When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. Firstly, Graham and Joan Bendix were happily married, so what would Graham’s motive have been? Secondly, and more importantly, he had had no chance to poison the chocolates – he had been given them by a man at his club, Sir Eustace Pennefather, that very morning. Sir Eustace himself had received them that morning through the post, so it appears that perhaps the intended victim was Sir Eustace. This would make more sense, since Sir Eustace has a shady reputation regarding money and women. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help. Enter Roger Sheringham and the members of his Crimes Circle…
As Martin Edwards explains in his introduction, Berkeley wrote this to show how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.
Of course, I spotted the solution straight away. So did all six criminologists, although each spotted a different one. Unfortunately, when my solution showed up in the very early stages of the book, I, along with the amateur ‘tec who proposed it, had to hang my head in shame as the others neatly demolished it, showing me that each of the clues I had carefully collected couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant. After that, I decided to resign as a detective and simply watch the rest at work!
Challenge details: Book: 22 Subject Heading: The Great Detectives Publication Year: 1929
They’re an intriguing and mismatched bunch, brought together simply because each has an interest in crime. Roger Sheringham is Berkeley’s recurring amateur detective, but it should not be assumed that that means his solution will necessarily be the right one – Berkeley apparently enjoyed making him get it wrong occasionally. There’s a famous and rather pompous defence barrister, a dramatist of the intellectual variety, a novelist who delves somewhat pretentiously into the psychology of her characters, a detective-mystery writer who thinks rather highly of himself, and a rather insignificant little man who is in perpetual awe of everyone else. Each approaches the problem from a different angle, and since they and the victims and suspects all move in the same social circles, several of them have the advantage of being able to add details from their own knowledge. I admit it – I was totally convinced by every solution they offered, which suggests I must be the detective-mystery writer’s dream reader!
While the cleverness and originality of the plotting are what make the book unique, it’s also well written and has a good basic mystery at its core. Berkeley might be having a bit of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own, but it’s not at all done with a sense of superiority or sneering. His affection for the conventions comes through clearly even as he subverts them and in the end it is fair play – there’s nothing to stop the armchair detective getting to the real solution except for all the delightful red herrings and blind alleys along the way. But is the real solution really the solution? For a bit of extra fun, the BL have included an alternative solution written later by another mystery novelist, Christianna Brand, and have enticed Martin Edwards to come up with yet another!
A most enjoyable read – light-hearted, amusing and clever, and fully deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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???
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.
I’ve read a couple of Thorndyke short stories before, but this was my first full length novel, and it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Because of the heavy emphasis on Thorndyke being a scientific investigator, I thought it might be rather dry; and I knew that Freeman was famous for the “inverted” story, where the reader gets to see the villain commit the crime before watching the detective solve it. But this novel is laid out as a traditional mystery and is full of wit, with a charming romance between Berkeley and Ruth to give it warmth. I loved it. Actually, don’t tell anyone but I fell a little in love with young Dr Berkeley myself.
The plot is complex, not so much as to whodunit – the pool of potential suspects is very small – but as to how it was done and perhaps more importantly why it was done in the way it was. There’s a lot in it about Egyptology since several of the characters are linked by their involvement in that field, and a lot more about methods of identifying bodies when there’s not much left of them but bones. The missing man’s will provides another level of complexity, since he specified conditions with regards to where his body should be buried – not easy to fulfil unless his corpse turns up and can be convincingly identified. I believe Thorndyke’s sidekick, Jervis, is usually the narrator of these books, but although he appears in this one he only plays a small part. Berkeley acts as the main sidekick and major character – as a medical doctor he’s ideally placed to act as Godfrey’s representative at inquests, etc.
Challenge details: Book: 9 Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns Publication Year: 1911
In his discussion of this story in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards says that “the ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L Sayers – a fervent admirer of Freeman – deplored it.” Edwards also says “the prose lacks sparkle”. Oh dear! It appears I have to disagree with both Sayers and Edwards – I loved the elegance of the prose, which reminded me quite a lot of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth is a lovely love interest – she’s humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. She feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911, and Berkeley’s initial admiration is of her brain and character rather than of her looks or feminine delicacy. And Berkeley’s own realisation that he’s falling in love is done with a lot of beautifully self-deprecating wit and charm. Considering Ms Sayers is responsible for one of the sappiest romances in the history of crime fiction, with the adoring Lord Peter Wimsey languishing after his ladylove for several books, I think she has a bit of a cheek, quite frankly! 😉
“’Orrible discovery at Sidcup!”
I turned wrathfully – for a London street-boy’s yell, let off at point-blank range, is, in effect, like the smack of an open hand – but the inscription on the staring yellow poster that was held up for my inspection changed my anger into curiosity.
“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”
Now, let prigs deny it if they will, but there is something very attractive in a “horrible discovery.” It hints at tragedy, at mystery, at romance. It promises to bring into our grey and commonplace life that element of the dramatic which is the salt that our existence is savoured withal. “In a watercress-bed,” too! The rusticity of the background seemed to emphasise the horror of the discovery, whatever it might be.
In among the more serious characterisation and the scientific stuff, there are a couple of great humorous set pieces that provide a bit of light relief, such as the obstreperous jury member at the inquest, or the maid servant incapable of giving a direct answer to any question, or the various patients Berkeley sees in his professional capacity. Admittedly these smack a little of the golden age snobbery that tends to mock the working classes, but here it’s done with so much warmth I couldn’t find it in me to take offence. I did guess a couple of pieces of the solution but was still in the dark as to motive and exactly how the intricate details of the plot all fitted together until Thorndyke explained all in a typical denouement scene at the end. All together, a very enjoyable read that has left me keen to get to know Freeman and Thorndyke better.
Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.
There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.
Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-
The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!
The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.
Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories
The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!
The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.
So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
This is another in the British Library’s series of anthologies of vintage crime stories edited by Martin Edwards. This time, the focus is on Continental Europe as the authors take us to casinos in Monte Carlo, catacombs in Rome, castles on the Rhine, in search of the usual murder, mystery and mayhem. To be clear, this is British authors visiting the Continent – I believe there’s a new anthology coming along soon containing stories by non-Brits translated into English, some for the first time, which should be fun.
I found this collection quite variable in quality. Although there were certainly enough 4 and 5 star stories to keep me entertained, there were also several stories that didn’t quite cut it as far as I’m concerned. Partly this is to do with the settings – I freely admit I prefer the traditional English manor house or village, or the foggy streets of London, as the setting for my vintage crime fix. But also it’s because sometimes I felt the setting wasn’t really brought to life terribly well, or there was a touch too much of that British condescension towards all foreigners.
Oddly there were also a couple of stories where the attitude towards (lower-class) women goes well over the out-dated line towards outright misogyny – not a thing I’m normally aware of in vintage crime. Something about going abroad seems to bring out the worst in Brits, I think! I hasten to add that one of these stories was written by a woman, Josephine Bell, who clearly felt that her young female murder victim had brought her fate on herself by her unladylike behaviour in pursuing a man – it actually contains the line “She was asking for it!” The other one was by Michael Gilbert who rounds his story off with the equally astonishing line: “Many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating.” Well, Mr Gilbert, should you ever propose to me, I’ll be sure to give you a sound thrashing before I reply…
There’s also plenty of good stuff, though. There’s the usual mix of well known and more obscure names among the authors, and a nice mix of crimes, from ‘impossible’ mysteries to revenge murders, blackmail, theft, greed and even the occasional haunting. Here’s a little selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most…
The New Catacomb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I know I nearly always select the Conan Doyle story, but that’s because he’s such a great storyteller. This one is a lovely little revenge tale which climaxes in a catacomb in Rome. An interesting story well told, and with some effective touches of horror – make sure you don’t read it if there’s any danger of a power outage…
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A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett – While Kitty is showing her new expensive bracelet to another woman, it somehow gets dropped into a canal in Bruges and is lost. Or is it? This is more of a howdunit with a neat solution and has a rather charming little romance thrown in. But the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it reminded me of the sheer quality of Arnold Bennett’s writing – an author I loved when I was young, though for his fiction rather than crime, and had more or less completely forgotten. Must revisit him!
….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’ ….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.
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The Room in the Tower by J Jefferson Farjeon – our narrator, a writer, goes to stay in a castle on the Rhine looking for inspiration and atmosphere for his book. Perhaps he gets more atmosphere than he anticipated though when he gets lost in the gloomy corridors and ends up in the haunted tower. The story in this one is a bit weird but Farjeon builds up the tension well and there are some genuinely spooky moments.
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So even though this isn’t my favourite of these anthologies, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the Agatha Christie story…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Anyone who’s been reading my blog over this last year or two will be aware that I have developed something of an addiction for the themed anthologies being published under the British Library Crime Classics label. This one concentrates on “impossible” crimes – “locked room” mysteries and others of the kind where the emphasis is more on how it was done than on whodunit. As always, the stories have been selected by Martin Edwards who gives a brief introduction to each one telling a little about the author. They’re printed in rough chronological order, covering the period from the beginning of the 20th century (or just before) through to 1960.
There are lots of well-known names here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, etc – as well as some more obscure authors, some of whom have appeared in the earlier anthologies and some who I think are making their first appearance. The crimes are a lot of fun, ranging from the fiendishly clever but quite possible to work out if you have that kind of mind, to ones that rely on something that couldn’t have been known – trick doors or things of that nature. I did guess a few, but was baffled by plenty, and even the easier to solve ones are still entertaining.
As with all anthologies, the quality is variable but I must say I think the average standard throughout this collection is actually higher than in some of the earlier collections. Perhaps this kind of puzzle just appeals more to me, but I don’t think that’s it, really – I think this is just a particularly good group of stories. There are sixteen of them in total, and I ranked ten of them as either 4 or 5 stars, with only one getting a rating lower than 3 (and that was the GK Chesterton story, which can be put down to my own prejudice – I simply don’t enjoy his style).
Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a special train goes missing between two stations and, though the driver is later found dead by the side of the tracks, nothing is heard of the passengers or other crew for eight years…until a man waiting to be executed in France reveals how it was done. ACD is a master storyteller and builds up a nice air of almost supernatural mystery around the disappearance, though the answer is firmly of this world. And there’s a brief cameo appearance from an anonymous man who writes to a newspaper with a possible solution to the crime – a man who sounds very like a certain consulting detective we all know and love…
The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – when a woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary blaming all her former friends for deserting her in her time of need. Now someone is bumping those friends off one by one. Loreto Santos, an amateur ‘tec from Spain, is on site when the third murder happens in a locked room during a house party. In truth, the method in this one is blindingly obvious, but the writing is very good, there’s some nice characterisation and the story is interesting, so that being able to work out how it was done didn’t spoil the entertainment.
The Music-Room by Sapper – Forty years earlier, a man was found killed in the middle of the locked music room. No-one ever worked out how it happened. Now, during a dinner party, the new owner of the house tells the old tale to his guests. Later that night, his nephew and business partner is killed in the same room, apparently accidentally. But amateur sleuth Ronald Standish is unconvinced. This is one of the ones where it wouldn’t really be possible to work out the how – though one can make a rough guess – and the who is relatively obvious. But the plotting is tight and the telling of the story is done very well.
I could just as easily have highlighted any of half a dozen others, and now feel quite qualified to bump off anyone who annoys me in ways that will baffle the greatest detective minds. So probably best if you were to send me some chocolate, just to be on the safe side…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned pen Press.
The latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…
As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.
There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!
Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…
The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.
Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…
Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.
Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.
* * * * *
So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
When the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…
This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.
Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.
As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.
The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…
In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!
NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀
Eli Marks is a stage magician with a penchant for getting mixed up in murder, often via his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. The books are full of humour and, though set in the present day, have plots that are reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, with clues, suspects, red herrings, etc. Having loved each of the full-length Eli Marks novels, I couldn’t resist seeing if John Gaspard could work the same magic in a short story, so this Kindle short seemed like a perfect pick for this week’s…
The Invisible Assistant
by John Gaspard
Eli is performing at a corporate event and needs two members of the audience to come up on stage to help out with his next trick. To his less-than-thrilled surprise, one of the reluctant volunteers turns out to be none other than his ex-wife’s new husband, Detective Fred Hutton.
…I launched into my Cards Across routine, counting three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.
The trick involves Eli calling on his “invisible assistant” as the cards magically transfer themselves from one volunteer’s hand to the other’s.
(Eli’s trick is a little different to this one, but the basic idea is the same.)
After the performance, Eli’s ex-wife Deirdre explains that she and Fred were in the audience because she wants to ask his advice about an apparent murder/suicide case they’re working on. Two men were found dead in a house – one, Harley Keller, upstairs, shot through the chest, and the other, Josiah Manning, downstairs, shot in the head and with a gun lying at his feet. It seems obvious that Manning must have shot Keller first, then gone downstairs and shot himself. Fred’s happy with that theory, anyway, but Deirdre doesn’t buy it. Keller was a pro-suicide campaigner, believing people should be allowed to take their own life whenever they wanted. But Manning was passionately anti-suicide. The two men had clashed in public debates on the subject.
“So [said Eli], let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”
“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a sidelong glance at her husband. He did not return it.
Now Deirdre wants Eli to see if he can come up with an alternative explanation…
“On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”
“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”
“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that.
So the bickering Deirdre and Fred take Eli along to the crime scene…
From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talking in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation…
…on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.
* * * * *
This is just as much fun as the books! The short format obviously doesn’t allow for the complexity of plotting of the novels, and regular readers already know these three characters and the dynamics amongst them, so there’s no need for much character development. But all the usual humour is there and, as usual, Eli’s knowledge of stage magic plays its part. I didn’t work it out, or even get close, but found it nicely satisfying when all was revealed. Gaspard is great at this kind of “impossible” crime, where the fun is in working out how it was done, and the method is always beautifully quirky. The books are usually whodunits too, but the length restrictions of this one means there are no suspects beyond the two victims themselves.
It works perfectly as a standalone, either as a little treat for existing fans impatiently waiting for the next book, or perhaps as an introduction to Gaspard’s style for newcomers. It is very definitely a short story, not a novella – I’d say it took me about twenty minutes or so to read. But I was smiling for longer than that…
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PS – After I’d posted this, the author John Gaspard kindly popped in to the comments to leave a link to where you can listen to this story for free. I’ve sampled it and love the narrator’s voice – just right for the story. Here it is… click on the red button to play…
When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…
This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.
But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.
Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle. “I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.” “That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?” “Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”
For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.
Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…
Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?
“Please, sir, can we see the body?” “No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?” “Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…” “Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!” “Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”
Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…
Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)
I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!
When she read last week’s guest post from Martin Edwards on Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, regular commenter BigSister (who, by an amazing coincidence, is my big sister) mentioned one of her own favourite early mystery writers, R Austin Freeman, and specifically his “inverted mysteries”, a format he apparently pretty much invented. This is a story that starts by showing the crime, including allowing the reader to know the culprit, and then shows how the investigator attempts to solve it. So, since one must always listen to one’s big sister (well, except when she’s praising Vin Diesel films or banging on about fantasy novels), I promptly selected what I think is the first of these stories for this week’s…
The Case of Oscar Brodski
by R Austin Freeman
The first part of the story introduces us to Silas Hickler, a successful burglar with connections to the diamond industry, and a convenient conscience that allows him to commit his crimes without suffering too greatly from remorse.
No one, looking into his cheerful, round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Least of all, his worthy, high-church housekeeper, who was a witness to his unvarying amiability, who constantly heard him carolling light-heartedly about the house and noted his appreciative zest at meal-times.
One October evening, the aforesaid housekeeper is out and Silas himself is preparing to go on a journey to Amsterdam to sell some dodgy diamonds, when a man stops at his house to ask for directions to the train station. Silas recognises the man immediately as Oscar Brodski, a well-known and reputable diamond merchant. When Silas learns that Brodski is also headed for Amsterdam, he speculates that the merchant is likely to be carrying some valuable diamonds and immediately his greed begins to put ideas into his head. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time…
Crimes against the person he had always looked upon as sheer insanity. There was, it is true, that little affair of the Weybridge policeman, but that was unforeseen and unavoidable, and it was the constable’s doing after all. And there was the old housekeeper at Epsom, too, but, of course, if the old idiot would shriek in that insane fashion…
And so Mr Brodski’s fate is soon sealed…
So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.
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Part 2 introduces Dr John Thorndyke and his sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who is our narrator for this section. Thorndyke is a scientific detective, who always carries a case filled with equipment, such as a miniature microscope. He happens to be on a train that is held up by the discovery of a body on the line, decapitated by a passing goods train but still recognisably poor old Brodski. Not convinced that Brodski’s death is accidental, he sets out to investigate…
“In a case of this kind,” he remarked, “we have to decide on one of three possible explanations: accident, suicide or homicide; and our decision will be determined by inferences from three sets of facts: first, the general facts of the case; second, the special data obtained by examination of the body, and, third, the special data obtained by examining the spot on which the body was found.”
With the help of Jervis and his trusty microscope, Thorndyke does exactly that, and, deciding that Brodski was the victim of murder, goes on to track down the perpetrator of the crime.
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Well, I found this thoroughly entertaining! The first section takes us inside the mind of the murderer and has some great melodramatic writing that gives the whole thing an atmosphere of growing horror. By contrast, the second section is written very matter-of-factly, with Thorndyke relying almost entirely on forensic evidence to solve the crime. There are elements of Holmes in Thorndyke’s cerebral, scientific approach, but I would have missed the physical drama that usually livens up the Holmes’ stories, had it not been provided in the first section. Jervis is a much more perceptive sidekick than Watson, and the story hints that he is in fact being trained by Thorndyke to follow his methods rather than simply being a staunch friend. The police are, of course, pretty thick – initially dismissive of Thorndyke’s strange methods and then awestruck by his results.
I enjoyed Freeman’s writing style, especially in the first section, and the forensic stuff holds up well to age and is convincing, with only a couple of moments when Thorndyke seems to make spectacular assumptions based on very little evidence. First published in 1912, Thorndyke ends by suggesting there is an “urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police” in such cases. From the number of forensic experts infesting modern crime fiction, it appears he got his wish. I look forward to reading more of the Thorndyke stories.
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I read the story in this Kindle collection, which I acquired for the vast sum of 49p. It doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but many other similarly priced collections are available. This particular story was originally published in the collection called The Singing Bone, or under the more prosaic US title of The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke.
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!
Michael Sims begins his anthology of Victorian detective stories with an interesting introduction where he gives a potted history of the detective in literature, going back as far as Daniel in the Bible! Much of this is ground that has been covered many times, of course, but Sims doesn’t only stick to British detectives, as many of these anthologies tend to, so some of the information about early writings from America was unfamiliar to me. And he ranges more widely than usual in his selection of stories too, taking us to Australia, Canada, and even the American wilderness.
Sims brings in several writers I haven’t come across before, and in particular some of the early women writers of detective fiction. The stories are presented in chronological order and, before each one, he gives a little introduction – a mini-biography of the author, putting them into the context of the history of the development of the genre.
Overall, I found this collection more interesting than enjoyable. Unfortunately, my recent forays into classic crime have left me feeling that there’s a good reason many of these forgotten authors and stories are forgotten. Often the stories simply aren’t very good, and I’m afraid that’s what I felt about many of the early stories in this anthology. The later ones I tended to find more enjoyable, partly, I think, because the detective story had developed its own form by then which most authors rather stuck to.
The book is clearly trying not to regurgitate the same old stories that show up in nearly every collection and that is to be applauded. However, some of the selections didn’t work for me, and I felt on occasion that the choices were perhaps being driven too much by a desire to include something different. For example, there are a couple of selections that can’t count as detective fiction at all – a newspaper report from the time of the Ripper killings, and an exceedingly dull extract of Dickens writing about his experiences of accompanying the police on a night shift, with Dickens at his most cloyingly arch. How I longed for Sims to have chosen an extract from Bleak House instead, to show one of the formative fictional detectives in action, Inspector Bucket.
It also seemed very disappointing to me that Sims should have chosen to use a short extract from A Study in Scarlet as his only Holmes selection. As a master of the short story form and major influence on detective fiction, I felt Conan Doyle should have had a complete entry to himself, and there are plenty of stories to choose from. We do get a complete Holmes pastiche in Bret Harte’s The Stolen Cigar-Case, which is quite fun, and a good Ernest Bramah story, whose Max Carrados clearly derives from Holmes. But no actual Holmes story!
There is also an extract from Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which kindly gives away the ending of the book, thus spoiling it completely for anyone who hasn’t read it. And an utterly tedious extract from one of Dumas’ Musketeer books, for which my note says simply ‘short, but not short enough’.
However, there are several good stories in the collection too, many of which I hadn’t read before. The Murders in the Rue Morgue puts in its obligatory appearance (and yet no Holmes story! You can tell I’m bitter…). There’s an interesting story from William Wilkie Collins, The Diary of Anne Rodway, where the detection element might be a bit flimsy and dependent on coincidence, but it’s well written, with a strong sense of justice and a sympathetic view of the poorer members of society. GK Chesterton’s The Hammer of God, which I recently included as a Tuesday ‘Tec! review, also came from this collection.
The title story, The Dead Witness by WW (the pen-name of Mary Fortune), is apparently the first known detective story written by a woman. The plot is a little weak, but she builds up a good atmosphere and there’s a lovely bit of horror at the end which works very well. I particularly enjoyed Robert Barr’s The Absent-Minded Coterie, which has a nicely original bit of plotting, is well written and has a good deal of humour. Sims suggests Barr’s detective, Mr Eugene Valmont, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Hmm… on the basis of this story, I remain unconvinced.
So a bit of a mixed bag for me, really. I admire the intention more than the result overall, though the stronger stories towards the end lifted my opinion of it. One that I’m sure will appeal to anyone with an existing interest in Victorian detective fiction, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first anthology I’d recommend to newcomers wanting to sample some of the best the period has to offer.
The only thing of Hammett’s that I’ve read is The Maltese Falcon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But as well as Sam Spade, Hammett is famous for another detective – a nameless one, known only as the Continental Op (because he’s an operative of the Continental Detective Agency). This story is his first appearance, in 1923, so it seems like a good choice for this week’s…
by Dashiell Hammett
Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”
An insurance company has hired the Continental Op to investigate a house fire, in which the owner, a man named Thornburgh, died. They suspect arson, and Sheriff Tar quickly confirms this – the house was soaked in gasoline before it went up. But so far the police have found no clues as to who might have set the fire. He agrees to have the officer who’s investigating the crime bring the C.O. up to speed…
Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed: “Hey, Mac!” The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together – MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing. “What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?” The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.
Sheriff Tarr then agrees that McClump should work with the C.O.
On the night of the fire, Thornburgh’s servants Mr and Mrs Coons woke in the night to find themselves suffocating in smoke. Mr Coons managed to drag himself and his wife out, but by then the blaze was so strong he couldn’t fight his way back in to help Thornburgh. A passing motorist, Henderson, stopped at the scene and together they watched helplessly as Thornburgh tried to escape from his upper floor window… alas, in vain!
Thornburgh had only recently arrived in town and kept himself to himself. The Coons had only been employed by him on his arrival and so didn’t know him terribly well either, but they said he would shut himself away for hours in his room, and they believed he was working on some invention. The only visitor he had was his niece, Mrs Evelyn Trowbridge, who was also the beneficiary of his will and various insurance policies he had recently taken out. But Mrs Trowbridge had a cast-iron alibi for the night in question.
Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes – not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins.
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Although this is one of Hammett’s earliest stories, it already shows some of what made him such a successful and influential writer later in his career. The plot is nicely set up and rattles along at a good pace, although the detection element is pretty weak and crucial facts are withheld from the reader only to be presented after the C.O. has caught his culprit. But the writing is excellent, with a lot of wit, and the characterisation is strong throughout. We learn almost nothing about the C.O. himself in this one, except that he’s the kind of smart-talking, hardboiled character that Hammett and those influenced by him would develop over the next few decades. But through his narration, we get great snapshots of the other characters, often summed up in a few short lines that tell more than many authors can do in pages…
McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or -six, with all the nerve in the world – and most of the laziness.
The following paragraph is pretty spoilerish (and a bit of a mini-rant) so, if you want to read the story, you may want to skip it. I can’t find an online link, but the story is in…
Coincidentally, José Ignacio has also been reviewing a later Continental Op book this week, Red Harvest, over on A Crime is Afoot – a great blog for anyone interested in classic or contemporary crime fiction.
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The story ends with a crazy shoot-out of the kind that actually puts me off so much American detective fiction. I’m much more of a fan of the brilliant denouement type of story, followed by the culprit being huckled off in handcuffs. Partly this is just because I find shoot-outs immensely dull, especially since it’s always obviously the baddie who’s going to die. But partly, it’s because authors often use it lazily as a replacement for actually working out a clever way to trap the villain. That’s the case in this one – they all agree they don’t have much in the way of evidence that would stand up in court, so Hammett simply engineers a situation where it’s vaguely reasonable for them to gun their suspect down, and one is left to assume no questions will be asked afterwards. I think this is my favourite bit of dialogue in the story, AFTER the cop, McClump, has shot the suspect dead…
McClump spoke to me over the body. “I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this [person].”
And I complain about today’s maverick policemen!
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An enjoyable story in its own right, and one that makes for interesting reading in seeing the beginnings of what would develop into Hammett’s trademark hardboiled style.
I’ve never been a particular fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but I stumbled across this story in Michael Sim’s anthology of detective stories, The Dead Witness, (full review to follow), and felt that it was about time he made his first appearance in…
The Hammer of God
by GK Chesterton
The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun was very devout, and was making his way to some austere exercises of prayer or contemplation at dawn. Colonel the Hon. Norman Bohun, his elder brother, was by no means devout, and was sitting in evening dress on the bench outside ‘The Blue Boar,’ drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday. The colonel was not particular.
Wilfred notices that Norman seems to be watching the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith is a strong giant of a man, upright and Puritanical, but Wilfred has heard some scandalous reports about the behaviour of his beautiful wife. As they pass each other in the street, Norman calls out to his brother…
“Good morning, Wilfred,” he said. “Like a good landlord I am watching sleeplessly over my people. I am going to call on the blacksmith.”
Wilfred looked at the ground, and said: “The blacksmith is out. He is over at Greenford.”
“I know,” answered the other with silent laughter; “that is why I am calling on him.”
In despair at his brother’s shameful conduct, the devout Rev. Wilfred hurries on to his gothic-style church to pray. As he often does, rather than praying at the altar, he chooses another spot in the church for his private devotions – on this occasion, the gallery, where there is a rather beautiful stained glass window. He is still there sometime later when the village cobbler rushes in to inform him that a tragedy has occurred. Norman is dead, his head smashed by a single heavy blow…
He could only stammer out: “My brother is dead. What does it mean? What is this horrible mystery?” There was an unhappy silence; and then the cobbler, the most outspoken man present, answered: “Plenty of horror, sir,” he said; “but not much mystery.”
“What do you mean?” asked Wilfred, with a white face.
“It’s plain enough,” answered Gibbs. “There is only one man for forty miles round that could have struck such a blow as that, and he’s the man that had most reason to.”
But it turns out the blacksmith has an unshakeable alibi. There are plenty of other people who may have had reasons to kill the wicked Norman – the village idiot whom he taunted, other husbands, perhaps women he had toyed with. But who could have struck such a mighty blow – and with the fairly small hammer that is found to have been the weapon?
Fortunately, there is one man in the village who may be able to work it out – Father Brown. Using his commonsense and his knowledge of human sinfulness, it’s not long before he confronts the amazed villain…
“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”
“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
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As always, there is a strong moral content to the story, and it’s this really that puts me off these stories. It’s not that I object to the battle between good and evil as a basis for a story – quite the reverse actually. It’s that I don’t enjoy the moralising tone that Chesterton employs through his priestly character. In this one (mini-spoiler alert) Father Brown plays on the conscience of the killer, preferring to give him the chance to do the right thing rather than handing him over to the police. All very well in fiction, but in reality I’d suggest the majority of murderers would take the opportunity to make good their escape and be on the next flight to Brazil or the Costa del Sol. So Father Brown’s uncanny ability to bring the bad guys back to the path of righteousness with just a few well-chosen words always leaves me unconvinced.
However, the story is very well written as Chesterton’s always are, with a good deal of strong characterisation considering its brevity. And the puzzle, while not too hard to work out, is intriguing. One that I’m sure would be enjoyed by existing Father Brown fans, and would be a good introduction to him for newcomers, who should not be put off by my personal lack of enthusiasm for the character.
It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…
The Murdered Banker
by Augusto De Angelis
Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.
“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?” “There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.” A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful. “Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”
Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.
“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”
Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.
But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.
There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.