Fell Murder (Inspector MacDonald 24) by ECR Lorac

Rural but not an idyll…

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Old Robert Garth rules his family with a rod of iron and, although he’s a fair landlord, he stands no nonsense from the tenant farmers on his land. A man who, in his eighties, still can put in a long day’s physical work, he has no time for those he sees as weaklings. So when he’s found murdered, there are plenty of people who might have done the foul deed, each with differing motives. But when it’s discovered that his eldest and long-estranged son, Richard, has been seen around the district, he naturally becomes the prime suspect. It’s up to Inspector MacDonald, called in from Scotland Yard to help the overstretched local police, to find Richard, and to decide whether he, or some other person, is the guilty party…

One of ECR Lorac’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her settings central to her stories, whether in the alleys of London or, as in this case, in the farming community of the Lune Valley, a place she apparently knew well. Her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful, showing the rugged beauty of the dales and fells, the unpredictable weather and the way the land has been shaped and formed by the generations who have farmed it. She is clear-eyed about the hard labour involved in farming but shows her characters as having a strong bond to their land and a love of their way of life.

Set towards the end of the Second World War, she also gives us intriguing glimpses of how war affected farming, partly by removing so many men from the labour force and bringing more women on to the land, and partly through government pressure to adopt more intensified farming methods, such as ploughing up traditional pasture land to allow for more planting of vegetable crops to feed a hungry populace no longer able to import food as easily as before the war. She shows too the additional tasks that have fallen on the police to oversee the new war-time regulations – black-out rules, rationing of goods and petrol, licensing and control of all kinds of things that used to be left up to suppliers and consumers – all leaving them under pressure when required to investigate the normal criminal activities that continue regardless of war.

The local Superintendent is a townie with little understanding of the ways of the farmers and a kind of disdain for them, and so he hits a brick wall in getting them to talk openly to him. But Inspector MacDonald is a different breed – he may be a London policeman now, but he’s a Scot by birth and has lived in rural communities before. He understands the land and secretly rather wishes he could take up farming himself. This all helps him to find ways to break down the rural resistance to outsiders and to grasp at motives that a townsman may not think of. It’s not long before he has a good idea of what happened to old Garth – now all he has to do is prove it.

Another excellent entry in the series – of the ones I’ve read so far, I find the books written around the time of WW2 seem to show her at the peak of her considerable talent in terms of plotting and, while I have enjoyed all of her settings, especially wartime London in Murder by Matchlight, the countryside ones always impress me with their affectionate but entirely unromanticised portrayals of rural communities.

As a little bonus, there’s an extra short story at the end of the volume, Live Wire. It’s only a few pages long – a tale of a criminal attempting to steal gold bullion from a train – but it’s very well done, darkly funny and highly entertaining, with a deliciously twisted ending. I usually forget to mention that there’s quite often a short story tucked in at the end of the BL releases, I assume when the page count of the novel is slightly shorter than the norm. It’s a bit like finding there’s still one chocolate left in the box when you think you’ve already eaten them all…

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

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It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Deliciously decadent…

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Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…

This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.

Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.

John Dickson Carr

As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.

I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.

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

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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

’Twas three nights before Christmas…

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Three days before Christmas, Inspector Nightingale is called to the scene of a suspicious death. An elderly woman has been found dead in her bed, and given her age it may have passed as natural but for the fact that she appears to have been robbed. Her trunk, which she always kept securely locked, is empty. Nightingale soon discovers she was a Russian Princess who had fled to Britain during the Revolution, bringing with her many fabulous jewels and valuable pieces of art. There has been a recent spate of burglaries and Nightingale suspects this is the latest, somehow gone wrong, leaving Princess Olga dead. But where is the Princess’s grandson? And why is there a note of the name and address of a local dealer in jewellery in her room? Nightingale and his sergeant, the rather cheeky and irreverent Beddoes, set out to investigate…

This isn’t a whodunit – although there is a mystery element around the grandson, the police are never in much doubt that the robbery ties in with the others, and the bulk of the story is about following Nightingale, and occasionally Beddoes, as they try to identify and catch the thieves. It’s very well written and both the settings – first the busy pre-Christmas streets and alleyways of Islington and later the blizzard-bound countryside of Kent – are used to great effect. Nightingale and Beddoes make a great team, obviously fond of each other and with a kind of rapport that comes from having worked together before. Each has full confidence in the other and they are more like equals than superior and subordinate, and there’s a lot of humour in their interactions.

The Princess’s backstory as a Russian émigrée adds another element to the story, and gives it the human interest aspect that can sometimes be missing in stories about thefts and police hunts. And the jeweller whose name is found in her room is a great character – a shrewd businessman with his own Russian background, is he the gossipy charmer he likes to portray, or is this a cover for shady goings-on? Nightingale’s constantly changing opinion about him and other people who might or might not be involved is a lot of fun and gives us a real feel for his character, as an honest man who wants to think the best of people but whose job means he has to consider the worst of them too.

Mary Kelly

The first half of the book sets up the story and introduces the characters, and then the second half becomes more of an action thriller as the hunt for the jewel thieves hots up. I found the whole thing a quick, interesting and enjoyable read that kept me turning the pages – I ended up reading it all in one day which is unusual for me. Apparently Kelly only wrote a few books and then stopped, which is a real pity since on the basis of this one she was clearly very talented. I hope the BL might reissue the two other Nightingale books sometime. And with its Christmassy timing and snowy settings, this one is a perfect read for the festive season. Highly recommended!

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

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Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Not waving, but drowning…

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This new collection of vintage crime shorts from the British Library contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to water – rivers, lakes, swimming pools, oceans. Martin Edwards suggests in his usual informative introduction that perhaps Britain’s view of itself as a maritime nation makes us particularly drawn to watery fiction of all kinds, so it’s not surprising that mystery writers got in on the act.

These collections are always variable, both in quality and in the reader’s reaction to the theme being used. This reader found this one particularly variable, partly because I felt some of the stories only made the cut because of their connection to water, but partly because I’m not a sailor and some of the stories use a fair amount of sailing terminology which always makes me lose interest. Sailors will, I’m sure, feel differently about these. Only a couple of the solutions rely on sailing specifics, though – the majority give us the usual range of motives, clues and styles of detection. And, as always, the contributors range from the very well known writers, like Conan Doyle or Michael Innes, through newer favourites recently getting a revival via the BL and other publishers, like Edmund Crispin or Christopher St. John Sprigg, to writers new to me although they may be well known to vintage crime aficionados, such as James Pattinson and Andrew Garve.

In total, I gave eight of the stories either four or five stars, while the other eight ranged between 2½ and 3½. So no complete duds, but quite a few that were relatively weak, I felt. However, when they were good, they were very, very good, meaning that I found plenty to enjoy. Here are a few of the ones that stood out most for me, and you’ll see from these examples that this collection has a lot of stories that don’t stick rigidly to the traditional detective story format, which gives them a feeling of originality and allows for some great storytelling, including occasional touches of spookiness or horror…

The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman – An inverted mystery (one where we know who the murderer is before we see how the detective solves it) starring Freeman’s regular scientific detective, Dr Thorndyke, this is a longer story at 40 pages or so. A new lighthouse keeper is sent to a rock lighthouse in a rowing boat, but never arrives. The local authorities assume he simply had an accident and drowned, but since Thorndyke happens to be in the neighbourhood they ask him what he thinks, and he finds that murder has been done. The backstory of the murder is very well done, and the solution relies on a nice clue and a neat bit of detection.

Four Friends and Death by Christopher St. John Sprigg – Four men on a boat drink a toast in cognac, and one of them falls dead of cyanide poisoning. The boat is in a Spanish port and of course good Englishmen don’t trust foreign police forces, so the three survivors decide to solve the mystery themselves before reporting the death. Was it a dramatic suicide? Or is one of the three hiding a secret? This is well written, beautifully tense, and ingeniously plotted and revealed. A short one, but excellent.

The Turning of the Tide by CS Forester – in this one, we’re inside the murderer-to-be’s head as he bumps off a fellow solicitor who is about to reveal that the murderer has been defrauding his clients. The story revolves around the disposal of the body – the murderer knows that without a body the police’s chances of solving the crime are much lower, so he resolves to dump it in the sea. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned, and it turns into a superbly effective horror story, very well told. Spine-tingling!

A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley – this is a quirky and intriguing story of a detective writer who accidentally gets caught up in a crime while walking along the river thinking through his latest plot. It’s a story about how serendipity and chance mess with the best laid plans, and has a nice touch of romance in the background. Very well told again – an enjoyable lighter story.

The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett – Our unlikely hero is a poacher who, after an evening drinking in the pub, is stopped on his way home by two men who force him at gunpoint to take them in his boat to France. This is a kind of adventure story but with a mystery element – it’s only later we discover why the men are trying to escape. It has a couple of fun twists towards the end. Well written and highly entertaining!

So a mixed collection, but with plenty of good stuff in it that’s a little out of the ordinary run of mystery stories. I enjoyed the ones I enjoyed so much that they more than compensated for the ones I didn’t. I do love these anthologies…

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

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Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Poisonous relationships…

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Even the most kind-hearted of Robert Arthur Kewdingham’s family have to admit he can be quite annoying. Having lost his job in middle-age, he now spends his time on his collections of second-rate Roman artefacts and dried-out beetles, while telling anyone who will listen about his past life as a priest in Atlantis. Opinions on his wife, Bertha, are divided. Some, mostly the men, feel that her husband doesn’t deserve such a handsome, spirited wife and that he treats her badly. Others, mostly the women, feel that if she had any sort of wifeliness about her she’d shake Robert out of his eccentricities and back into the world of useful employment. Robert and Bertha live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty…

This is a lot of fun and a real step up from the only other Rolls I’ve read, Scarweather. It’s a kind of inverted mystery – we know a murder will be done, and it’s not too long before we can guess who the victim will be. But such are the divided opinions on this unhappy couple that several people could have reason to do away with either one of them. In fact, the question is almost one of who will murder the victim first!

The characterisation is excellent, not just of the awful Robert and Bertha (who got some sneaking sympathy from me even though I didn’t feel she really deserved it), but of the various members of the extended family. Robert’s old father lives with them and an unpleasant old codger he is, constantly reciting quotations to Bertha of how an ideal woman should behave. Uncle Richard is a decent man and feels Bertha has more to put up with than any woman deserves, even moody ones like her. Cousin John is firmly on Bertha’s side – too much so perhaps. The Poundle-Quaintons, mother and spinster daughter, feel it’s their duty to drop little hints to Bertha on how she should manage her husband better. And Robert’s sister, clear-eyed about her brother, does her best to befriend the unhappy wife.

Challenge details:
Book: 81
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1933

There is much here to do with various drugs and poisons in use at the time. Robert’s genuine illnesses, topped up by his enjoyment of his hypochondria, mean that Dr Bagge is a frequent visitor to the house, partly as physician and partly as friend. Dr Bagge likes to make up his own medicines and tries to stop Robert from dosing himself up on quack preparations, with little success. Once the murder is done, the presence of all these various medicines and drugs will complicate the matter badly for the authorities, and there’s a good deal of wit in the way Rolls handles all the various effects and side-effects of the different poisons around the house, not to mention in how Dr Bagge views his patients as good subjects for him to try out his latest concoctions on.

The idea of living in this house full of rather unpleasant people is pretty awful but I must say they’re a lot of fun to watch from the outside. The mystery is handled very originally – usually with an inverted murder, in my limited experience, the reader knows who the murderer is, but here Rolls manages to keep to that kind of style while still keeping the reader somewhat in the dark. As a result, I found it much more of a page-turner as I really wanted to know who was the guilty party and how it would be proved. Vague, I know, but deliberately – this is one where it would be easy to give accidental spoilers.

Another very enjoyable read from the British Library Crime Classics series, and of course it has the usual informative introduction from Martin Edwards. Good stuff – I’ll be looking out for more from Rolls, though unfortunately he wasn’t as prolific as many of the Golden Age writers.

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

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Murder in the Mill-Race (Inspector MacDonald 36) by ECR Lorac

Hidden secrets…

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Milham in the Moor looks idyllic to Anne Ferens when she moves there with her doctor husband, Raymond. This isolated village in North Devon has its own social structure and minds its own business. But Anne soon begins to realise that perhaps all isn’t as it seems on the surface. Some months earlier, a young girl, Nancy Bilton, drowned in the mill-race (the stream that turns the paddles of a watermill, in case, like me, you don’t know what a mill-race is) and, although it was decided she’d committed suicide, there are all kinds of rumour and gossip. Nancy had been a maid at the local children’s home, Gramarye, working under the formidable Sister Monica. The more often people tell Anne that Sister Monica is a “wonderful” woman, the more Anne’s instinctive dislike of her grows. And then Sister Monica is found dead, drowned in the mill-race…

ECR Lorac is becoming a regular in the British Library’s Crime Classics series, and her revival is well deserved. This is another enjoyable entry in the Inspector MacDonald series. Lorac’s settings are always one of her strengths, and here she gives a very credible picture of a village that has, in a sense, turned in on itself, preferring to deal with its own problems rather than letting the authorities handle things. So the local police are getting nowhere with their investigation, and when MacDonald is sent in from Scotland Yard he will have to break down the resistance of the villagers to talking to outsiders. As newcomers, Anne and Raymond are in the position of being half-in and half-out of village life – accepted, but not yet fully. MacDonald hopes they’ll be able to give him a clearer picture of the village personalities but, as the new doctor, Raymond doesn’t want to alienate the people who will be his patients.

Sister Monica is very well drawn as someone who likes to dominate others. She may be swimming in a small pond but she’s the biggest fish and relishes her power. It doesn’t do to cross her – she has her own ways of paying back perceived slights, often by ensuring that scurrilous rumours are spread concerning the offending party, sometimes true, sometimes not. So despite the villagers’ avowal that she’s a wonderful woman, when she turns up dead there’s a surprising number of people who might have had a motive. And can it be coincidence that the two deaths should have happened at the same spot?

Chief Inspector MacDonald is accompanied by his Detective Inspector, Reeves, another competent and dedicated officer. They’ve obviously worked together often and know each other’s strengths, each falling naturally into the role that suits him best – MacDonald as the more formal interrogator of the upper echelons of village society, while Reeves uses his easy manner to try to elicit gossip from those lower down the social scale. There’s a bit of the usual snobbery in their relationship, with MacDonald as the more cultured and better educated of the two, but it’s not as glaring as in some Golden Age pairings, and overall they come over as having equal respect for each other.

The plot is interesting, and leads up to a nice denouement. But it takes second place really to the characterisation of Sister Monica and the depiction of the children’s home, both of which are excellent and cast some light on the lack of monitoring of such facilities back in those days (post-WW2) which allowed nasty people to abuse the power they were granted over both children and staff. (Don’t worry, though – no graphic abuse is heaped on the poor children in this one, so it’s not a harrowing read.)

Overall, another very good read from Lorac – I like that each of the ones I’ve read so far have had entirely different kinds of social settings. I’m hoping the BL continues to re-publish more of her work.

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

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Book 19 of 20

Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

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A huge explosion destroys the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company, and kills three directors of the company who were there having a meeting at the time. When it turns out that the cause of the explosion was dynamite, the local police call in Scotland Yard to investigate. Enter Inspector Littlejohn…

It soon becomes apparent that the Excelsior was in deep financial trouble and bankruptcy was waiting impatiently in the wings. Could the crime have been an elaborate insurance job? As Littlejohn begins to investigate, he discovers this is only one possible motive. Fraud and corruption are contenders too, and more personal motives may have played a part, since it seems that there were many tensions between the directors, not least that one of them was having an affair with the wife of another. Every line of enquiry seems to turn up more suspects and Littlejohn will have to do some nifty detection to catch the right one.

The setting is very well done, both of the struggling business itself and of the expanding town around it. First published in 1964, fictional Evingden is shown as one of the “new towns” that were created in the decades after WW2, partly to replace bombed out homes and partly to provide “overspill” housing to alleviate the problem of overpopulated areas of poverty and deprivation. It’s no surprise that with so much money being spent this was also a time noted for corruption in local councils and the construction trade, and Bellairs makes full use of this in his plot. The new towns tended to be tacked on to existing small towns or villages, changing their culture and often moving their centres from the old high streets to new developments, much to the annoyance of existing tenants and business owners. Bellairs catches these tensions nicely through his portrayal of the local bank, with its sleepy old branch and tired manager struggling to keep going in the old part of town and the modern, thrusting new branch with its ambitious young manager looking to corner all the new, lucrative business for himself.

George Bellairs

Unfortunately I didn’t find the characters or their motivations as interesting as the setting. We never meet the victims while they’re alive, so only learn about them through other people and, of the three, only one is really fully developed and he’s unlikeable in the extreme. The suspects are better drawn, but are also a deeply unattractive bunch of people. The result was that I didn’t much care about any of them and never found myself fully invested in the criminal being brought to justice. Also, and this is simply an individual preference, I’m never as interested in plots that go so deeply into fraud and corruption as this one, preferring crimes where the motives are more personal. Bellairs does it well, showing how financial desperation can lead people to go off the rails, but I felt it got a bit bogged down in detail at points.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but not as much as the previous Littlejohn stories I’ve read, purely because the story wasn’t as much to my taste. I did feel Littlejohn himself was better developed as a character in this one though, and will be happy to meet him again. Since this is apparently the 41st Littlejohn book, I’ve got plenty more to try!

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

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Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

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

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

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

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

Michael Gilbert

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

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

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

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

A twofer…

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

The Dead Shall Be Raised

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

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

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

* * * * *

The Murder of a Quack

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George Bellairs

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

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

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

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

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

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Julian Symons

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

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

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The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

Up the Gunners!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Leonard Gribble

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

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

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The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Marry in haste…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Julian Symons

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

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

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

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

Richard Hull

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

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

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Wilkinson

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

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

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Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Murder on the Home Front…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Postgate

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

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

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

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

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

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

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

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

😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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