The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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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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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

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The Red House Mystery by AA Milne

Pleasingly devious…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Antony Gillingham receives a letter from his old friend, Bill Beverley, saying that Bill is currently visiting at Red House, Antony decides to pop along since he’s in the neighbourhood. But he arrives just as a shot has been fired, to find one of the country house’s residents, Cayley, banging frantically on the locked living-room door. Two men had entered the room – the house’s owner Mark Ablett, and his brother, Robert, a ne’er-do-well just returned from Australia. Now Robert lies dead on the living-room floor, and Mark has disappeared…

….“Of course it’s very hampering being a detective, when you don’t know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you’re doing detection, and you can’t have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper enquiries; and, in short, when you’re doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way.”

Well, this was a lot of fun! It’s very well written, with lots of humour and two very likeable protagonists in Antony and Bill. Antony is a man of means but with an interest in human nature. So rather than living the life of the idle rich, he has worked in a variety of roles, from shop-keeping to waiting. Now he decides to try his hand at amateur detection. He’s helped by having the ability to record anything he observes with his subconscious mind and then to retrieve those observations later at will. Bill is a pleasant young man, not unintelligent but without his friend’s perceptiveness. He proves to be a loyal and faithful sidekick, though, who cheerfully plays Watson to Antony’s Holmes – Milne openly and affectionately uses Holmes and Watson as a running joke between his two amateur ‘tecs.

….“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
….“Watson?”
….“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
….“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”

Challenge details:
Book: 17
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1922

The plot is in the nature of a locked room mystery, though not in terms of how anyone could have got in or out. The mystery is in working out what happened inside the room and why Mark has apparently run off. There is (of course) a house party at the time of the murder, so that there are plenty of people to be witnesses and/or suspects. Cayley, the man who was banging on the door as Antony arrived, is Mark Ablett’s young cousin, whose education Mark had paid for. Cayley now lives with him and fulfills the functions of a secretary and general man of business for Mark. No-one really knows what it is that the victim Robert did all those years ago that resulted in him being sent off to Australia to avoid scandal, nor why he has suddenly returned. There are a couple of young women to provide love interests or possibly motives. The domestic staff add to the humour, with Milne showing just a touch of Golden Age snobbery but not enough to spoil the fun. And secret tunnels! Really every book should have secret tunnels, I think, don’t you?

….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

AA Milne

Antony uses his knowledge of human nature and his observational skills to spot little inconsistencies in the stories of the other occupants of the house to gradually uncover the truth. It’s very well plotted – I did have a kind of idea of part of the how of it all, but was nicely baffled by the why. And I loved Antony and Bill as a team. My only disappointment is that Milne never wrote another mystery novel – I feel they’d have made the basis of a great detective duo series. But at least we have this book, and happily it’s available for download from wikisource. Highly recommended for the next time you want something that’s well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining!

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poirot is on a little holiday in Egypt, and his poor unsuspecting fellow travellers have no idea that this means one of them, at least, will surely be murdered before the trip is over. As he closes his hotel window one evening, he overhears two unidentified characters talking in another room. “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Poirot smilingly dismisses it – they’re probably discussing a play, he thinks, or a mystery novel.

After this great start, Poirot recedes into the background for a bit, while the reader is introduced to all the other characters. The main group is the Boynton family, a strange and nervy bunch ruled over by their manipulative and sadistic matriarch, Mrs Boynton – one of Christie’s greatest creations, in my opinion. Her step-children are all grown up in the physical sense, but have never managed to cut loose from her control. Lennox, the eldest, is married to Nadine, the least affected by Mrs Boynton since she wasn’t brainwashed in childhood as the others were. Then there are the two younger step-children, Carol and Raymond, who are desperate for freedom but caught like moths in a flame, unable to work out how to escape. But the most troubled member of the family is the youngest, Ginevra, Mrs Boynton’s own child, now on the brink of womanhood and driven to the edge of madness by her mother’s evil games.

There are others on the trip too, who will all find themselves involved with the Boyntons in one way or another. Sarah King provides the main perspective, though in the third person. Newly qualified as a doctor, she is concerned about what she sees happening to the younger Boyntons. There’s also a French psychologist on the trip, Dr Gerrard, and it’s through the conversations of the two doctors that Christie lays out the psychology of Mrs Boynton for the readers. Add in an elderly spinster who’s abroad for the first time, an American who’s in love with Nadine, a British lady politician who does a good line in bullying on her own account, and the Arab servants, and there’s a plentiful supply of suspects and witnesses for Poirot to interview when the inevitable happens…

Agatha Christie

A bit like with Dickens, my favourite Christie tends to be the one I’ve just read, and this is no exception. For the Egyptian setting, which Christie paints in shades of exotic menace; for the great plot, one of her best; for the psychologically diverse and well drawn group of characters; and most of all for the brooding, malignant presence of Mrs Boynton, a bloated, poisonous spider at the centre of her web, this is a top-rank novel from the pen of the High Queen of Crime.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Christie allowing each character their turn in the spotlight, and the opportunity to say or do something that will look deeply suspicious later on. I’ve read it so often that, of course, I spot all the clues now as they happen but, for me, this contains the best delivered crucial clue in all the detective fiction I’ve read. It’s hidden in plain sight – it’s right there, and yet I defy you to see it. And if that’s not enough, just before the denouement Poirot lays out every clue in a list for the local British dignitary, Colonel Carbury. Fair play taken to its extreme, and yet the case is still utterly baffling until Poirot brilliantly solves it, at which point it’s completely satisfying.

Hugh Fraser

I listened to Hugh Fraser’s narration, which is excellent as always. He doesn’t “act” the characters, except for Poirot, so no falsely high voices for the women and so on, but he subtly differentiates between them so it’s always clear who’s speaking, and he gives them American or English accents as appropriate. For his version of Poirot, Fraser reproduces a very close approximation to David Suchet’s Poirot accent, giving the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

Fabulous stuff – I’m having so much fun listening to the audiobooks of all these favourite Christies. It’s a great way to make even the ones I know inside out feel fresh again. And for new readers, what a treat! Highly recommended.

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Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

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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…

ECR Lorac (I think)

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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Bump in the Night (Flaxborough Chronicles 2) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery in Middle England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chalmsbury is normally a quiet town with at least a veneer of respectability. So it’s a bit of a shock when the residents have their sleep disturbed one Tuesday night when somebody blows up the local drinking fountain. A prankster, is the general feeling, but when on the following Tuesday a statue unfortunately loses its head in another blast, people want the police to get to the bottom of it before more damage is done. The problem is the local Inspector is friends with the man the townsfolk suspect is responsible. So suddenly Inspector Purbright from the neighbouring town of Flaxborough finds himself drafted in…

Colin Watson wrote the twelve books that make up the Flaxborough Chronicles over a period stretching from 1958 to 1982, with this second in the series dating from 1960. Like many series, the books improve for the first two or three, hit a peak in the middle of the series, and then tail off a little towards the end, but even the less good ones are still way ahead of most of the competition. This one loses a little for me by having the action moved to Chalmsbury, which means that we don’t see much of the regular cast of characters who appear in the ones based in Flaxborough itself. But it has its own cast of deliciously quirky characters to make up for that lack, and has the same sly and wicked wit, poking fun at the respectable middle-classes of Middle England.

“Mr Hoole was the complainant, sir, but he didn’t exactly report it. He just stood under where the sign had been and used bad language. I advised him to be careful and he changed to much longer words that didn’t seem to give as much offence to bystanders.”

The books are peculiarly suited to the ’50s and early ’60s – a time when class structures were still fairly rigid in Britain, and people were judged as much by their professional role as by their character, but when the first breezes of the winds of change of the later ’60s were beginning to be felt. The joy of Watson is that he takes delight in letting the reader peek at the scandals hidden behind the lace curtains of the outwardly respectable. It’s quietly subversive, and must have seemed even more so at the time.

Some of the stories were turned into a TV series in 1977 under the title Murder Most English, starring Anton Rodgers as Inspector Purbright. I re-watched them two or three years ago on DVD and they’ve stood up well to the passage of time. Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing…

In this one, the action takes place mainly among the shop and business owners of the town, and Purbright soon finds that most of them are willing to gossip about their friends and neighbours. There’s a good deal to gossip about – everything from drunk driving to murky business dealings to marital infidelity goes on regularly, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The solution seems perfectly obvious from early on, so you can be sure that won’t turn out to be the real one in the end. Underneath all the humour and light social commentary, there’s an excellent plot, full of motives, alibis and clues, and it’s not long before the destruction of property escalates to a death and a murder investigation. These books are a little too late to really count as Golden Age from a strict time point of view, but they have that feel about them, only with added hanky-panky. Often Watson makes an oblique innuendo and leaves it to the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks, and I always imagine him winking cheekily as he does so…

“A somewhat impetuous man, Mr Biggadyke, by all accounts.”
“Very likely. But that was no excuse for him going round and telling everybody that story about the Colonel and Bessie Egan.”
“Ah, yes. And the spurs.”

I can never think of these books without the word skulduggery coming into my mind – everybody, except Purbright, is always up to something they shouldn’t be, but it’s mainly mild naughtiness rather than outright badness.

“So you see the person I think the police ought to be looking for is someone here in the town who’s been turned into an enemy of society – perhaps through being sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“That ought to be a lot easier,” Kebble daringly remarked, “than having to pick from all the people in Chalmsbury who haven’t been sent to prison for things they did commit.”

Colin Watson

A delight – books I revisit often and enjoy anew every time. They’ve been quite hard to get hold of for some time, so I’m happy to see that Farrago are issuing them as e-books. If you’ve never met Inspector Purbright, give yourself a treat – these books are guaranteed to chase the blues away…

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

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Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Define “witty”…

😦 😦

It’s the opening night of the new show at the Grosvenor Theatre – Blue Music, produced by the great theatre impresario Douglas B Douglas and starring perennial juvenile lead and heart-throb Brandon Baker, a combination designed to guarantee box office success. The theatre is filled with the great and the good in the dear seats, and the members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club in the cheap ones. The scene where Brandon Baker is shot takes on an unexpectedly dramatic twist when it turns out the bullet was real, and he collapses onto the stage, dead. Fortunately Inspector Wilson of the Yard is in the audience, along with his journalist son Derek, so the pair are in prime position to investigate the murder.

This is billed as being “witty”. Wit can wear very thin very quickly if it’s not done well. It’s not done well. The Wilsons must have a claim on the title of most annoying crime fighting duo in history. Perhaps if they spent less time being “funny”, they might have been better detectives. I found myself speculating as to the mysterious lack of a Mrs Wilson – I concluded that if I were married to one of these and the mother of the other, I’d probably have run off to a different continent leaving no forwarding address, but perhaps the poor lady simply died of tedium after having to listen to them do their cross-talk act at breakfast once too often.

Realism simply doesn’t exist in this novel. Inspector Wilson acts like an amateur detective, using his son as his sidekick. They don’t interview any suspects or do any real investigation. They simply come up with a theory and then mangle the “facts” to fit. “Facts” is a term that must be used loosely in regard to this novel, since there are glaring continuity errors throughout, such as a man having a wife and children at one appearance and then being an unmarried loner next time he’s discussed. One feels that some editor at some point in the 80-odd years since it was first published would have picked up on these issues, but perhaps they were all laughing too hysterically to concentrate.

Challenge details:
Book: 47
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1934

To be fair, it starts out quite well with some gentle lampooning of the whole business of putting on light musicals. Stars, producers, theatre critics and fans all come in for their share of mockery, but it’s done quite affectionately. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Melville was himself a successful playwright and this shows through in his credible, if caricatured, portrayal of the life of theatricals. It’s really the arrival of the Wilson duo that brings the whole thing down – in fact, it’s the attempt to make it into a crime novel that fails badly. Had Melville written some other kind of theatre based froth, then it may have come off better, but a crime novel really requires at least some pretence at a proper plot and investigation or it becomes nonsensical – and not in a good way. Edwards tells us that Dorothy L Sayers, a regular reviewer of the work of her contemporaries, had similar reservations as my own, saying Inspector Wilson “does all his detecting from his private house with the sole aid of his journalist son. Light entertainment is Mr Melville’s aim, and a fig for procedure!”

Alan Melville

So I guess it comes down to whether the reader finds this kind of arch humour entertaining. Some will, I’m sure, and will therefore be better able to overlook the major flaws in the plot and structure. Sadly I found myself getting progressively more irritated and bored as it went along and was frankly delighted to make it to the deeply unsatisfactory and rather silly end. Not an author I will be pursuing further, I’m afraid. Sometimes authors become “forgotten” for a reason…

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

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The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Surprisingly contemporary…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When the British Foreign Secretary decides to push through a law which will allow the enforced return of political refugees to their countries of origin, he becomes a target of the Four Just Men – a group of vigilantes who set out to right what they perceive as wrongs that the normal systems of justice can’t touch. The story is a kind of cat-and-mouse game where the reader, along with the entire British public, waits to see if the Four Just Men succeed in carrying out their threat to assassinate the Foreign Secretary.

This was a rather odd read for me, in that I hated the premise – vigilantes are not my cup of tea – and yet found the storytelling compelling enough that I found myself racing through it. It’s well written and the pacing is excellent. Wallace sits on the fence himself as to the rights and wrongs of it – he shows both sides, but doesn’t take too strong a stance in favour of either. I believe in later books he chose cases that weren’t quite so murky, where it was clearer that the victims of the Just Men deserved their fate, and I suspect I might prefer those.

This one, however, despite having been published way back in 1905, has a surprisingly relevant plot. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent political agitators from using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. With my recent Russian Revolution reading, it made me think very much of those Russians, like Lenin, who spent their time in the safety of exile encouraging their countrymen back home to commit acts of terrorism against the state. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the West’s current moral struggle over the question of allowing in refugees at a time when the fear of terrorism is high, or the difficulty of expelling people even when it’s known they are attempting to radicalise others.

Challenge details:
Book: 2
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

It’s a quick read – somewhere between a long novella and a short novel. There is a mystery of sorts over how the Just Men plan to carry out the assassination. Martin Edwards tells us in the introduction that, as an advertising ploy, Wallace offered cash prizes to readers who could work out the solution. Apparently, so many did that it nearly bankrupted him. I wish I’d been around at the time, because I thought it was blindingly obvious. I suspect, though, that might be because the key is more commonplace now than it would have been back then. Forgive the vagueness, but to say more would be a major spoiler.

The rest of the plotting works much more effectively. There is a real sense of the building tension as the deadline approaches. The Foreign Secretary is not physically brave, but shows a good deal of moral courage in the end. The police are shown as competent and vigilant, good men determined to protect the Secretary even at the expense of their own lives, if necessary. The press get involved and we see their dilemma of being ordinary good people who don’t want to see murder done but also journalists who do want a huge front page story! Wallace handles all these ethical questions well and believably, I thought. The Just Men themselves are more shadowy, with no real background given as to why they’ve set themselves up as judge and executioner or how they got together. I found them far less credible. But I was pulled along in the need to know whether the Secretary would survive.

An intriguing read that provoked more thought than I was anticipating. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enthusiastic to want to read more of the adventures of the Four Just Men, but overall I found this one interesting and entertaining enough to be glad to have read it, and to recognise its claim to be a classic of the genre. And, on that basis, recommended.

No Amazon links, since I downloaded this from wikisource.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a mysterious notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, the villagers don’t take it very seriously.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

The prevailing feeling is that this is a rather odd invitation from Miss Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, perhaps to some kind of murder mystery evening. So all her friends decide to show up at the appointed time. Miss Blacklock knows nothing about it but, being a sensible woman, she realises the villagers are likely to descend on her and makes preparations for a little drinks party anyway. Once everyone is assembled, a shocking event occurs and the end result is that a man lies dead. It’s up to the police, ably assisted by Miss Marple, to find out who he was and why he died…

This has always been one of my favourite Christies, mainly because I thinks she excels herself in both plotting and characterisation. It also has one of the best beginnings, as Christie ranges round the village introducing us to all the characters by means of telling us which newspapers they routinely have delivered. Newspapers in Britain have always been such an indicator of class, social position, education, political standpoint; and Christie uses this brilliantly to very quickly telegraph (no pun intended) the social mix of the village.

Published in 1950, this is post-war Britain, and the first chapter gives us a little microcosm of British middle-class society of the time – old soldiers, the traditionally rich fading into genteel poverty, the new business classes taking over as the wealthy ones, women beginning to find their place in the workforce, people displaced from their original homes forming a mobile and fluctuating population, so that even in villages neighbours no longer know all the long histories of their neighbours – now people have to be judged on what they choose to reveal of themselves. Anyone who thinks Golden Age crime fiction has nothing much to say about society should read this chapter and think again. Christie, of course, understood totally that crime fiction is first and foremost an entertainment though, so all this information is transmitted with warmth and humour, and all in the space of a few hundred words. Many modern crime writers would probably take 150 pages, bore us all to death, and still not produce anything half as insightful…

Agatha Christie

There is one aspect of the book I don’t enjoy and that’s the treatment of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s foreign maid. A war refugee from Eastern Europe, she is portrayed with a kind of cruel casualness – her anxiety dismissed as hysteria, her horror stories of her life in the war dismissed as either exaggeration or with an attitude of contempt for her not having the British stiff upper lip. It’s odd, because this book also has some of Christie’s kindest and most moving characterisations – poor old Bunny, Miss Blacklock’s companion, who shows us all the tragedy of the genteel poor at that time, and the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, never openly described as lesbian, but portrayed with great sympathy and warmth.

I’m not going to give any details of the plot for fear of spoilers. However, this is entirely fair play – not only are all the clues in there, but Miss Marple kindly summarises them all towards the end to give us one last chance to solve it for ourselves. I’ve read this one so often over the years that I know whodunit and why and now I can more or less anticipate the clues before we get to them, but I think I was suitably baffled first time I read it. Even knowing how it all works out, I still find it an immensely enjoyable read, allowing me to admire Christie’s skill at its remarkable height.

Joan Hickson

This time around I listened to the wonderful Joan Hickson narrating it. She really is perfect for the Miss Marple books. Her old-fashioned accent is just right, and she completely gets the tone of the books – the mixture of tragedy and humour, the sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses, the little romantic interludes. In this one she made me laugh with the younger characters and moved me to tears with Bunny’s story (I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Bunny – she’s one of my favourite Christie characters). Marvellous stuff – the ideal partnership of author and narrator. Highly recommended.

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The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

I’ve read a couple of Thorndyke short stories before, but this was my first full length novel, and it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Because of the heavy emphasis on Thorndyke being a scientific investigator, I thought it might be rather dry; and I knew that Freeman was famous for the “inverted” story, where the reader gets to see the villain commit the crime before watching the detective solve it. But this novel is laid out as a traditional mystery and is full of wit, with a charming romance between Berkeley and Ruth to give it warmth. I loved it. Actually, don’t tell anyone but I fell a little in love with young Dr Berkeley myself.

The plot is complex, not so much as to whodunit – the pool of potential suspects is very small – but as to how it was done and perhaps more importantly why it was done in the way it was. There’s a lot in it about Egyptology since several of the characters are linked by their involvement in that field, and a lot more about methods of identifying bodies when there’s not much left of them but bones. The missing man’s will provides another level of complexity, since he specified conditions with regards to where his body should be buried – not easy to fulfil unless his corpse turns up and can be convincingly identified. I believe Thorndyke’s sidekick, Jervis, is usually the narrator of these books, but although he appears in this one he only plays a small part. Berkeley acts as the main sidekick and major character – as a medical doctor he’s ideally placed to act as Godfrey’s representative at inquests, etc.

Challenge details:
Book: 9
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

In his discussion of this story in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards says that “the ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L Sayers – a fervent admirer of Freeman – deplored it.” Edwards also says “the prose lacks sparkle”. Oh dear! It appears I have to disagree with both Sayers and Edwards – I loved the elegance of the prose, which reminded me quite a lot of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth is a lovely love interest – she’s humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. She feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911, and Berkeley’s initial admiration is of her brain and character rather than of her looks or feminine delicacy. And Berkeley’s own realisation that he’s falling in love is done with a lot of beautifully self-deprecating wit and charm. Considering Ms Sayers is responsible for one of the sappiest romances in the history of crime fiction, with the adoring Lord Peter Wimsey languishing after his ladylove for several books, I think she has a bit of a cheek, quite frankly! 😉

“’Orrible discovery at Sidcup!”

I turned wrathfully – for a London street-boy’s yell, let off at point-blank range, is, in effect, like the smack of an open hand – but the inscription on the staring yellow poster that was held up for my inspection changed my anger into curiosity.

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

Now, let prigs deny it if they will, but there is something very attractive in a “horrible discovery.” It hints at tragedy, at mystery, at romance. It promises to bring into our grey and commonplace life that element of the dramatic which is the salt that our existence is savoured withal. “In a watercress-bed,” too! The rusticity of the background seemed to emphasise the horror of the discovery, whatever it might be.

In among the more serious characterisation and the scientific stuff, there are a couple of great humorous set pieces that provide a bit of light relief, such as the obstreperous jury member at the inquest, or the maid servant incapable of giving a direct answer to any question, or the various patients Berkeley sees in his professional capacity. Admittedly these smack a little of the golden age snobbery that tends to mock the working classes, but here it’s done with so much warmth I couldn’t find it in me to take offence. I did guess a couple of pieces of the solution but was still in the dark as to motive and exactly how the intricate details of the plot all fitted together until Thorndyke explained all in a typical denouement scene at the end. All together, a very enjoyable read that has left me keen to get to know Freeman and Thorndyke better.

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

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

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

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

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

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Pietr the Latvian (Maigret 1) by Georges Simenon

Introducing the great man…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Inspector Maigret is at the Gare du Nord on the trail of a notorious conman known only as Pietr the Latvian. He only has a description to go on, but he sees a man get off the train who matches it in every respect. However things get complicated when a corpse turns up on the train, and the corpse also matches the description! Who is the man on the train? And who is the man who got off the train? As Maigret hunts down the living man, his identity seems to become ever vaguer. But Maigret is nothing if not dogged…

This is the first book in the long-running Maigret series and, like many débuts, not one of the best when looked at retrospectively. The plot is a bit messy and the solution relatively obvious. It consists mostly of Maigret hanging around in hotels and bars as he follows his quarry about Paris and the little seaside town of Fecamp, interspersed with the occasional interview. However it shows Simenon’s skill in creating the authentic sense of place that would become a hallmark of the series and provides an introduction to the character of Maigret himself – perhaps more one-dimensional than he would later become, but already with that relentless persistence that would see him through more complex investigations in his future career.

Challenge details:
Book: 97
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1930

He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.

Maigret is a bit of a superman in this one, requiring little in the way of sleep and able to battle on even when injured, possibly due to the extraordinary amount of alcohol he puts away. It’s more noir in tone, perhaps, than the later books (of which I’ve only read a couple, so am certainly no Maigret expert), as Maigret wanders through a kind of lowlife underworld full of rather sad and desperate people. His wife is referred to, but not really in the warm terms I’ve come to expect, of being Maigret’s true partner and best friend. Here she’s more of a “traditional” wife – there merely to provide food when required.

Georges Simenon

I listened to it on audio, well narrated by Gareth Armstrong. It’s part of Penguin’s re-issue of the series with new translations, and David Bellos does a fine job with it.

On the whole I felt one could see the kernel of what the series would develop into, but since these are all standalones, I’d tend to recommend newcomers to start with one of the later, better books as I did. In truth, had this been my first introduction to the great man, it may not have encouraged me to try more. But I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become, so would certainly recommend it on that basis.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

I simply Kant take any more…

😖

When Dr Umpleby, the President of prestigious and ancient St Anthony’s College, is found murdered, Inspector Appleby of the Yard is rushed to the spot, as the local plods will clearly not be well educated or cultured enough to deal with such a sensitive affair. Fortunately Appleby can quote major and minor philosophers with the best of them and has more than a passing knowledge of all the arcane subjects covered in a classical Oxbridge education, all of which will no doubt help him to uncover who killed the President and why.

The tone of my introduction may have been somewhat of a spoiler for my opinion of the book, so I may as well jump straight to the conclusion – I abandoned this at just under 40%, finally throwing in the towel when one of the characters hinted that the clue to the mystery might be found in an anecdote about Kant quoted in a book by De Quincey. This, only a couple of pages after the following passage…

And he [Inspector Appleby] sipped his whisky and finally murmured to Titlow [a suspect], with something of the whimsicality that Titlow had been adopting a little before, “What truth is it that these mountains bound, and is a lie in the world beyond?”

There was silence while Titlow’s eye dwelt meditatively on the policeman conversant with Montaigne. Then he smiled, and his smile had great charm. “I wear my heart on my wall?” he asked. “To project one’s own conflicts, to hang them up in simple pictorial terms – it is to be able to step back and contemplate oneself. You understand?”

I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more useful had Appleby asked whether Titlow had crept into the college garden in the middle of the night and shot the President, or searched his rooms for the gun, but each to his own, I suppose. And certainly, my method wouldn’t have allowed Innes to show his vast erudition and superior intellect, which appears to be the main purpose of the book.

Challenge details:
Book: 52
Subject Heading: Education, Education, Education
Publication Year: 1936

The actual plot is based on there being a limited number of people, almost all academics, who could have had access to Dr Umpleby’s rooms at the time of the murder. Sadly, this aspect becomes tedious very quickly with much talk of who had or didn’t have keys, where rooms are in relation to each other, where walls and passages are. I felt a desperate need for a nap… oops, I mean a map… after the first several dozen pages of description. Oddly enough, Innes claims Appleby is happier dealing with problems on a “human or psychological plane” and then proceeds to have this great intellectual wandering around in the (literal) dark, playing hunt the missing key. By 40%, only one possible motive had emerged, largely because Appleby seems more interested in listing the academic tomes on the suspects’ bookshelves than in trying to find out where they had been at the time of the crime.

Michael Innes

This is one of Martin Edwards’ picks in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I’ve seen several positive reviews of other books of Michael Innes’ recently, so I’m willing to accept that my antipathy to this style of writing isn’t universal, or perhaps Innes improved in later books – this, I believe, was his first. However, the only emotions it provoked in me were tedium and irritation at the perpetual intellectual snobbery. Having been made to realise my own status as dullard, I shall take my inferior intellect and defective education off into the dunce’s corner now… but don’t feel too sorry for me, for I shall take with me an ample supply of chocolate and some books by authors who may not have achieved a First in Classics at Oxbridge but who nevertheless seem to have grasped the definition of the word “entertain”…

In truth, I think my rating of this one is harsh – had I been able to convince myself to struggle through it, it may have earned three stars for the quality of the writing and plot. But since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I fear I can only give it one.

PS Appleby and Umpleby? Seriously??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books.

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Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

The Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

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

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Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

In the bleak midwinter…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Challenge details
Book No: 78

Subject Heading: Inverted Mysteries
Publication Year: 1933

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

* * * * *

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

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

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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

According to the evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Postgate

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

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

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

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