Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club

Thirty-nine…

😦

While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 363 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

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The Classics Club

I’ve read another two from my list this quarter, but haven’t reviewed either of them yet. And I had three still to review from the quarter before and have reviewed just one of them! So four outstanding – must do better…

10. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – This ‘thriller’ completely failed to thrill, becoming bogged down in turgid descriptions of obscure Eastern European politics that may have interested a contemporary audience but didn’t interest me. I said “Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick.” Abandoned at 30%. 1 star.

Oh dear! A pity, since I enjoyed all four of the ones I haven’t reviewed! 😉

10 down, 70 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read four for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, and have reviewed five, so just one left outstanding…

54. Calamity Town by Ellery Queen. A slightly weak plot, perhaps, and could have done with some trimming of the length. But the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople are excellently done and the writing is great. 5 stars.

55. Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah. A collection of short stories about blind amateur detective Max Carrados. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman compensating sensory abilities. 3 stars.

56. Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. I could probably have tolerated the anti-Semitism as of its time, but I found the book dull and overlong, and eventually abandoned it halfway through. It’s the book that the film Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on, and my advice is forget the book and watch the film! 2 stars

57. The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh. A revisit to an old favourite series, which happily I found has stood the test of time well despite some of the usual Golden Age snobbery. Alleyn is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice, so the books fall neatly into that sweet spot that is neither too cosy nor too grim. 4 stars.

58. Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr. The murder of a conductor mid-performance provides a unique little puzzle that’s told almost entirely through letters and documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings,  a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of the victim’s demise! I loved the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues, which allowed me to overlook the book’s other weaknesses. 5 stars.

As has been the case throughout this challenge, a mixed bunch, but more good than bad this time!

58 down, 44 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I read and reviewed the final two books for this challenge, and posted my wrap post yesterday…

12. The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert. This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert’s desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. 4 for the novel, 5 for the accuracy of and insight into the historical setting, so overall 4½ stars.

13. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. 1940, and four people, all British, play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid. Well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through an obvious left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. 4 stars.

Two good books to finish off this challenge triumphantly!

13 down, 0 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I read three this quarter and had two still to review form the quarter before. I’ve reviewed all five and am up-to-date! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

August – The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. Sadly it fared no better as a People’s Choice than it did as a Classic! 😉 1 star.

September – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. While willing to accept that this is probably a good depiction of a time and a place, I fear I never get along with plotless novels, and by 20% of this long book no plot had begun to emerge. Abandoned. 2 stars.

October – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past, this is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way. I found it thought-provoking and quietly devastating, and sadly all too relevant to the world we live in. 5 stars.

NovemberThe Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. A raid by Barbary pirates results in a group of Icelanders being taken to a life of slavery in Algiers. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate. But I found the central romance between slave and slave-owner outdated and rather nauseating. 2 stars.

DecemberThe Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Poirot and Hastings on the trail of a murderer in France. An early one from when Christie was still developing her characters and her style, but already her trademark plotting skills are evident in this entertaining mystery. 4½ stars.

So a mixed bag to finish the year, but the couple of great books well outweighed the rather less stellar ones. Good work, People! Possibly my favourite challenge since I never know what You will choose! Let’s do it all again next year!

12 down, 0 to go!

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So a few duds this quarter, but many really excellent books too! I’m still a mile behind with reviews, especially of Classics, but hopefully I’ll get on top of the backlog in the New Year. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

Shorts November 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m still battling to catch up with reviews, so here’s another little batch of mini-reviews of books that were mostly middling…

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Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah

🙂 🙂 🙂

A collection of short stories about amateur detective Max Carrados, whose blindness has allowed him to develop all his other senses way beyond the norm, and also well beyond the limits of believability. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman sensory abilities, such as being able to date an ancient coin by touch alone. There seemed to be something of a fad for detectives with disabilities round about that period – the book was published in 1914 – though sadly not in the sense of creating visibility or understanding for people with disabilities, but rather as a form of entertainment for able-bodied people to wonder over. However, it wasn’t the absence of political correctness that prevented me enjoying the book wholeheartedly – that is of its time and Bramah certainly doesn’t disparage his hero. It was simply that I felt Bramah took the concept too far, making it impossible for me to believe in Carrados’ abilities. The stories I enjoyed best were the ones that relied least on the fact of Carrados being blind. Worth a read, though – I certainly found them more enjoyable than some of the books from this very early period of mystery writing.

Challenge details:
Book: 11
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1914

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Israel Rank by Roy Horniman

😐 😐

This is the book on which the famous film Kind Hearts and Coronets was based so the story will be familiar to anyone who has seen it, although apparently the film had some significant differences to the book. Basically, the narrator in the book, Israel Rank, is the son of a Jewish father and a mother who is distantly related to Earl Gascoyne. Israel finds out that there are eight people in the line of succession between him and the Earldom, and sets out to bump them off one by one. It’s a long time since I watched the film but my recollection is it’s mainly played for laughs. The book attempts black humour too, but for me it didn’t really come off. As well as being a multiple murderer, Israel is a snob, completely convinced of his own superiority, and spends far too much time telling us his lustful thoughts about the various women with whom he gets involved. I found the murders too cruel to be humorous – there is real grief on the part of the victims’ relatives.

There is also an insistence on Jewish stereotyping, with Israel frequently referring to the ‘traits’ of ‘his people’ while trotting out some hackneyed anti-Semitic trope. Martin Edwards suggests, based on what is known of Horniman’s life, that the book is probably intended “as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, rather than some form of endorsement of it” but, while I’m happy to accept that he’s probably right, I’m afraid that’s not how it comes over. I found Israel too unpleasant to like, and certainly had no desire to see him succeed in his aims.

However, all of that I could probably have tolerated – again, it’s of its time – but I fear I also found it rather dull and massively overlong. I gave up about halfway through and jumped to the end to see if he succeeded. I won’t tell you if he did, but I found the ending unsatisfying enough that I was glad I hadn’t ploughed through the second half waiting for it.

Challenge details:
Book: 5
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1907

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Arms and the Women (Dalziel and Pascoe 18) by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 🙂

After the events of the previous book, Ellie Pascoe is indulging in some self-prescribed therapy by writing a never-to-be-published story about the Greeks and Trojans, starring a version of Odysseus who bears a remarkable resemblance to Andy Dalziel. Then two strangers arrive at her door one afternoon and attempt to abduct her. While the police try to find out what’s going on, Ellie agrees to make herself scarce for a bit, and retreats to an isolated house by the sea, owned by her friend Daphne Alderman who accompanies her. DC Shirley Novello, “Ivor” as Dalziel calls her, is sent along as protection, and Ellie takes her young daughter, Rosie. This group is enlarged by the inclusion of a neighbour of Daphne’s – Feenie McCallum, an elderly lady with a mysterious past. Naturally the baddies will find them, and the women will have to protect themselves and each other while waiting for the cavalry, in the persons of Dalziel and Pascoe, to ride to the rescue.

By this late stage in the series Hill is trying new things in each book, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t quite. Here he plays with Ellie’s re-writing of the story of Odysseus and there are large sections of her manuscript interspersed throughout the main story. While these are well written and quite fun, they simply get in the way of the plot, making the book overlong and slowing it down to a crawl. Also he decides to concentrate almost entirely on the women, as the title implies, meaning that Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield are relegated to the sidelines and barely appear. Since those are the three characters who hold the series together this was a brave choice, but from my perspective not a good one. The plot is desperately convoluted too, and goes so far over the credibility line it nearly disappears over the horizon. Lastly, as I’ve mentioned before, I find it irritating that Pascoe has to deal with a family-related trauma in nearly every book at this later stage in the series.

As always with Hill, the writing is a joy, and there’s plenty of humour along with some tense, exciting scenes, so it’s still very readable. But it’s one of my least favourites and I’d really only recommend it to Dalziel and Pascoe completists.

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Onwards and upwards!

TBR Thursday 356…

A fourteenth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, especially recently. However I still have several books for it on my TBR, so I shall struggle womanfully on! Here’s the third batch for 2022 and the fourteenth overall…

The Rasp by Philip MacDonald

An author unknown to me, and the blurb has appealing aspects, like the murdered politician (it’s been a tough few weeks here in the UK! 😉 ), and bits that thrill me less, like the emphasis on alibis. However it has reasonably high ratings on Goodreads, so we’ll see. 

The Blurb says: A victim is bludgeoned to death with a woodworker’s rasp in this first case for the famed gentleman detective Anthony Gethryn.

Ex-Secret Service agent Anthony Gethryn is killing time working for a newspaper when he is sent to cover the murder of Cabinet minister John Hoode, bludgeoned to death in his country home with a wood-rasp. Gethryn is convinced that the prime suspect, Hoode’s secretary Alan Deacon, is innocent, but to prove it he must convince the police that not everyone else has a cast-iron alibi for the time of the murder.

Challenge details

Book No: 20

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1924

Martin Edwards says: “The zest of MacDonald’s prose contributed to the book’s success, and compensated for flaws such as Gethryn’s very lengthy explanation of the mystery at the end.”

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The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh and Henry Jellett

I enjoyed Ngaio Marsh back in the day but haven’t revisited her in years. But her plots were always fun, and the audiobook narrator, Philip Franks, sounds good. Another murdered politician and this one is the Home Secretary! I shall preserve a tactful silence, but my UK friends will know what I’m thinking… 😉

The Blurb says: Ngaio Marsh’s bestselling and ingenious third novel remains one of the most popular pieces of crime fiction of all time.
Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse Jane Harden are almost too nervous to operate. The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary – and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead.

Within hours he does die, although the operation itself was a complete success, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn must find out why…

Challenge details

Book No: 55

Subject Heading: Playing Politics

Publication Year: 1935

Edwards says: “Marsh undertook her one and only collaborative novel in partnership with a doctor. While undergoing surgery in her native New Zealand she had been attended by Henry Jellett, an Irish gynaecologist who became a friend. She started work on the book during her convalescence with Jellett supplying the necessary technical expertise.

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The Duke of York’s Steps by Henry Wade

To the best of my recollection I’ve never come across this author before. Not sure the blurb appeals much, but it has pretty good ratings from the few people who’ve reviewed it on Goodreads. Dead banker this time… *zips lips*

The Blurb says: A wealthy banker, Sir Garth Fratten, dies suddenly from an aneurysm on the Duke of York’s Steps. His doctor is satisfied that a mild shock such as being jostled would be enough to cause Sir Garth’s death. It all seems so straightforward, and there is no inquest.

But Fratten’s daughter Inez is not satisfied. She places an advertisement in the London newspapers that comes to the attention of Scotland Yard, and Inspector John Poole is assigned to make enquiries.

Poole’s investigation leads him into a world of high finance where things are not as they seem; a sordid world in which rich young men make fools of themselves over chorus girls.

Challenge details

Book No: 61

Subject Heading: The Long Arm of the Law

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “Poole is familiar with the detective work of Holmes, Poirot and Hanaud, but regards the approach of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French as much more ‘true to life’. Crofts’ influence on Wade is reflected in the careful unravelling of an ingenious conspiracy, but even at this early stage in his career, Wade displays more interest than Crofts in bringing his characters to life. 

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Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

This was one I was having difficulty finding, but happily the British Library have just published it as part of their Crime Classics series. The plot sounds interesting, but Martin Edwards’ comments on it have me worried – see below!

The Blurb says: As a rousing Strauss piece is reaching its crescendo in Maningpool Civic Hall, the talented yet obnoxious conductor Sir Noel Grampian is shot dead in full view of the Municipal Orchestra and the audience. It was no secret that he had many enemies – musicians and music critics among them – but to be killed in mid flow suggests an act of the coldest calculation.

Told through the letters and documents sent by D.I. Alan Hope to his wife as he puzzles through the dauntingly vast pool of suspects and scant physical evidence in the case, this is an innovative and playful mystery underscored by the author’s extensive experience of the highly-strung world of music professionals. First published in 1941, this new edition returns Farr’s only crime novel to print to receive its long-deserved encore.

Challenge details

Book No: 90

Subject Heading: Singletons

Publication Year: 1941

Edwards says: “Farr choose the epistolary form for an unusual story in which the loathsome conductor of the Maningpool Municipal Orchestra is shot dead during a performance of Strauss’ tone poem “A Hero’s Life”. Instead of a floor plan of a country house, the reader is provided with a diagram showing the layout of the orchestra, and no fewer than four pages of musical notation – all of which contain information relevant to the plot.”

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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? Are you tempted?

Calamity Town (Ellery Queen 16) by Ellery Queen

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Ellery Queen comes to the small town of Wrightsville looking for inspiration for his new novel, he settles into a house known locally as Calamity House. It was originally built for Nora Wright, one of the three daughters of John F and Hermione Wright, descendants of the town’s founder and acknowledged leaders of local society. But Nora never lived there, since she was jilted three years ago by the man she had planned to marry, Jim Haight. Now, not long after Queen moves in, Jim returns and the wedding is back on. No one but the couple themselves knew the reason for the split, but the Wright family make an effort to forgive Jim because they can see how much Nora still loves him. But then Nora is taken ill with all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning… and then another woman dies. Suddenly Queen finds himself with a real murder mystery on his hands and, with the help of Nora’s youngest sister Pat, sets out to investigate…

“Ellery Queen” is the pen name of a writing duo, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. I read a few of their mysteries back in my teens but have no real recollection of them, so for all intents and purposes this was my first introduction to them, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting! The focus is less on the crime and more on creating a picture of the Wright family and Wrightsville, and the tone is considerably slower and more literary than I anticipated. The writing is very good, especially the descriptive stuff about the town, and the depiction of how the townspeople are ready to turn on their most revered residents when scandal rears its head is perceptively and credibly done, as is the picture of the impact of the crime on the Wright family themselves. There’s some of the slickness of dialogue usually found in the “hard-boiled” school, but there’s too much warmth and affection for the major characters for it to be in any way noir-ish.

The Wrights have three daughters – Nora, vulnerable, reclusive and somewhat unstable after her jilting, but coming back into the world now that Jim has returned; Lola, who made a disastrous marriage followed by a scandalous divorce, and who is a kind of black sheep, though still loved by her family; and Pat, the youngest, beautiful, feisty, and expected to marry Carter, the town’s Prosecutor. But when Queen enters her life, Pat is more than happy to indulge in some serious flirtation with him, arousing Carter’s justifiable jealousy, and perhaps playing with fire, since it seems that Ellery and Pat are developing real feelings for one another. Pat is the central character along with Queen himself, and she’s very well portrayed – she is a bit weak and reliant on the men in her life, but that’s to be expected of the era, and she has an independent streak which makes her attractive.

Challenge details:
Book: 93
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1942

The story plays out over nearly a year, and I found this rather odd. Queen seems to put his life on hold for the duration, and we hear nothing about him being in touch with family or friends outside Wrightsville. It’s as if he arrives baggage-free and with all the time in the world, but no real explanation of that is given. Of course, it’s the sixteenth novel in a long-running series, so regular readers probably didn’t need much background by this stage, but I felt he was left as a bit of an enigma – a kind of mystery in himself. What made him pick Wrightsville? Does he fall in love in every book or is Pat special? Does he have a home and, if so, where? I guess the only solution to these mysteries is to read the earlier books! However, Martin Edwards, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, suggests this novel was a bit of a departure for the Queen duo – a stage in the evolution of their novels from ‘pure intellectual puzzle’ to a more mainstream novelistic style, in recognition of the changing tastes of mystery readers with the advent of writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley.

Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay
“Ellery Queen”

The plot itself is perhaps the weakest part of the book. To be honest, I felt the solution was pretty well sign-posted from very early on and my suspicions were proved right in the end. It seemed to take Queen an inordinate length of time to spot the bloomin’ obvious and there was certainly room for some trimming in the mid-section of what is rather a long novel by vintage crime standards. But this weakness wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment – the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople is so well done that I was happy to go along for the ride. A very enjoyable introduction to this series and I look forward to getting to know Ellery Queen the writing duo and Ellery Queen the character better.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 351 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’ve been reading up a storm over the summer months but my reviewing is woefully behind, Maybe I need to start having reviewing targets as well as reading ones! Aarghh!! Anyway…

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Well, I’m beginning to fall behind on a couple, especially the Reginald Hill books and books I already owned at the start of the year, but overall I’m doing pretty well this year. I might miss several of the targets by a book or two, but it all looks as if it’s heading in the right direction for once!

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The Classics Club

I’m still racing through my new Classics Club list, though that will slow down a lot in the last quarter as I try to catch up with review books, not to mention reviews! I’ve read five this quarter but so far have only reviewed two of them…

8. Silas Marner by George Eliot – This tale, of a man who adopts a young child and through her finds a kind of redemption, has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour! 5 stars.

9. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith – Set during the Highland Clearances, the glaring historical inaccuracies in this prevented me from being fully won over by what was otherwise an interesting and well written story of an elderly woman faced with eviction. 3½ stars.

One unexpectedly great, one unexpectedly disappointing – story of my reading life and what makes it so much fun!

9 down, 71 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve only read two for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, but I’ve only reviewed two. Two reviews outstanding – one of them dating back to January – hope I took extensive notes… 😉

52. The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes. I couldn’t decide which was worse in this one – the writing or the plotting. Together they made for a painfully bad read. 1 generous star.

53. Background for Murder by Shelley Smith. Dull and pedestrian, shallow and cheap, shabby, and justifiably forgotten are just some of the words I used in my review of this one. Another disappointment in this increasingly disappointing challenge. 2 stars.

Fortunately one of the unreviewed books was very good, so maybe things will get better.

53 down, 49 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve read just one for this challenge this quarter…

11. Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray. And another disappointment! Interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title. Just 2 stars.

Surely one of the last two books for the challenge will be good. Surely…

11 down, 2 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m falling behind a bit on this challenge at the moment. I’ve read three and but have only reviewed one – told you I was in a reviewing crisis! I promise I’ll catch up with these ones very soon! So did You, The People, pick me a good one…?

July – Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton. A “locked room” mystery set in a carriage of a moving train. Though well written and with likeable lead characters, impossible crimes are never my favourite style of mystery. One for the puzzle-solvers, though! 3½ stars.

Hopefully five reviews next time, so plenty of chances for you to find me some good ones, People! Keep up the good work! 😉

7 down, 5 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read the last three books for this challenge this quarter but have only reviewed two. The review of the final one and a challenge round-up will appear soon! Or possibly soon-ish!! The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

Vietnam – The Quiet American by Graham Greene – 5 stars. Greene’s second appearance in this challenge with this wonderful critique of old and new style colonialism written just a year or two before the Vietnam War got properly underway. A perfect fit for the Southeast Asia slot.

An unnamed country that is probably Peru – At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – 5 stars.  A wonderful book about a touring company putting on a revival of a play that had marked them as dissidents during the recent civil war. Loved every word of this one! It fills the South America box.

Two brilliant books this quarter which have reinspired me to keep travelling – have I the strength of will to do this challenge all over again? Maybe…

24 down, 1 to go!

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A very mixed quarter this time, which surprised me since I feel I’ve been reading loads of great books recently – must just not have been challenge books! But overall there were enough wonderful ones to outshine the dismal failures, and I’m continuing to make progress. Just need to catch up with reviews! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Background for Murder by Shelley Smith

A weak bridge…

😐 😐

When Scotland Yard is baffled by a murder in a clinic for the mentally ill, they hand the case over to Jacob Chaos, a sort of consulting detective. He soon learns that the victim, Dr Maurice Royd, was a deeply unlikeable man, so there is no shortage of suspects among the staff and patients. He sets out to chat to as many people as possible, assisted by the attractive Dr Crawford who has put herself forward to be Watson to his Holmes…

Oh dear, this is another of Martin Edwards’ picks for his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and yet again I’m left wondering what on earth he sees in it that I’m missing. From my perspective it is dull and pedestrian, only averagely well-written and, despite there being far too long a list of potential murderers, the solution is pretty obvious almost from the start simply from the way it is written. Shelley makes little references to some of the greats of detective fiction – Christie, Conan Doyle, etc. – but sadly this merely had the effect of making me wish I was reading them rather than this. The basic idea of Scotland Yard handing over the entire investigation of a murder to a private detective was enough to destroy any credibility before the story even got underway. Even in Holmes’ time the police may have asked for his help with a tricky murder case but they didn’t then just disappear and leave him to it! By the date of this one, the idea is laughable.

First published in 1942, naturally the language around mental illness is outdated, but to be honest I find it hard to believe that anyone ever behaved like Chaos. He refers to the patients as “halfwits” and “nuts”, and to the clinic as the “nut-house” or “nut-palace”, which would be believable except for the fact that he does this to the patients’ faces. I can’t imagine that would ever have been seen as polite! Frankly, I’m only surprised that he didn’t become the second victim, and I’d probably have enjoyed the book more if he had. When he is interviewing the patients, he rarely asks them any relevant questions or elicits any useful information. Instead, Shelley uses this stream of interviews to amuse us with all the different ways being “nuts” might manifest – this one is a strutting turkey-cock, this one is suicidal, this one thinks he’s still in WW1, this one bursts into tears without provocation, etc. It’s shallow and cheap, and not nearly as entertaining as she presumably meant it to be. Sure, I’m seeing it through more sensitive modern eyes but I’m fairly confident I would have found it pretty shabby even back then – I hope I would, anyway.

Challenge details:
Book: 100
Subject Heading: The Way Ahead
Publication Year: 1942

Suffice to say by 40% I’d had enough, skipped to the end and confirmed yes, the person I thought had done it had indeed done it.

This comes under “The Way Ahead” section in Edwards’ book, which is designed to give a flavour of the period between the true Golden Age and the new breed of crime writers about to burst on the post-war scene – PD James, Julian Symons, etc. The mental illness aspects in this one could indeed have provided that kind of bridge, but I felt they were handled so superficially and badly that the book was a reflection of neither the plotting skills of the Golden Agers nor the greater psychological depth for which the later authors strove. Another one that I feel has been justifiably forgotten.

Amazon UK Link

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Painful…

😦

The story begins in Paris, where Vivian Bickerdike is waiting for the arrival of a friend. He falls into conversation with a stranger, who turns out to be Baron Le Sage. So it’s something of a coincidence when they meet again a short while later, this time as they each make their way to a country house party in Hampshire. The Baron is on his way to play chess with Sir Calvin Kennett, while Bickerdike has been summoned by his friend, Sir Calvin’s son Hugo, a young man of volatile moods who seems to have something on his mind. But before Bickerdike finds out what the trouble is, there’s a murder. One of the maids, Annie Evans, was an unusually good-looking young woman (for a maid), and had been the unintentional cause of a feud between two of her admirers. Now Annie is dead, shot with Hugo’s gun. Enter Sergeant Ridgway of Scotland Yard…

This is dire. The writing is so clunky that many of the sentences are almost indecipherable. Not that it matters, because most of them are pointless waffle anyway. Have an example:

Le Sage, in the course of a pleasant little drive with Audrey, asked innumerable questions and answered none. This idiosyncrasy of his greatly amused the young lady, who was by disposition frankly outspoken, and whose habit it never was to consider in conversation whether she committed herself or anyone else. Truth with her was at least a state of nature – though it might sometimes have worn with greater credit to itself a little more trimming – and states of nature are relatively pardonable in the young. A child who sees no indecorum in nakedness can hardly be expected to clothe Truth.

Imagine over 200 pages of this. Imagine my pain.

Challenge details:
Book: 15
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

The plotting is so bad that I would say I lost interest early on, except that would be inaccurate, since in fact at no point did I have any interest to lose. There are no clues cunningly sprinkled for the discerning reader to misinterpret – we simply have to wait for the author to get bored and reveal the solution. Unfortunately it took him far longer to reach that point of ennui than me, so I skipped the last 40%, tuned back in for the solution, laughed hollowly at the ridiculousness of it all, and deleted the book from my Kindle in a marked manner.

Bernard Capes

I’ve said it before – sometimes the books that Martin Edwards has chosen to include in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books baffle me. I can’t see that this badly-written, rambling nonsense of a book has contributed anything to the development of the mystery novel – anything good, at least – and it certainly isn’t high on entertainment value. However, Edwards says that GK Chesterton found the prose poetic – clearly Chesterton defines that word differently than I. And Julian Symons apparently described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’. Justifiably neglected, in my opinion.

I often wonder in these cases if it’s simply that I can’t see wonders other people are marvelling over, so I checked the ratings on Goodreads, and no, I am not alone! This has an exceptionally low rating, even though it has been read by very few people and most of them are dedicated vintage crime aficionados. Proving yet again that fellow readers are often the most trustworthy guides.

So, I think it would be safe to say this one falls into the Not Recommended category.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 338 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’ve been reading up a storm recently (Editor’s note: I wrote this before Wimbledon crashed my reading to zero) and have banned myself from acquiring books from NetGalley for a few months (Editor’s note: I wrote this before acquiring two books from NetGalley this week) to catch up with all my other reading. Has it worked?

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

Woohoo! I don’t think I’ve ever been this much on target halfway through the year! I have reduced the target for the Spanish Civil War challenge – see below – and the Wanderlust challenge is still wandering on, six months after the original deadline. But overall I’m happy with these figures.

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The Classics Club

I’ve been racing through my new Classics Club list so far, partly because a couple of the recent People’s Choices have been CC books. I’ve read five this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter, including the final two for my first list. I’m finally up to date with CC reviews, for the first time in ages…

First List

89. Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – Ugh! I abandoned this misogynistic fictionalised memoir halfway through. Mr MacGill dislikes women nearly as much as I dislike him. 1 star.

90. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – I saved this re-read of a favourite as a treat for myself for finishing the first list, and a treat it certainly was! 5 stars.

90 down, 0 to go!

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Second List

2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – A deliciously ambiguous story of missing girls, that manages to be entertaining and unsettling in equal parts. 5 stars.

3. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo – After way too much architectural detail in the first half, the thrilling story in the second half won me over! I also enjoyed reading this along with fellow bloggers in a Review-Along. 5 stars.

4. Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – This satire on Anglo-Irish landowners is a rather slight novella, mildly entertaining, but I felt it didn’t live up to its reputation. 3 stars.

5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – although this re-read was my annual Christmas Dickens, I didn’t get around to reviewing it until May! As always, a great read, even though it’s not quite in Dickens’ top rank. 4 Dickensian stars, which glow brighter than normal stars.

6. The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham –  Set in colonial Hong Kong, this tells the story of initially empty-headed Kitty Fane when her husband drags her into a cholera zone in China. Well-written and thought-provoking. 4½ stars.

7. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar – dark but not quite noir, this is well written, and alongside the murder mystery element takes a thoughtful look at the shame of a respectable woman succumbing to alcoholism in her later life. 4 stars.

One or two duds, but mostly some great reading in this quarter’s classics reading!

7 down, 73 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read three for this challenge this quarter and had two left still to review from the quarter before. I’ve reviewed three and still have another two not yet reviewed…

49. The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon. More a thriller than a mystery, involving a chase across England in pursuit of a lurid serial killer. Fast-paced and entertaining. 4 stars.

50. The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest. Written by a genuine ex-top cop, this has too much of a feel of being a memoir for it to work well as a mystery novel. Interesting rather than entertaining. 3 stars.

51. The House by the River by AP Herbert. A great little story about the psychological effects of murder on the murderer and his loyal friend, unfortunately buried in a mass of description and digression. 2½ stars.

Still very much a mixed bag, this challenge, and I’m considering giving it up once I’ve read the remaining books I’ve already acquired for it.

51 down, 51 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve started plenty of books for this challenge, but most of them have ended up on the abandoned heap pretty quickly. I finished just one…

10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, but first and foremost this is a great story, wonderfully told. 5 stars.

As a result of my increasing disappointment and irritation with many of my choices for this challenge, I’ve decided to read the remaining three books I already own, cancel the other ones from my wishlist, and then draw a line under it.

10 down, 3 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m still on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

April – Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Plenty of layers in this ambiguous tale – mild horror, some humour, and a true mystery at its heart. 5 stars.

May – The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A book that follows the plot of Vanity Fair remarkably closely – very remarkably closely – and yet fails to duplicate any of the humour or insightful satire of the original. A generous 2 stars.

JuneThe Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham. An excellent character study combined with a colonial setting in this tale of a woman who traps herself in marriage to a man she doesn’t love. 4½ stars.

Two out of three ain’t bad! Well done, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had one still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed three, with one still to come. The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

GibraltarKilling Rock by Robert Daws – 5 stars. The unique setting of this last outpost of Empire provides an added level of interest to this police procedural series. I’ve slotted it into the Free Square.

Sahara/North Africa – Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt WE Johns – 5 stars.  A WW2 adventure for flying ace Biggles and his squadron, as they fight to ensure the safety of Allied planes crossing the desert. Unsurprisingly, I’m slotting it into the Desert box!

Hong Kong/China – The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham – 4½ stars. The colonial backdrop of Hong Kong provides the initial setting while the meat of the story takes place in the Chinese interior, so a perfect fit for the Far East box.

Three excellent books this quarter but this challenge is cursed! I keep picking interesting looking books that turn out to be duds. So I’m dropping my initial plan to fill all the boxes only with books I recommend or I could still be trying to fill the last three boxes sometime in the next millennium!

22 down, 3 to go!

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Overall, a great quarter and I’ve made some progress on all my challenges – hurrah! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 334…

A thirteenth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the second batch for 2022 and the thirteenth overall…

Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

This one just failed to win a recent People’s Choice poll, but here it is getting its day in the sun anyway. I read a few Ellery Queens back in the previous millennium, and liked rather than loved them. It’s been a long time though, so I’m keen to see how they strike me now… 

The Blurb says: Looking for trouble, Ellery Queen descends on a small town.

At the tail end of the long summer of 1940, there is nowhere in the country more charming than Wrightsville. The Depression has abated, and for the first time in years the city is booming. There is hope in Wrightsville, but Ellery Queen has come looking for death.

The mystery author is hoping for fodder for a novel, and he senses the corruption that lurks beneath the apple pie façade. He rents a house owned by the town’s first family, whose three daughters star in most of the local gossip. One is fragile, left at the altar three years ago and never recovered. Another is engaged to the city’s rising political star, an upright man who’s already boring her. And then there’s Lola, the divorced, bohemian black sheep. Together, they make a volatile combination. Once he sees the ugliness in Wrightsville, Queen sits back — waiting for the crime to come to him.

Challenge details

Book No: 93

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards says: “Wrightsville life, and the passions swirling within its troubled first family, are splendidly evoked, and the literary quality and style of the novel meant that it represented a landmark in the long series of mysteries written by and starring Ellery Queen.”

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Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman

A new author to me, but not a new story – apparently this is the book that became the classic Ealing comedy film, Kind Hearts and Coronets…

The Blurb says: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is a 1907 darkly comic novel written by Roy Horniman, telling the tale of the eponymous anti-hero’s campaign to cut back his family tree and inherit the aristocratic status of his hated relatives.

Told from his condemned cell, the story charts – in surprisingly lurid detail – how Rank goes from the status of poor relation, to advancing in life by killing off the six relatives standing in the way of him succeeding to his family seat.

Set against a backdrop of Edwardian snobbery, upper-class ritual, and casual antisemitism, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is darker than the film it went on to inspire.

It is also a fast-paced, engaging, and beautifully-rendered thriller – both disturbing and funny in equal measure.

Challenge details

Book No: 5

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1907

Edwards says: “Horniman devoted much of his life to vigorous campaigns for unpopular causes, and overall, it seems fair to regard his book as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, rather than some form of endorsement of it, while there is something quite modern about the book’s flourishes of irony.

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The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club

This collaborative effort sounds like it could easily be a hot mess, but it has pretty high ratings on Goodreads and I’m hoping for a lot of fun seeing how each author approaches it…

The Blurb says: Inspector Rudge does not encounter many cases of murder in the sleepy seaside town of Whynmouth. But when an old sailor lands a rowing boat containing a fresh corpse with a stab wound to the chest, the Inspector’s investigation immediately comes up against several obstacles. The vicar, whose boat the body was found in, is clearly withholding information, and the victim’s niece has disappeared. There is clearly more to this case than meets the eye – even the identity of the victim is called into doubt. Inspector Rudge begins to wonder just how many people have contributed to this extraordinary crime and whether he will ever unravel it…

In 1931, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and ten other crime writers from the newly-formed ‘Detection Club’ collaborated in publishing a unique crime novel. In a literary game of consequences, each author would write one chapter, leaving G.K. Chesterton to write a typically paradoxical prologue and Anthony Berkeley to tie up all the loose ends. In addition, each of the authors provided their own solution in a sealed envelope, all of which appeared at the end of the book, with Agatha Christie’s ingenious conclusion acknowledged at the time to be ‘enough to make the book worth buying on its own’.

The authors of this novel are: G. K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley.

Challenge details

Book No: 27

Subject Heading: Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!

Publication Year: 1931

Edwards says: “In her introduction, Sayers explained the authors approach: “Here, the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. Except in the case of Mr Chesterton’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. 

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Another author I don’t know at all! Sounds a bit grim…

The Blurb says: The Medbury Fort Murder, first published in 1929 for the Crime Club, is a ‘golden-age’ murder mystery involving the killing of an unpopular British Army officer stationed at an out-of-the way post in England. Loathsome Lt. Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort situated on the Thames. Lepean was not at all admired among his fellow soldiers. The arrogant, sneering soldier was a known user of women and is revealed early on to be a ruthless blackmailer. There are at least four men who had very good reason to kill Lepean, two of them were being blackmailed. Was it one of them who slew the soldier or someone else?

Challenge details

Book No: 30

Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “The cast of suspects is small, but Limnelius handles his narrative with aplomb, engaging the reader’s sympathy with both the hunters and the hunted. His no-nonsense treatment of sex and violence is hardly in keeping with the lazily conventional view of Golden Age fiction as ‘cosy’, and the attention he pays to characterisation is equally striking.”

* * * * *

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? Are you tempted?

The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

Murder and waffle…

🙂 🙂 😐

Fashionable poet Stephen Byrne lives with his wife in Hammerton Close, in a lovely house overlooking his beloved Thames. When he’s not poeting, he’s to be found out on the river, paddling his rowing boat over to the island opposite the house, or going further afield in his motor boat. Often he’s accompanied by his best friend, John Egerton. So when Stephen “accidentally” strangles his maid to death when she unaccountably resists his attempts to seduce her while his wife is out, it’s to John he turns for assistance in disposing of the body, and where better than in the river? But submerged bodies have a habit of rising to the surface…

There’s actually a great little story hidden in here, but it’s surrounded by so much waffle that I had to exercise maximum willpower to stick it out to the end, and even then I eventually began to skip past the endless descriptions and digressions.

When the inquest is held, circumstances arise that throw suspicion on John, though there’s not enough evidence for the police to arrest him. So what we have are two competing moral dilemmas, and two contrasting characters. Stephen is selfish and egotistical, easily able to find reasons why everything is always someone else’s fault. His belief in himself as a great poet means he feels he is more valuable than all the ordinary people in the world. John, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault, ready to accept a sacrifice of his own reputation to save Stephen and, more chivalrously, Stephen’s wife from the consequences of Stephen’s guilt. But if it looks as if John will be arrested, will Stephen allow him to take the rap even if it means John will be hanged? And will John’s loyalty take him all the way to the gallows?

Challenge details:
Book:
73
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1920

The book is quite short, so I felt that it could easily be filled by these dilemmas and the impact of them on the two men and the wider community. Instead, Herbert fills the pages with extraneous waffle – a lengthy description of the new styles of dancing, endless descriptions of the river and its human inhabitants, jocular character portraits of people who play no real part in the plot. The entire extent of the police investigation is that they turn up when the body is found, ask the two men if they know anything and accept their assurances that they don’t. We never hear another word about the police – they interview no one, search no houses, make no effort to find if the maid had any personal relationships, etc. Herbert could have got some drama into it by having the police net slowly tighten around the guilty men, but instead he prefers to describe the river again and again.

AP Herbert

Then there’s the treatment of the maid. No one in the Close is bothered about her having been murdered. It doesn’t even make them fear that there might be a madman on the loose. Even those who suspect John merely seem to rather disapprove of murdering maids, mostly because good maids aren’t easy to get. The girl’s parents don’t appear to care either – they see it as a money-making opportunity, demanding that John pay them compensation. It’s all too unrealistic, even for this era.

And yet those central dilemmas are interesting and Herbert handles them well, when he’s paying attention to them. The sections where we are allowed inside the minds of the two men are excellent, and both feel psychologically believable in how they act and then react as time passes. The denouement is very good, with some of the tension that I felt should have been there all along. And the ending is quite satisfying, though marred by another lengthy, supposedly humorous digression between the climax and the last pages. As a novella, this could have been great. As a novel, the story is strangled by digressions, smothered by descriptions, and drowned in the endless river.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Man hunt!

🙂 🙂 🙂

On the night before his wedding, American millionaire Robert Grell leaves his club, telling his friend, Sir Ralph Fairfield, that he’ll be back shortly. He does not return, however, and Sir Ralph later learns that he has been found murdered in his flat. Chief Inspector Heldon Foyle of the CID takes personal charge of the case since Grell is a prominent figure with ties to his government in the States. The case already seems difficult since no one has a known motive to murder Grell. But it soon becomes even more mysterious when it transpires the dead man is not Grell at all – it is in fact another American, called Goldenburg, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Grell. Grell has disappeared, as has his Russian valet, Ivan, not to mention the mysterious veiled woman who was in the flat around the time of the murder, who might be Princess Petrovska or is possibly Lola the showgirl or could be someone else entirely. So to have any hope of solving the crime, first Foyle must find all these missing people…

And that’s exactly what he does. The book almost entirely concentrates on the hunt for Grell and the others, the theory being that, when they are found, they will be able to reveal what exactly happened to Goldenburg and why. So there’s no real investigation of the murder in terms of motives and so on – it’s strictly a police procedural account of a man (and woman) hunt, filled with details of how the Metropolitan Police went about their job back in 1913 when the book was published. This isn’t too surprising since the author was himself an active police officer from 1879 until his retirement in 1912 from the post of Superintendent of the Met’s CID – effectively Foyle’s boss, though one feels Foyle is probably something of an alter-ego for Froest himself. Which is a bit of a worry, since Foyle seems to feel that as far as police officers go, following the law should be optional…

There were things, of course, that could not be put in writing, but Foyle never invited his subordinates to act against the law. Such things have to be done at a man’s own discretion without official sanction.

It seemed to me that Froest’s aim was not so much to tell a mystery story as to describe the workings of the CID and the types of people and criminality they deal with on a daily basis. So in the course of the hunt we are taken to gambling dens, we meet petty crooks and informers, we learn about fingerprinting and record-keeping and liaising with foreign police forces, we get an idea of the police hierarchy and discipline, we spend time with the river police on the Thames, and so on. Foyle and his colleagues also tell each other anecdotes about previous cases they have dealt with. It’s all quite interesting, giving a snapshot of police work at this specific time in these early days of the twentieth century, when forensic techniques were in their infancy.

Challenge details:
Book:
60
Subject Heading:
The Long Arm of the Law
Publication Year: 19
13

However, in order to have room for all this it’s necessary for the police to be singularly incompetent at actually finding any of the missing people! Near miss follows near miss, with all of the detectives making blunders just as they’re about to lay hands on Grell, letting him escape so that Foyle can go on hunting for another few chapters, then another few, and so on. I gradually found I had tired of the chase – I would probably have preferred to be reading a factual memoir of Froest’s time as a detective than have it all rolled into a fictional mystery. The mystery element is well set up in the first few chapters and then is put on hold for a couple of hundred of pages while the manhunt takes place, before being wrapped up rather quickly in the last few pages with a written confession from the murderer to explain all. I confess I started to skim at about the halfway mark, eventually leaping over chunks of the procedural stuff and only tuning back in properly when the solution finally hove into view.

Frank Froest

So overall I found it overly detailed, with too much concentration on the minutiae of detective work at the expense of moving the plot along. However, the minutiae was interesting, and probably even more so in 1913 when the mystery novel was still a new concept and the readership might well be reading about police practices for the first time. For those of us modern readers who have read a million police procedurals it doesn’t feel quite so original and therefore the detail just serves to slow the book to a crawl. I feel the impatience I developed with it is quite subjective, though, and I can imagine that plenty of people would thoroughly enjoy this detailed look at early policing.

I downloaded this one from Gutenberg.org – here’s the link.

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Book:
71
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19
32

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 325…

A twelfth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the first batch for 2022 and the twelfth overall…

The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Frank Froest apparently turned his hand to mystery writing after a long and successful career in the Metropolitan Police, writing two novels and some short stories… 

The Blurb says: The latest in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins involves the murder of a notorious criminal in the home of a famous millionaire. But there are no clues, no evidence. The police are convinced that someone may have just committed the perfect crime.

The Grell Mystery was first published in 1913 and selected as one of the launch titles for the Detective Club in 1929. It was written by former Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Frank Froest, who had turned in retirement to writing successful and authentic crime novels.

“If you like a thriller with plenty of exciting incident and a clever plot you will like this first-rate detective novel by Frank Froest. Chief Inspector Foyle was confronted with the most bewildering case of his career when Goldenburg, the crook, was found foully murdered in the flat of Robert Grell, millionaire. Here was what appeared to be a perfect crime without a clue that led anywhere. But Foyle was more than a match for the arch-criminal and his masterly deduction and determination brought him a splendid triumph.”

Challenge details

Book No: 60

Subject Heading: The Long Arm of the Law

Publication Year: 1913

Martin Edwards says: “…when Heldon Foyle, Chief of the C.I.D., reflects that sometime a police officer needs to ‘put a blind eye to the telescope’ and act in a ‘technically illegal’ way so as to do justice, there can be little doubt that this reflects Froest’s own attitude.”

* * * * *

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Another new-to-me author and apparently this was his only venture into mystery writing…

The Blurb says: A body is discovered after a shooting party in the grounds of a country house in Hampshire. The police are called in, and a clever young detective, Sergeant Ridgway, begins to unravel a much more complicated and brutal case of murder than was first suspected. But has he met his match with Le Sage, a chess-playing Baron, who is convinced that the answers lie not in Hampshire but in Paris?

After 20 years of writing in various genres, The Skeleton Key was Bernard Capes’ crowning achievement, as he died shortly after completing the book.

Challenge details

Book No: 15

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age

Publication Year: 1919

Edwards says: “Introducing The Skeleton Key, G.K. Chesterton highlighted the quality of Capes’ writing: ‘From the first his prose had a strong element of poetry.’ Julian Symons, in his seminal study of the genre, Bloody Murder, described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force‘.”

* * * * *

The House by the River by AP Herbert

And another author I’ve never met before. Apparently Fritz Lang made a movie of this one, so that has to be some kind of recommendation…

The Blurb says: After the inquest, The Chase had plenty to talk about. Mrs. Ambrose and Mrs. Church were kept very busy. For few of The Chase had been actually present in the flesh—not because they were not interested and curious and indeed aching to be present, but because it seemed hardly decent. Since the great Nuisance Case about the noise of the Quick Boat Company’s motor-boats there had been no event of communal importance to The Chase; life had been a lamentable blank. And it was an ill-chance that the first genuine excitement, not counting the close of the Great War, should be a function which it seemed hardly decent to attend: an inquest on the dead body of a housemaid from The Chase discovered almost naked in a sack by a police-boat at Barnes.

Challenge details

Book No: 73

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1920

Edwards says: “Herbert’s brisk, yet at times lyrical, narrative benefits from a series of ironic vignettes . . . The reader knows the truth about the crime, but remains uncertain as to whether justice will be done or denied – and, if it is done, by what means. 

* * * * *

Background for Murder by Shelley Smith

And another author I don’t know! Martin Edwards sure digs up some obscure ones!

The Blurb says: Dr. Maurice Royd, the head of a psychiatric hospital, is found slumped over his desk with his skull caved in. But a lack of hard evidence leaves the local police stumped. The difficulty is that there are too many people who could have murdered Dr. Royd, too many people who wished him dead. Any one of that ‘bunch of crazies’ might have yielded to the impulse to do it.

Private Investigator Jacob Chaos is given the case by Scotland Yard. Now time is of the essence for Chaos as he tries to get the job done discreetly, hushing up any possibility of a scandal. But it seems there is quite a lot of funny business concerning the late Dr. Royd and digging any deeper seems to start stirring up trouble.

Before he knows it, Chaos inadvertently kick-starts a killing spree. Racing against the clock with an ever growing list of suspects, Jacob Chaos must work to unravel the twisted skeins hiding the truth and catch the audacious murderer…

Background for Murder is a classic whodunit and stark exposé of human horror in the tangled worlds of sanity and insanity.

Challenge details

Book No: 100

Subject Heading: The Way Ahead

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “The story is . . . narrated by a private investigator, Jacob Chaos, in a wisecracking style influenced by the more ‘realistic’ American school of writers such as Raymond Chandler – and mental illness, abortion and sexual promiscuity are discussed more freely than in typical Golden Age mysteries. The result is a book reflecting a genre in transition…”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 324 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. My reading dipped for a few weeks this quarter when the news took on such a grim aspect but I’ve now reached a point where I just can’t watch it any more, so my reading has returned more or less to normal, though with quite a few books finding themselves on the abandoned heap, as seems to happen in times of stress!

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

Hmm, overperforming on some targets and underperforming on others, but overall that looks pretty good to me. But then the first quarter usually does when I haven’t yet had time to be diverted by new acquisitions! It will all go horribly wrong soon, I expect, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve had a flurry of classics reading as I finished my first list and started my second. I’ve read seven this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter. I’m still miles behind with reviews, though, so again have three still to come next quarter…

First List

83. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – Gosh, I hated this bad taste pulp science fiction from the 1950s – a vile book about a vile man doing vile things in a vile society. 1 star.

84. Rabbit, Run by John Updike – Gosh, I hated this misogynistic pile of drivel, an early example of the sex-obsessed, narcissistic bilge that too often passes for literature in these degenerate days! 👵 1 star.

85. The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham – A wonderfully atmospheric thriller making great use of the London fog, although let down a little by the ending. 4 stars.

86. The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr – I could see why this is so popular among “impossible crime” enthusiasts but that’s not my favourite sub-genre so for me it was a mediocre read. 3 stars.

87. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin – Gosh, I hated this tedious book, filled with the mumboing and jumboing of religious maniacs. I enjoyed seeing all the contrasting views from my Review-Along buddies though! 1 star.

88. No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long – Not a great novel, perhaps, but of interest for its look at the Glasgow slums of the era, and as the book that gave the city the hardman reputation that has inspired so much gang-obsessed fiction since. 4 stars.

88 down, 2 to go!

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Second List

1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – A thought-provoking meditation on post-apocalyptic societies and how we humans treat those we see as different, while also managing to be a tense thriller. Again I enjoyed reading this as a Review-Along. 4½ stars.

I also attempted to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac but quickly abandoned it – I’m too old for the dreary drink and drug fuelled “adventures” of overgrown adolescents, I fear. I’ve replaced it on my list with The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher.

1 down, 79 to go!

* * * * *

I think “mixed bag” is the only way to describe this batch of classics! That’s what happens when you get to the last books on your list and find you’ve lost all enthusiasm for them… 😉

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read two for this challenge this quarter but haven’t reviewed either of them yet…

46 down, 56 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve read precisely none for this challenge this quarter, but reviewed one left over from the quarter before…

9. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee – Despite many beautifully written passages, I felt that the whole memoir had been so embellished it was difficult to see what was true and what was fictional. Plus I hated the way he talked about women and young girls. 3 stars.

I have lots of books lined up for this challenge – it’s just a matter of fitting them in!

9 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

January – The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell – I was conflicted as to how I felt about this colonial satire, a fictionalised version of the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. But my appreciation grew in the later stages, so in the end I was glad to have read it. 4 stars.

February – The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes – An entertaining vintage crime novel, set in a gambling town just outside Paris. Far too long for its content, but fun overall, with a likeable, if frustratingly naive, heroine and a sexy French Count. 3½ stars.

MarchThe Chrysalids by John Wyndham – Set in a world devastated by nuclear war, this excellent novel provides much food for thought on the subjects of evolution and humanity’s tendency to fear and persecute difference. 4½ stars.

Three interesting, varied and enjoyable choices, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

3 down, 9 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had two still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed four, with one still to come. I’ve also abandoned one or two that I had planned would fill boxes, but I’ve tentatively selected others to replace them – fingers crossed! The dark blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I still might shuffle them again before the end if I have to, but I’m hoping not. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

CanadaStill Life by Louise Penny – 3 stars. The setting is one of the main strengths of the book, so I’ve slotted it into the North America box.

Turkey – Stamboul Train by Graham Greene – 5 stars.  Really the book covers a journey right across Europe from Ostend to Istanbul on the Orient Express, so it’s a perfect fit for the Train box.

IndiaThe Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell – 4 stars. Krishnapur may be fictional, but the events are based on the real history of the Indian Rebellion, so this slots nicely into the Indian Sub-Continent box.

USAThe Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – 4 stars. This wasn’t quite as much of a road trip novel as I expected, but spends enough time on the Lincoln Highway to justify slotting it into the Road box.

Still some way to go, but the end is nearly in sight…

19 down, 6 to go!

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Doing well on some challenges, falling behind on others – story of my life, really! 😉 Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 312 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far…

81. The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw – This story of three young men and their experiences serving in the Second World War is wonderful – harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written. 5 stars.

I abandoned The Drowned World by JG Ballard, since death by drowning began to seem preferable to death by boredom. Rather than search out yet another SF “classic”, I’ve decided to swap in a book I’d already read and enjoyed…

82. The Society of Time by John Brunner – A trilogy of stories set in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire, this provides an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past. 4 stars.

Only a couple of reviews then, but The Young Lions by itself made it a great quarter for classics!

82 down, 8 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read two from this challenge this quarter and reviewed them both…

47. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare – Hare takes us into the even then rather archaic and now defunct world of the Assizes – a system of travelling justice – for this very enjoyable mystery. 5 stars.

48. Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson – Dull, plodding, repetitive and riddled with plot holes, apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. 2 stars.

48 down, 54 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had two still to review from the quarter before…

7.  Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios – All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of the authors’ interpretations. 3½ stars.

8. Nada by Carmen Laforet – In this story set in Barcelona under Franco’s post-war dictatorship, Laforet creates an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier.

Hoping to pick up the pace on this challenge next year with lots of fiction to come.

8 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m up to date with this challenge! I read three this month and still had one to review from last quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

September – Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland – Set in a Hydro hotel, this is quite a fun mystery in the typical Golden Age style. The setting means there is a small circle of suspects, each with secrets and possible motives, while the police detective soon has to give way to a talented amateur. 4 stars.

October – Blackout by Ragnar Jónasson – Set in Iceland, the basic plot of the book is quite interesting and the last third is comparatively fast-paced as all the different strands finally come together. But oh dear, it’s hopelessly repetitive and it took all my willpower to stick it out to the end. 2½ (generous) stars.

NovemberGorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith – By 19%, three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule. Abandoned because they still haven’t invented a vaccine for boredom. 1 star.

DecemberWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. When you start fantasising about the main character being murdered, then it’s probably time to stop reading. Abandoned at 35%. 1 star.

Well, okay, from one perspective Your Choices may not have been hugely successful. But on the other hand, look at all the awful books You’ve helped get off my TBR! Way to go, People!

12 down, 0 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read several books for this challenge this quarter, some of which didn’t quite fit the boxes as I’d hoped and a couple of which I didn’t enjoy and abandoned. But with a bit of juggling I’ve still managed to fill five boxes and have another two reviews to come. So much better, but still way behind, and in conjunction with Margaret at BooksPlease, who’s also doing this challenge, we’ve agreed to forget the official end date of the end of 2021 and simply leave it open – we’ll finish when we finish! I have books lined up for every missing box, so fingers crossed for no more abandonments! The dark blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I still might shuffle them again before the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

New Zealand – Pūrakāu edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 3 stars. What could be more appropriate for the Oceania slot than this collection of updated Māori myths?

Universe – Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley – 4½ stars. A collection of vintage science fiction stories based on the theme of living in space, either on space stations or ships, neatly fills the Space slot.

AustriaSnow Country by Sebastian Faulks – 5 stars. The main setting of this novel is the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia, so perfect for the Mountain slot.

GreenlandSeven Graves, One Winter by Christoffer Petersen – 4½ stars. A murder mystery set partly in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and partly in a small village in the very north of the island ticks off the Polar Regions slot.

IsraelThe Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars.  This is an action thriller set in Israel at the height of the Middle East conflict of the late 60s/early 70s, so a nice fit for the Middle East slot.

Still a long, long way to go, but still travelling hopefully…

15 down, 10 to go!

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A better quarter, making progress on all my challenges for once! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R. Benson

Truly baffling…

😐 😐

Eustace Peters had retired from the Consular Service and taken a house in Long Wilton, the parish of which our narrator, Robert Driver, is rector. The two men had become friends, so Driver is shocked and saddened when Peters is found dead in his bed – murdered! The evening before Driver had spent the evening with Peters and some other guests: Callaghan, Thalberg and Vane-Cartwright, each of whom had been known to Peters from different contexts. Footprints in the snow suggest, though, that the murderer had come from outside the house, so suspicion falls first on the gardener who had been overheard threatening that he’d like to kill his employer. It is soon shown he could not have been the guilty man, however, so the other three men are elevated to the position of suspects. For some unexplained reason, the police seem to leave it mostly up to the rector to investigate.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but occasionally I come across one that baffles me utterly – not because of the mystery, but because the book is so bad I can’t understand why it is included. This is one of those. The writing is dull, plodding and repetitive, and the plot, such as it is, is stretched out far too thinly over a whole year, which coincidentally is how much I felt I aged while reading it.

There’s no real mystery. The rector happens on clues, stories and documents by chance and coincidence, which lead him to know who the murderer was and why. But does the book stop then? No, it meanders on and on, trying and failing to build a sense of tension. The story goes out to the mysterious colonial Far East and off to Italy, but the author chooses not to take the reader with it. Instead we stay in England, guests of the rector, the most insistent bore since the Ancient Mariner. We hear about all these possibly exciting events in far-flung places second-hand, through stories people tell the rector or letters they send him.

Challenge details:
Book:
4
Subject Heading:
A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 19
06

At the end, Benson treats us to excuses for all the plot holes and a kind of mass filling in of all the gaps in such a clumsy, amateurish way that I might have found it unintentionally hilarious had my brain not ceased to function several hours earlier. I could only assume he’d read back over his manuscript at the end, made a note of all the things that didn’t quite makes sense and, instead of going back and correcting them, simply tried to explain them away…

In particular, tardy attention had been paid to the report of the young constable who, as I mentioned [250 pages ago!], followed Sergeant Speke into Peters’ room, and who had incurred some blame because his apparent slowness had allowed some trespassers to come and make footprints on the lawn (I fancy his notes had been overlooked when some officer in charge of the case had been superseded by another).

Apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. For me, this was already one too many.

I downloaded this one from manybooks.com, but take my advice – don’t.

Tragedy at Law (Francis Pettigrew 1) by Cyril Hare

Dispensing justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. He is rather a pompous man, full of pride in his own lofty position, and though he is a good judge on the whole he can be rather harsh on occasions, both in his sentencing and towards the various barristers who appear before him in defence of their clients. So when he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously, as does his wife, Hilda, who sets out to ensure his safety, roping in young Derek Marshall, the coincidentally named Judge’s Marshal who accompanies the Judge on his travels.

This one has rather an odd structure in that it’s mostly about a crime that hasn’t yet been committed, and there’s no certainty that it will be, or that it’s even being seriously contemplated. The various threats against the Judge gradually escalate into odd happenings that may be accidental or may be deliberate, and this creates an air of suspicion and growing tension as the Judge and his entourage move from town to town dispensing justice. Although it’s written in the third person, we see it for the most part from Derek Marshall’s perspective. He’s a young man who has been turned down for service in the army on health grounds, and feels as if he ought to be doing something more useful to help the ongoing war effort. He’s new to the Assizes, and so is the perfect vehicle for Hare to use to describe this rather archaic (and now defunct) system of travelling justice. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards informs us that Cyril Hare was drawing on his personal experience – “Fifteen years spent practising at the Bar, and a spell as a judge’s marshal, meant that he was ideally suited to describing life on a judicial circuit.”

Challenge details:
Book:
66
Subject Heading: The
Justice Game
Publication Year: 19
42

Despite the mass of detail about the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Assizes and some detours into points of law, this never gives the feeling of a dry information dump. Hare makes the Judge’s life and position a central part of the plot, so that all the detail feels necessary, never redundant. The plot develops quite slowly, but it never feels draggy because the writing and characterisation are so well done, and there’s some gentle humour which stops it from becoming too dark. Hare shows us that justice is not blind – that it tends to come down harder on “the common man” than on those in high social positions, as we see when the Judge himself crosses the criminal line by accident and everyone immediately conspires to hush the matter up, if possible. It may not be possible, though, and this forms a secondary strand, especially when events begin to suggest that the two matters – the threats and the Judge’s misdemeanour – might somehow be connected.

Cyril Hare

The book is billed as the first “Francis Pettigrew” mystery. Pettigrew is a barrister whose practice takes him round the courts of the Southern Circuit, so that he often finds himself appearing before Judge Barber. But although he does play a significant role in this one and is a very enjoyable character, he doesn’t feel like the main one – maybe Hare developed him as a central character and amateur detective more fully in later books. In this one, it’s young Derek and the Judge’s wife, Hilda, who are most prominent, and the Judge himself, of course. Hilda is a wonderful character, who reminded me not a little of a less caricatured version of that other famous, later, legal Hilda – She Who Must Be Obeyed, from the Rumpole books. This Hilda also bullies and cajoles her husband and is more ambitious for his success than he is himself. However, she’s an intriguing characterisation – a brilliant, qualified lawyer in her own right who, because of her sex, wasn’t taken seriously either by the men in her profession or by clients who wanted to be defended by a ‘real’ lawyer – i.e., a man. Now she acts as a kind of power behind the throne, often arguing points of law with the Judge, and it’s rumoured that his judgements often have more to do with her opinion than his. Hare shows a good deal of sympathy towards women’s exclusion from full participation in the legal profession in this era.

I’ve tried to say very little about the plot because it develops slowly and not knowing what will happen makes it more enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and looking back at the end I could see that Hare had fairly sprinkled all the information needed for the reader to work it out. Needless to say I didn’t! Yet another vintage mystery writer that I will be adding to my growing “must read more” list! Highly recommended.

I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 299…

An eleventh batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the second batch for 2021 and the eleventh overall…

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson

I’ve never come across Godfrey R Benson before, which isn’t too surprising since apparently this was his only venture into crime fiction. The blurb sounds quite appealing…

The Blurb says: Robert Driver is temporarily fulfilling the post of parson at Long Wilton, a position he finds tedious in the extreme. But the monotony is relieved in terrible fashion when, one snowy evening, his friend Peters is found murdered at his country house, Grenville Combe. Driver takes an interest in the case, and when a chance discovery leads him to suspect that the police’s suspicions about the culprit’s identity may be entirely incorrect, he is determined to see that justice is done. He finds he must proceed with caution, however, if he is to avoid bringing down further tragedy upon himself and his family.

Originally published in 1906, this vintage detective story will delight all fans of classic crime fiction.

Challenge details

Book No: 4

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1906

Martin Edwards says: “…Benson’s thoughtful, well-crafted prose, his insights into human behaviour, and the way in which the story touches on issues such as free will and the ramifications of Britain’s imperial past combine to make his brief venture into the crime genre notable.”

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Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah

I’ve read a couple of Max Carrados short stories in various anthologies and also the only novel he features in, The Bravo of London, and enjoyed them without loving them. Maybe this collection of eight stories will finally win me over…

The Blurb says: Max Carrados is the greatest detective you’ve never heard of. He may be blind, but what Carrados lacks in sight he more than makes up for in perception. He can pick out a voice in a crowded room and read a book by running his fingers over the print. Those who underestimate his abilities are soon surprised by the keen Carrados.

In one story, Carrados tracks down a criminal by analyzing a coin without ever leaving his study. Another finds him solving the mystery of a train accident that has far more to it than anyone expected. Bramah’s stories of Carrados regularly appeared in The Strand magazine, receiving top billing even over those of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Challenge details

Book No: 11

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1914

Edwards says: “George Orwell, a critic with stern opinions about the genre, said that Carrados’ cases were, together with those of Arthur Conan Doyle and R Austin Freeman, ‘the only detective stories since Poe that are worth rereading’.

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Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Again I’ve come across a couple of Hare’s short stories in anthologies and enjoyed them, particularly for the quality of his writing, so I’m looking forward to seeing how his style translates to novel form…

The Blurb says: Tragedy at Law follows a rather self-important High Court judge, Mr Justice Barber, as he moves from town to town presiding over cases in the Southern England circuit. When an anonymous letter arrives for Barber, warning of imminent revenge, he dismisses it as the work of a harmless lunatic. But then a second letter appears, followed by a poisoned box of the judge’s favourite chocolates, and he begins to fear for his life. Enter barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew, a man who was once in love with Barber’s wife and has never quite succeeded in his profession – can he find out who is threatening Barber before it is too late?

Challenge details

Book No: 66

Subject Heading: The Justice Game

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “For this unorthodox variation on the concept of a crime novel set in a realistically evoked working environment, Cyril Hare drew on his own experience. Fifteen years spent practising at the Bar, and a spell as a judge’s marshal, meant that he was ideally suited to describing life on a judicial circuit. 

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The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

I’ve read one novel by Farjeon in the BL’s Crime Classics series, Thirteen Guests, and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. However I didn’t hate it either, and I’ve had more success with a couple of his short stories in anthologies, so I’m keen to see if this novel will turn me into a fan…

The Blurb says: Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station early on a fogbound London morning. He takes refuge in a nearby hotel, along with a disagreeable fellow passenger, who had snored his way through the train journey. But within minutes the other man has snored for the last time – he has been shot dead while sleeping in an armchair. Temperley has a brief encounter with a beautiful young woman, but she flees the scene. When the police arrive, Detective Inspector James discovers a token at the crime scene: ‘a small piece of enamelled metal. Its colour was crimson, and it was in the shape of the letter Z.’

Temperley sets off in pursuit of the mysterious woman from the hotel, and finds himself embroiled in a cross-country chase – by train and taxi – on the tail of a sinister serial killer. This classic novel by the author of the best-selling Mystery in White is a gripping thriller by a neglected master of the genre.

Challenge details

Book No: 71

Subject Heading: Multiplying Murders

Publication Year: 1932

Edwards says: “…Farjeon cared about his prose, and liked to spice his mysteries with dashes of humour and romance. Time and again, imaginative literary flourishes lift the writing out of the mundanity commonplace in thrillers of this period”

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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? Are you tempted?