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

Whowasdunin?

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

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

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

Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

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These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware writers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

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

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

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

Run, Rabbits, Run…

😦

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

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

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

Margot Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t see that coming…

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

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

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

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

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Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamber of horrors…

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Dynamic duo…

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

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

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

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

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

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The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine Bell

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

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

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The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Bleak realism…

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

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

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

Julian Symons

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

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

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

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

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A Cavalcade of Criminals…

…and a Diversity of Detectives…

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

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

The Body in the Dumb River
by George Bellairs

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

The Poisoned Chocolates Case
by Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

It Walks By Night
by John Dickson Carr

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

Death in Captivity
by Michael Gilbert

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

The Murder of My Aunt
by Richard Hull

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

Murder by Matchlight
by ECR Lorac

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

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
by Gil North

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

Verdict of Twelve
by Raymond Postgate

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

The Belting Inheritance
by Julian Symons

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

* * * * *

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

Have a Great Friday! 😀

Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Margot Bennett

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

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

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

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The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Kelly

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

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

Book 10 of 20

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Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Simply not cricket!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

The 1930 Oxford Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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