Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

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

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher St. John Sprigg

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

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

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

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy L Sayers

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Gilbert

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 194… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I do this each year because secretly I’m a masochist who thrives on feelings of personal failure it’s always good to have something to aim for. Things usually start well at the beginning of the year when my enthusiasm is high and then it all begins to go horribly wrong… round about April… and descends past laughable in the summer, to embarrassing by autumn, ending up in full-scale hair-raising horror by the depths of winter. It’s such fun!

So here we are – the first check-in of the year, and probably the best…

Impressive, huh? It would have been even better if I hadn’t abandoned Cannery Row for not having a plot (and to be fair, I was in the middle of a major reading slump and not enjoying much at that point. I may try it again later.) It should have been the third book for my 5 x 5 Challenge and the fifth on my Classics Club list. The sixth on the CC list is The Fair Maid of Perth which I’m currently reading but didn’t manage to finish in time to include it at the quarter’s end. So overall pretty successful on the challenges!

The TBR is up but, thanks to another bout of rigorous (and heart-rending) culling, the combined TBR/wishlist reduction is on track! Yeah, I’m as surprised at that as you are…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been piling up the frequent flyer miles since then! I’ve read six, though I’ve only reviewed five of them so far, plus I had one left over from 2018 that I reviewed in January.

On the Main Journey (of the places mentioned in Around the World in 80 Days) there are a couple of places that Jules Verne invented, which makes finding books for them particularly difficult! One such place is Kholby, a fictional town or village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. So I got as close as I could by visiting Agra, also in Uttar Pradesh, with the wonderful tour-guide Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Sign of the Four. Then I had a frankly disappointing short break in Hong Kong with Rea Tarvydas in How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square. If I get time, I’ll revisit Hong Kong before the challenge ends.

My first detour of the quarter was to Norway, where I got the chance to watch the police solve a cold case in Jørn Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code. Then off to South Korea with Un-Su Kim in The Plotters, a strange but compelling story of feuding assassins. Tim Flannery took me on an amazing journey all over Europe geographically and through time, showing me the flora and fauna through the ages and telling me tales of the ascent of man. Then Yangsze Choo whisked me off to colonial Malay in The Night Tiger, a wonderful tale steeped in the folklore of the Chinese Malaysians. Loving this challenge!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

60 down, 20 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read four books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed three of them so far. However I’ve also reviewed a couple that were hanging over from last year…

37. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 4 stars for this “non-fiction novel” in which Capote examines the minds and crimes of two real-life murderers. The writing is superb, but I wasn’t keen on the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction which left me resorting to Google to find out the truth of what happened.

38. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke – a disappointed 3 stars for this sci-fi classic which didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped. I’m still glad to have read it though, since it’s the book that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Clarke on the amazing film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

39. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – the full 5 stars for this romping adventure story. Lots of stuff about evolution as it was viewed back then, with racism and sexism of its time, but it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun.

40. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – 4½ stars for this espionage adventure about two young Englishmen who set out to foil German invasion plans back in 1903. The second half gets slowed down by Childers’ desire to give a warning about the growing threat from German naval power, but an excellent read overall.

41. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, nepotism within the ruling classes, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, Dickens produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror. The full 5 stars!

Still running behind, but not hopelessly. I’m making three changes to my list:

  • To replace the abandoned Cannery Row, I’ve added East of Eden. Glutton for punishment, me!
  • I’ve been given a copy of Oxford World’s Classics new edition of Middlemarch for review, so am adding it and removing The Heart of the Matter to make room.
  • I’ve also got the OWC’s new translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (yeah, the title has changed too!), so am removing Something Wicked This Way Comes to make space. (Hmm… three short books out, three stonkers in – not sure I’m doing this right…)

41 down, 49 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m still going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review. I’ve read three this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far. To see the full challenge, click here.

23.  Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles –  a doctor plans to murder his inconvenient wife in this ironical crime novel. Irony is never my favourite thing, so this didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped. Just 3 stars.

23 down, 79 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! This challenge is turning out to be a real albatross and I’m thinking of abandoning it, but I’ll stick it out a bit longer. This quarter I abandoned one and read two, neither of which I’ve yet reviewed, so nothing to report.

2 down, 23 to go!

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An unexpectedly good quarter’s reading, considering what a pig life has been! Thank goodness for books!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

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

TBR Thursday 191…

A sixth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m still crawling through this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I’m still enjoying it!

I haven’t finished reading and reviewing all of the books from the fifth batch of MMM books, but since the British Library have sent me a review copy of another one which they’ve just reissued, I’ll have to make some changes to the priority list. So here goes for the sixth batch…

The Middle Temple Murder by J.S. Fletcher

I downloaded this one from wikisource , another great resource for finding some of these vintage crime novels. I wonder if it’s only in Britain that the word “temple” makes us think of the legal profession rather than religion?

The Blurb says: On his way home after a long night’s work, newspaper editor Frank Spargo stumbles across a crime scene on Middle Temple Lane in the heart of London’s legal district. An elderly man lies dead in an entryway, his nose bloodied. He wears an expensive suit and a fashionable gray cap, but the police find nothing of value in his pockets, and no identifying documents of any kind.

Unable to sleep, Spargo pays a visit to the mortuary in the early hours of the morning and learns that a crumpled piece of paper has been recovered from a hole in the dead man’s waistcoat. Strangely, the name and address it bears are familiar to Spargo. Succumbing to his reporter’s instincts, he vows to get the story and help Scotland Yard uncover the identities of both victim and killer.

Challenge details

Book No: 14

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age

Publication Year: 1919

Martin Edwards says: “When President Woodrow Wilson read the story while recovering from illness and heaped praise upon it, Fletcher’s American publishers made the most of the encomium. Sales of his fiction surged, and he was for a time regarded in the US as the finest crime writer to have emerged since Arthur Conan Doyle.

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The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

This one I found on Project Gutenberg. I can’t find a decent blurb for it anywhere, so I’ve quoted a bit of Martin Edwards’ description of it…

The Blurb says: Mark Brendon, a highly regarded young Detective Inspector from Scotland Yard, deserts London for a trout-fishing holiday on Dartmoor. Heading from Princetown towards the deep pools of Foggintor Quarry, he has a brief encounter with a beautiful young woman; later, while fishing, he passes the time of day with a red-haired man. When murder interrupts Mark’s holiday. both strangers play a central part in the investigation.

The young woman is Jenny Pendean, and it seems that her husband has been killed by her uncle – who proves to be the red-haired man, Captain Robert Redmayne. Jenny tells Brendon the story of the troubled Redmayne family, the ‘peculiar will’ left by her wealthy grandfather, and the tensions caused by her marriage to Michael Pendean, who had avoided fighting during the war. Robert Redmayne has gone missing, and Pendean’s body cannot be found.

Challenge details

Book No: 44

Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder

Publication Year: 1922

Edwards says: “…Jorge Luis Borges ranked Phillpotts with Poe, Chesterton and [William Wilkie] Collins, and included The Red Redmaynes in his never-completed list of one hundred great works of literature.”

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Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

Courtesy of The British Library, who have just reissued this and another two of Michael Gilbert’s books. So I hope I like him! Certainly sounds like fun…

The Blurb says: Horniman, Birley and Craine is a highly respected legal firm with clients drawn from the highest in the land. When a deed box in the office is opened to reveal a corpse, the threat of scandal promises to wreak havoc on the firm’s reputation – especially as the murder looks like an inside job. The partners and staff of the firm keep a watchful and suspicious eye on their colleagues, as Inspector Hazlerigg sets out to solve the mystery of who Mr Smallbone was – and why he had to die.

Written with style, pace and wit, this is a masterpiece by one of the finest writers of traditional British crime novels since the Second World War.

Challenge details

Book No: 67

Subject Heading: The Justice Game

Publication Year: 1950

Edwards says: “…writing Gilbert’s obituary, [HRF] Keating acknowledged his friend’s modesty, and praised him for ‘invariably illuminating sharply aspects of British life and, on occasion, digging deep into the human psyche so as to point to an unwavering moral.’

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The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson

This one is available as a free public domain download via Amazon, though I often find the quality of them pretty poor, so may search out a different version if necessary. The blurb seems a bit spoilery, but I’m hoping it turns out it isn’t…

The Blurb says: Morris Assheton is in love and means to be married. But his happiness is spoilt when he discovers that someone has been whispering poisonous rumours about him to the girl’s father. The culprit is Mills, dastardly partner to the Assheton family’s trusted lawyer. Morris vows revenge.

When Mills’ body is discovered, brutally beaten, the ugly quarrel comes to light and suspicion naturally falls on Morris. His innocence is debated in a tense courtroom, as an eager public and press look on.

Murder mystery… Courtroom drama. This is a classic whodunnit from the author of Mapp and Lucia. Crime fiction at its best.

Challenge details

Book No: 6

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1908

Edwards says: “The plot is much less elaborate than those of the Golden Age of murder between the world wars, but the agreeable writing and delineation of character supply ample compensation.

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All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards (and the blurb for The Red Redmaynes) are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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NB Please note that my giving links to free sources does not imply that I have confirmed the copyright status of any of the books, especially since this varies from country to country. If you download from any of these sites, you do so at your own risk and discretion.

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

TBR Thursday 184… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

In a last ditch attempt to get down to the figure I set in my New Year’s Resolutions last year, I brutally culled the wishlist one last time, which led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did I succeed? All shall be revealed when I post this year’s resolutions on Monday! But I’m getting so good at chopping, I’m thinking of taking up a new career…

 

I’ve done rubbishly on all my challenges this quarter, mainly because I’d developed a big backlog of review copies so I’ve been frantically reading them instead…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been nowhere since then! Nowhere!

However, I did pretty well taking the year as a whole, and will be packing my suitcase again in the New Year – I have some great books lined up!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve actually read five books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, so expect a little splurge of classics reviews in January.

35. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – 5 stars for this wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world, about class, gender and how people are impacted by modernisation.

36. No Name by William Wilkie Collins – I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot. Just 2 stars.

Again, I’ve done pretty well over the year as a whole. I should be halfway through at this stage and I’m only a little behind if you add in the ones awaiting review. And I’ve been tackling some of the longer ones recently so they’re not all left till the end.

36 down, 54 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review, so I only managed a couple this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

21.  The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin – 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. I loved it! 5 stars.

22.  The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley – 5 stars again for this as Berkeley gently mocks the conventions of the mystery novel, and has a lot of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own. Highly entertaining and cleverly done!

22 down, 80 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! I just can’t seem to get anywhere with this challenge. I’m doing great at acquiring the books – just not so good at actually finding time to read them! Next year…

2 down, 23 to go!

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Not too successful with the challenges, then, but a good quarter’s reading nevertheless!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 182…

A fifth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m going dramatically slowly on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I haven’t forgotten about it completely!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all of the books from the fourth batch of MMM books, here goes for the fifth batch…

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Courtesy of Dover Publications via NetGalley. Martin Edwards lists this one under the sub-heading The Ironists. Hmm… ironically, I’m not always all that keen on irony, but we’ll see. The blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Dr. Edmund Bickleigh married above his station. Although popular and well respected in his little Devonshire community, he seethes with resentment at the superior social status of his domineering wife, Julia. Bickleigh soothes his inferiority complex by seducing as many of the local women as he possibly can — but with the collapse of his latest fling and a fresh dose of sneering contempt from Julia, the doctor resolves to silence his wife forever and begins plotting the perfect murder.

With Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles produced not just a darkly comic narrative of psychological suspense but also a landmark in crime fiction: for the first time, the murderer’s identity was revealed at the start of the tale. Hailed as a tour de force by the British press of its day, the book retains its shock value and stands at #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association ranking of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. (Oh good grief, not another book list – save me!!)

Challenge details

Book No: 80

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1931

Martin Edwards says: “…what set Malice Aforethought apart was the cool wit of the story-telling, which makes the book compulsive reading despite the shortage of characters with whom readers would wish to identify. It was entirely in keeping with the ironic tone of the book that it was dedicated to the author’s wife, from whom he became divorced less than a year later.”

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Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

I am not one of Ms Sayers’ legion of fans, finding both her and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey snobby and irritatin’. However it’s a long time since I last read one, so maybe I’ve become more open-minded with age. Yeah, right… 😂

The Blurb says: The Duke of Denver, accused of murder, stands trial for his life in the House of Lords.Naturally, his brother Lord Peter Wimsey is investigating the crime – this is a family affair. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man.But why does the duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Can he really be guilty, or is he covering up for someone?

Challenge details

Book No: 19

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Lord Peter Wimsey was created as a conscious act of escapism by a young writer who was short of money, and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, began his fictional life as a fantasy figure.”

* * * * *

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

A detecting bishop! Take that, Father Brown! I’m expecting at least an archbishop next time… or maybe the Pope!

The Blurb says: Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered.

Challenge details

Book No: 58

Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries

Publication Year: 1934

Edwards says: “The story ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality’, as Dorothy L Sayers said in The Sunday Times; she applauded ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.’

* * * * *

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

I’ve never thought of CS Forester as a crime writer – Hornblower and The African Queen are what spring to my mind. Sounds good, though…

The Blurb says: Mr Marble is in serious debt, desperate for money to pay his family’s bills, until the combination of a wealthy relative, a bottle of Cyanide and a shovel offer him the perfect solution. In fact, his troubles are only just beginning. Slowly the Marble family becomes poisoned by guilt, and caught in an increasingly dangerous trap of secrets, fear and blackmail. Then, in a final twist of the knife, Mrs Marble ensures that retribution comes in the most unexpected of ways…

First published in 1926, C. S. Forester’s gritty psychological thriller took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

Challenge details

Book No: 74

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Marble is haunted by fear that his secret will be discovered, and Forester charts his disintegration in sharp, disdainful prose. Payment Deferred is a short but striking book; despite the young author’s inexperience, it remains a compelling read.

* * * * *

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

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

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

Poisoned chocolates??? Blasphemy!!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. Firstly, Graham and Joan Bendix were happily married, so what would Graham’s motive have been? Secondly, and more importantly, he had had no chance to poison the chocolates – he had been given them by a man at his club, Sir Eustace Pennefather, that very morning. Sir Eustace himself had received them that morning through the post, so it appears that perhaps the intended victim was Sir Eustace. This would make more sense, since Sir Eustace has a shady reputation regarding money and women. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help. Enter Roger Sheringham and the members of his Crimes Circle…

As Martin Edwards explains in his introduction, Berkeley wrote this to show how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Of course, I spotted the solution straight away. So did all six criminologists, although each spotted a different one. Unfortunately, when my solution showed up in the very early stages of the book, I, along with the amateur ‘tec who proposed it, had to hang my head in shame as the others neatly demolished it, showing me that each of the clues I had carefully collected couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant. After that, I decided to resign as a detective and simply watch the rest at work!

Challenge details:
Book: 22
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1929

They’re an intriguing and mismatched bunch, brought together simply because each has an interest in crime. Roger Sheringham is Berkeley’s recurring amateur detective, but it should not be assumed that that means his solution will necessarily be the right one – Berkeley apparently enjoyed making him get it wrong occasionally. There’s a famous and rather pompous defence barrister, a dramatist of the intellectual variety, a novelist who delves somewhat pretentiously into the psychology of her characters, a detective-mystery writer who thinks rather highly of himself, and a rather insignificant little man who is in perpetual awe of everyone else. Each approaches the problem from a different angle, and since they and the victims and suspects all move in the same social circles, several of them have the advantage of being able to add details from their own knowledge. I admit it – I was totally convinced by every solution they offered, which suggests I must be the detective-mystery writer’s dream reader!

Anthony Berkeley

While the cleverness and originality of the plotting are what make the book unique, it’s also well written and has a good basic mystery at its core. Berkeley might be having a bit of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own, but it’s not at all done with a sense of superiority or sneering. His affection for the conventions comes through clearly even as he subverts them and in the end it is fair play – there’s nothing to stop the armchair detective getting to the real solution except for all the delightful red herrings and blind alleys along the way. But is the real solution really the solution? For a bit of extra fun, the BL have included an alternative solution written later by another mystery novelist, Christianna Brand, and have enticed Martin Edwards to come up with yet another!

A most enjoyable read – light-hearted, amusing and clever, and fully deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

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

TBR Thursday 175… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Impressively the overall figure has fallen again! It would have been even better if I hadn’t had a major splurge on review copies, but sometimes a splurge is irresistible. I’m still being rigid about adding sparingly to the wishlist and culling it ruthlessly at the end of every month. A book has to persuade me it’s essential to my happiness and wellbeing to win a coveted spot! I still have a long way to go to achieve my New Year’s Resolution – to reduce the overall total to 360. I shall sharpen my culling shears…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I’ve only made a couple of trips since then…

I actually read The Dain Curse back in June but forgot to include it in this challenge last quarter – this rather silly, almost entirely incomprehensible, but surprisingly entertaining book took me to San Francisco, one of the stops on the Main List. I visited Uruguay and several other countries in South America in the company of political exiles and their families, in Mario Benedetti’s wonderful Springtime in a Broken Mirror. And master storyteller Robert Harris took me back in time to Ancient Rome in Imperium for some political shenanigans in the company of Cicero and his pals. (I also discovered I’d been to Canada twice, so have dropped one of them off the list.)

Must do better! And must get to Africa!!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed six from my Classics Club list this quarter, which means I’ve caught up a little more. I’ll be slowing down for a bit though as I really must tackle some of the longer ones on my list rather than leaving them all to the end…

29. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – 4 stars for this “shocker”, an action thriller set amidst the murky world of wartime foreign agents, and involving much running around the moors of south-west Scotland.

30. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – 5 stars for this, one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia – a suddenly dystopian society where the science horrors are balanced by an exceptionally strong human story and one of the best female characters in the genre.

31. Mildred Pierce by James M Cain – poor writing style, psychologically unconvincing and terminally dull. I feel I was generous in giving this tale of a troubled mother/daughter relationship in Depression-era America 2 stars.

32. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain again. 4 reluctant stars for this noir so black there’s no gleam of light, hope or beauty. Superbly done, but to what end? Left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind clean.

33. Marriage by Susan Ferrier – 3½ stars for this 1818 tale of two sisters, one good and tediously pious, the other mercenary but underdeveloped. Hyped by the publisher as the Scottish Jane Austen, I fear that the comparison doesn’t work to this one’s advantage.

34. Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – a modernist look at Scottish society through the prism of the small town of Calderwick and the families who live there. Feminism, repression and religion – the book takes on a lot and partially delivers. 4 stars.

I’ve also made a couple more changes to my list. I abandoned Miss Lonelyhearts after about 10 pages of abortion, suicide, marital rape and religious mania. That made me look again at my American list, which has been hugely disappointing so far, pulling the whole challenge down. I’m toying with swapping the rest out for something else – maybe Irish, maybe translated fiction. But perhaps I’ve just had some unlucky choices so far, so I’ll have one last rejig before I do:

  • I’ve replaced Miss Lonelyhearts with In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – at least it will be a good excuse to re-watch the excellent film.
  • And I’ve removed The Jungle – another one that sounds deliberately designed to show the miserable pointlessness of existence – and replaced it with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

34 down, 56 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read just three books for this one, but they were all excellent so I don’t mind. To see the full challenge, click here.

18.  The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton – mysterious goings-on and nefarious crimes in an English village. More of a thriller than a mystery, and quite dark – enjoyed this a lot! 5 stars.

19.  The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson – a locked room mystery set in the Houses of Parliament, written by one of early women MPs. A good mystery and a fun look at all the quirky traditions of Parliament. 4½ stars.

20.  The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie – Miss Marple’s first outing as she uses all her knowledge of human nature and evil to discover who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s study. One of the best! 5 stars.

20 down, 82 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Still struggling to fit this challenge in, but I have a couple scheduled over the next few weeks. Just one again this quarter though…

2. Imperium by Robert Harris – the first book in the Cicero trilogy, this tells of his early struggles to get ahead in law and politics. Excellently written, but not a period that ever really grabs me, so it’s not my favourite Harris. However, I’m still looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. 4 stars.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

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
Audible US Link

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Wilkinson

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 169…

A fourth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’ve been falling behind on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but it’s time to get back on track!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all the books from the third batch of MMM books, here goes for the fourth batch…

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

This is a book that gets mentioned all the time by vintage crime enthusiasts so it’s well past time I found out what the fuss is about. I’ve only read a couple of short stories from Anthony Berkeley to date – I thought one was great, the other silly. Let’s hope the book is great!

The Blurb says: Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates.Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.

Challenge details

Book No: 22

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1929

Martin Edwards says: “As Roger [Sheringham, Berkeley’s detective] reflects…’That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective-story. One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they’re all equally wrong.'”

* * * * *

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

A re-read of one of my favourite Christies, narrated by Captain Hastings himself, Hugh Fraser. Joy!

The Blurb says: The Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police.

Challenge details

Book No: 24

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1930

Edwards says: “Christie’s sly wit is also evident in the presentation of village life. When Raymond West compares St Mary Mead to a stagnant pool, Miss Marple reminds him that life teems beneath the surface of stagnant pools.”

* * * * *

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Next to London, Oxford must surely be the murder capital of England… in the world of crime fiction, at least!

The Blurb says: As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best.

Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…

Challenge details

Book No: 49

Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder

Publication Year: 1946

Edwards says: “The second chase culminates at Botley fairground, and an out-of-control roundabout; Alfred Hitchcock bought the right to use the scene for the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Courtesy of the British Library, who are republishing this one in August. I love the House of Commons as a setting for murder… in the fictional sense, of course!

The Blurb says: Originally published in 1932, this is the first Crime Classic novel written by an MP. And fittingly, the crime scene is within the House of Commons itself, in which a financier has been shot dead.

Entreated by the financier’s daughter, a young parliamentary private secretary turns sleuth to find the identity of the murderer – the world of politics proving itself to be domain not only of lies and intrigue, but also danger.Wilkinson’s own political career positioned her perfectly for this accurate but also sharply satirical novel of double cross and rivalries within the seat of the British Government.

Challenge details

Book No: 89

Subject Heading: Singletons

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “A remarkable number of Golden Age detective stories were set in the world of Westminster, presumably because politicians made such popular murder victims. None, however, benefited from as much inside knowledge of the Parliament’s corridors of power as The Division Bell Mystery, whose author was a former MP and future minister.”

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

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

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 165… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

A spectacular reduction in the overall figure! Bet you’re gobsmacked! This is because, apart from review copies, I’ve been restricting myself to only acquiring books that are already on my wishlist, and I’m being brutally ruthless about culling that wishlist at the end of every month. If a book doesn’t sparkle brightly and sing my name, it gets thrown back in the pond. I’m a TBR Champion!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve had another exciting three months of travel since then…

I had lots of interesting detours again, starting with a trip to Toronto, Canada, where I spent some time with immigrants from Trinidad in David Chariandy’s wonderful Brother. In Appointment with Death, I accompanied Agatha Christie, Poirot and a group of deeply suspicious characters on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra in Jordan. Damon Galgut took me to visit a disillusioned post-apartheid South Africa where I met The Good Doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lebanon where Najla Jraissaty Khoury regaled me with a host of traditional folk tales in Pearls on a Branch. I had a rather disappointing trip to Colombia with Juan Gabriel Vasquez streaming his consciousness and a lot of Colombian history at me in The Shape of the Ruins. And finally I visited one of the destinations on my Main Journey in the company of Valeria Vescina, whose wonderful story of the intensity of first love, That Summer in Puglia, took me to Brindisi and other locations in the beautiful heel of Italy.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

This is a map showing the countries I’ve visited so far. Some pretty big gaps there! Must start being selective…

52 down, 28 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read seven from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed five. Still a little behind, but I’m slowly catching up…

24. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 5 stars for this great Scottish classic, an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation.

25. The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – 5 stars for this science fiction classic. A great read with lots of humour and imagination,  and enough depth to make it interesting without feeling heavy – hugely entertaining.

26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me at all, and I abandoned it fairly early on. Just 1 star, I’m afraid.

27. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – sadly, the anti-man type of feminism I most dislike and, even more sadly, she forgot to put a plot in. 2 generous stars for this one.

28. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – 4 stars for this entertaining if somewhat silly and almost entirely incomprehensible novel, that is saved by the relentless pace and the snappy, hardboiled style.

I’ve also made a couple of changes to my list:

  • After the Gone with the Wind debacle, I decided to stop reading books with a race element, written by white American authors long ago. So I’ve replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
  • Having been gifted a Scottish classic I wasn’t aware of when I made my list, I’ve removed one of my re-reads to make room for it. So Annals of the Parish is out, and Marriage by Susan Ferrier is in.

28 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

I’ve read the final three books for this challenge but have still to post my review of the last one. So just two this quarter.

15. The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus – a great book from one of my favourite authors, this is an examination of the birth of the art of propaganda and myth-making, told with a great mix of light and shade. 5 stars.

16. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – the story of a Cossack family before and during the Revolution and the Civil War, showing how their way of life would be altered forever. This is a wonderful novel, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read four books for this one, but so far only reviewed three. Fewer than I intended – I need to stop being distracted by all the other vintage crime I’ve been reading, and focus! To see the full challenge, click here.

15.  Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – an insane serial killer is rampaging the countryside, murdering young women. Unfortunately the plotting in this one gets a bit silly and it’s too long for its content. Just 3 stars.

16.  The Red House Mystery by AA Milne – lots of humour and two likeable protagonists for this take on a locked room mystery. Well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining! 5 stars.

17.  The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, this is oddly entertaining, largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace. 4 stars.

17 down, 85 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

I’ve been struggling to fit this challenge in, though it should be easier now the Russian one’s coming to an end. But just one so far…

1. Fatherland by Robert Harris – In a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two, Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime, Detective Xavier March must investigate a mysterious death. Great plotting in this excellent example of an alternative history novel. 5 stars.


1 down, 24 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

I’m taking some time off now to watch Wimbledon and stuff, so don’t do anything exciting while I’m…

 

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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!

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 154… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Well, that’s pretty fabulous! Although the owned books have increased, the wishlist is dropping, due in part to my rigorous monthly culling. And considering I added approximately twenty books all in one go last month for my latest Five x Five Challenge, then I think it’s spectacular that the overall figure has gone down!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been travelling non-stop since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I didn’t go to any of the locations on the Main Journey, but I had lots of interesting detours. First, William Boyd took me to study chimps and humans in the Republic of the Congo in Brazzaville Beach. Then I headed off with Angela Savage to look at the seamier side of life in Thailand in Behind the Night Bazaar. I had a harrowing but wonderful journey across the Antarctic under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. I thought a little trip to Wales would be nicely relaxing after that, till Arthur Machen showed me the ancient evils hidden behind every Welsh rock in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Leonardo Padura took me on a mini-world trip in The Man Who Loved Dogs, on the trail of Trotsky’s assassin – we visited Cuba, the USSR, Mexico and Spain. After much thought, I’m declaring it for Spain, since I feel I learned most about that country from the book. Then off for a nice winter break in a resort town in New Zealand, only to get mixed up in a murder or two in Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud. And finally, murder reared its ugly head again when I fled to Gibraltar with Robert Daws for a bit of sun, sea and sand in The Rock. Phew! This travelling business isn’t very restful!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

46 down, 34 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read five from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed four. Still a little behind, but I’m gradually catching up…

  1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – 5 stars for this wonderful, typically Dickensian novel – one of his very best and a great way to start the year.
  2. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – just 4 stars for this influential psychological thriller, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book
  3. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – 5 glittering stars for this sparkling comedy from the master where, as always, Jeeves saves the day.
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – 5 stars for this novel in which Spark uses brilliantly barbed humour to skewer Edinburgh society of the between-the-wars years.

23 down, 67 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Getting very close to the end of this challenge now. This quarter, I’ve read three but so far only reviewed two. To see the full challenge, click here.

13. Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith – I was a little disappointed in this one, which seemed to spend more time debunking myths about Rasputin than shedding light on the truth of the man and his life. Just 3 stars.

14. The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura –  a monumental novel about two men: Trotsky and the Spanish agent of Stalin’s USSR who assassinated him. Although it often reads more like a factual book than a fiction, the combination of great writing and thorough research make it a winner, and an essential read for anyone interested in the history of communism. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read five books for this one, but so far only reviewed four (yes, I’m way behind on reviews). To see the full challenge, click here.

11.  Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – this one claims to be “witty”, but wit is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder thought it was silly to the point of irritation and felt quite generous when she gave it 2 stars.

12.  The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace – a novel about a group of self-appointed vigilantes who set out to right what they see as wrongs. This one has a surprisingly contemporary plot about foreign political agitators and what to do about them. 4 stars.

13.  Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – one of the first “psychological thrillers”, which looks at the effects of murder on the minds of the murderers. An essential read for its influential status. 4 stars.

14. Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac – an excellent early example of the police procedural, with realistic detection, a strong plot, some appealing characters, humour and a nice touch of horror. A well-deserved 5 stars.

14 down, 88 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Give me a break! I’ve only just started it…!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀