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

Reds under the bed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

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

Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

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

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher St. John Sprigg

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

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

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

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy L Sayers

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Gilbert

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

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

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Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Iles

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmund Crispin

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

Ernest Bramah

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

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

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

Enter Miss Marple…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Something wicked…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Miles Burton

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

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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The Red House Mystery by AA Milne

Pleasingly devious…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA Milne

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

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

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

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

Hugh Fraser

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

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

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Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethel Lina White

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

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

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.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

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

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Define “witty”…

😦 😦

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Melville

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

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

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A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

Joan Hickson

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

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