Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

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The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poet Richard Cadogan decides he needs a break from routine so heads to Oxford. As he walks along a street at night looking at the window displays of the closed shops, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Before he has the chance to leave the shop to report what looks like a murder, he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Due to an unfortunate mistake, Cadogan is soon wanted by the police for stealing from the grocer’s shop, so all the time he and Fen are racing round Oxford pursuing their investigations, the local police are racing around too, pursuing Cadogan! Fen tries to get his old friend the Chief Constable to call them off, but the Chief Constable is far more interested in discussing the themes of Measure for Measure – well, it is Oxford after all, where even the truck drivers read DH Lawrence…

He felt about him and produced a greasy edition of Sons and Lovers for general inspection, then he put it away again. “We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilisation ‘as got me in its clutches.’

Challenge details:
Book: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946

Fen is somewhat eccentric to say the least, and does his detection through a series of brilliant deductions well beyond the scope of us mere mortals, aided by large dollops of luck and coincidence. In fact, I can’t say I ever had much of an idea why exactly the villains had gone to such elaborate lengths to complicate a murder that should really have been pretty easy, but given their efforts to baffle and confuse, it’s just as well Fen is on hand to jump to the correct conclusions! He gradually involves his students as a kind of informal mob of enforcers, which might have worked out better if there weren’t quite so many bars in Oxford. Their ham-fisted efforts to help catch the bad guys add a lot to the farcical feel of the thing.

It’s very well written and full of humour. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, filling in any lulls by playing literary games with each other, such as naming the most unreadable books of all time. (I was pleased to see Ulysses made the list, but was shocked that Moby-Dick didn’t get a mention!) It occasionally takes on a surreal quality when Fen makes it clear he knows he’s a character in a book…

‘Murder Stalks the University,’ said Fen. ‘The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
‘My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.’

Edmund Crispin

As a little added bonus, I was thrilled to read the part of the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – one of my favourite films, largely because of that finale.

A thoroughly entertaining read, and I look forward to improving my acquaintance with Crispin and Fen in the future. Highly recommended.

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

Richard Hull

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

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

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The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A criminal gang, led by the evil and monstrous Julian Joolby, have a plan to flood the money markets with forged banknotes. For Comrade Bronsky of Soviet Russia, this is designed to bring the financial systems of the corrupt capitalist West crashing to its knees. For Joolby and his pals, though, being, one suspects, corruptly capitalist, they just want to get rich. But before they can put their plan into action, they need to get the right paper for their banknotes from the sole paper-mill that supplies the Bank of England. They have a plan to get past the super-tight security, but they haven’t factored in Max Carrados, blind amateur detective extraordinaire, and his delightfully interfering niece, Nora.

The book starts by introducing us to Joolby and some of his gang, and I really wasn’t sure whether I’d stick with it. Joolby is evil indeed, but he also has some kind of physical disability that leads to his body being misshapen – a huge bloated upper half, perched on small weak legs. In tune with the time of writing – the book was published in 1934 – Bramah has no hesitation in mocking his physical appearance, describing him as so repulsive that people are repelled and disgusted by him. To add to this, Joolby has a Chinese assistant whose appearance and difficulties with English are also the subject of much light-hearted humour. My initial reluctance was lessened, though, once I realised that much of this was being done tongue-in-cheek, Bramah almost mocking his own mockery and stereotyping. In fact, he does later on suggest that Joolby’s wickedness may have developed in part as a response to the unkind treatment he has received from “normal” people, and Bramah redeems himself in other ways later on too, though I can’t be more specific without spoilers.

So I found the first fifty pages or so a bit of a struggle, with my own political correctness getting in the way of my sense of humour somewhat. But then the scene moves to Tapsfield, the small town which is home to the paper-mill, and the book becomes much more standard Golden Age fare – middle-class people, country cottages, tea on the lawn, a touch of romance. Max Carrados himself is too good to be true, so a hefty suspension of disbelief is required. His blindness has made all of his other senses more acute, so that he can pick up on all kinds of clues that sighted people miss. I believe he had a usual sidekick in the short stories he normally appeared in, but in this, the only novel about him, the sidekick role is taken on by his niece, Nora, feisty but feminine – a lioness when her young man is threatened.

The plot is silly but fun. In fact, fun is the most important feature of the book. I’m aware that my review hasn’t made it sound overly appealing, but that’s because I haven’t mentioned the humour. In Joolby’s world, Won Chou is the main source of comedy, and though at first it feels a bit cruel, as if we’re laughing at him, gradually it begins to feel as if actually we’re laughing with him at the other characters. Comrade Bronsky is delightfully amusing too – Bramah has a lot of fun with him at the expense of the still new communism of Russia. In Tapsfield, the maid Ophelia is comic gold – yes, I know it’s such a cliché to laugh at the lower orders, but again it’s affectionately done and she really is one of the stars of the show. And frankly, Bramah is just as wickedly funny about Ophelia’s employer, Miss Tilehurst, and her susceptibility to all things romantic.

Ernest Bramah

By about a third of the way through, I’d settled into Bramah’s style and from there on thoroughly enjoyed this romp. It’s very well written, with lots of great descriptions of the alleys and backstreets of the less salubrious areas of London contrasting with the idyllic rural scenery around Tapsfield. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good and there are one or two in between who provide a nice touch of moral ambiguity to add a little variety. If you can put aside your modern sensibilities and get into the spirit, then this is highly entertaining. After a rocky start, I ended up loving it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

Enter Miss Marple…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Colonel Protheroe is one of those men nobody likes, so when he’s shot dead in the vicar’s study the list of suspects is long. He’s a bullying husband to his second wife, Anne, an overbearing father to Lettice, his daughter, a tough magistrate meting out harsh judgement to the criminal classes of St Mary Mead, antagonistic to anyone whose morals he deems to be lax, and an exacting churchwarden, always on the look out for wrongdoing amongst the church officials and congregation. In fact, it was just earlier that very day that the vicar had remarked that anyone who murdered the colonel would be doing the world a favour!

The police are suitably baffled, but fortunately there’s an old lady in the village, with an observant eye, an ear for gossip, an astute mind and an unerring instinct for recognising evil… Miss Marple! Relying on her lifetime’s store of village parallels, she will sniff out the real guilty party while the police are still chasing wild geese all over the village green…

The narrator in the book is the vicar, Leonard Clement, and he and his younger and rather irreverent wife, Griselda, give the book much of its humour and warmth. It’s Miss Marple’s first appearance and she’s more dithery and less prone to Delphic pronouncements than she becomes in some of the later novels. This is her as I always picture her (I suspect it may have been the first one I read) and is the main reason I never think the actresses who play her do so with quite enough of a fluttery old woman feel to the character. Here, she’s a village gossip who watches the ongoings in the village through her binoculars under the pretence of being an avid bird-watcher, and the Clements joke about her as a nosy busy-body, always prying into the lives of her neighbours. As the book goes on, Leonard finds himself investigating alongside her, and gradually gains an appreciation of the intelligence and strength of character underneath this outward appearance, as does the reader.

Challenge details:
Book: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930

The plot is very good, with as much emphasis on alibis and timings as on motives. Because Colonel Protheroe was such an unpleasant man, the reader (like the characters) doesn’t have to waste much time grieving for him. The suspects range from the sympathetic to the mysterious, from the wicked to the pitiable, as Christie gradually feeds their motives out to us. She shows the village as a place where no secret can be kept for long from the little army of elderly ladies who fill their lives excitedly gossiping about their neighbours. But while some of them are always getting the wrong end of the stick and spreading false stories, Miss Marple has the insight to see through to the truth. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards has placed this novel in his The Great Detectives section, and Miss Marple rightly deserves to be there. But he could as easily have put it in his Serpents in Eden category, for its classic portrayal of hidden wickedness beneath the idyllic surface of an English village.

Agatha Christie

Inspector Slack also makes his first appearance in this book – a dedicated officer, but one who is always jumping to hasty conclusions. He never stops to listen to people properly, and is brash and a bit bullying, and oh, so dismissive of our elderly heroine! A mistake, as he will discover when she reveals all towards the end!

I love this book and have read it about a million times. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the incomparable Joan Hickson’s narration of it this time – I find listening to Christie on audiobook brings back a feeling of freshness even to the ones I know more or less off by heart. Hickson gets the warmth and humour of the books, and gives each character a subtly distinctive voice, though never letting the acting get in the way of the narration. She does the working-class people particularly well, managing to avoid the slight feeling of caricaturing that can come through to modern readers in the books.

Great stuff!

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Wilkinson

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

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

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

Book 32 of 90

I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Murder on the Home Front…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Postgate

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

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

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Something wicked…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the landlord of the sole pub in the village of High Eldersham is found murdered, the local police chief hastens to call in Scotland Yard. Partly this is because he doesn’t have the resources to deal with a murder investigation, but mainly it’s because High Eldersham has a strange reputation. And when Inspector Young of the Yard starts his enquiries he quickly spots something that makes him think that reputation may be well deserved. So, in true Golden Age style, he turns to an amateur friend to help out. Enter Desmond Merrion…

I’ve seen quite a few less than enthusiastic reviews of this one on Goodreads, so went into it with fairly low expectations, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the reason for the negative reviews may be simply that it’s not really a mystery novel in the traditional sense – it’s much more of a thriller. Though there is the question of who murdered the landlord, the real bulk of the story is about the mysterious goings-on in the village, and what nefarious crimes they’re being used to cover. In truth, with my twenty-first century eyes, it seemed pretty obvious what the fundamental criminal enterprise was, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious back when the book was first published in 1930. This, of course, is a common difficulty for vintage crime novels – subsequent writers have reused and recycled the plots so often, it’s quite hard to know when they were first original.

But having a good idea of the underlying crime didn’t in any way diminish my liking for the book. The fun is in seeing how it plays out, and in the thrills and adventures provided along the way. Desmond Merrion apparently became a popular recurring character in later books and I can see why – he’s knowledgable without being insufferable, an action man without being Superman, susceptible to love without being a womaniser. He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think. Merrion had served in the war first as a combatant then, after an injury, moving into intelligence work. His servant, Newport, served alongside him, and now works as his butler-come-sidekick. And a jolly good sidekick he is too, with skills of his own, and happily Merrion treats him as an equal – often the patronising way these ex-servicemen sidekicks are portrayed in the Golden Age puts me off the books, like Campion’s Lugg or Wimsey’s Bunter. Newport however is only devoted to his master to an acceptable degree and doesn’t speak with a “comedy” working-class dialect. And he’s perfectly capable of using his own initiative when need be.

Challenge details:
Book: 33
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1930

The book builds its tension mainly through the dark activities of the villagers, activities rooted in a more superstitious past. There are hints of the supernatural, but the story remains firmly within the rational world, while showing chillingly how bad people can use old traditions to achieve their wicked ends. There are occasional moments of melodrama, some fortunate coincidences, and stock situations like the woman-in-peril, but it’s all done very well and kept me turning pages. And I did like the woman in question – no shrinking miss, the lovely Mavis owns her own speedboat and is the rescuer as often as the rescued. A couple of the scenes are genuinely creepy and Burton manages to get across the real evils that are going on without ever feeling the need to be graphic or voyeuristic – a lesson that I’d be grateful if many a modern writer could learn.

Miles Burton

It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I think this one deserves more praise than it has received. Martin Edwards lists it under his Serpents of Eden category in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I think that’s a perfect place for it – wickedness and true evil going on underneath the outwardly quiet life of an English village. Edwards tells us too that, although this is only the second book published under this name, Burton also wrote under other pseudonyms, most notably John Rhodes, and was therefore already a practised and successful writer, and I think this shows in the quality of the writing. Good stuff – I shall certainly be looking out for more in this series.

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Brilliantly baffling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???

OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.

The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.

Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???

Rouletabille
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published on October 19, 1907 on the front page of the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.

The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.

Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…

Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…

“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”

… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.

Gaston Leroux

I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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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