melodrama – perhaps a little too high. I felt at points that Carr was trying too hard, piling horror on grisly horror, with a Poe-esque feel of madness underlying the whole thing. However, it’s very effective and the evil motivating the plot matches the wonderful setting of the castle perfectly, as it gradually builds towards a tense and atmospheric climax with some truly horrifying imagery. Jeff is an appealing narrator who gets involved with the characters rather than simply observing Bencolin’s methods. I didn’t get anywhere close to working it out – looking back perhaps it’s fair play, but I reckon you’d have to have a pretty fiendish mind to solve it from the clues given. Fortunately, Bencolin has just such a fiendish mind…

Marginally, I preferred It Walks by Night, but both are excellent, and in both the horror aspects arise out of purely human evil – no supernatural elements required. I don’t know whether Carr continued with the horror theme in his later work or went down a more traditional mystery route, but the strength of his writing and plotting suggests to me that he could have done either with equal success. I’m looking forward to finding out…

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

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

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

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

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

George Bellairs

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

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

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

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The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

The clue’s in the clue…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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