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.

* * * * *

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!

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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!

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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.

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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’.

* * * * *

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. 

* * * * *

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”

* * * * *

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 (on a Friday) 297 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. This has been a terrible quarter, reading-wise, with me taking a break of five or six full weeks from reading, so I’m expecting the worst for my poor targets!

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

Aarghh! Well, it’s just as bad as I expected and there’s no way I’ll be able to retrieve the situation in the last quarter of the year. I might catch up with the People’s Choice and fit in a few more classics, but the rest are pretty hopeless. I needed that break though and hey! Who’s counting? 😉

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve read just one from my Classics Club list this quarter, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

79. My Ántonia by Willa Cather – I enjoyed this excellently written novel telling of the coming-of-age of the title character and the narrator, Jim, together with the story of the pioneering days in the fledgling USA. 4 stars.

80. I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane – One from the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime, complete with every ‘ism of its time. Violence, sex and guns galore – and yet oddly I enjoyed it! 4 stars.

Two books from the US that couldn’t really be more different, but both enjoyable in their own way!

80 down, 10 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve managed to read precisely none from this challenge this quarter! However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

46. Darkness at Pemberley by TH White – White throws just about every mystery novel trope into this preposterous story, but manages to pull it off! Hugely entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously. 5 stars.

46 down, 56 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, and had another still to review from the quarter before. Unfortunately I haven’t reviewed either of them yet, so the sum total for this round-up is…

Reviews will follow soon though, I promise!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve only read two this quarter but hope to catch up before the end of the year. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JulyHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I found this tale of privileged members of the Igbo caught up in the Biafran War surprisingly flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. However I learned a good deal about the culture of that time and place, and overall am glad to have read it. 4 stars.

AugustThe Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth – A highly entertaining mystery from the Golden Age, starring a charming heroine meeting peril after peril in her attempts to do the right thing. Just the right combination of mystery, humour and romance to make for perfect relaxation reading. 5 stars.

One I’m glad to have read and one I thoroughly enjoyed, so take a bow, People – you chose well! And they’re off my TBR at last – hurrah!

8 down, 4 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I haven’t filled many boxes this quarter, and I’m kinda kicking myself because I’ve got great-looking books lined up for every space now – it’s just a matter of finding time to read them! I have a few coming up on my reading list soon, but this challenge is definitely going to drift into next year (unless I grow an extra head). The dark blue ones are from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

SwedenTo Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Village, since the village setting is an important factor in the story.

France – The Man from London by Georges Simenon – 4½ stars. Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe as the background to his story. I’m putting this in the Europe box.

Biafra/NigeriaHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars. I can’t imagine a more appropriate book to fill the Africa box than this story of the short-lived existence of the Biafran nation.

Still a long, long way to go, but ’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive…

10 down, 15 to go!

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A slightly shorter post this time, for which I’m sure you’re all very thankful. 😉 Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Darkness at Pemberley by TH White

Mr Darcy would have been horrified!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

darkness at pemberleyWhen Inspector Buller is called to a Cambridge college to the murder scene of a young man who has been shot, it quickly appears that the solution is easy – another man is found dead in the building opposite, also shot but apparently by his own hand. The obvious conclusion is that the second man killed the first and then in a fit of remorse took his own life. Buller is unconvinced – he has spotted odd little things in the second man’s room that make him believe he has also been the victim of an elaborate murder. Buller investigates, works out who the murderer is but can’t find the evidence to charge him. The murderer confesses, but only without witnesses and mostly to boast about his own cleverness. Buller, disgusted with his own failure to bring the murderer to justice, resigns from the police, which he can afford to do since he is one of those fortunate Golden Age policemen with private means.

That’s all in the nature of a prologue. The real fun begins when Buller tells the story to his friends, brother and sister Charles and Elizabeth Darcy, current occupants of Pemberley. Yes, that Pemberley! Charles, who has his own reasons for hating the idea of someone getting away with murder, decides to stick his oar in. Thus begins a romping adventure, where the murderer is trying to do away with Charles, and Buller and assorted friends, together with the faithful staff of Pemberley, are attempting to keep Charles safe.

The word that springs to mind for this is preposterous. The story is ludicrous, the credibility line doesn’t even exist, and White has thrown every possible mystery novel trope in to make a kind of glorious Irish stew – locked room, impossible crime, revenge thriller, car chase, both academic and country house settings, maniacal villain, gory deaths, mysterious drugs, poisons, amateur detectives, police, moral ambiguity, extrajudicial justice, shades of Gothic horror, touch of romance, bit of humour, dramatic thriller ending. It ought to be a complete mess, but by some miracle I can’t explain, it works! I found myself racing through it with a smile on my face, rushing through a lot of total nonsense to an ending I knew would be completely over the top, and yet enjoying it thoroughly all the way. I think the reason White gets away with it is simply that he was a very good writer, and wasn’t trying to take himself too seriously. It reads as if he had as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
8
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

Although Pemberley is the main setting and Charles and Elizabeth are descended from the original Darcy and Lizzie, there’s no attempt to make this any kind of Austen pastiche. In fact, I’m quite sure Mr Darcy would have been horrified at the behaviour of his descendants and I’m rather surprised that White restrained himself from throwing his disapproving ghost into the mix, especially since restraint doesn’t seem to have been one of White’s authorial traits. But young Elizabeth does seem to have inherited her namesake’s forceful, independent spirit, sense of humour and desire to only marry a man she can respect.

TH White-min
TH White

Martin Edwards lists this in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Singletons section – that is, authors who only wrote one mystery novel in their lives. Part of me feels it’s a pity White didn’t write more of them, but a bigger part feels that it’s probably just as well, since I really can’t imagine how he could ever have topped this, and he’d pretty much used up a lifetime’s worth of plots already in this one novel. Unique, preposterous… and great fun!

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

TBR Thursday 290 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 still seem to be storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

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

TBR Quarterly Jun 2021

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on track with so many targets at this point of the year – it can’t last! Poor old Reginald Hill is falling behind – must make more effort. I should be able to catch up with the Classics Club and finish by my extended deadline of the end of the year – only a couple of chunksters left and all the rest should be fairly quick reads. The shortfall in new releases has reduced considerably this quarter and (theoretically) will be smashed by the time I’ve read all the review books on my 20 Books of Summer list. The fact that I’m abandoning lots of new fiction isn’t helping, though! The TBR Reduction is awful – I can’t see me meeting those targets without magical intervention. But hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read three from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

76. Way Station by Clifford D Simak – I loved this well written, thought-provoking science fiction novel, with shades of Cold War nuclear fear, lots of imaginative aliens and a kind of mystical, New Age-y touch. 5 stars.

77. The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – This, the first mystery novel written by a black American and with an exclusively black cast of characters, delighted me with its vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem. Lots of humour and a great plot. 5 stars.

78. The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – A slow-going but interesting look at the beginnings of the Scottish herring industry, following on from the devastation of the Highland Clearances. I enjoyed this one, not least because several of my blog buddies read it with me. 4 stars.

Not good on the quantity, perhaps, but high on quality!

78 down, 12 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Managing to keep on track with this challenge at the moment more or less – I’ve read three this quarter, but only reviewed two of them so far. However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

43. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude – One in Bude’s long-running Inspector Meredith series, I find these a little too painstakingly procedural for my taste, although the plot and setting of this one are good. 3½ stars.

44. The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts – Talking of too procedural, I abandoned this one halfway through on the grounds of being determined not to die of boredom! Crofts’ first, and the best I can say about it is he improved in later books. 1 generous star.

45. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – Great writing and a perfectly delivered plot mean that this one’s reputation as a classic of the genre is fully deserved. More psychological than procedural, and with a wonderful depiction of an early version of “trial by media”. 5 stars

45 down, 57 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I only read two for this challenge this quarter but in my defence one of them was a massive biography of Franco, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had one left to review from last quarter…

5. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda. The story of young wife and mother, Natalia, living in Barcelona while her husband is off fighting in the war. It’s a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Packed full of power and emotion – a deserved classic. 4½ stars.

6. Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath. As Franco lies on his deathbed in Spain, Francis McNulty is convinced the dictator is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain as a volunteer medic on the Republican side and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth. 5 stars.

Two short books, two different squares, and two great reads, so hurrah for this challenge!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

Unbelievably I’m still up-to-date with this challenge, so three reviews for this quarter plus one that was left over from the previous quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

MarchThe Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves – The first of the Vera Stanhope series – the underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character. But oh dear, the book is massively over-padded and repetitive, and I found it a real struggle to wade through. 3 stars.

AprilCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – A parody of the rural rustic novel popular at the time, there’s a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. It outstayed its welcome just a little as the joke began to wear rather thin, but overall an entertaining read. 4 stars.

MayThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – The first of the Cormoran Strike novels sees him investigating the death of a supermodel, with the help of his temporary secretary, Robin. I’m feeling repetitive myself now, but this is another with a good plot buried under far too much extraneous padding. Galbraith’s easy writing style carried me through, however. 4 stars.

June – Sweet Caress by William Boyd – In the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decides to become a professional photographer, and her elderly self looks back at where her career took her. Sadly this one didn’t work for me at all and I eventually abandoned it. 1 star.

Even if there were no five stars, there was only one complete dud, so I think you did pretty well, People! And they’re all off my TBR at last – hurrah!

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo June 2021

I’ve done a little better this quarter and have also started looking ahead to try to make sure I have something for each box. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. The dark blue ones are from last quarter, and the orange ones are this quarter’s. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

EnglandThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Small Town at the moment, since the setting plays an important part in the plot.

IcelandThe Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars. Another that could work for Small Town, or Europe, but I’ve slotted it into Island at present.

MalayaA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute – 5 stars. Could be Australia as well, so Oceania, but I’ve gone with the Malayan section and put it into Walk.

AustraliaThe Survivors by Jane Harper – 4 stars. Another that would work for Oceania, but since the Beach plays a major part in the story that’s where I’ve put it.

ScotlandThe Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – 4 stars. Since this is all about herring fishing, I don’t imagine I’ll find a better fit for the Sea box.

Still a long, long way to travel, but there are some interesting reads coming up for this one…

7 down, 18 to go!

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Whew! Apologies for the length of this post, but I guess that indicates a successful quarter. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Trial by media…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Franchise AffairRobert Blair’s life as a country solicitor is peaceful and contented, though just recently he’s been wondering if it isn’t just a little too contented. When he is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help with a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant – she wants someone of her own class, and that means Robert. And the case sound intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard…

The Sharpes, mother and daughter, are eminently respectable ladies, though fairly new to the neighbourhood having inherited The Franchise just a few years earlier. So the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply. The whole thing would have been written off as nonsensical, but for the fact that Betty is able to describe things in the house and grounds that she couldn’t possibly have known, since she had never been in the house for legitimate reasons. However, Grant can find no corroborating evidence and so the matter would have rested, except that the local crusading newspaper decided to take the matter up. Now the Sharpes are being vilified and harassed, and the matter is no longer only one of whether or not they will be prosecuted – it becomes imperative to prove that Betty is lying so as to clear their names completely. And for Robert it has become personal as he finds himself increasingly drawn to Marion.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 87

Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact
Publication Year: 1948

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. Although it’s billed as an Inspector Grant novel, in fact he plays only a tiny part – the real “detective” is Robert, floundering a little out of his depth since he’s never had anything to do with the criminal side of the law before, but righteously determined to do everything in his power for his clients. He’s extremely likeable, and the ambiguity over Marion and Mrs Sharpe means that for most of the novel the reader doesn’t know whether to hope his romantic feelings for Marion will blossom, or whether he’s setting himself up for a broken heart. Marion and her mother are great characters – both opinionated individualists with a healthy cynicism about their society’s prejudices, but finding that when that society cuts one off, life, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, rapidly becomes intolerable. Although the reader also finds it difficult to believe that they could be guilty, it’s equally hard to see why and how young Betty could have invented such a detailed and consistent story. It was long, long into the novel before I felt I could decide on the Sharpes’ innocence or guilt.

The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. First published in 1948, the social attitudes are very much of their time, and it becomes pretty clear that Ms Tey was probably a good old-fashioned Tory snob whose ideas on class and politics ought to have roused my rage. But actually I found them amusing, and a great, if unintentional, depiction of that particular class of ultra-conservativism which still exists today, particularly in the letters page of The Telegraph and other newspapers read mainly by the retired colonels and maiden aunts of the Shires.

It’s also a wonderful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we are all too familiar, although it happens more slowly when people must write actual literate and grammatical letters to the newspapers and wait for them to be printed rather than firing off foul-mouthed libellous tweets, as we do now that we’re so much more advanced. Tey shows how quickly mob feelings can be aroused, and how easily some people will proceed to take what they would call justice into their own hands. She also shows, though, that there are decent people in the world who will rally round and help, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

Josephine-Tey-1934
Josephine Tey

I don’t want to risk any spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the gradual revelations are very well paced so that my attention never flagged, and I found the eventual resolution completely satisfying. But more than this, I found it a highly entertaining read with all the elements that make good vintage crime so enjoyable – an intriguing mystery, an atmosphere of building tension, a likeable protagonist who is neither alcoholic nor angst-ridden, a touch of romance, a sprinkling of humour. Great stuff! I now officially forgive Josephine Tey for boring me to death with The Daughter of Time and look forward to getting to know Inspector Grant and her better.

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

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Enough to drive a girl to drink…

🤬

The CaskAs a cargo ship is unloading at the docks in London, an accident causes a cask to fall and split. Two employees of the shipping company spot that some gold coins have fallen from it so not unnaturally they decide to have a little poke around inside to see if there are more. There are, but more shockingly there is also a dead hand which appears to be attached to an equally dead woman! So begins this ridiculously over-complicated, utterly tedious investigation into the death of someone I didn’t care about at the hands of one of the tiny group of suspects about whom I cared even less. If only the cask had been full of red wine, I could have got paralytically drunk and been happy…

Dear me, that’s the nearest I’ve come to death by boredom in a while! I’ve read a few of Crofts’ extremely procedural procedurals now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, but this one is in a class of its own. Pages and pages and pages of shipping routes of casks, three detectives going over and over and over the same pieces of evidence again and again and again, zero characterisation of victims, suspects or detectives – truly it is a mystery to me how anyone manages to make it all the way through to the end of this with their sanity intact. I gave up at 53% when it became clear to me that I would soon be screaming out loud rather than just inside my head. I was “interested” enough to flick to the last chapter to find out which of the suspects had done the deed, and when I got there I realised I’d been right along – I really didn’t care!

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book:
16
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1920

And since I’m moaning, let me have a brief rant about the dialogue. People do not speak as if they are a business letter. No one – NO ONE – ever – in the history of the universe – has ever said in conversation, and I quote:

“That cask, as you see, was invoiced out via Havre and Southampton on the 30th ultimo, and yet it turned up in London on Monday, the 5th instant,…”

Good grief! And then there’s the convoluted journey of the corpse-containing cask, which turns up in Paris, London, Southampton, Le Havre and Rouen, some of them several times. Why? WHY?? Why would a murderer go to these ridiculous lengths to get rid of a body? What’s wrong with burying it in the woods or, since it crosses the Channel at least three times as far as I could gather, dumping it in the sea? And I don’t wish to lower the tone, but would a corpse travelling about in a cask for days in the height of summer remain… ahem… fresh??

(I realise the answers to the above may be given in the 47% of the book I didn’t read, but despite my mouth-frothing ranting, I DON’T CARE!!)

icrofts001p1
Freeman Wills Croft

This was apparently Crofts’ first book, so a very strong argument against reading books in order. He undoubtedly did improve, even if his later books occasionally also bore me into fits of the screaming abdabs. At least he got over the desire to make his characters talk as if they were dictating letters to their secretaries. Apparently writer and critic Julian Symons classed him as one of “the humdrum school” of mystery novelists – on the basis of this one I feel Symons was being too kind. But Martin Edwards is even kinder when he uses the euphemism “meticulous” to describe the endless mind-numbing tediosity of repeated details. Amazingly the book has sold over 100,000 copies. I downloaded my copy free and yet still feel I’ve been overcharged…

If you’ve been having too interesting a time recently and feel the desire to be bored rigid for a change, you too can read this – it’s available here. But get your own cask of medicinal wine first – I’ll need all of mine…

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Sussex Downs MurderBrothers John and William Rothers share the family home and lime manufacturing business at Chalklands Farm in Sussex. William’s wife also lives there, which is unfortunate, or convenient, depending on your viewpoint, since she seems to be at least as close to John as she is to her husband. Then John decides to go on a short driving holiday, but he doesn’t get far – his car is found abandoned a few miles from home and there are signs of violence. No sign of John though, alive or dead. Inspector Meredith has recently been transferred to the area and is put in charge of the case. First he’ll have to determine if John has been kidnapped or murdered before he can hope to discover whodunit…

I’ve loved a couple of John Bude’s books and been pretty unimpressed by a couple more, so wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. And it fell in the middle for me – reasonably enjoyable but not nearly as entertaining as he can be. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s the Inspector Meredith books that don’t work too well for me. Not that I don’t like the Inspector – as a character he’s fine and in this one there’s some entertaining stuff between him and his teenage son which gives him a more rounded feel than in some of the other books. It’s more the investigative technique that puts me off, very painstaking and slow, with lots of examining and re-examining clues as each fresh piece of information comes to light. I’m aware I’ve said similar things about a few of the Golden Age police procedurals, especially the Inspector French novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, so I was interested to learn from Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Meredith is indeed modelled on French. However Edwards says that Meredith “possesses a sharper sense of humour” and an “innate humanity”, with both of which I agree. This kind of detailed procedural is clearly a specific style of mystery story popular at the time, and Bude certainly does it better than most.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 35
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1936

He’s also very good at settings and here he brings the area of the Sussex Downs to life, with the sparsely populated rural district playing a major role in the solving of the mystery. First published in 1936, there was still little enough traffic on the roads for people to notice and recognise passing vehicles, and even remember them some days later. Local gossip plays its part too, with there being few enough people around for everyone to have a fair idea of what everyone else might be up to, or at least to think they do.

The solution seems a bit obvious from fairly early on, unfortunately, but the meat of the story is really in how Meredith goes about his investigation. As he struggles to find proof of a murder having been done much less to prove who may have done it, we see his frustration and the pressure he is put under by his superiors. But Meredith is a patient man, willing to admit when a theory isn’t working out and to go back to the beginning to formulate a new one.

Overall, then, enjoyable enough to while away a few hours but not a top rank mystery novel, which has been pretty much my reaction to all of the Inspector Meredith novels I’ve read so far. I think in future I’ll try to stick to Bude’s standalones where, in my limited experience of him, he seems to show much more inventiveness and humour, and achieves a better pace.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 278… 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. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

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

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

Villain or victim?

😀 😀 😀 😀

At the Villa RoseMr Julius Ricardo is enjoying himself at the casino in Aux-les-Bains, people-watching. This night the person he’s most interested in is a beautiful young girl, who at first seems to be in the depths of despair. Later in the evening, Ricardo sees her again with a friend of his, Harry Wethermill, and now she appears to be quite happy, and the two give every indication of being very much in love. So Ricardo is duly shocked when Wethermill rushes into his room a couple of mornings later to beg for Ricardo’s help. A wealthy elderly widow, Mme Dauvray, has been found murdered and Celia Harland, the beautiful girl who, it transpires, was Mme Dauvray’s companion, is missing. Everything points to Celia having been in cahoots with the murderer and having made off with Mme Dauvray’s fabulous jewellery collection. But Wethermill cannot believe this of her, and begs Ricardo to use his influence with another friend, Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté, to take on the case…

This was first published in 1910, before the standard Golden Age mystery formula of crime-investigation-solution had been fully developed, and so the structure is odd and a bit disjointed. Here, we get the crime, followed by Hanaud brilliantly catching those responsible. Then, as a kind of lengthy epilogue, we are taken back into the past and shown what happened in a narrative supposedly developed from the various witness testimonies. After that, Hanaud briefly tells Ricardo how he worked it out, but by that time the reader ought to have spotted all the clues for herself, so it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

Despite this “lop-sided” structure as Martin Edwards describes it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, the long section where we see the crime unfold before our eyes manages to be dark and tense even though we know the outcome. The characterisation of the victim, villains and suspects is very well done, and there’s a real sense of innocence meeting evil.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1910

Mme Dauvray is a kindly soul with lots of money, and so is often taken advantage of. She is a believer in spiritualism, and her long-serving maid and confidante operates as a kind of guard-dog, keeping away those who would prey on the widow. But when Mme Dauvray takes a fancy to Celia, who is an accomplished medium, and moves her in as a favoured companion, the maid is not unnaturally jealous. Her description to the police of Celia as a calculating fraud is wildly at variance with Wethermill’s idealised picture of her as a lovely innocent – it’s up to Hanaud and the reader to decide who’s right. However it’s obvious that the crime involved more than one person, so even if Celia was involved, there’s still a mystery as to who were her accomplices.

AEW Mason (2)
AEW Mason

The investigators aren’t quite such good characters in my view. Inspector Hanaud and Ricardo, who quickly becomes his sidekick, are rather caricatured versions of Holmes and Watson (far more than Poirot and Hastings, in my opinion, although it has been suggested they gave Christie the inspiration for her characters). But Hanaud is one of those superior detectives who likes nothing more than to humiliate his sidekick, and since I felt Ricardo didn’t deserve it (even though he is pretty dense sometimes), I found it hard to like Hanaud. However, we do get to see the clues that allow Hanaud to identify the culprits so it ought to be possible to work it out. By chance I happened on the right suspect, but for all the wrong reasons, so I don’t feel I can take much credit for it! The solution, although credible, isn’t straightforward, so that even when we discover halfway through whodunit, there’s still plenty left to reveal.

Undoubtedly it could have been improved by changing the structure, but fortunately I enjoyed the second half – the storytelling of the crime – more than the first half, so felt far more warmly towards it in the end than I initially thought I might. I believe Mason wrote several Hanaud books, and I’d be happy to meet him again.

I downloaded this one from wikisource.