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

Cat and mouse…

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

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

Taking the low road…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

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

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

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

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

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

J Jefferson Farjeon

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

Amazon UK Link

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer

One for bibliophiles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The psychology of crime…

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Jumping Jenny (Roger Sheringham 9) by Anthony Berkeley

Gallows humour…

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

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

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

Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

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

Whowasdunin?

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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…

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

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

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

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

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

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

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

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

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

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Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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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