The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…
…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.
As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )
On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.
The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.
Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.
So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
I, said the sparrow, with my little bow and arrow…
🙂 🙂 🙂 😐
The people who live in Regency Square in Cheltenham form a little community set somewhat apart from the rest of the town. They all socialise with each other, and there are all the rivalries and grievances that grow up in any group over time. So when someone shoots Captain Cotton with an arrow to the head through the open window of a neighbour’s house, there are plenty of suspects, since many of the residents are members of the local archery club, and Captain Cotton had annoyed several of his neighbours in one way or another. Unfortunately for the murderer, Superintendent Meredith is visiting a friend in the square at the time, and the local police quickly enlist his help…
…which is a wonder really, since on the basis of this he’s not terribly good at his job! Mind you, he’s better than the local chap, who seems almost entirely clueless. Things were different back then, of course, as can be seen when the police pick up the body, carry it across the square, and leave it unattended on the captain’s own bed till the inquest. The thing is that there’s a major plot point which is so blindingly obvious that the biggest mystery in the book is that it doesn’t even occur to the police till the book is nearly over – I won’t specify for fear of spoilers, even though I defy anyone not to spot it. And it’s not the only easy to spot clue – easy for the reader, that is, but seemingly impenetrable to our dogged but hopeless detectives. On the other hand, Meredith seems amazingly, almost supernaturally, perceptive when it comes to less important clues, making astounding leaps of intuition to arrive at the truth. The powers-that-be keep threatening to hand the whole thing over to the Yard, and I really felt they should do this pronto – intriguingly Meredith’s own superiors seemed willing to leave him seconded to the Cheltenham force for as long as possible necessary. One could see why…
However, there’s still a lot to like in the book. The characterisations of the various residents of the square are well done, even if they tend to be a little stereotyped. This is a typically upper middle class square, full of bankers and retired army officers and elderly spinsters. Some of the people are just what they seem, but some have secrets hidden behind their respectable façades which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Bude creates the setting well and some of the secrets give it a slightly darker tone than it feels as if it’s going to have at first. And there’s lots of humour in it too, sometimes a bit clunky like when the local Inspector uses his young subordinate as the butt of his stupidity jokes (ironic, given the profundity of his own intellectual lapses!), but at other times light and fun, like the two elderly sisters and their dismay at not really knowing the correct etiquette for dealing with a murder investigation. The detectives get there in the end, of course, but more by luck than anything else.
Not one of the better of these British Library Crime Classics, in truth. I found it dragged quite a bit, mainly because it took the police so long to realise things that had been obvious for chapters. The quality of the writing and characterisation lifted it, but the whole detection aspect lacked any feeling of authenticity for me, and the murder method, while quite fun, struck me as overly contrived. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Bude I’ve read, Death on the Riviera, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable read overall. So a fairly half-hearted recommendation for this one, I’m afraid.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
When Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…
This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.
There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.
People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.
The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.
I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.
So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!
PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.
It’s 10-year-old Rose Morley’s first trip on an aeroplane so she’s excited, despite the fact that the reason for the trip is to go to Paris where her mother has had an accident and is in hospital. With her are her father, Peter, and her elderly and rather ill grandfather, Andrew Crowther, whose manservant and general carer Weatherup is with him too. Before they take off, they get a telegram to say Rose’s mother will be fine after all, so they can enjoy the journey with no fear. But when they arrive in Paris, it turns out that grandfather Andrew is not sleeping as they had all thought – he’s dead. And it’s soon discovered that he’s been murdered.
This is an interesting take on the crime novel, and innovative for its time. We may have seen crimes from the perspective of the murderer fairly often now, but apparently this was one of the first when it was published in 1934. Following the rather brilliantly described flight to Paris, at a time when planes were still held together by little more than chewing-gum and prayer, the book flashes back a few weeks in time and we meet Charles Swinburn, nephew of the murdered man. It’s from Charles’ perspective that the story unfolds from there on.
Charles had inherited his uncle’s successful manufacturing business but the depression of the 1930s has brought him near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he’s also fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful but mercenary Una, who makes no secret of the fact that she will only marry a rich man. So when his attempts to raise a loan meet with failure, Charles begins to imagine how convenient it would be if his rich uncle would die so that Charles can get his hands on the inheritance he’s been promised. The reader then follows along as Charles decides to turn this dream into reality.
I found the first section of the book fairly slow. Crofts describes Charles’ business difficulties in great and convincing detail, with much talk of profit margins and wage bills and so on. It’s actually quite fascinating, giving a very real picture of a struggling business in a harsh economic climate, but since I spent a goodly proportion of my life working in business finance, it all began to feel like I was reading financial reports, and I found myself inadvertently formulating business plans in my head to save the company. I’m sure it wouldn’t have that effect on normal people though… 😉
However, once Charles decides to do the deed, I became totally hooked. It carries that same level of detail over into the planning of the crime, and I should warn you all that I now know lots of incredibly useful stuff should I ever decide someone needs to be murdered – just sayin’. In the planning stage, it’s almost an intellectual exercise for Charles and he goes about it quite coldly. But in the aftermath of the crime, we see the effect it has on him – not guilt, exactly, but a kind of creeping horror at the thought of what he’s done. And when Inspector French arrives on the scene to investigate, we see Charles swaying between confidence that he’s pulled off the perfect crime, and terror that he may have missed some detail that will give him away. I won’t give any more away, but there are a couple of complications along the way that ratchet up the tension and the horror.
There’s a final short section, an afterword almost, when we see the investigation from Inspector French’s perspective. To be honest, this bit felt redundant to me – I felt it would have been more effective had it finished before that part. I suspect it may only have been added because French was Crofts’ recurring detective, and perhaps Crofts thought existing fans would have felt short-changed if his part in the story didn’t get told.
So, a slow start and an unnecessary section at the end, but the bulk of the book – the planning, the crime itself, and the investigation as seen through Charles’ eyes – is excellent. I like Crofts’ writing style – it’s quite plain and straightforward, but the quality of the plotting still enables him to make this a tense read. The question obviously is not who did the crime, but will he be caught? And, like Charles, I found myself desperately trying to see if he’d left any loopholes. In fact, it was a bit worrying how well Crofts managed to put me inside Charles’ head – I wouldn’t say I was on his side, exactly, but I was undoubtedly more ambivalent than I should have been. The format leads to some duplication as we see the same events from different angles and perspectives, but this was a small weakness in what I otherwise thought was a very well crafted and original novel. Highly recommended – another winner from the British Library Crime Classics series. Keep ’em coming!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
The latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…
As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.
There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!
Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…
The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.
Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…
Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.
Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.
* * * * *
So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Dr George Abbershaw has gone down to Black Dudley Manor to join a house party for the weekend. The house is owned by George’s friend, Wyatt Petrie, but is occupied by Wyatt’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe. The elderly wheelchair-bound colonel likes the company of young people, so often asks Wyatt to bring a group of his friends down for the weekend. George, though, is there mainly because he’s fallen in love with a girl who is also a guest, Meggie Oliphaunt, and he hopes to find an opportunity to propose to her. Colonel Coombe has also invited a few friends of his own.
In the evening, talk turns to old legends and Wyatt reluctantly tells of the ritual of a dagger that hangs prominently on the wall. The ritual involves turning off the lights and running around the house in the dark, passing the knife from person to person. What jolly fun! However when the lights come up Colonel Coombe is found dead. His friends tell the assembled company that his death was expected as he was very ill, and hasten to get a cremation certificate signed and hustle the body off the premises, so as not to spoil the weekend (!). But it soon becomes obvious to George that there’s something fishy going on (!) – and when something goes missing, suddenly the young people find themselves the prisoners of the Colonel’s friends…
This is apparently the book in which Allingham’s regular ‘tec, Albert Campion, makes his first appearance, although in this one, George is the main focus and Campion is a secondary character. George is a sensible young man, but Campion appears to be a foolish fop, like Bertie Wooster, only with fewer brains and a falsetto voice. He does develop a bit more depth as the book progresses, but it’s a strange first outing.
There is much running to and fro through secret tunnels, which are nearly as complex as the convoluted plot involving criminal gangs, mysterious papers and suchlike. Despite the darkness of the plot, and some episodes of viciousness on the part of the baddies, the general tone is light and fun. George and Meggie are both likeable characters, and their romance is handled nicely, not overwhelming the story but giving the reader something to care about amidst all the mayhem. Campion adds a lot of humour to the story, partly laughing with him and partly laughing at him. He’s shrewder than he first appears, but in the end it’s down to George to solve the puzzle of what it is the colonel’s friends are looking for, and who killed the colonel. And of course to engineer the escape from the baddies. In fact, Campion more or less disappears towards the end and plays no part in the final denouement – presumably at that point Allingham didn’t see him as her central character.
I listened to the audiobook version, and I have to say I felt David Thorpe’s narration was great! I’ve seen some critical reviews of it, mainly from Campion fans objecting to the falsetto voice he uses for Campion and for the foolishness Thorpe puts into his character. But this is how he is written in the book and I felt Thorpe was paying attention to the words of this one, rather than basing his characterisation on how Campion develops in later novels. Thorpe brings out all the humour in the story, but also does an excellent job with the darker sections. He held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. A 5 star narration, in my opinion.
However, I’ve never rated Allingham as highly as the other Golden Age Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers; and truthfully I’m not sure that this book has changed my mind. I found it enjoyable, but too convoluted and not at all credible, and apart from George and Meggie, too many of the characters are caricatures. I didn’t feel it was fairplay at all – the eventual solution seemed to come from nowhere, though of course it’s possible I missed hidden clues along the way (even good audiobooks have a tendency to induce occasional napping). I’m glad I listened though – I think the narration actually made me enjoy the book more than I might have, had I been reading a paper copy. So overall, a fun listen of a reasonably entertaining book, but probably not the best one to start with to get a feel for the character Campion eventually becomes.
Inspector Meredith and his young sidekick Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang have been sent to the Riviera to help the French police hunt down a counterfeiter – a Brit who seems to be involved in laundering fake money in the little towns along the coast. While they’re there, a murder is committed amongst some of the English people living on the Riviera, so they become involved in that investigation too, especially since it seems that the two crimes may both link to the various people staying in the home of Nesta Hedderwick. This is quite handy for young Freddy, since he’s fallen in love with Nesta’s niece, Dilys…
The title of the book made me think this would be mainly a murder mystery, but in fact the bulk of the book is about the counterfeiting investigation, with the murder and subsequent investigation only happening quite late on. It’s a personal preference thing, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me(!), but I really prefer my crime fiction to be about murders. I’ve never managed to get up much interest in theft or fraud as a plotline. So, true to form, I enjoyed the murder investigation of this one, but found the counterfeiting plot rather dull.
In both sections, it’s really more of a howdunit – the villains are relatively obvious from fairly early on. In the counterfeiting plot, the question is more about how the money is being disseminated. This involves Meredith and Strang in quite a lot of driving along the coast, visiting the various small towns. Bude creates an authentic feel to the setting, with all the cafés and rich tourists, the gorgeous scenery and glorious weather, and Meredith and Strang have plenty of time to enjoy their stay while working on the case, complete with a fair amount of fine dining and wine-tippling.
The murder plot is something of an ‘impossible’ crime, though not of the locked room variety. I’m not going to reveal much about it since it would be hard without spoilers. But it’s fiendishly contrived, with a neat (if rather incredible) solution. The who is easy, the how less so, though I did guess how it was done a few microseconds before it was revealed. I felt the motive was a little shaky, to be honest, but it’s really more about the puzzle than the motivation.
Both Meredith and Freddy are likeable characters. Meredith is methodical and efficient, while Freddy works more on intuition. Freddy has shades of a Wodehouse character – I felt he would fit in well at the Drones Club (though as one of the more sensible ones – think Kipper Herring rather than Gussie Fink-Nottle), which I have to say made me wonder why he was slumming it working for the police. I’d have liked to know a little more about him, but even without much background to his character he adds a touch of lightness and occasional humour, and his romance with Dilys is nicely handled.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite not being enthralled by the counterfeiting strand – the writing is very good, the plotting is clever, especially of the murder, and the characters well enough drawn to be interesting. Another intriguing author resurrected by the British Library – one I’d be happy to read more from.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…
This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey. But Iris is determined to find out what has happened to Miss Froy, as much to prove herself right as out of genuine concern for the other woman.
We first meet Iris when she and a group of her friends are staying at a hotel in the mountains. They are modern and loud, with the arrogance of youth, and are entirely unaware and uncaring that they are annoying the other guests. When Iris has an argument with one of her crowd, she decides not to travel home with them, but to wait a day or two and go on her own. But as soon as they leave, she begins to realise how lonely and isolated she feels, especially since she doesn’t speak a word of the local language. White is excellent at showing the superior attitude of the English abroad at this period – the book was published in 1936. When the locals don’t understand her, Iris does that typically British thing of speaking louder, as if they could all just understand English if only they would try a bit harder. White also shows how Iris and her gang use their wealth to buy extra attention, and Iris’ assumption that money and looks will get her whatever she wants. All this makes the book interesting reading, even if it doesn’t make Iris a terribly likeable character.
Once the mystery begins, White adds an extra dimension to Iris’ concern for Miss Froy by making her begin to doubt her own sanity. There are shades here of the way women were treated as ‘hysterical’ – not really to be depended upon, creatures of emotion rather than intellect. There’s an ever-present threat that the men, baddies and goodies both, may at any time take control of Iris’ life, deciding over her head what’s best for her, and that the other passengers would accept this as normal. With no friends and no language skills, Iris finds herself very alone for almost the first time in her life, and growing increasingly afraid. Oddly, it reminded me a little of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – the idea that a woman could so easily be declared unstable or even ‘mad’, and find herself treated so dismissively that she might even begin to doubt herself.
There’s also one of those romances of the kind that would make me snort with outrage if it happened in a contemporary book, but which works fine in a novel of this period. You know the kind of thing – man meets ‘girl’ and falls instantly in love even though he thinks she’s a hysteric and quite possibly insane, because she’s very pretty, after all; and she loves him right back even though he treats her like a slightly retarded three-year-old, or maybe like a favourite puppy, because he’s awfully handsome and quite witty. Admittedly the rest of the men are all so much worse that I found myself quite liking him too…
White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to seeking out more of White’s work, and to re-watching the Hitchcock version of the movie.
Amateur detective, Dr Eustace Hailey, is visiting a friend in Mid-Argyll in the Scottish Highlands, when a murder is committed in nearby Duchlan Castle, home of the laird, Hamish Gregor. The victim is the laird’s sister, Mary, a woman to all outward appearances of a saintly nature, the last person one would expect to be brutally slain. Her body is found in her bedroom, with the door and windows locked from the inside, and no obvious way for the murderer to have got in or out. The local Procurator Fiscal has heard of Dr Hailey’s reputation and begs him to come and look at the scene, fearing it may be some time before a police detective arrives in this remote spot. It’s not long before Dr Hailey discovers that Mary Gregor had another, darker side to her nature, harsh and judgemental, manipulating and controlling the people around her to get her own way in all things, no matter the cost to others…
These British Library re-issues of vintage crime novels have been a bit hit or miss for me, so I’m delighted to say this one is most definitely a hit! I was simultaneously attracted to and apprehensive about it because of its Scottish setting – so often at that period Scottish characters were annoyingly stereotyped as either figures of fun or drunken, belligerent half-savages by the rather snobbish English writers of the time. However I needn’t have worried – it turns out Wynne was Scottish himself, and the picture he paints of this Highland society gives a real feeling of authenticity, even though it does, as with most Golden Age crime, concern itself primarily with the aristocratic and professional classes. There is an interesting, short introduction from Martin Edwards, giving a little background information on the author, and setting the book into its place in the history of crime fiction.
Although the focus is largely on the locked-room puzzle of how the crime could have been done, there’s some pretty good characterisation along the way. Not so much of the detective, Dr Hailey – I believe this was quite far along in the series so Wynne may have presumed his readers already knew about him. But the victim’s personality is key to the motive, and, though she’s dead before we meet her, we get an increasingly clear picture of her in all her malevolence through the eyes of the various people who knew her. Her brother Hamish, the laird, is another fine creation – his snobbery and sense of self-importance, his pride in his family and lineage, his weakness to stand up to his sister, his insistence on the maintenance of tradition. I particularly liked the way Wynne portrayed the women, showing them as subordinate within this society, but strong within themselves; victims sometimes, but not hysterical ones; and intelligent, worthy partners for the men they loved.
Of course, there is more than one murder, and I have to admit that the second one took me totally by surprise and actually made me gasp a little. There’s no real horror aspect in the book, but it nevertheless builds a great atmosphere of rather creepy tension, aided by the superstitions of the Highland folk. It does veer into melodrama at points, but that works well with the rather gothic setting of the old house filled with secrets from times gone by. I wouldn’t call it fair-play – I think it would be pretty impossible to work out the who, why and how of the crimes. And yes, it does stretch credibility when all is revealed – the method, at least, though the motivations of all the characters were credible enough to carry me over any other weaknesses.
I enjoyed this one very much – another author the British Library has managed to add to my list!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Although Sergeant Caleb Cluff is still on leave following the events in the last book, when the body of a young woman is found, as the only CID man in Gunnershaw, he is called to the scene. A local man, he knows the people of the town, so he recognises the girl as Jane Trundle and is immediately aware of who the chief suspect will be – a young man who was in love with her despite her constant rejection of him. But Cluff isn’t convinced that Jack would do such a brutal thing and begins to cast his net wider, much to the annoyance of his superiors who’d rather get the case wrapped up quickly.
For the first thirty or forty pages of this short book, I was a bit uncertain of whether it was going to live up to the previous excellent one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm. There are a lot of indications that Cluff and the other characters know things about Jane and some of the other characters, but for what seems like quite a long time the reader is kept in the dark. Happily, however, before it becomes too annoying, this background knowledge is gradually revealed, and the plot begins to darken.
Sergeant Cluff is allocated a uniformed officer to work with him, PC Barker. But Cluff is really a bit of a loner and an early version of the maverick cop who has become so ubiquitous now. His methods are mainly to use his local knowledge, together with a bit of intuition and his deep understanding of the passions of the human heart, to help him decide who committed the crime, and then to silently intimidate and harass his suspects until they either confess or do something that incriminates them. He has a strong sense of justice, but doesn’t think the law is necessarily always the best way to achieve that. And while he has a moral code, his methods sometimes step well beyond what would have been considered acceptable even back in those less politically correct days of the early1960s. At loggerheads with several of his colleagues, it is only his habit of getting results that allows him to get away with his behaviour.
North’s writing style seems improved from the previous book – fewer staccato sentences and a better flow. The dialogue remains somewhat stilted, but I’m delighted to note that his obsession with describing the breasts of every female character seems to have disappeared. (Perhaps some kindly woman hit him over the head with a hardback copy of book 1 – if so, thank you!) The real strength of his writing comes in his descriptions of this industrial town – all blacks and greys and browns, dirt from the mills and factories, and poverty hidden behind a façade of respectability and net curtains. This is a town set in the midst of Yorkshire moors and farming country, though, and himself the son of a landowning farmer, Cluff is as at home with these prosperous countrymen as he is with the townspeople. Some of his insights into his characters are beautifully written – sparsely, but with truth and a real empathy for the narrowness and hardships of their lives.
Cluff climbed to his feet, a mourner at the death of a marriage that could not be broken while they lived, because this was Gunnershaw and they lived in Rupert Street and were middle-aged and had to exist, both of them, on the pittance the man earned, because, more than anything, they were respectable and the wife could not tolerate, if the husband could, what the neighbours would say. The man could no longer deceive himself about the extent of his wife’s disloyalty. Everything between them was finished and had to go on still, as it had always done.
The climax of the book heads towards the over-dramatic and dangerously close to the credibility line, but somehow it works. The plot becomes very dark, and Cluff’s behaviour, to put it mildly, is morally dubious, but it seemed to me to echo the amateur detectives of the old school, who would often allow justice to take its own course outwith the confines of the law. Again, as with the first book, I found that from halfway through I was totally hooked, unable to put the book down until I saw how it all played out. The current trend of lengthy crime novels had almost made me forget the pure pleasure of racing through a book in one or two breathless sessions, and yet there’s as much depth and plot in this as in most books that are three times as long; and considerably more tension. (I suspect that may be why the credibility issue doesn’t matter so much – there’s not enough time for the reader to dwell on the details.)
Excellent – I hope the British Library go on to publish the rest of the series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library via Midas PR.
When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…
This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.
But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.
Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle. “I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.” “That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?” “Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”
For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.
Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…
Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?
“Please, sir, can we see the body?” “No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?” “Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…” “Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!” “Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”
Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…
Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)
I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!
When Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called out to the scene of a sudden death, it looks like a clear-cut case of suicide. After the death of the mother she had looked after through her youth, Amy Wright in her loneliness had made a bad marriage to a younger man who only married her for her money. Made miserable by him, she is found in her bedroom with the gas tap turned on. Although everyone holds Alf Wright morally responsible for her death, legally he seems to be in the clear. But Cluff can’t accept the coroner’s verdict, partly out of guilt because he, like everyone else, knew that Wright was cruel to Amy but had done nothing to stop it. Since there’s to be no official police investigation, Cluff takes some time off and begins to pursue Wright himself.
This book is being re-published to celebrate the author’s centenary. Written in 1960, the book feels more modern than the other British Library Crime Classics books I’ve read so far. It’s much darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. North has a distinctive writing style – short, sharp sentences that nevertheless allow him to deliver some excellent descriptive prose and create an ever-growing atmosphere of tension as the book progresses. It took me a few chapters to get tuned in to his style, but once I had, I found I was totally gripped and ended up reading the whole book in one session. (As an aside, how lovely to get a book that delivers everything necessary and yet still comes in at under 200 pages. The good old days!)
The characterisation is excellent, not just of Cluff and the other major players, but even of minor peripheral characters North introduces in passing to add depth to his portrayal of the town. North does have a rather unfortunate obsession with describing the breasts of every woman who appears. (I was going to comment that this was probably to do with the time of writing but then remembered how often I’ve sighed over the same obsession in some contemporary male authors!) However, it’s not enough of an issue to spoil the overall enjoyment, and otherwise I felt his female characters rang as true as the men.
He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath.
The first part of the story takes place in Gunnarshaw, a fictionalised version of Skipton in Yorkshire. It takes North very little time to give a real flavour of life in a small town at a period when neighbours still knew each others’ history and business. Cluff lives in Gunnarshaw, alone in a cottage with his dog and cat for company, and knows the people of the town in the way local police officers did in rural communities back then. North takes us behind one or two of the net curtains in the town to catch a glimpse of Cluff as seen through the eyes of the residents, and he’s revealed as someone who is trusted by the people he works amongst. However, his single-mindedness isn’t always appreciated by his bosses and colleagues in the police – he’s a man who tends to go his own way and it’s probably only his ability to get results that saves him from the wrath of his superiors. He sees himself as some kind of arbiter of the town’s morals, quite prepared to tell someone to leave town if he feels they’re a bad lot.
In this case, he pretty much stalks Wright, hoping that somehow he’ll give himself away. Cluff’s behaviour is threatening and intimidating, and he finally drives Wright to flee Gunnarshaw and go into hiding on a farm on the moors. And it’s when the scene shifts to the moors that the plot begins to both thicken and darken, taking an entirely unexpected turn. North uses the wildness and isolation of the setting to build up a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror, while gradually the action ratchets up to a truly thrilling climax.
The high wall of the croft rising above the level of the kitchen window screened off most of the late afternoon light. The room was dark, lit only by the leaping flames of the fire. They sat quietly, wearied of talking, in a silence intensified by the ticking of a clock, eerie in the stillness. The noises of the farm had died away as the day was dying. Time and place and life itself were unreal and shadowy.
The book has an enjoyable and informative spoiler-free introduction from Martin Edwards, who tells us a little about the author’s life and puts his books into the context of their place in the development of the detective story. In case you missed it, Martin was here on the blog yesterday, giving us his recommendations for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, and highlighted North’s Sergeant Cluff as having been influenced by Simenon’s Maigret.
A great start to the series – it’s hard to understand why books as good as this become ‘forgotten’, and I’m delighted the British Library have brought North back for a new audience. I know they’re bringing out at least one more in the series, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, in September, and hope they’ll go on to re-publish the rest of the series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library, via Midas PR.
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
* * * * * * *
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
* * * * * * *
Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!
World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they’ve been offered there. There’s Gervase Eden, doctor to the hypochondriacal rich and fatally attractive to women, feeling he must do his bit for the war effort. Jane Woods has always been a bit of a party girl but in a fit of conscience has signed up for nursing duty and is now wondering if she’s done the right thing. Esther Sanson sees nursing as an opportunity to escape from being a permanent companion to her needy mother. Mr Moon, an elderly surgeon, is glad of the chance to get away from his home, empty since the deaths of his wife and young son. Dr Barnes is the subject of local gossip about a patient who died under his care as an anaesthetist, so is also glad to get away. Frederica Linley just wants to avoid her father’s awful new wife. And Sister Bates lives in hope that she might meet some nice officers…
These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…
This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot. Brand introduces the characters straight away, and sets up the plot so that only these seven people could have had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her initial sketches of them already suggest possible motives even before we know who the victim will be, and she develops them more deeply as the book progresses so that, in a Christie-esque way, we are led to care more about some of them than others, enabling her to build up a lot of tension as they come under suspicion or even into danger. Because of course there’s going to be a second murder! And when it comes it’s brilliantly written – goose-bump stuff!
The plot is beautifully complex, as is the murder method – both murder methods, in fact. It turns out that almost everyone could have had a motive for doing away with the first victim, Higgins, an air-raid warden who’s been hurt in a bombing. The motive for the second victim is clearer – if one decides to reveal to all and sundry that one knows who the murderer is and intends to tell the police, well, frankly, it’s almost one’s own fault when one is discovered in a deceased condition not long thereafter…
Life in this military hospital during the Blitz feels totally authentic, with that rather stiff upper lip attitude that I believe the Brits genuinely had back then. So despite the war and the constant danger from air-raids, life very much goes on, with people falling in and out of love, making friends and enemies, coping with rationing and shortages and, importantly, keeping a sense of humour, which helps to keep the novel entertaining while not avoiding darker subjects.
Cockrill is also an old-fashioned detective. There’s no overbearing boss, departmental politics or whining about paperwork – he concentrates on solving the crime and does so by skilful questioning and clue-gathering. He’s can be a bit rude and has no hesitation in playing on the nerves of his suspects to try to frighten the murderer into mistakes. He’s also a bit of a sexist piglet, but then that’s another Golden Age tradition. But he’s dedicated to getting at the truth and, though he might take the odd risk, he’s willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
All the clues are there, meaning the novel is “fair-play”, but for most of it I remained nicely baffled, only getting there towards the end, and even then there were enough red herrings floating around that I still wasn’t sure I’d got it right. If I had a complaint, it’s that there a bit of a hiatus towards the end, when Cockrill decides to do nothing for a bit to try to allow nerves to work on the murderer. While his plan works, it does mean that the story slows down a lot at this point. But it quickly builds up again towards a nicely dramatic and complex climax, with enough moral ambiguity to make it satisfying. And Brand doesn’t forget to clear up all the side plots she has used as distractions along the way, as well as letting us know how things work out for the remaining characters.
Not all Golden Age novels glitter, but this one does – highly recommended.
Murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this is the third anthology of short stories edited by Martin Edwards, following Capital Crimes, stories set in London, and Resorting to Murder, stories with a holiday theme. This one, as the title makes obvious, is full of stories set in the traditional country house, so beloved of murderers that one can’t help but wonder why all the owners didn’t sell up and move into a nice little cottage somewhere. Though no doubt the twisted crime writers of the time would have tracked them down even there…
As Edwards says in his introduction, the country house is an ideal setting for the ‘closed circle’ type of mystery, where the suspects are defined by their presence in the house. It’s from this that the old cliché of “the butler did it” arises, though in fact this rarely was the solution. (In one of these stories, though, the butler did indeed do it, but I’m not telling which one…)
Several of the stories come from the Golden Age between the two wars, but there are also earlier and later ones. Many of the authors who appeared in the previous collections turn up again here and, as usual, they range from household names to the pretty much forgotten. One thing I’ve found, as I’ve read more of these short stories and some of the novels the British Library has revived, is that there’s a good reason for why some authors have remained popular while others have faded from the public consciousness. While the anthologies are interesting for seeing how the genre developed over time, there’s no doubt that the quality of the stories is variable, and with a few exceptions the better ones are from the authors whose names are still more familiar.
Although all of the stories contain a crime, some of them are really more horror than detective and, in fact, I tended to enjoy these more. Overall, I found this collection a little less enjoyable than the other two, though whether that’s because the average quality is lower or just that I’ve surfeited on vintage crime for the moment, I’m not sure. However, as always, there are enough good stories to make the collection well worth reading. Here are some of the ones I liked best…
The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle – the story of a young woman hired to look after a child, but with mysterious conditions attached. She must cut off her luxurious hair, wear a certain colour of dress and sit in the window for hours at a time. Then one day she finds a hank of hair in a drawer – hair that looks very like her own. And why is the door to one wing of the house always kept locked…?
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley – the more I read of Anthony Berkeley, the more I like him. This is a goodie that I used for a Tuesday ‘Tec post.
An Unlocked Window by Ethel White – again more of a horror story, about two nurses looking after a patient in an isolated house while a maniac murderer is on the loose. This one was adapted as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents… series. Check your windows before you go to bed…
The Horror at Staveley Grange by Sapper – a man dies inexplicably in his bedroom, and a few months later his son comes to the same fate in the same room. Now the remaining son is suspected of murder, but can amateur detective Ronald Standish discover the truth? There is proper detection in this but there are also some really quite shivery spooky bits…
The Well by WW Jacobs – a brilliant horror story from the man who gave the world nightmares with The Monkey’s Paw. I used this story for a Tuesday Terror! post.
Weekend at Wapentake by Michael Gilbert – the last story in the collection and a good one to end on. When an old woman dies, a lawyer’s clerk becomes suspicious. He suspects he knows who killed her but has to find out why. And puts his own life in danger in the attempt. A nice, thrilling ending to this one to round the book off.
* * * * *
So, murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night! Despite the inclusion of a few that I felt were really pretty poor, most are at least good and some are excellent. And, as always, they give a chance to sample some authors who really deserve wider recognition than they have. I’m not sure reading all of these anthologies so close together does them proper justice, but I do recommend them individually, depending on what setting you prefer to satisfy your murderous impulses…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Twelve guests are invited to the country house of Lord Aveling for the weekend. They’re a mixed group – Lord Aveling has political ambitions so some are people he hopes will back him, there’s an influential newspaper columnist he hopes will give him some good publicity, an artist who’s painting his daughter, an actress for whom he has… ahem… other plans, and a couple of people he doesn’t really know, but has invited along at the request of others in the party. When John Foss trips and sprains his ankle at the railway station, one of the invited guests decides to take him along to the Hall for treatment, and Lord Aveling insists on him staying till he’s better. Superstition says it’s unlucky to be the thirteenth guest, but to John’s relief he’s not the last to arrive. Which, as it turns out, is lucky indeed, since soon the hall is awash with corpses…
This is a fairly typical Golden Age country house mystery, first published in 1936. It gets off to a good start, with John’s accident and his arrival as a stranger to the company providing a good excuse for all the various characters to be introduced to him, and therefore to the reader. The characterisation isn’t terribly in-depth, with some of the characters being ‘types’ rather than individuals – the cricketer who plays with a straight bat, the shifty strangers, the obnoxious journalist, etc. But with such a large cast it would be difficult to fill them all out in a reasonable space and the novel is fairly short, as they tended to be back in those happy far-off times.
The plot is quite complex and there are lots of red herrings running…er…swimming around, so Detective Inspector Kendall has his work cut out for him when he finally arrives. Fortunately, he’s a wily old fox who can see through people’s lies and evasions, and spot clues that others would miss. He forms an unlikely alliance with the obnoxious journalist, who acts as a kind of unofficial investigator on the inside. Eventually all will be revealed – but with an unexpected twist in the tail that adds an extra layer of interest.
The writing is pretty good if somewhat dated in style, which shows through particularly in the dialogue of which there’s a lot. There’s a rather unlikely and not terribly romantic romance going on as a sub-plot, but again this is really a device so that two of the characters can have intimate tête-à-têtes to keep the reader informed of what’s going on. It starts and finishes well, but I found the middle dragged a bit as Kendall carried out interviews with all the various characters. And in the end, the explanation is pretty much presented to us by the characters telling each other what really happened. In retrospect, I do think it was fair-play, but too fiendishly convoluted for my poor little brain to fathom. Overall, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to people who enjoy these old-style mysteries. But, in truth, the more I read of the ‘forgotten classics’, the more I realise how good the ones are that haven’t been forgotten. Enjoyable, but not to be compared to the likes of Christie, Marsh or Sayers.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this works well as a companion piece to Martin Edward’s other recent anthology, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries. As the title suggests, Resorting to Murder is a collection of classic crime stories set in holiday destinations. While a lot of them are set in and around Britain, several others take us abroad, mainly to Europe with the Swiss mountains featuring more than once (well, a good place to make a murder look like an accident, eh?). In his introduction, Edwards suggests that holiday settings were popular with authors since the novelty of the location allowed them to concentrate a bit less on creating strong plots. The stories are in rough chronological order, as in Capital Crimes, again allowing us to see the progression of the mystery story.
There are a few well known names in here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot is the first story (a favourite story of mine which I recently mentioned in a review of a different anthology) and GK Chesterton appears with a non-Father Brown story. But there also many whom I didn’t recognise at all or only knew because they had also appeared in Capital Crimes.
Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me…
The Finger of Stone by GK Chesterton – I admit that the Father Brown stories have never appealed much to me, so it was refreshing to read something different from Chesterton. This one centres on the creation versus evolution debate when a scientist who has ‘proved’ that the Biblical timetable can’t be correct disappears. It’s a bit silly, especially the twist ending, but fun and well written.
Holiday Task by Leo Bruce – this is a great example of a howdunit. A newly appointed prison governor is killed when he apparently drives his car off a cliff. But was it murder? And if it was, how was it done? The solution is clever and I kicked myself for not being able to work it out. As Holmes often remarked, it’s all so easy once you know how…
The Hazel Ice by HC Bailey – I enjoyed Bailey’s contribution in Classic Crimes and liked this one just as much. Reggie Fisher is again the amateur detective, this time in a story involving a man who is missing after an accident in the mountains. Edwards puts Bailey’s decline from the public eye down to his quirky writing style, but I find it entertaining. It’s terribly upper-class 1920/30s style – Fisher doesn’t wear a monocle but one feels he should. A cross between Lord Peter Wimsey and PG Wodehouse, though admittedly not quite as well written as either. But fun.
A Posteriori by Helen Simpson – A short and strictly humorous story centring on the dangers of ladies travelling alone and being forced to make use of… ahem… public conveniences. Made me chuckle.
The House of Screams by Gerald Findler – a great little horror/crime story about a man renting a haunted house. Are the screams that he hears in the middle of the night the ghost of a previous tenant? I’d have loved to read more of Findler’s work, but Edwards tells us that he only published one other story.
* * * * *
In truth, I thought this collection was quite a bit weaker than the London stories. Perhaps it’s the locations – London has always been such a great setting for crime fiction – or perhaps Edwards’ point about plotting is at the root of it, but on the whole I found many of these stories pretty obvious and not overly original or atmospheric, and often without much sense of place despite the interesting locations. There is some crossover of authors between the two collections, but there are also several in this who don’t appear in the other volume, and I felt one or two had been included for their curiosity value more than for the intrinsic quality of the stories. As usual in any collection, though, the quality is variable and there are enough good stories to outweigh the weaker ones overall, meaning this is still an enjoyable read.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
From Sherlock Holmes to Lacey Flint, many of the detectives I have loved over the years have been based in London. And why not? One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a history stretching back for over a millennium, it has always been a contrast of bright lights and dark alleyways, extreme wealth and desperate poverty, and every one of its ancient streets is drenched in the blood of the victims of its horrid past. Visitors love nothing more than to shiver in the London Dungeon, to thrill to the stories of ancient beheadings in the Tower, to make a pilgrimage to those famous rooms in Baker Street. What river has been the escape route for more criminals and the final resting place for more victims than the Thames? Who can think of Whitechapel without their thoughts turning to the eviscerated victims of Jack the Ripper?
So what better venue for a collection of classic crime stories? In this book, Martin Edwards has selected 17 stories from the Golden Age of crime writing, some from names we are still familiar with – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – but many from authors who have since faded into obscurity. He has arranged them into rough chronological order, allowing us to see the gradual transition from the heyday of the amateur detective to the beginnings of the police procedural with which we’re more familiar today. The overall standard of the stories is variable, as in any collection, but I found most of them good or excellent, with only a couple that I felt really hadn’t stood the test of time. But even these added something to the collection in showing how trends were just as strong in early crime-writing as they are now. For example, I was underwhelmed by Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, starring deaf, lip-reading amateur detective Judith Lee, but was intrigued to note that there seemed to be a fashion around that time for detectives with a physical quirk, since a couple of stories later we meet Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carradine – not unlike our current obsession with autistic detectives, but happily without the angst (or drunkenness).
The influence of Holmes and Watson is clear in some of the partnerships between brilliant detectives and admiring narrators, (though I suppose I should grudgingly give the credit to Poe’s Dupin and his unnamed narrator really). R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke in particular struck me as very Sherlockian, as did the aforementioned Max Carradine.
Many of the stories rely on intricate plots – ‘locked room’ mysteries, innovative murder methods, unbreakable alibis, etc. But others veer more strongly towards the psychological, using atmosphere to great effect to build suspense, and a couple of them could easily be classed as horror as much as crime. I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories as part of my Tuesday ‘Tec! slot – Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble and John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground – but to give you a fuller flavour of the collection, here are a few more that stood out for me…
The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – this revenge story is definitely more horror than detection, telling the tale of a husband avenging himself against the man who is having an affair with his wife. A truly horrifying ending! And a great way to kick off the collection.
The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson – two men enter a room in a Turkish Bath, argue loudly, and only one leaves alive. But no murder weapon is found on the survivor or in the room. How was the murder done, and who is the killer? A fine example of a ‘locked room’ mystery with a unique method of killing.
The Little House by HC Bailey – amateur detective Reggie Fortune is asked to look into the case of a missing kitten, but this soon becomes an extremely chilling look at a case of child cruelty. The writing style is a bit staccato but the story is powerful with a strong sense of anger and justice.
The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole – the story of the collection for me, and I will definitely be looking for more of Walpole’s work. This tells of a middle-aged lady whose loneliness and maternal feelings are played on by an unscrupulous young man. The way Walpole describes the woman’s character is very true and touching, and I found the portrayal of the unintended carelessness of her friends and family quite moving. This is another with an atmosphere of terror which mounts all the way through to an ending that is full of dread. Brilliant stuff!
They Don’t Wear Labels by EM Delafield – an intriguing story told from the perspective of the landlady of a married couple living in her lodging house. The woman is suffering from ‘nerves’ and on one evening tells the landlady her husband is trying to murder her. But the husband is so nice to everyone, and seems so kind to his impossible wife – he couldn’t possibly be a murderer…could he? Another psychological study this, of how one can never tell by appearances.
* * * * *
All round, an excellent collection that I highly recommend to all crime aficionados, and I’m looking forward to reading Edward’s selection in the companion volume, Resorting to Murder.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
When Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, there can only be one outcome – someone is about to be murdered! You or I would have known that, of course, and would have hastily rearranged our travel plans, but the fourteen other passengers obviously hadn’t read any of the previous books. American businessman Mr Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters and tells Poirot he fears for his life. And the following day, he’s found dead – stabbed 12 times…
This unabridged reading of one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and best-loved books is great fun. David Suchet, the perfect TV Poirot, here gets to show off the amazing range of his acting talent. There are about 15 characters in the book, half of them women, from a variety of different countries and Suchet manages to sustain a different voice and characterisation for each. Yes, occasionally he goes a bit OTT (the Russian Princess for instance) but that adds to the enjoyment – Suchet understands that Christie’s books are first and foremost light-hearted fun.
Christie shows off her usual winning formula here – a baffling crime, a limited number of suspects, each interviewed by Poirot, and then the dénouement as Poirot reveals both murderer and method. What stops the books from becoming repetitive is that there is usually an unexpected twist and this book is no exception. Once you know whodunit, it’s easy to look back and see that Christie, more perhaps than any other crime-writer, plays fair with the reader – all the clues are there, we see everything Poirot sees, but can we work it out before he does?
I downloaded the audio book from Audible – but discs or download this is a first-rate reading of a deserved classic of the mystery genre. Enjoy!
(Am I the only one who wonders if Poirot is really a secret serial killer with a good line in fitting people up for his own crimes? Which do you think would survive if Poirot and Miss Marple spent a week in the same hotel?)
This is my top favourite of all of Agatha Christie’s stories, and this reading by the marvellous Joan Hickson is pretty much perfect.
Although this is a Miss Marple tale, she doesn’t in fact appear until the last quarter of the book. The story is told in the first person by injured airman Jerry Burton who, accompanied by his sister Joanna, has moved to Lymstock to recuperate in the peace and quiet of village life. But there’s no such thing as peace in a Christie village. Spiteful gossip, anonymous letters, jealousy, resentment and murder – not quite what the doctor ordered. However, as always with Christie, there’s plenty of humour, likeable lead characters and a little bit of romance. And when the vicar’s wife finally calls in Miss Marple to act as an ‘expert in wickedness’, we know she’ll dig the truth out from under the pile of red herrings that Christie has carefully strewn in our path.
Listening to Joan Hickson is like being read to by a favourite grandmother. This is a straight reading – she doesn’t ‘act’ the various parts, but her tone is full of expression and her rather old-fashioned accent is perfect for the period of the novel. Sometimes when listening to an audio book I find my attention wandering a bit – but not with this one. Ms Hickson sucked me in (despite the fact that I know the book so well) and held my attention throughout. She brings out the lightness and humour that make Christie’s mysteries such a pleasure and her obvious affection for the book is contagious.
An excellent reading of one of the very best of classic mystery novels. I downloaded it from Audible but it’s also available on disc, with a running time of 5hrs 39mins. Highly recommended.