The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Déjà vu all over again…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Baroness Orczy

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 17 of 20

The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher

A mysterious victim…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

JS Fletcher

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

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

Book 14 of 20

TBR Thursday 205…

A seventh batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m still going slowly with this challenge although I’m reading lots of other vintage crime too. So many great books are being re-issued now, it’s like having access to a long-buried treasure trove!

I haven’t finished reading and reviewing all of the books from the sixth batch of MMM books, but I’ve acquired a couple of review copies of ones recently re-issued, meaning I have to make some changes to the priority list. So here goes for the seventh batch…

The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

This one is a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and mostly of the “impossible crime” or “locked room” variety. The original eight stories are the ones Edwards includes in his list, but the currently available edition contains another four, written at later dates.

The Blurb says: “The Most Imaginative Detective Stories of Our Times.” So wrote Ellery Queen about The Curious Mr. Tarrant, an extraordinary collection of detective stories by Charles Daly King (1895-1963). The cases solved by Trevis Tarrant, during the early 1930’s, assisted by his manservant (who is in actuality a Japanese spy) include locked rooms, headless corpses, a vanishing harp, and newly built but haunted house, and other bizarre events. With the encouragement of Ellery Queen, King wrote four additional stories about Mr. Tarrant, some of them becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” They include the case of a Hollywood star who disappears from a locked suite of rooms, in a house surrounded by detectives, and the murder solved only because of the absence of a fish. These additional stories along with the original eight tales are included in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant. Introduction by Edward D. Hoch.

Challenge details

Book No: 92

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1935

Martin Edwards says: “King’s work illustrates the truth that, alongside the more acclaimed ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the era, some of the most remarkable Golden Age mysteries were written by American authors.

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Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce

While the author’s name means nothing to me, Sergeant Beef is ringing all kinds of bells. I feel I must have come across him when I was reading my way through my sister’s vast crime collection in my teens. Can’t remember if I liked him though… 

The Blurb says: Possibly the most unusual mystery ever written. A murder is committed, behind closed doors, in bizarre circumstances. Three amateur detectives take the case: Lord Simon Plimsoll, Monsieur Amer Picon, and Monsignor Smith (in whom discerning readers will note likeness to some familiar literary figures). Each arrives at his own brilliant solution, starting in its originality, ironclad in its logic. Meanwhile Sergeant Beef sits contemptuously in the background. “But,” says Sergeant Beef, “I know who done it!”

Challenge details

Book No: 48

Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “Lord Simon Plimsoll, Amer Picon and Monsignor Smith are thinly disguised versions of Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown, and the mannerisms, dialogue and methods of detection familiar from the originals are captured wittily and with considerable skill.

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The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo via NetGalley. Another collection of short stories, and I do remember reading stories about The Old Man in the Corner when I was young – the sleuth whom Pushkin now appear to be calling the Teahouse Detective, which is a baffling mystery in itself…

The Blurb says: Classic mysteries by the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In the corner of the ABC teashop on Norfolk Street, Polly Burton of the Evening Observer sets down her morning paper, filled with news of the latest outrages, and eagerly waits for her mysterious acquaintance to begin. For no matter how ghastly or confounding the crime, or how fiendishly tangled the plot, the Teahouse Detective can invariably find the solution without leaving the comfort of his café seat.

What did happen that tragic night to Miss Elliott? Who knows the truth about the stolen Black Diamonds? And what sinister workings are behind the curious disappearance of Count Collini? The police may be baffled, but rare is the mystery that eludes the brilliant Teahouse Detective.

Challenge details

Book No: 3

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1905

Edwards says: “The story-telling formula, although inherently limited, was neat and original, and the book enjoyed considerable popularity; it was included in the tiny library taken by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1915.

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Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Courtesy of the British Library – one from their back catalogue of Crime Classics. I enjoyed their later re-issue of the author’s Scarweather, so am looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Robert Arthur Kewdingham is an eccentric failure of a man. In middle age he retreats into a private world, hunting for Roman artifacts and devoting himself to bizarre mystical beliefs. Robert’s wife, Bertha, feels that there are few things more dreadful than a husband who will persist in making a fool of himself in public. Their marriage consists of horrible quarrels, futile arguments, incessant bickering. Scarcely any friends will visit the Kewdinghams in their peaceful hometown Shufflecester.

Everything is wrong – and with the entrance of John Harrigall, a bohemian bachelor from London who catches Bertha’s eye, they take a turn for the worse. Soon deep passions and resentments shatter the calm façade of the Kewdinghams’ lives.

This richly characterised and elegantly written crime novel from 1933 is a true forgotten classic.

Challenge details

Book No: 81

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1933

Edwards says: Family Matters [earned] a rapturous review from Dorothy L. Sayers in The Sunday Times: ‘The characters are quite extraordinarily living, and the atmosphere of the horrid household creeps over one like a miasma.’

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All blurbs and covers 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?

TBR Thursday 204… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I was doing pretty well at the first check-in at the end of March, but I always start off full of enthusiasm. It’s the summer months that do for me – I read less, and lots of new shiny books have appeared so that my commitment to my challenges goes a bit wobbly.

So here we are – the second check-in of the year…

Uh-oh! It’s all beginning to go horribly wrong again! The MMM challenge is going fine, and I’m just about keeping the new releases under control. But the other challenges are sooooooo behind! Partly this is because I haven’t read much for the last few weeks, and also the classics I’ve read this year have been some of the chunkier ones. But even so. Some swift remedial work will be required. Look out for lots of classics and stuff over the next three months…

The TBR hasn’t dropped much, but thanks to yet another bout of rigorous (and emotionally devastating) culling, the more important combined TBR/wishlist reduction is well on track! I might be a loser, but I’m also a winner!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and this quarter I’ve visited a couple of places and been on a trek across Europe!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I helped investigate a murder with Inspector Chen of the Shanghai police in Qiu Xiaolong’s excellent Death of a Red Heroine. Then I travelled from Portugal through Spain, over the sea to Italy and finally to Austria in José Saramago’s whimsical The Elephant’s Journey, ticking off the tricky elephant travel box as I went.

I had only one detour this quarter, but it’s one of the best trips I’ve taken, and I’d probably never have gone had it not been for this challenge – which is why I love it! Leila and her friends took me on a life-affirming tour of the underbelly of Istanbul in Elif Shafak’s wonderful 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

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

63 down, 17 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed just three books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

42. The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – 5 bright and twinkling stars for this excellent Scottish classic – a historical novel that tells the story of Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid, who is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. Great story, great writing, great book!

43. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – Heyer’s Regency romances are the ultimate in comfort reading. This one wasn’t my favourite because I wasn’t so keen on the rather bullying hero and heroine, but there are some great secondary characters and it’s always fun to visit Bath. 4 stars.

44. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – 5 stars again for another Scottish classic (am I biased? I think I might be…). Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way.

I should be at about the three-fifths mark now, so I’m a good bit behind. I’ll need to do some intensive Classics reading over the next few months!

44 down, 46 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve done a bit of catching up on this over the last three months, having reviewed five and with another one pending. Another challenge I’m thoroughly enjoying, being constantly surprised by the variety of styles and the wide range in tone, all the way from humour to near noir. To see the full challenge, click here.

24.  Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert –  When a rather decaying corpse turns up in a deed box in a lawyer’s office, Inspector Hazlerigg enlists the help of one of the new lawyers to investigate. Loved this one – 5 stars.

25.  Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – oh dear! I really can’t stand Sayers’ snobbery and it’s out in full force here. Plus the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out. Just 2 stars.

26.  Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg – when an experienced flying instructor crashes everyone is ready to write it off as a tragic accident. Everyone except for the Bishop of Cootamundra, that is, a pupil at the flying school. The plotting is messy and crosses the credibility line by miles, but the characterisation and gentle humour make up for it. 4 stars.

27.  The Blotting Book by EF Benson – well-meaning but greedy trustee Edward Taynton has been gambling with his client’s inheritance. When it looks as if this might be revealed before he can fix it, things begin to go very wrong. A thoroughly enjoyable, if not very mystifying, novella-length mystery – 5 stars.

28.  The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts – When Inspector Mark Brendon is investigating a murder, he is hampered by the fact that he has fallen head over heels in love with the victim’s lovely young widow. Great settings – Dartmoor and Italy – and a surprisingly modern-feeling motivation for the crime make up for the rather messy structure and some implausibility. 4 stars.

28 down, 74 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Finally! I managed to actually review a couple for this challenge this quarter! Still going very slowly with it, though…

3.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Sadly, this one failed to meet my perhaps over-high expectations. The story of an African-American man learning about his history and thus finding his own identity is filled with symbolism that didn’t seem to symbolise much, to me at least, and it’s filled with repeated scenes of ugliness and brutality. The excellent prose didn’t quite cover its weaknesses. 3 stars.

4.  The Kiln by William McIlvanney. As Tam Docherty is on his way home to the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself. Loved this sequel to the wonderful Docherty – together the two books tell the story of the working classes in Scotland through the twentieth century. 5 stars.

4 down, 21 to go!

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I may not have met my targets this quarter, but I’ve still read some jolly fine books!
I’m taking a Wimbledon break now, so I’ll see you in a week or so.

Meantime, thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Blinded by love…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…

This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.

Challenge details:
Book: 44
Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder
Publication Year: 1922

The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)

This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.

Eden Phillpotts

I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.

Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Blotting Book by EF Benson

An excellent vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EF Benson

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

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

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

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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…

* * * * * * *

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!

* * * * * * *

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!

* * * * * * *

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!

* * * * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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