Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.

Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.

This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:

No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.

Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.

Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!

The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!

If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

Hidden secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 19 of 20

The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Déjà vu all over again…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day. Opposite him is our narrator, an unnamed female journalist who, despite finding the old man intensely irritating, nevertheless can’t help being impressed by the ingenious solutions he comes up with.

This is a collection of twelve short stories featuring the amateur ‘tec who was always known as The Old Man in the Corner until a radio adaptation decided, for reasons unknown to me, to change his title to The Teahouse Detective, the name also used by this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo. The stories were originally published in various magazines and later collected into three volumes. Chronologically this is the second batch of stories, although it was the first collection to be published, in 1905.

Each story takes the same format: the journalist, puzzled over a case in the newspapers, visits the teahouse where the old man sits eating cheesecake and playing with his string. He reveals that he knows all about the case in question, and then relates all the known details before adding his own solution at the end. He is dismissive of the police and is not a pursuer of justice – he never passes his solution to the authorities. For him, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of solving the mystery which is important. For a reader used to following a detective around watching him gather evidence and interview suspects, I found this a rather odd format – it’s like getting the beginning and the end of a mystery but missing out all the fun bit in the middle. It works, and she writes well so that the stories are entertaining enough, but I didn’t find them nearly as satisfying as traditionally formatted mysteries.

Challenge details:
Book: 3
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

After the first few stories, I also began to have feelings of déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps I’d read the collection before – I know I’ve read at least some of the Old Man stories in my teens. But then I realised it’s not the stories that are familiar – it’s the plot points and clues, and even character names in some of them. Regular visitors to my blog will know of my life-long devotion to Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I shared that love with Baroness Orczy. We have a dog which doesn’t bark in the night; Mr Hosmer Angel appears with a different name and persona, but a similar plan; the King of Bohemia puts in an appearance. Occasionally it almost feels a little like homage – it surely can’t be coincidence that one of her villains is called Stapylton. The stories are different enough for me not to be hurling accusations of plagiarism, but I must say I found several of the problems remarkably easy to solve because they feature plot points from the Holmes stories too obviously.

Baroness Orczy

Having forced me to make comparisons, of course this doesn’t work to Orczy’s advantage. Sherlock Holmes is a far superior creation in every way, as is Conan Doyle’s effortless writing style. These have none of the warmth and friendship of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and nowhere does Orczy achieve the layers of drama, tension, humour and even horror of the master. These are more like puzzles – like elaborate crossword clues where the only purpose is to find the solution. As I finished each story, the characters slipped smoothly from my mind, since I had never been made to care about any of them. The Old Man and the journalist too never come to life, since they don’t ever do anything – they are a framing device for telling a story, that’s all.

So overall I found this quite an enjoyable way to while away a few hours, but no more than that. I wonder if they’d be remembered at all were it not for Orczy’s much more famous creation, The Scarlet Pimpernel, keeping her name in the public eye. However, Martin Edwards tells us in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that the collection enjoyed considerable popularity when it came out, and they’re certainly entertaining enough to make them worth reading. Mostly, though, they made me want to re-read some Holmes stories…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 17 of 20

The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher

A mysterious victim…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. Fortunately the police detective in charge of the case doesn’t seem to have a problem with sharing all the evidence with a journalist and soon Spargo is taking the lead in the investigation. The first thing is to identify the victim, but this turns out not to be as easy as might be expected. The man’s wallet and papers have been removed from his body, and even when they begin to trace him, he seems to have a mysterious past. Spargo will have to go back into that past to find out who the man is, what he was doing in Middle Temple late at night and who had the motive and opportunity to kill him.

All that is found on the victim’s body is a scrap of paper with the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Breton has never met the man, but since he’s just starting his first case and is yet to make his name in legal circles, it seems unlikely the victim would have been looking for him in his professional capacity. When it turns out the man had met Stephen Aylmore the evening before – an MP and the father of Breton’s fiancée – it all begins to look like the motive is more likely to be personal, and Aylmore quickly becomes the chief suspect. Fortunately for Aylmore he has two daughters and Spargo finds himself falling for the other one, giving him an incentive to clear Aylmore’s name.

It took me a while to really get into this one but after a slowish start it begins to rattle along at a good pace, and the plot is that great combination of being twisty and complicated without ever becoming hard to follow. Spargo does his detection the old fashioned way – by talking to people, noticing discrepancies between the stories of various witnesses and using those to prise open the secrets that some of them are hiding. First published in 1919 in the age of the gifted amateur detective, the idea of a journalist being so closely involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem as unbelievable as it would today, and Spargo mostly shares all the information he finds, although eventually he and Rathbury, the police detective, find themselves on opposite sides – Rathbury trying to prove the guilt of Aylesbury and Spargo trying to prove his innocence.

Challenge details:
Book: 14
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

Most of the action takes place in London, around Fleet Street and the Middle Temple, but the story takes Spargo out of the city too, first to a small market town where he uncovers some long past scandals that seem to have a bearing on the case, and then up to Yorkshire for a finale deep in the moors. Fletcher describes each setting well, giving a real feeling for the different ways of life in the various places. None of the characterisation is particularly in-depth, but it’s done well enough so that I soon found myself rooting for some of the characters to be cleared while others I was prepared to see go to the gallows. Fletcher, anticipating the Golden Age style, gave me a solution that meant I could feel justice had been done. I must say it’s a sudden solution, though! Boom – here’s the final piece that makes it all fall into place, and we’re done. My brain could have done with an extra three or four pages to give me time to process what just happened! But I didn’t think it was unfair or illogical – just abrupt.

JS Fletcher

All-in-all, I enjoyed this one a lot. It does feel rather dated in style (which I don’t mind, but some people might) and frankly could have done with a stiff edit to get rid of one or two little discrepancies, but they weren’t enough of a problem to bother me nor to affect the overall outcome. I was disappointed to read in Martin Edward’s entry in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Fletcher never revisited the Spargo character in later books – I reckon he could have made a good series detective. However apparently Fletcher did create another series detective later, Ronald Camberwell, and I’d happily try one or two of those if I can get hold of them. Meantime, this one is recommended as well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining.

NB I downloaded this one from wikisource. The formatting is very good.

Book 14 of 20

Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

George Bellairs

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Blotting Book by EF Benson

An excellent vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Morris Assheton is due to come into his inheritance when he’s twenty-five. However, a clause in his father’s will allows him to take control of his money earlier, should he marry a woman of whom his mother approves. Morris has met and fallen in love with just such a woman, so his trustee, Edward Taynton, suggests he might want to look over the accounts of the trust. Young Morris has other more important things to think of, though – his future wife, and his new car which he loves with at least as much fervour. This is lucky for Edward, since he and his partner Godfrey Mills have been gambling unsuccessfully with the trust funds. So all seems well, but things are about to go wrong and when they do, it will all lead to murder…

More of a long novella than a novel, this isn’t really a mystery, or at least the possibilities are so limited that most readers will be able to work out whodunit with a fair degree of certainty pretty early on. Instead, it’s an entertaining and quite insightful character study of the three main characters, Morris and the two trustees, and mostly of Edward Taynton.

Edward isn’t a bad man – in fact, his gambles were meant as much to benefit Morris as himself and he still hopes to make good the losses before the trust is wound up. He’s worked hard to give himself a comfortable life, and hopes to retire soon to enjoy life before he’s too old. But we see how he’s affected by pressure as his secret looks in danger. He makes some odd decisions, but happily manages to justify his behaviour himself. A kindly, friendly man whom everyone likes and respects – with a streak of narcissism hidden beneath the surface.

Morris too is a pleasant character, leading a contented, pampered and happy life and with every reason to expect that to continue. However, when things go wrong, suddenly he becomes filled with a rage that surprises everyone, including himself, by its intensity. Godfrey, Edward’s partner, is somewhat less well drawn, and to a degree is a bit of a plot device. He too suddenly behaves in a way that surprises his partner, but I didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as the other characters so didn’t feel the same surprise.

Challenge details:
Book: 6
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1908

The murder happens quite late on and Benson builds a great atmosphere of approaching dread, with some fine dramatic writing…

Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up.

EF Benson

After a police investigation in which the police show themselves to be sharper than the murderer anticipated, the whole thing winds up in a courtroom drama where there’s an excellent revelation around a physical clue that turns the prosecution’s whole case on its head at the last minute. It is fair play in that the reader was made aware of the clue at the appropriate place, but this reader, while I had spotted that it was A Clue, couldn’t work it out, which always adds to the fun!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It can easily be read in an evening and my interest never flagged despite having very little doubt as to whodunit or how it would end. It’s the character of Edward that makes it entertaining – he may be a cheat and a fraudster, but I found him good company anyway. Highly recommended.

I downloaded this one from the excellent www.fadedpage.com

The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1) by Agatha Christie

Reds under the bed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the passengers on the Lusitania scramble for safety before she sinks, a man approaches Jane Finn. Pressing a package into her hands, he tells her that it’s of vital importance to the war effort that the contents are passed to the American authorities, and asks her to take it since women and children will be evacuated first, making her more likely to survive than him.

Some years later, the war is over and two young friends meeting by accident on a London street go to a tea room to talk over old times and new. Tommy Beresford has been demobbed from the army, while Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley is back in London now her services as a war nurse are no longer required. Neither has had much success in finding jobs, so half-joking, half-serious, they come up with an idea to form a joint venture – to advertise themselves as The Young Adventurers willing to take on any job offered…

But a man in the tea room has overheard them talk and, before they can place the ad, he approaches Tuppence with a job offer. Soon the two young people will find themselves embroiled in an adventure full of mysterious crooks, Bolshevik revolutionaries, missing girls, American millionaires, secret treaties and British Intelligence. And the brooding evil presence of the sinister Mr Brown, the criminal mastermind who is behind the plot – a man no-one seems to know by sight but whom all fear by reputation…

As regulars know, my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, so that will give you some idea of how much I love this pair of detectives. Christie didn’t write many T&T books, but each has its own charm, especially since, unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, so that we see them develop from youth to old age over roughly the same period as Christie herself did. The Secret Adversary is the first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

Reading it now, nearly a century later, some aspects of it are unintentionally amusing, like dear Ms Christie’s obvious mistrust of Labour politicians, belief in the good old right-wing establishment, and a fear of those terrible socialists so great it would almost qualify her to apply for American citizenship! But this was during the Red terror following the Russian Revolution – the book was published in 1922 and there is much talk in it of a possible general strike which the socialists hope to orchestrate in order to start a British revolution. Four years later in the real world, the General Strike of 1926 didn’t quite do that, but it came close for a while, and was only broken by the middle classes volunteering to do the essential work of the strikers. My point is that the plot seems a bit silly now, but wouldn’t have back then – Christie was reflecting the legitimate fears of conservative Middle England.

Le Carré it’s not, however. Underneath all the spy stuff, there’s an excellent whodunit mystery, plotted as misleadingly as any of her later books. It’s decades since I last read this and the joy of having a terrible memory is that I couldn’t remember who the baddie was, and I loved how Christie led me around, suspecting first this person, then that one, then back again. Yes, at one point I suspected the right person, but purely by accident, and I’d moved on to the wrong person before the big reveal!

Agatha Christie

The major enjoyment of the book, though, comes from the delightful characterisation of the two main characters, and their budding romance – a romance the reader is well aware of long before the two participants catch on! Tommy is a typical British hero of the time, strong, rather stolid and unimaginative, but patriotic and decent, determined and resourceful. Tuppence is so much fun – headstrong and courageous, she works on intuition and instinct, and is one of the new breed of modern girls who are more likely to bat the bad guy over the head with a jug than swoon helplessly into the hero’s arms. She’s the driving force in The Young Adventurers while Tommy is the stabilising influence, and they’re a wonderful partnership. Lots of humour in their banter with one another keeps the tone light even when the plot darkens.

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and, as always, he does a great job. He gets the chance to “do” an American millionaire and a Russian spy along with all the British characters, and has a lot of fun with the somewhat stereotyped characterisation Christie gives of them. All-in-all, pure pleasure either as a read or a listen – highly recommended! My cats recommend it too…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, can’t see the Hugh Fraser version on the US site, though there are other narrators available.

Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Michael Gilbert

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When George Furnace, instructor of the Baston Aero Club, is found dead in the wreck of his crashed plane, everyone assumes it was a tragic accident, even though he was a skilled airman. Everyone, that is, except the Bishop of Cootamundra, who has signed on to take lessons at the flying school so he can fly himself around his vast diocese back in Australia. The Bishop has some knowledge of medicine, and he notices something strange about Furnace’s corpse. Enter Inspector Creighton of the local constabulary, closely followed by Inspector Bray of the Yard…

There are three main elements to this entertaining mystery – who, why and how – with some added confusion over whether this really was a murder at all. At points, there are reasons to think Furnace may have committed suicide, unlikely though that seems for a man of his character, and there’s still the possibility the Bishop is wrong and it was an accident after all. But Furnace’s death soon becomes almost secondary, since Creighton and Bray quickly discover in the course of their investigations that there seems to be an international criminal conspiracy going on around the airfield, in which they suspect some of the flyers are involved, either knowingly or as dupes of the mysterious Chief of the criminal gang. But which are which? Suspicions and accusations abound and the plot is increasingly complicated to the point where I had lost all capacity to keep the facts separate from the new theories propounded every few pages by Creighton, Bray, the Bishop and just about everybody else who appears in the book!

This is one of those mysteries where it’s important to switch off one’s credibility monitor and simply go with the flow. The mystery all depends on the detectives and forensic experts missing or misinterpreting clues all over the place. First published in 1934, I’d expect forensic pathology not to be up to modern standards, but here we have to accept that they can miss minor details like bullet holes and mix up times of deaths to a frankly ridiculous level. So long as you don’t mind the general implausibility, though, it’s fun accepting the “facts” as given and trying to work out how Furnace’s death came about, that being the key to finding out who killed him and why.

Challenge details:
Book: 58
Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries
Publication Year: 1934

The first half of the book is set in and around the flying club, so has the feel of a closed circle of suspects in traditional Golden Age style. However once the international angle becomes apparent, Creighton and Bray follow leads up to Glasgow and over to Paris, before it all comes back to the flying club in the end for the final dénouement. This adds extra interest and also gives Sprigg the opportunity to talk a lot about flying and planes, which, as a pilot himself, he does knowledgeably and entertainingly, his love for flying shining through. (It’s sad to note that Sprigg died a few years later, flying as a volunteer pilot in the Spanish Civil War, aged just 29.)

The characterisation is what makes the book, though, and carries the reader quite contentedly through the plotting complexities. The book is full of “types” rather than stereotypes – the ex-WW1 pilots, the adventurous flyers out to break records in this still new field, the decent if stolid local policeman, the more incisive methods of the Yard detective. Then there are the staff and pupils of the flying school, and the locals who get involved in one way or another. Lady Crumbles walks over everyone in her mission to do good to people whether they want to have good done to them or not. Sally Sackbut runs the school with alarming efficiency. Tommy Vane is cheerful if incompetent as a pupil, finishing every lesson with a quick dash to the bar for a double whisky. Lady Laura Vanguard and Mrs Angevin are rivals as flying adventurers and also divide the attention of the males of the club, each having their own admirers. And the Bishop bumbles along, not very good at flying, not as good as he thinks he is at detecting, but always willing to listen to other people’s troubles and to offer them sympathy and advice. They’re all enjoyable and mostly likeable, even though we know some of them must be the baddies.

Christopher St. John Sprigg

In my view, the plotting and structure of this are too messy for it to count as a top rank classic of Golden Age crime, but it’s full of gentle humour and has a warm-hearted tone despite the dark deeds. I enjoyed reading it and am sorry that Sprigg didn’t get the chance to have a long writing career – the youthful exuberance and writing skill he shows in this one may well have allowed him to become one of the greats in time, as he developed more discipline over plotting. Despite his short career, though, Martin Edwards tells us that he wrote several other mystery novels, and a check on Amazon shows that some of them are available as Kindle e-books. I look forward to reading more of them.

I downloaded this one from www.fadedpage.com – a growing resource for out of copyright works.

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Bob Horniman has taken over as partner in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, following the very recent death of his father, the senior partner, Abel Horniman. Abel was an organisational fanatic, so there’s a place for everything in the office, and everything is in its place. That’s the theory anyway, until one day Bob and his secretary are looking for papers relating to an estate of which his father was a trustee. On opening the relevant deed box, they find the papers are missing, and in their place is the rather decayed body of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee. Enter Inspector Hazlerigg and his team…

Gilbert was a lawyer in real life, and he has a lot of fun here with the portrayal of a mid-rank law firm – successful enough, with a solid clientele of the rich and respectable, but not dealing in glamorous criminal law. Rather, these lawyers make a living out of wills, estates, trusts and property conveyancing. When it becomes clear that Smallbone has been deceased for several weeks, Hazlerigg’s first task is to determine who was working in the firm over the likely period. He spots a name he knows – Henry Bohun, a newly qualified lawyer who joined the firm on the day the body was discovered, meaning that he is almost certainly innocent. Hazlerigg knows something of the man, that’s he’s intelligent and resourceful with a good war record, so asks him to become a kind of “inside” man for the investigation. And, while we see a fair amount of Hazlerigg and his men, Bohun quickly becomes the main protagonist of the story.

The plot is interesting and reasonably fair-play, though I got nowhere near the solution. The format is rather different from the usual mystery novel, in that, while everyone who was working in the firm is a suspect, none of them are really given known motives. The hunt for the motive is played out alongside a lot of checking of alibis and so on to work out who would have had the opportunity to kill Smallbone. There’s also far less emphasis than usual on the detective interviewing the suspects – we often learn what suspects have said second-hand, through conversations between various policemen or Hazlerigg and Bohun. I must admit I found this all kept me at more of a distance from most of the characters than I prefer, though the young lawyers all come vividly and enjoyably to life.

Challenge details:
Book: 67
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1950

But the book has other delights which more than make up for this minor lack. As a new boy, Bohun is more involved with the lowly employees than the exalted partners, and the portrayal of the young, exclusively male, lawyers and the female secretaries is great. Sexism is of course rampant, as it was in offices back in those days, but here it’s treated as fun, with the young men flirting and the women either responding favourably or rejecting them brutally. We get to overhear the women’s view of the men amongst themselves, and also the men’s opinions of the women. It’s all done for humour, so there’s no meanness or nastiness about it, and it keeps the tone delightfully light-hearted for the most part. However, we also see power at play, and how easily employees can be bullied by their bosses with no real means of fighting back.

Meantime, Hazlerigg’s team are checking out other aspects of the case. We follow Sergeant Plumptree as he tries to sift through all the various alibis of the staff, and Mr Hoffman, an accountant, who is examining the trust of which Smallbone was a trustee, and also the wider financial affairs of the firm. Surprisingly, Gilbert manages to make these rather dry subjects highly entertaining. Poor Plumptree has a tough job pinning down the whereabouts of his suspects and we’re shown the plodding, painstaking and often frustrating nature of the work, but all done with an edge of humour. Hoffman is helped in his task by Bohun, that man of many talents, and between them they show how tiny discrepancies can give the clue that leads to the unravelling of the most tightly woven plot.

Michael Gilbert

This is my first Michael Gilbert, so I don’t know how usual it is for Hazlerigg to take a rather muted role in the investigation, but I really didn’t feel as if I got to know him much at all. However I enjoyed Bohun as a kind of amateur sidekick to the police, and found the office flirtations and rivalries highly entertaining. The whole thing is very well written, with that lightness of tone despite dark deeds that I find so characteristic and appealing about Golden Age crime – this was published in 1950, so a little later than true Golden Age, but it feels as if it fits square in that category nonetheless. The British Library has republished three of Gilbert’s books this year, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Dr Edmund Bickleigh is married to Julia, a woman some years older than him and far above him in the social status stakes. Her domineering manner feeds into his inferiority complex, but he compensates by having a string of affairs with the surprisingly willing young ladies of his Devonshire village. Gossip is a problem, of course, but Julia is willing to look the other way since she’s not the least bit in love with Edmund herself. So all remains well, until Edmund meets the one woman that he knows is his real, true love – the woman he should have married, would marry now if only he were free. Divorce is a problem – reputation is everything for a professional man. So there’s really only one course left to pursue…

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.

Francis Iles is one of the several names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who under the name Anthony Berkeley wrote The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I recently thoroughly enjoyed. This book, Malice Aforethought, was, according to the blurb, the first novel in which the name of the potential murderer is revealed from the beginning. (I’m not sure if that’s a fact – Martin Edwards doesn’t mention it in his discussion of the book in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels, and I’d have expected that he would if it were true. Anyway…)

The first half of the book tells of the lead up to the murder attempt and is full of rather sly mockery of Dr Bickleigh and all the other characters. Edwards lists it under the heading The Ironists, and this seems like a good description for the style. It’s written in the third person but told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the doctor, so that the reader can’t be sure how distorted the picture of the other characters is by his perception of them. As often happens in books that set out to be ironical or satirical, there are really no characters in this that are likeable, and I must say I found the women in particular come off really badly – either silly, mindless girls desperate to be admired and loved, or gossiping middle-aged spinsters, or domineering/dominated wives. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if this was Dr Bickleigh’s view of women or the author’s, but when I remembered that I have in fact read other books by this author under different pen-names which didn’t strike me in the same way, I acquitted Iles and decided it was a rather clever indication of Dr Bickleigh’s compensation for his feelings of inferiority.

Challenge details:
Book: 80
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1931

I enjoyed the first half a lot as we follow Dr Bickleigh through his various romantic entanglements until he reaches the ecstasy of total infatuation with the new girl in town. Julia behaves more like a stern mother than a wife, disapproving of Edmund’s behaviour rather than exhibiting any signs of jealousy. The odd thing is that everyone appears to like Edmund, and that seems to be more than his distorted perception. He appears to have an outward charm that conceals his narcissistic, selfish interior self effectively from the world. We are shown how he uses fantasies to bolster his self-confidence but that those fantasies seem to have gone so far as to over-inflate his ego. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked Julia, I vastly preferred her to this obnoxious little creep, who failed to charm me in any way at all! So I found an unexpected sympathy for the proposed victim, which I’m not at all sure we are supposed to feel.

Francis Iles

There’s some doubt up to the halfway mark as to whether the murder attempt will come off or fail, and that added the necessary element of suspense to hold my interest, so I won’t spoil it by telling. But after we know whether Julia survives or not, the second half is spent with Edmund trying to cover up his plot, and I found it dragged interminably. Of course, largely this was because I disliked him so much I hoped he would be found out, but also the story spiralled further and further beyond my credulity line as it went on. The reasonable psychology of the first half disappears in the second, and from being mildly amusing, Edmund descends to being simply annoying. I spent the final third wishing it would hurry up and get to the end and when it did, it didn’t surprise me as much as it was intended to, I think.

So a game of two halves for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the first and was thoroughly bored by the second. But then, irony has never been one of my favourite things, so I have no doubt it will work better for plenty of readers.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

A messy romp…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When two men enter a locked bookshop through a window and one ends up dead, suspicion not unnaturally falls on the survivor. Philip Balfour was a fanatical book collector and his companion on his mysterious trip to the bookshop was the man he employed as his librarian, Keith Ramsay. The fact that Keith is also in love with Balfour’s wife, Alli, provides a nice motive. But Keith claims that a masked intruder came into the store, chloroformed Keith and by the time he came round Balfour was dead and the intruder had gone. The police are dubious but the owner of the bookstore (who seems remarkably unfazed by the idea of one of his best customers breaking into his shop) is sure that Keith could never have done such a thing, so he advises Alli to bring his friend, the private detective Fleming Stone, into the case.

There are all kinds of mysteries here apart from the murder. What were the two men doing in the shop? A valuable book is missing – coincidence? What was the bookseller’s assistant up to at the time that he’s not prepared to reveal to the police? Who is sending mysterious anonymous letters? Why are the police willing to let Fleming Stone keep hold of vital evidence? Why does Fleming Stone say on one page that there’s a large pool of suspects and then a few pages later that there are very few suspects?

I must admit I thought this was all a bit of a mess. The author contradicts herself from page to page as if she just dashed the words down and never went back to read it over. For example, at one point Stone decides not to tell Alli about accusations that have been made against her in an anonymous letter, then promptly ten minutes later hands her the letter and asks her what she thinks! That’s just one instance – I could have picked many, many more. It all adds to the confusion, but not quite in the way the author intended, I assume. I believe she was hugely prolific, often churning out three or even four books a year, so I guess that didn’t leave much time for editing.

However, apparently she was also very popular in her day and I can understand that too to an extent since, despite the messiness, there is still some fun in this because of the element of humour the author introduces from time to time. Her characterisation is far from being deep, but it’s often quite slyly wicked, giving a neat summation of a person in a few words. The first lines of the book will give an idea of what I mean…

Mr Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Carolyn Wells

The investigation gets bogged down in repetition for a bit in the middle and drags, but both the beginning, when the murder takes place, and the end, when all is revealed, are better, and in retrospect, yes, I think there were enough clues there for the reader to have had a fair chance of spotting whodunit and why. I didn’t – I was too preoccupied spotting all the contradictions!

Overall, not one to be taken too seriously, but an enjoyable enough romp for those times when something a bit lighter suits your mood. And I assume that’s the secret of her appeal. However, I don’t think I’d be seeking out more of her work based on this example.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

A twofer…

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

The Dead Shall Be Raised

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

* * * * *

The Murder of a Quack

😀 😀 😀 😀

George Bellairs

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Julian Symons

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

Up the Gunners!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Leonard Gribble

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

How much is that body in the window?

😀 😀 🙂

In the run up to Christmas, Mander’s Department Store puts on an elaborate window display to attract the attention of passing shoppers. It turns out the display is even more elaborate than they intended, though, when onlookers spot that two of the figures aren’t mannequins – in fact, they’re corpses! One is Mr Mander himself, the brains behind the store, while the other is the strangely named Effie Tumour, one of the store’s department heads. She has been stabbed; he, shot. It’s up to Inspector Devenish of the Yard to work out who killed them, and how and why.

This falls mainly into the category of the puzzle mystery, or the howdunit, and unfortunately that’s never my favourite kind of plot. The detection tends to take the form of Devenish speculating as to how a piece of the puzzle could have happened, and then looking for evidence to prove or disprove his theory before moving on to the next piece. My mind doesn’t work that way – I’m never very interested in the kind of detailed physical clue that shows that someone must have been in such and such a place at such and such a moment and therefore must have been seen by so and so. So sadly I found a good deal of this somewhat tedious, even though I could see that it was good of its kind.

When it moved on to possible motive it worked much better for me, and although there’s not a huge amount of in-depth characterisation, what there is of it is very good, making me regret that Loder hadn’t concentrated more on the why and less on the how. Miss Tumour (why do you think he called her that? Most odd…) was engaged to the manager of the store, Mr Kephim (I suppose if you’re called Tumour, the idea of changing your name to Kephim might not be so bad). But it appears she’s been clandestinely meeting up with Mr Mander. Was it a case of jealousy then? But Mr Mander has other secrets too, including claiming an invention of another man as his own, and charming the elderly widow who is providing the financial backing for the store, which her son is not thrilled about. So plenty of people might have wanted to bump him off.

A mixed bag for me, then, but on the whole the good bits were outweighed by the bits where my eyes were tending to glaze over. Regrettably, the solution when it comes is also mixed – it’s unexpected and interesting, which is good, but large parts of it are still speculative. Devenish may be right in his assumptions, but I couldn’t help feeling he could just as easily be wrong. I’m sure the puzzle aspects will appeal to people who enjoy pitting their wits alongside the detective to try to make sense of baffling physical clues, but personally, being more interested in motive and characterisation, I found it all rather unsatisfactory.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link