Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Michael Gilbert

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

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

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

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

A twofer…

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

The Dead Shall Be Raised

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

* * * * *

The Murder of a Quack

😀 😀 😀 😀

George Bellairs

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

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

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

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

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

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

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

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

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

Julian Symons

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

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

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The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

Up the Gunners!

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Top football team Arsenal is playing a friendly against the Trojans – an amateur team who have been on an amazing winning streak and are thrilled to be taking on the professionals. The ground is jam-packed – seventy thousand spectators have crammed themselves onto the terraces, mostly Arsenal fans but plenty hoping the Trojans will play well and provide an exciting match. But shortly into the second half, the Trojans’ newest player, right-half John Doyce, collapses and has to be carried off the field. The game continues, with neither players nor crowd knowing that in the treatment room a desperate battle is being carried on to save Doyce’s life. By the time the final whistle is blown, the battle has been lost…

In a lot of ways, this is a standard murder mystery with a Scotland Yard Inspector as detective. But what makes it unique is that it’s set amid the real Arsenal team of its time of writing – 1939 – and the actual players and manager appear in the book. Gribble has also had access to behind the scenes at the stadium, and provides what feels like an authentic picture of what it would have been like playing or working for a top club back then, in the days when even professional sides still had players who had “real” jobs as well as their sporting careers.

I’m not a big football fan, but it’s impossible to be British and not have a reasonable knowledge of the game, and I enjoyed the look back at a time when boys wanted to play for their local teams for the glory of the game, rather than to become fabulously wealthy celebrities with their own clothing label and drug habit – back when sportspeople were actually sporting. It also brought back memories of how terrifying exhilarating it was to be packed like sardines in an overfull stadium, the vast majority of people standing on the terraces with only the posh folk sitting in the stands (yeah, strange terminology, I know), and the horror excitement of the massive surge forward when your team scored. Those days are gone – the major disasters of the seventies and eighties pushed stadiums to become all-seater, so younger fans won’t ever have had that experience – I don’t know whether that makes them lucky or unlucky, to be honest.

Fortunately, however, the book gets out of the football stadium before my reminiscences turned to boredom, and the plot revolves around the personal lives of the players rather than their sporting careers. Unsurprisingly, Gribble’s victim is one of the fictional Trojan players, and the real players and staff at Arsenal play only minor roles. I think it’s also safe to say that the real people can be discounted as suspects! Doyce was an unpleasant chap with a reputation as a womaniser and had given several of his team-mates and the staff of the Trojans cause to dislike him. He’d only joined the club a week earlier, but several of them had played together before in another team, and another of the Trojans was his business partner. So there’s a good pool of suspects and some intriguing motives for Inspector Slade and Sergeant Clinton to investigate.

Inspector Slade is professional in his approach, but is helped along by his almost superhuman ability to make wild guesses that turn out to be correct. A couple of these were pretty ridiculous, in truth, and I felt they let the plotting down badly – with a little more work Gribble could have made these leaps a result of investigation rather than miraculous-level intuition. Otherwise, the plotting is pretty good, especially in the motivation, and on the whole I liked the characterisation although for the most part it’s not very in-depth. I debated whether it’s “fair-play” – in the introduction, Martin Edwards describes it that way – but I’m not wholly convinced. The explanation when it comes could have applied to several of the suspects – the vital piece of information that identifies the murderer wasn’t available to the reader. There are also odd plot holes, like people being married without their friends and colleagues knowing and people being engaged but no-one knowing to whom. Necessary for the plot to work, but unlikely…

Leonard Gribble

Overall then, I enjoyed this without being entirely convinced by the plotting. The evocative and well-written descriptions of attending a football match back in the days when it was a major weekly occasion in the lives of so much of working-class Britain – of doing the football “pools”, of trying to find out the results of rival matches once the game was over, of seventy thousand people all wending their way homewards very slowly on overcrowded buses and trains – entertained me far more than I anticipated, and I suspect would appeal even more to die-hard football fans (especially ones of a certain age). A walk down memory lane… and, as with so much vintage crime, fun as much for what it shows us about society as for the actual mystery element.

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

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The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Marry in haste…

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When John Wilkins realises married life with his wife May isn’t living up to his expectations, he begins to fantasise about another young woman he’s met, his local librarian, Sheila. The first half of the book is taken up with John telling his story to a psychiatrist. In the second half, we are shown a murder trial. We, like the jury, have to decide whether the evidence against John stacks up, or have the defence put up strong enough counter arguments? The book doesn’t reveal who the victim is till quite late on, so I won’t either.

I do feel modern crime fiction suffers terribly from our increasingly lax laws and social order! This plot works because John is trapped in his marriage, at a time when divorce could only be obtained by mutual consent or by proving the other party at fault. May might be a dull wife, but she’s a perfect one, and since she declares she loves John, she’s not willing to countenance the idea of divorce. Sheila, on the other hand, might be a dreadful flirt but, in line with the times, this doesn’t mean she’s sexually promiscuous, to John’s great disappointment.

John is a deeply unlikeable character – narcissistic and selfish, spoiled by his doting mother, but also insecure, suspecting the motives of those around him. He’s convinced, for example, that it’s not him May loves, as much as the respectable house he provides for her. He could be right about that – she’s an aspiring social climber, though her ambitions are for John as much as herself. There’s no doubt he’s abusive towards her, emotionally and occasionally physically. And though we are hearing the story from John’s perspective, it’s clear that there are times when she’s rather scared of him.

John is a troubled man, who has blackouts whenever he drinks. It’s left rather ambiguous as to whether this is because he drinks to excess or whether it’s some kind of unfortunate reaction, meaning that it’s difficult to decide whether he deserves any sympathy for it. But there are periods, sometimes lengthy, when he can’t remember what he did or where he went, and as his emotional state grows more fragile, these episodes are becoming more frequent. So when he declares he can’t remember what happened on the night of the murder, there’s a good chance he’s being truthful. It’s up to the detective hired by his loving mother to try to find out what he was doing over the relevant time.

Julian Symons

Despite the unlikeableness of the main character, I enjoyed this one, for lots of different reasons. Symons does an excellent job of maintaining John’s voice in the first section, as he recounts his life experiences. Although his fantasies can be dark, he’s quite self-aware, and so there’s some self-deprecating and observational humour along the way. The trial section is done well, feeling quite authentic without becoming bogged down in too much detail. And I also liked the light the book casts on the society of the time. First published in 1957, it’s later than true Golden Age, and feels very much on the cusp of the change to the “modern” world of the ‘60s and beyond. Partly this is because of the social questions over divorce, at that time coming under pressure for change, and partly it’s because of the introduction of psychiatry into the story, and the examination of John’s culpability if he’s proven guilty. It also shows the worlds of work and marriage, and the beginnings of the more aspirational, socially mobile society of the second half of the century. All of this is done lightly, though, so that it doesn’t drag the story-telling down.

In the end, the way the plot played out didn’t have the impact on me that I felt was intended, though to be fair, that could well be that what was original back then feels a little too familiar now – often a problem with reading early novels that have influenced later writers. But I happily recommend it as an intelligent, enjoyable and well written psychological thriller, that has stood up very well to the test of time. My first introduction to Julian Symons, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

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

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

Henry Cargate has offended just about everyone who has had anything to do with him, so when he takes a huge pinch of snuff unaware it’s been laced with potassium cyanide and dies, really anyone could be a suspect. But a person has been charged with the crime and is now about to be tried. As the lawyer for the prosecution lays out the investigation and evidence for the jury, the reader is invited to tag along. But unlike the jury, the reader is not told the identity of the accused until the end.

This is a rather fun conceit, where most of the story is therefore told in flashback through the eyes of the various people called to give evidence at the trial. Although the whole world had a motive (if being deeply unpleasant is a good enough reason to be murdered, that is), the poison that was mixed with the snuff was only accessible at certain very limited times in Cargate’s own study, so the actual pool of suspects is quite limited.

I’ve had a great run with these British Library Crime Classics recently, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I hoped. I’d read and loved Hull’s other entry, The Murder of My Aunt, so had high expectations for this one. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the book. It’s just that it depends almost entirely on timing and alibis to discover who could have had access to the poison, and that’s never my favourite kind of crime book. I know loads of people love to try to beat the detective in this kind of puzzle, but my tastes don’t run in that direction. I prefer books that concentrate on characterisation and motives rather than on means and opportunity. I’m afraid as the detective began to make lists of who could have been in a corridor at a specific four-minute period, or calculate whether it would be possible for someone to be seen from a certain angle through a door and so on, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know, but what was worse, I didn’t care. I eventually began to skip whole pages, though I tuned in again in time for the solution and the rather enjoyable twist in the tail.

Richard Hull

This is very definitely a subjective criticism – a case of wrong reader, wrong book. The quality of the writing is good, there are enough touches of humour to make it entertaining rather than grim and I’m pretty sure all the alibi stuff is very clever. So if that’s the type of puzzle that intrigues you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book far more than I did. But sadly, not my cup of tea.

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

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

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It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! But no-one else is in the room, no-one left by the door after the shot was fired and there’s no other exit. Suicide is soon discounted, so how was he killed? Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated by all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures in this ancient seat of government. It was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the earliest women Members of Parliament, who had temporarily lost her seat. She got back into Parliament at the next election – a gain for politics, but a loss to the world of crime fiction, since this turned out to be the only crime novel she wrote. She gives an entirely authentic, affectionate, but humorously sardonic look at being a working-class woman in an institution still often referred to as the best Gentlemen’s Club in England. The female MP in the story, Grace Richards, isn’t the main character but she provides lots of opportunities for Wilkinson to mock some of the rampant sexism to which women MPs were subjected, and Martin Edwards confirms in his introduction what I suspected while reading – that Grace is a thinly-disguised version of Wilkinson herself.

The main character, however, is Robert West, an extremely likeable young man who wants to do his duty to his party and country, but is fairly easily distracted by a beautiful face. The granddaughter of the dead financier just happens to have a beautiful face, so Robert soon finds his loyalties divided when she asks him for information he should really be keeping secret. The first question the police have to resolve is: was this murder personal or was it politically motivated? But even if they find the answer to that they still won’t be able to prove anything unless they can work out how the murder was done. It’s a good example of a locked room mystery, though it’s dependent on the various investigators not trying very hard to solve it until the last chapter! The plot is pleasingly tricky without being impossible for the reader to make a good stab at guessing the culprit and motive.

Challenge details:
Book: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

The two enjoyable characters of Robert and Grace make this fun to read, especially since the victim was a mean old banker so nobody much cares that he’s dead. Even his granddaughter is pretty stoical about the whole thing. One of the reasons I love Golden Age crime is that they tended not to make the reader wallow too deeply in grief for the victims, so that one can actually enjoy the books. What makes this one stand out from the crowd, though, is the way Wilkinson manages to tell us so much about the workings of Parliament without getting heavily bogged down in politics, though she does make enough references to give the reader an informed glimpse of the various concerns of the day, economically and socially, at a time when society was changing pretty dramatically, not least for women. I found it intriguing and amusing that, although she herself was a Labour MP (hence on the left), Robert is a Conservative (on the right). She rather cheekily lets us see his opinions being swayed by fiery young socialist Grace – whose face, while not as beautiful as the victim’s granddaughter’s, is beautiful enough to trouble the susceptible Robert…

Ellen Wilkinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it not just as a good mystery, but as an entertaining way to get an insider’s account of the life of early women MPs. Wilkinson went on to play a prominent role in the Jarrow March – a piece of history that eventually fed into huge social change in Britain – so most of me is glad she resumed her political career. But a bit of me wishes she’d chucked it all up and written more books instead…

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

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Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Murder on the Home Front…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Councillor Grayling is an unpleasant man, meaning that plenty of people would be quite happy to see him got out of the way. One evening he turns up at his own door seriously ill and later that night he dies. When the autopsy is carried out, it becomes clear he was poisoned by mustard gas. Suspicion falls on the people he most recently spent time with – his fellow travellers in the carriage of the train he took home from work, each of whom may have had a motive to do away with him. It’s up to Inspector Holly to discover which of them did it, and how…

In Verdict of Twelve, Postgate told the stories of the various jurors who were to serve on a murder trial, showing how their own lives and experiences impacted on the decision they would finally reach. In this one, he adopts a similar approach by telling each of the stories of the train travellers, showing how their lives crossed with Councillor Grayling’s. The result is that the book reads almost like a collection of linked short stories and some of them are excellent in their own right.

First published in 1943, the book is set in the winter of 1942, when WW2 was at its height and Britain was shrouded in the darkness of the blackout. A couple of the stories relate directly to wartime experiences, not to mention the mustard gas being used as the weapon. The others are less directly connected but still give a fascinating picture of life on the Home Front. Postgate’s descriptive writing is first-class, with the ability to conjure an atmosphere or a scene or a character so that they feel entirely real. Some of the characterisation is brilliant, creating people we feel sorry for, or hate, or despise.

I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories, since the joy is in seeing them develop, so I’ll try to give just a brief idea of them. The first tells of a young man who gets a girl pregnant – this at a time when such a thing was still scandalous and when abortion was illegal. He’s a deeply unpleasant character, but Postgate makes the study of his psychology compelling. This is a dark and disturbing story, and very well told. As is the next one, which tells the story of a Corporal in the Home Guard. Postgate takes us through his life story, and uses it to look bitterly at the class divisions of Britain between the wars. Postgate was himself a socialist, and his political leanings show through clearly here. It’s a story of a fall and a redemption, and paints a frightening picture of wartime London in the blackout, with the constant threat of bombing. I was totally involved in the Corporal’s story and so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Next we are taken into the world of Nazi Germany as we witness the attempt to smuggle a man out of Berlin. This is a great short story, utterly absorbing in its depiction of Berlin in 1938 as a place of growing fear and suspicion, followed by the extreme tension of the journey. It also provides a look at the way German refugees were treated in Britain during the war, often feared as being part of the Fifth Column, resulting in them being objects of suspicion and resentment and in strict curtailment of their liberties. Fabulous stuff that had me on the edge of my seat! I so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Unfortunately the final story isn’t up to the same standard. It tells at too great length of a somewhat mundane love affair between two people who each failed to get my sympathy. The man works for a publisher, so Postgate takes the chance to include a lot of self-indulgent stuff about writers and publishing – a subject that is endlessly fascinating to some writers but perhaps less so to many readers. However, even here Postgate lifts an unremarkable episode by taking our lovers to Paris just before the occupation, and shows his usual skill in drawing a fascinating picture of a place at a particular point in time.

Raymond Postgate

This last section did undoubtedly pull the book down for me, and I intended to give it four stars. However, writing the review has reminded me just how good the other stories are, and they more than made up for my mild disappointment with the lovers. The main story is actually somewhat secondary to the suspects’ own stories, but Postgate wraps it up well. The overall effect is dark and rather bleak, and as a result suits its wartime setting perfectly. Postgate has been a real find for me through the British Library Crime Classics. I get the impression he didn’t write a huge number of crime novels, but I do hope they manage to find at least one or two more. And I highly recommend this one for the quality of the stories within the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, the British Library and Poisoned Pen Press (for the Kindle version).

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.

What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.

I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.

The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.

When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

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Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. 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. 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. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

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

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

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

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

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Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

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

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Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

The Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is another in the British Library’s series of anthologies of vintage crime stories edited by Martin Edwards. This time, the focus is on Continental Europe as the authors take us to casinos in Monte Carlo, catacombs in Rome, castles on the Rhine, in search of the usual murder, mystery and mayhem. To be clear, this is British authors visiting the Continent – I believe there’s a new anthology coming along soon containing stories by non-Brits translated into English, some for the first time, which should be fun.

I found this collection quite variable in quality. Although there were certainly enough 4 and 5 star stories to keep me entertained, there were also several stories that didn’t quite cut it as far as I’m concerned. Partly this is to do with the settings – I freely admit I prefer the traditional English manor house or village, or the foggy streets of London, as the setting for my vintage crime fix. But also it’s because sometimes I felt the setting wasn’t really brought to life terribly well, or there was a touch too much of that British condescension towards all foreigners.

Oddly there were also a couple of stories where the attitude towards (lower-class) women goes well over the out-dated line towards outright misogyny – not a thing I’m normally aware of in vintage crime. Something about going abroad seems to bring out the worst in Brits, I think! I hasten to add that one of these stories was written by a woman, Josephine Bell, who clearly felt that her young female murder victim had brought her fate on herself by her unladylike behaviour in pursuing a man – it actually contains the line “She was asking for it!” The other one was by Michael Gilbert who rounds his story off with the equally astonishing line: “Many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating.” Well, Mr Gilbert, should you ever propose to me, I’ll be sure to give you a sound thrashing before I reply…

There’s also plenty of good stuff, though. There’s the usual mix of well known and more obscure names among the authors, and a nice mix of crimes, from ‘impossible’ mysteries to revenge murders, blackmail, theft, greed and even the occasional haunting. Here’s a little selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most…

The New Catacomb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I know I nearly always select the Conan Doyle story, but that’s because he’s such a great storyteller. This one is a lovely little revenge tale which climaxes in a catacomb in Rome. An interesting story well told, and with some effective touches of horror – make sure you don’t read it if there’s any danger of a power outage…

* * * * *

A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett – While Kitty is showing her new expensive bracelet to another woman, it somehow gets dropped into a canal in Bruges and is lost. Or is it? This is more of a howdunit with a neat solution and has a rather charming little romance thrown in. But the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it reminded me of the sheer quality of Arnold Bennett’s writing – an author I loved when I was young, though for his fiction rather than crime, and had more or less completely forgotten. Must revisit him!

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.

* * * * *

The Room in the Tower by J Jefferson Farjeon – our narrator, a writer, goes to stay in a castle on the Rhine looking for inspiration and atmosphere for his book. Perhaps he gets more atmosphere than he anticipated though when he gets lost in the gloomy corridors and ends up in the haunted tower. The story in this one is a bit weird but Farjeon builds up the tension well and there are some genuinely spooky moments.

* * * * *

So even though this isn’t my favourite of these anthologies, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the Agatha Christie story…

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

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Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

In the bleak midwinter…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Every Christmas, the Gray family gather at the home of their elderly father, Adrian Gray – a rather unpleasant, miserly sort of man who has produced an equally unpleasant bunch of children on the whole. This Christmas, in 1931, only a couple of the children are there out of any feelings of affection – most are trying to screw money out of the old man.

There’s Richard, a politician who desperately wants a title, but feels he needs to put on a show of wealth to impress the people who could grant his wish. Eustace is a son-in-law, married to Adrian’s daughter Olivia – a dodgy financier, his whole reputation is on the line if he doesn’t manage to raise a substantial sum of money urgently. Brand is the most wayward of them all, having run off in his youth to try his hand at being an artist. Despite his talent, he’s now working as a low-paid clerk and wants money so he can take off back to Paris to try to revive his career as a painter. Daughter Amy has never left home and has to find ways to run the house on the meagre allowance her rich father allows her. Isobel is home again after her marriage failed – she seems to have faded into a ghostlike presence, but are there passions burning beneath? Only Ruth seems happy, married to a man who seems quite content with what he’s got and wants nothing from the old man. As Christmas Eve fades into Christmas Day, one of these people will murder Adrian…

In fact, we find out quite early on who murders Adrian and why. This is an “inverted mystery” where the bulk of the story rests on whether and how the murderer will be caught. It’s also a psychological study of the murderer and of all the other people in the house. Most of the book is in the third person, but we are allowed inside the murderer’s head as the crime is committed and as s/he attempts to cover his/her traces – and it’s a scary place to be. This murderer has a philosophy of life that puts little value on anything except the achievement of her/his desires – and the death of his/her father is a small price to pay. But s/he doesn’t want to pay the larger price of being caught and punished, so s/he’s more than willing to sacrifice another family member to the inevitable meeting with the hangman.

Well, I think that’s more than enough his/hers and he/shes for one review, so I’ll leave you to find out the rest of the plot by reading the book. However, the story also has a lot to say about the society of the time, some of it intentional and some perhaps more inadvertent. The Gray family were once landowners but the old gentry are fading now and they have gradually had to sell most of their land. Meredith strongly suggests a matching moral decay in the gentry class – in the Grays specifically, but one feels she’s making a wider point. Through Eustace, the financier, we see the rise of the new rich and their morals don’t seem much better. Unfortunately Eustace is also the subject of a rather unpleasant undertone of anti-Semitism – not unusual for the time, of course, but somehow it seems a little worse than usual in this one, with several glancing but rather offensive references to physical as well as moral deficiencies. Richard is the social climber, and his story also shows the subtle ways men could be cruel to their wives in the days when divorce was still scandalous. To be fair, though Eustace comes off worst, none of Meredith’s characters are shown in a wholly shining light.

Challenge details
Book No: 78

Subject Heading: Inverted Mysteries
Publication Year: 1933

There’s quite a lot of moral ambiguity in how the story plays out and again I felt only some of this was intentional, while the rest felt like Meredith’s own prejudices peeping through. But that doesn’t make it any the less absorbing – after a slowish start when I wondered whether it would grab me, I found myself increasingly reluctant to put the book down. It’s not really because of any great suspense – it’s relatively obvious what direction the story will take. But the interest is in the slow reveal of the mind of the murderer and in the attitudes of the other characters towards him/her and each other. There’s no excess padding here and no reliance on dramatic, incredible twists. Instead, there’s excellent writing and a believable study of a mind that may not follow normal conventions but has a kind of compelling logic of its own. And the deliberate unpleasantness of both the victim and the person the murderer chooses to take the rap means there’s a kind of debate as to whether the murderer is actually the worst of them in moral terms. Fascinating stuff – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

* * * * *

The book itself is lovely – a special hardback edition to celebrate this being the 50th in the British Library’s Crime Classic series, and this year’s Christmas issue. As well as the usual informative introduction from Martin Edwards, it also contains an interesting short essay from him on the history of Christmas related crime fiction. It’s the perfect Christmas gift for the crime fan in your family – especially if that happens to be you! (It’s also available in the usual paperback and Kindle versions though, if you prefer, though I’m not sure that they include the Christmas essay.)

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

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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

According to the evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case…

The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate. Despite this odd structure, I found it completely absorbing – each section is excellent in itself and together they provide a fascinating picture of how people’s own experiences affect their judgement of others.

In that sense, it’s almost like a precursor to Twelve Angry Men, although the comparison can’t be taken too far – in this one, we spend more time out of the jury-room than in, and the crime is entirely different. But we do get that same feeling of the jurors having only the limited information presented to them on which to form their judgement, and of seeing how their impressions of the various lawyers and witnesses affect their decisions. And we also see how, once in the jury room, some jurors take the lead in the discussions and gradually bring others round to agree with their opinion – a rather cynical portrayal of how the evidence might be distorted in either direction by people with strong prejudices of their own.

Challenge details:
Book: 65
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1940

What I found so interesting about the first section is that Postgate uses his jury members to give a kind of microcosm of society of the time, The book was first published in 1940, but feels as if it’s set a couple of years before WW2 begins. Instead, the war that is mostly referred to is WW1, showing how the impact of that conflict is still affecting lives a couple of decades later. Postgate also addresses some of the issues of the day, lightly for the most part, though he does get a little polemical about the dangerous growth of anti-Semitism in British society – very forgivably considering the time of writing. A jury is an excellent device to bring a group of people together who would be unlikely to cross paths in the normal course of things – here we have a university professor, a travelling salesman, a domestic servant, a pub landlord, etc., all building up to an insightful look at the class structures within society. But we also see their interior lives – what has formed their characters: success, failure, love and love lost, greed, religious fervour.

I was also surprised at some of the subjects Postgate covered. One of the jurors allows him to give a rather more sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality than I’d have expected for the time. Another juror has clearly been used and abused by older men in his youth and has learned the art of manipulation and blackmail as a result – again in a very short space Postgate gives enough information for us to understand even if we can’t completely empathise with the character. There is the woman whose character was formed early by her hideous parents and a state that was more concerned with making her a valuable worker than a decent person. Each character is entirely credible and, knowing their background means we understand how they come to their individual decisions in the jury room.

Raymond Postgate

The crime itself is also done very well. I’ve not given any details of it because part of the success of the story comes from it only slowly becoming obvious who is to be the victim and who the accused. It’s a dark story with some genuinely disturbing elements, but it’s lifted by occasional touches of humour. Again characterisation is key, and Postgate provides enough background for the people involved for us to feel that their actions, however extreme, are quite plausible in the context. After the trial, there is a short epilogue where we find out if the jury, and we, got it right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this – excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. Easy to see why it’s considered a classic – highly recommended.

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

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Books, books, glorious books…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having fallen deeply in love with the whole British Library Crime Classics thing, this book was bound to be right up my alley – a dark alley, full of sinister shadows and red herrings, of course! Martin Edwards has done a lot of the introductions for the novels in the BL collection and is the editor of all the great themed short story anthologies, so he knows his stuff. Here he looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century.

The book is split into themed sections, and is arranged roughly chronologically, although with some crossover in dates between the different groups. It starts with A New Era Dawns, which takes us back to look at some of the authors and books that pre-dated the Golden Age but influenced it: for example, Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men. The next chapter looks at The Birth of the Golden Age, then on to The Great Detectives, and so on; through to The Psychology of Crime, as straight mystery novels began to give way a little to the more character driven books, like those of Patricia Highsmith, which formed a kind of bridge to the more psychological crime novels of today. Some of the chapters look at particular sub-genres with chapter titles that often mirror the themed short story collections – Capital Crimes (London based), Continental Crimes, Miraculous Mysteries (locked room mysteries), etc. And, although the vast majority of the books listed are British, Edwards takes a brief look at what was happening Across the Atlantic and also a few from Europe and elsewhere around the world.

The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world that, for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate.

Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, in which, I feel I have to warn you, he routinely mentions umpteen books which aren’t part of the hundred but all sound like must-reads! He shows how the genre and various sub-genres developed, and gives a clear impression of how back then crime writers were as much of a community as they are now, feeding off each other and often referencing each other’s work. Several of the authors were also critics and reviewers, and Edwards draws on their work to show how particular books and authors were thought of at the time. He discusses how the books reflect and were influenced by contemporary society and events, putting into context the “snobbishness” of some Golden Age writers that can sometimes be off-putting for the modern reader.

With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .

Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

Following these interesting introductions, he lists the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion. There are some well known classics here – The Lodger, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Franchise Affair, The Dain Curse, etc. But there are also zillions that I had never heard of. Talking of zillions, I should mention that the 100 Books are actually 102 Books – a baffling mystery in itself! Edwards gives a brief spoiler-free preview of the plot of each book and then discusses why he’s included it. He also includes some biographical details of the author, mainly more literary than personal, but often including interesting anecdotes about them. Edwards is the current President of the Detection Club amongst other things, and he tells us quite a lot about the history and membership of that organisation as he goes along too.

Martin Edwards

So you can tell the book is positively stuffed full of info, which left me with a much greater understanding of the development of the genre and an uncontrollable desire to pop off and search for all 102 books. And the good thing is that, following the BL’s lead, lots of publishers are bringing these old books back into print, or at least into e-books, so of the sample of 20 or so that I checked, the vast majority are available at prices that won’t require me to defraud a bank or poison a rich relative. Though I’m pretty sure that I’m knowledgeable enough now to do either and get away with it…

Highly recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But I’d say this book would also be great for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors. Personally, I feel a new challenge coming on… watch this space!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (who publish the Kindle versions of the British Library Crime Classics series).

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Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked doors don’t guarantee safety…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Anyone who’s been reading my blog over this last year or two will be aware that I have developed something of an addiction for the themed anthologies being published under the British Library Crime Classics label. This one concentrates on “impossible” crimes – “locked room” mysteries and others of the kind where the emphasis is more on how it was done than on whodunit. As always, the stories have been selected by Martin Edwards who gives a brief introduction to each one telling a little about the author. They’re printed in rough chronological order, covering the period from the beginning of the 20th century (or just before) through to 1960.

There are lots of well-known names here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, etc – as well as some more obscure authors, some of whom have appeared in the earlier anthologies and some who I think are making their first appearance. The crimes are a lot of fun, ranging from the fiendishly clever but quite possible to work out if you have that kind of mind, to ones that rely on something that couldn’t have been known – trick doors or things of that nature. I did guess a few, but was baffled by plenty, and even the easier to solve ones are still entertaining.

As with all anthologies, the quality is variable but I must say I think the average standard throughout this collection is actually higher than in some of the earlier collections. Perhaps this kind of puzzle just appeals more to me, but I don’t think that’s it, really – I think this is just a particularly good group of stories. There are sixteen of them in total, and I ranked ten of them as either 4 or 5 stars, with only one getting a rating lower than 3 (and that was the GK Chesterton story, which can be put down to my own prejudice – I simply don’t enjoy his style).

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

The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a special train goes missing between two stations and, though the driver is later found dead by the side of the tracks, nothing is heard of the passengers or other crew for eight years…until a man waiting to be executed in France reveals how it was done. ACD is a master storyteller and builds up a nice air of almost supernatural mystery around the disappearance, though the answer is firmly of this world. And there’s a brief cameo appearance from an anonymous man who writes to a newspaper with a possible solution to the crime – a man who sounds very like a certain consulting detective we all know and love…

The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – when a woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary blaming all her former friends for deserting her in her time of need. Now someone is bumping those friends off one by one. Loreto Santos, an amateur ‘tec from Spain, is on site when the third murder happens in a locked room during a house party. In truth, the method in this one is blindingly obvious, but the writing is very good, there’s some nice characterisation and the story is interesting, so that being able to work out how it was done didn’t spoil the entertainment.

The Music-Room by Sapper – Forty years earlier, a man was found killed in the middle of the locked music room. No-one ever worked out how it happened. Now, during a dinner party, the new owner of the house tells the old tale to his guests. Later that night, his nephew and business partner is killed in the same room, apparently accidentally. But amateur sleuth Ronald Standish is unconvinced. This is one of the ones where it wouldn’t really be possible to work out the how – though one can make a rough guess – and the who is relatively obvious. But the plotting is tight and the telling of the story is done very well.

I could just as easily have highlighted any of half a dozen others, and now feel quite qualified to bump off anyone who annoys me in ways that will baffle the greatest detective minds. So probably best if you were to send me some chocolate, just to be on the safe side…

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

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Book 1

Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

Digging up the truth…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…

…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.

As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )

On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.

The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.

Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.

So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.

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

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