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

Hidden secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 19 of 20

TBR Thursday 208…

Episode 208

A huge drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 223! I wish I could say this is because I’ve been racing through piles of great books, but it’s actually because several have been consigned to the garbage…

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon

History

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

This one was very kindly sent to me by a blog buddy who clearly knows my tastes very well! Civil War-era history, political conspiracy and an edge of true crime complete with famous detective Allan Pinkerton – sounds great!  

The Blurb says: Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award-winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the Baltimore Plot, an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War.

In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a clear and fully-matured threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart the plot, assisted by a captivating young widow named Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye. As Lincoln’s train rolled inexorably toward the seat of danger, Pinkerton struggled to unravel the ever-changing details of the murder plot, even as he contended with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisors, who refused to believe that the danger was real. With time running out Pinkerton took a desperate gamble, staking Lincoln’s life and the future of the nation on a perilous feint that seemed to offer the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president.

Shrouded in secrecy and, later, mired in controversy, the story of the Baltimore Plot is one of the great untold tales of the Civil War era, and Stashower has crafted this spellbinding historical narrative with the pace and urgency of a race-against-the-clock thriller.

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Classic Science Fiction

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Courtesy of the British Library. Not content with feeding my addiction for vintage crime, the BL is now intent on getting me hooked on vintage sci-fi. Not that I’m complaining… quite the reverse! I prefer older SF to contemporary stuff by far, because it tends to concentrate less on science and technology and more on humanity…

The Blurb says: In 1926 Muriel Jaeger, dissatisfied with the Utopian visions of H G Wells and Edward Bellamy, set out to explore ‘The Question Mark’ of what a future society might look like if human nature were properly represented. So, disgruntled London office worker Guy Martin is pitched 200 years into the future, where he encounters a seemingly ideal society in which each citizen has the luxury of every kind of freedom. But as Guy adjusts to the new world, the fractures of this supposed Utopia begin to show through, and it seems as if the inhabitants of this society might be just as susceptible to the promises of false messiahs as those of the twentieth century. Preceding the publication of Huxley’s Brave New World by 5 years, The Question Mark is a significant cornerstone in the foundation of the Dystopia genre, and an impressive and unjustly neglected work of literary science fiction. This edition brings the novel back into print for the first time since its original publication.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

The Second Sleep edited by Robert Harris

Courtesy of Hutchinson. A new release from Robert Harris is always a major event in my reading life and this one sounds very intriguing – a little different from his usual, perhaps…

The Blurb says: 1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote English village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artefacts–coins, fragments of glass, human bones–which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death?

Fairfax becomes determined to discover the truth. Over the course of the next six days, everything he believes–about himself, his faith and the history of his world–will be tested to destruction.

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Vintage Crime

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library again! ECR Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been re-issuing, so I’m delighted they’ve brought out another. Her settings are always one of her strengths, so I’m looking forward to a trip to Devon…

The Blurb says: When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice.

Everyone says that Sister Monica, warden of a children’s home, is a saint – but is she? A few months after the Ferens’ arrival her body is found drowned in the mill race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with both the British Library Crime Classics and the Collins Crime Club working hard to keep me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Fire in the Thatch by ECR Lorac

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’s writing is excellent and the picture she creates of rural England during the war years is totally convincing. Inspector MacDonald is an appealing detective – a thoughtful and kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Although convoluted, the plot is firmly grounded in human nature, giving it a timeless quality. Lorac and MacDonald deserve their return to the limelight!

Click to see the full review

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The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman

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.

The prose is elegant, reminding me 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 feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911 – humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. A thoroughly entertaining read!

Click to see the full review

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, with two likeable lead characters in Robert and Grace, a feisty young Socialist MP based on the author herself, who wrote the book during a temporary halt in her own Parliamentary career. The plot is a bit messy perhaps, but that’s more than compensated for by the humour and especially the enjoyable insider look at all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures. Great fun!

Click to see the full review

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

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. How did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked? Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective.

A classic ‘locked room’ mystery with another ‘impossible crime’ thrown in for good measure, this is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. Hercule Poirot himself described it as a masterpiece, and who am I to disagree? Essential reading for vintage crime fans and so nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Good though the shorlisted books are, the decision was an easy one. The Murder of My Aunt entertained me as much as any book I’ve read this year.

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done… the clue is in the title!

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. An expert example of how to make an unlikeable character work, and full of wicked humour – brilliant!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction

TBR Thursday 179…

Episode 179…

Well, considering how many books have arrived in my house over the last week, I’m astonished to report that the TBR has only gone up by 2 – to 228! Clearly I must be getting through them as fast as a champion swimmer just about to take Olympic gold – what could possibly go wrong?

(This looks remarkably like my postman…)

Here’s a few more I should be getting my teeth into soon…

True Crime

The only non-fiction book on my Classics Club list, I can’t understand why I’ve never got around to reading this before – surely the most famous true crime book of them all. Time to correct this omission…

The Blurb says: The chilling true crime ‘non-fiction novel’ that made Truman Capote’s name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human.

‘It is the American dream turning into the American nightmare … By juxtaposing and dovetailing the lives and values of the Clutters and those of the killers, Capote produces a stark image of the deep doubleness of American life … a remarkable book’ Spectator.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I have loved both the ECR Lorac books the BL has previously re-published, so am thrilled at the thought of this one. Great title, great cover… will the insides match up? My hopes are high…

The Blurb says: London. 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.

During a stroll through Regent’s Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig’s view of the assailant but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.

The murderer’s noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim’s identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac’s shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man MacDonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Penguin Viking via NetGalley. Although he can be variable, I love William Boyd and each new book is a special pleasure. This one is being very positively reviewed so far, and the setting – Edinburgh, Paris, pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg – almost makes it seem as if he’s written it specially for me. Hmm… my expectations are pretty stratospheric… can it possibly live up to them??

The Blurb says: This is William Boyd’s sweeping, heart-stopping new novel. Set at the end of the 19th century, it follows the fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish musician, about to embark on the story of his life.

When Brodie is offered a job in Paris, he seizes the chance to flee Edinburgh and his tyrannical clergyman father, and begin a wildly different new chapter in his life. In Paris, a fateful encounter with a famous pianist irrevocably changes his future – and sparks an obsessive love affair with a beautiful Russian soprano, Lika Blum. Moving from Paris to St Petersburg to Edinburgh and back again, Brodie’s love for Lika and its dangerous consequences pursue him around Europe and beyond, during an era of overwhelming change as the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.

Love is Blind is a tale of dizzying passion and brutal revenge; of artistic endeavour and the illusions it creates; of all the possibilities that life can offer, and how cruelly they can be snatched away. At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best loved storytellers.

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Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. This is the third and last of the selection of new horror collections HarperCollins kindly sent me. I’ve only “met” Robert W Chambers once before, in a short collection of his The King in Yellow stories, and to be honest I wasn’t thrilled by them. So it’ll be interesting to see if this collection can change my mind…

The Blurb says: Robert William Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895) has long been recognised as a landmark work in the field of the macabre, and has been described as the most important work of American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns. Despite the book’s success, its author was to return only rarely to the genre during the remainder of a writing career which spanned four decades.

When Chambers did return to the supernatural, however, he displayed all the imagination and skill which distinguished The King in Yellow. He created the enigmatic and seemingly omniscient Westrel Keen, the ‘Tracer of Lost Persons’, and chronicled the strange adventures of an eminent naturalist who scours the earth for ‘extinct’ animals – and usually finds them. One of his greatest creations, perhaps, was 1920’s The Slayer of Souls, which features a monstrous conspiracy to take over the world: a conspiracy which can only be stopped by supernatural forces.

For the first time in a single volume, Hugh Lamb has selected the best of the author’s supernatural tales, together with an introduction which provides further information about the author who was, in his heyday, called ‘the most popular writer in America’.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 163…

Episode 163…

Oh, for goodness sake! The TBR has reached a new all time high of 225 – up 2 since last week! But it’s not my fault! Can I help it if books keep arriving when I’m not ready for them??

Here’s a few more that should be ready for kick-off soon…

Fantasy

I read this not long after it was first published in 1973, in my teens, and loved it even though I wasn’t at all sure that I fully understood it. I’ve always been a bit reluctant to revisit it in case it doesn’t work so well for my more critical adult self, but in the intervening years it has come to be seen as a real classic. It’s been on my TBR for a re-read since 2014, so it’s time to bite the bullet…

The Blurb says: A disturbing exploration of the inevitability of life.

Under Orion’s stars, bluesilver visions torment Tom, Macey and Thomas as they struggle with age-old forces. Distanced from each other in time, and isolated from those they live among, they are yet inextricably bound together by the sacred power of the moon’s axe and each seek their own refuge at Mow Cop.

Can those they love so intensely keep them clinging to reality? Or is the future evermore destined to reflect the past?

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. l loved the other ECR Lorac book currently in the BL’s Crime Classics series, Bats in the Belfry, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life. On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

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Classic Scottish Fiction

This one isn’t on my Classics Club challenge because I hadn’t heard of it when I prepared my list, but I think I might swap it in. Is this another example of how Scottish culture has become invisible in the shade of the dominant member of the United Kingdom, England? Apparently Ferrier outsold her contemporary Jane Austen at the time their books were published. Since then, Austen has taken over the world, while Ferrier has been all but forgotten. Time to see for myself if that’s to do with the quality of the books…

The Blurb says: Understanding that the purpose of marriage is to further her family, Lady Juliana nevertheless rejects the ageing and unattractive – though appropriately wealthy – suitor of her father’s choice. She elopes, instead, with a handsome, penniless soldier and goes to Scotland to live at Glenfarn Castle, his paternal home. But Lady Juliana finds life in the Scottish highlands dreary and bleak, hastily repenting of following her heart.

After giving birth to twin daughters, Lady Juliana leaves Mary to the care of her sister-in-law, while she returns to England with Adelaide. Sixteen years later, Mary is thoughtful, wise and kind, in comparison to her foolish mother and vain sister.

Following two generations of women, Marriage, first published in 1818, is a shrewdly observant and humorous novel by one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

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Thriller

Courtesy of Picador. Just to prove I do still read some new releases! I love Megan Abbott’s dark and twisted stories about the hormone-laden angstiness of being a teenage girl, so I’m looking forward to this one, which seems to start there and then visit the characters again as adults…

The Blurb says: Kit Owens harbored only modest ambitions for herself when the mysterious Diane Fleming appeared in her high school chemistry class. But Diane’s academic brilliance lit a fire in Kit, and the two developed an unlikely friendship. Until Diane shared a secret that changed everything between them.

More than a decade later, Kit thinks she’s put Diane behind her forever and she’s begun to fulfill the scientific dreams Diane awakened in her. But the past comes roaring back when she discovers that Diane is her competition for a position both women covet, taking part in groundbreaking new research led by their idol. Soon enough, the two former friends find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to destroy them both.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Many years ago, so the story goes, a celebrated newspaper publisher sent a telegram to a noted astronomer.
….“Wire collect immediately, five hundred words on whether there is life on Mars.”
….The astronomer dutifully replied, “Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows…” two hundred fifty times. But despite this confession of ignorance asserted with dogged persistence by an expert, no-one paid any heed, and from that time to this we hear authoritative pronouncements by those who think they have deduced life on Mars and by those who think they have excluded it. Some people very much want there to be life on Mars; others very much want there to be no life on Mars. There have been excesses in both camps. These strong passions have somewhat frayed the tolerance for ambiguity that is essential to science. There seem to be many people who simply wish to be told an answer, any answer, and thereby avoid the burden of keeping two mutually exclusive possibilities in their heads at the same time.

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….From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

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….A gaunt tower showed up against the lowering sky, which was lit by the reflection of Neon lights in the West End. At the corner of the tower gargoyles stood out against the crazily luminous rain, and the long roof of the main body of the building showed black against the sky.
….It was a queer-looking building to find among the prosperous houses of that pleasant-looking road, and Grenville was aware of a feeling of apprehension, quite unreasonable, at the sight of the dark massive structure. “The Morgue” – and a sculptor who hanged himself from a beam. “Jolly!” he said to himself, but having got so far he wasn’t going to funk that dark-looking pile. He went up to the iron gate which stood between the two imposing stone pillars and shook it, and found that it swung to his hand. Pushing it open, he went in, up a stone-flagged path, and found himself faced by an arched doorway, so overgrown with ivy that it was obvious it could not have been opened for years.

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….The storm, unleashed two days earlier, did not seem to have any intention of abating, and upon entering it, he felt how his body and his soul sank in the ice, while the air hurt the skin on his face. He took a few steps toward the street from which he could make out the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, and it was as if he had hugged the white cloud until he melted into it. He whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

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Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties. (I think we should bring these rules back for current crime fiction…)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 148…

A third batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

Well, the TBR has leapt up this week by a massive 8 to 224! It’s not as bad as it seems though – in fact, it’s great! It happened because I found a website http://www.fadedpage.com which has downloadable versions of several of the vintage crime books for this challenge that I hadn’t yet obtained. So nine books moved from my wishlist to the TBR. Therefore, as the mathematicians among you will have realised, the underlying trend is down…

And coincidentally I’ve just about finished all the books from the second batch of MMM books, so here goes for the third batch…

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

This one was actually already on my TBR long before I started the challenge – put there following an excellent review from Helen at She Reads Novels

The Blurb says: Milne takes readers to the Red House, a comfortable residence in the placid English countryside that is the bachelor home of Mr. Mark Ablett. While visiting this cosy retreat, amateur detective Anthony Gillingham and his chum, Bill Beverley, investigate their genial host’s disappearance and its connection with a mysterious shooting. Was the victim, whose body was found after a heated exchange with the host, shot in an act of self-defence? If so, why did the host flee, and if not, what drove him to murder?

Challenge details

Book No: 17

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age 

Publication Year: 1922

Martin Edwards says: “A.A. Milne is now so closely associated with Winnie-the-Pooh and children’s fiction that it comes as a surprise to many readers to learn that. . . he wrote an immensely popular detective novel. The Red House Mystery is a country-house mystery, so deftly written that it achieved widespread acclaim.”

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Impossible theories, a baffled policeman and a gifted amateur detective. And as if that’s not enough, a touch of romance…

The Blurb says: Samuel Whitehead, the new landlord of the Rose and Crown, is a stranger in the lonely East Anglian village of High Eldersham. When the newcomer is stabbed to death in his pub, and Scotland Yard are called to the scene, it seems that the veil dividing High Eldersham from the outside world is about to be lifted.

Detective-Inspector Young forms a theory about the case so utterly impossible that merely entertaining the suspicion makes him doubt his own sanity. Surrounded by sinister forces beyond his understanding, and feeling the need of rational assistance, he calls on a brilliant amateur and ‘living encyclopaedia’, Desmond Merrion. Soon Merrion falls for the charms of a young woman in the village, Mavis Owerton. But does Mavis know more about the secrets of the village than she is willing to admit?

Challenge details

Book No: 33

Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden

Publication Year: 1930

Edwards says: “…Barzun and Taylor argued that Miles Burton was working in the Gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and was the first of ‘the moderns’ to do so in the detective genre.”

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Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. There’s no place quite like foggy old London as a setting for vintage crime… 

The Blurb says: Bruce Attleton dazzled London’s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce’s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent’s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce’s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. This intricate mystery from a classic writer is set in a superbly evoked London of the 1930s.

Challenge details

Book No: 42

Subject Heading: Capital Crimes

Publication Year: 1937

Edwards says: “The plot is elaborate, the characterisation crisp and the atmosphere of the dark London streets well evoked.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve read and enjoyed a Continental Op short story before so am intrigued to see how well the character works in a full-length novel…

The Blurb says: Everything about the Leggett diamond heist indicated to the Continental Op that it was an inside job. From the stray diamond found in the yard to the eyewitness accounts of a “strange man” casing the house, everything was just too pat. Gabrielle Dain-Leggett has enough secrets to fill a closet, and when she disappears shortly after the robbery, she becomes the Op’s prime suspect. But her father, Edgar Leggett, keeps some strange company himself and has a dark side the moon would envy. Before he can solve the riddle of the diamond theft, the Continental Op must first solve the mystery of this strange family.

Challenge details

Book No: 91

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “His execution of the concept is artistically flawed, but although the story is eccentric and melodramatic, it is also oddly compelling.”

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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PS I’ve fallen badly behind with blog reading, review writing, reading and life in general so I’m taking a little break. Back soon! Don’t get up to anything exciting while my back’s turned…