Tuesday Terror! The Valley of the Veils of Death by Bertram Atkey

Evil under the sun…

Much though the porpy and I love a good old London fog or a mirky moor, we equally enjoy being transported to foreign climes, where even the blinding sun over the Australian desert can’t bleach out the evil men leave behind them. This story is taken from The Ghost Slayers – a British Library collection themed around psychic investigators, edited by Mike Ashley. The investigator in this one is Mesmer Milann, a man who calls himself a “mediator” between this world and the unseen…

The Valley of the Veils of Death
by Bertram Atkey

Save for the deep purple curtains which were hung round the room so that they shrouded the walls and windows completely, the number and odd placing of the electric bulbs – only one of which was burning – and a huge centaur, savagely sculptured in shining, slate-hued marble, there was nothing in the room to suggest that this was a temple of the occult.

Hmm, well, sounds pretty occultish to me! This is the office of Mesmer Milann, to whom the famous explorer Mr George Tarronhall has come seeking advice about a strange adventure that befell him while he was crossing the Australian desert…

“I had camped early in the afternoon by an unexpected water hole. There were ten people, all but Rivers, the scientist of the expedition, and myself being blacks.”

(The few mentions of the indigenous Australians are stereotyped but not derogatory, and are typical of the colonial time – the story dates from 1914.)

(Some stereotypes are more fun…)

Rivers and Tarronhall wander off to explore the surrounding area and come to a valley, which looks like any other valley of the region, all sand and rocky outcrops…

“…and yet of all the strange places I have passed through, of all the odd corners of the world I have seen, that little insignificant valley is the one place that remains, and will remain always, in my mind… It was haunted – if ever any place in the world is haunted.”

The two men come across a sinister sight…

“There were two of them at the foot of the miniature cliff on which we stood. I leaned over to see them better, and found that they were skeletons, lying on their sides, with the skulls half turned upwards, so that we looked down straight into the empty eye sockets. It may have been my fancy – probably it was – but it seemed to me that there was a queer craning look about the poise of the skulls, exactly as though they were watching us.”

Near the skeletons the men find a small canvas bag and, despite the air of menace in the valley, they open it…

“I heard Rivers say, to himself rather than to me, ‘I could have sworn the thing moved.’ And he was looking at one of the skeletons behind him.
….“I affected not to hear, and turned up the bag, pouring out on the sand such a collection of precious stones as Australia, or any other country, has never before produced. Sapphires, emeralds and rubies, for the most part, with a slab of wonderful opal, dirty and uncut, of course, but magnificent.”

Naturally they take the stones – who wouldn’t? But that night, as they lie asleep in their tent, something enters…

“And, if you can imagine it, the darkness became charged as it were with warning – most horrible. Warning; it poured down on me, into me, like an electric current, enveloped me like water, paralysed me momentarily. I was frightened too – terror-stricken.”

When the feeling passes, the men discover the jewels have gone. Next morning they go back to the valley and find the bag lying again next to the skeletons. Now Tarronhall wants Milann to explain the experience but also to advise whether it would be safe to try again to take the jewels. Milann agrees to take on the case, and Tarronhall asks how he will proceed. Milann says he will visit the valley that night…

“But I shall not need my body. I shall go in the spirit!”

And he invites Tarronhall to accompany him…

“You and your fellow explorers have exhausted the globe; soon enough, now, the arc-lights of civilization will illuminate the darkest corners of this world. Come with me tonight to another – to the Sub-World. There are sights to test the courage of the bolder spirit. I will free you from the gross flesh, and we will traverse together the dim Tracts of the Elementals, enter the Red Fogs of the Tentacle-Spirits, pass over the Place of the Were-Wolves, look upon the Craters of the Unicorns, the Plains of the Centaurs, the Morass of Minotaurs!” His eyes glittered and flamed like jewels, and his voice rolled like distant thunder. “We will adventure through the Haunts of the Vampires together—”

Gosh, I wonder how many stars that little holiday would get on Trip Advisor!

* * * * *

Perhaps the actual trip they take back to the valley doesn’t have minotaurs, centaurs nor even, to my great disappointment, tentacle-spirits, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure with some lovely scary elements to it. Overall I found this very well written in that slightly high melodramatic style that works perfectly for horror, and I share Mike Ashley’s puzzlement, mentioned in his introduction to the story, as to why Atkey’s Mesmer Milann stories have been allowed to sink into obscurity. I’d happily read more, if anyone from BL-world is listening! Unfortunately its obscurity means I can’t find an online version to link to, but the anthology is well worth acquiring – full review soon! The porpy and I, meantime, have decided to remove the Australian desert from our travel bucket-list…

(After all that Australian sun, the porpy has decided that
haunted Gothic castles aren’t so bad after all!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall story rating is for the story’s quality.

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Disappointing…

🙂 🙂 😐

Although this was apparently the last collection of short stories to be published in du Maurier’s lifetime, most of the fourteen stories in it date from her early twenties, with only a handful from later in her career. I feel that shows – these are not her best work, with some of them ranking as pretty poor, in my opinion. In general I found them rather unoriginal, often padded and repetitive to a length far longer than the story justified, with “twists” that were all too obvious. But what really put me off the collection was the almost complete lack of likeable characters. There is, I feel, a kind of cruelty towards the characters – they start out miserable, go through hell, and come out worse than they began; not in every case, but often enough for me to have remarked several times in my contemporaneous notes that she really doesn’t seem to like people, especially women. Her women are either weak and ripe to be victims, or they are manipulative, cruel and cold. There is rarely love in the pages though there’s plenty of lust, desire and rather sordid infidelity. The rare “good” character seldom achieves any kind of reward or happy ending, while many of the nasty ones do quite well for themselves. My misery meter swung towards high quite early on, and by the end it was hovering consistently in the danger zone – only copious supplies of medicinal chocolate got me through.

As you’d expect, they’re well enough written and some of the descriptive writing is very good. Occasional stories are lighter, with some humour, and those tended to work better for me. I listened to the audiobook version read by Edward de Souza, and to be honest I think it was only the excellence of his narration that kept me going to the end. Overall, then, of the fourteen stories, I rated only five as excellent or good, while five rated as poor and the remaining four were middling.

Book 16 of 20

Here’s a brief flavour of the three I rated most highly…

The Supreme Artist – an ageing actor is visited in his changing room after a performance one day by a woman who seems to remember him from a youthful romantic dalliance which he has completely forgotten. However, it would be rude to say so, and he’s an actor, so he throws himself into the part, playing a man who has spent his life hiding the broken heart she left him with. He may or may not convince the woman, but he gradually begins to convince himself! There’s a lot of humour in this and it’s a fun characterisation, done very well.

Leading Lady – an actress this time, not ageing, but no longer in the first blush of youth. She is about to star in a play being produced by a man she has never worked with before. He wants an up-and-coming young actor to play the male lead, but the actress has seen this young man act and fears he will outshine her, with both youth and novelty on his side. But the producer is the money man, of course, so she can’t simply refuse. So she sets out to manipulate the producer into deciding for himself that the young actor shouldn’t get the role. This is also well done, although it’s one of the many where the woman has nothing admirable about her. And frankly, it reads rather differently after the MeToo movement and the many recent scandals in the world of acting than it would have done before – the element that might have seemed humorous when it was written doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.

Escort – A merchant ship is sailing home to England during WW2, through seas dangerous with U-boats. The captain is taken ill so the First Officer, our narrator, finds himself in charge. A U-boat finds them but a sudden fog rolls up just in time to save them. When the fog recedes, an old sailing barque appears, and hails them to offer them a safe escort home. This has a spooky element to it, which is done well. As far as I can find out it must have been written during the war, and it has a definite patriotic message, one designed to draw on British pride in great naval victories of the past. To be truthful, it mirrors very closely a famous story written by Arthur Machen during WW1, The Bowmen, except that his is set on land and draws on a different but equally heroic British legend. Had du Maurier read it, or is it coincidence? I don’t know, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

So a disappointing collection for me, and one more suitable for du Maurier completists than for newcomers wanting to sample her work.

Audible UK Link

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

Book 9 of 20

Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

Audible UK Link

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

Amazon UK Link

The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Festival by HP Lovecraft

Festive fun…

The porpy is ready to go into hibernation and is rather huffy because we read more mystery and science fiction short stories than horror this year, but I’ve promised him that next year I’ll be sure to build up a stock of scariness just for him! I’ve also agreed with his demand that no horror season could be considered complete without at least one story from HP Lovecraft, master of the weird, so here it is. Taken from the collection Chill Tidings, from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, a collection I didn’t get around to reviewing before Christmas and now feel the moment has passed. We enjoyed it though – probably a four-star read overall. Anyway, here’s Lovecraft…

The Festival
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

One feels that primal secrets should be forgotten as quickly as possible – who ever heard of a primal secret that wasn’t trouble?? Anyway, our idiotic intrepid hero ends up in the infamous town of Kingsport, known to all HPL fans as a place where slithery things are common, dark forbidden books are the only kind the local library keeps, and humans are regularly driven insane…

…snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.

Yes, half-fish, half-frog, half-human people if my memory serves me better than my maths! It’s a cheery old place, Kingsport – perfect for a winter weekend getaway…

The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.

He finds the house of his distant family, whom he’s never met before…

When I sounded the archaic iron knocker I was half afraid. Some fear had been gathering in me, perhaps because of the strangeness of my heritage, and the bleakness of the evening, and the queerness of the silence in that aged town of curious customs.

Curious is one word for the customs of Kingsport, but perhaps not the one I would choose. He is welcomed by an old man, dumb apparently, and with a bland face that at first strikes him as kindly, but on entering the gothic old house, he feels fear returning…

This fear grew stronger from what had before lessened it, for the more I looked at the old man’s bland face the more its very blandness terrified me. The eyes never moved, and the skin was too like wax. Finally I was sure it was not a face at all, but a fiendishly cunning mask.

The Festival in Kingsport
by mcrassuart via deviantart.com

Does he turn and run? Nope. Instead he takes a seat and waits for hours to be led to the festival. Meantime he whiles away the time with some pleasant reading material provided by his host…

I saw that the books were hoary and mouldy, and that they included old Morryster’s wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvill, published in 1681, the shocking Daemonolatreia of Remigius, printed in 1595 at Lyons, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius’ forbidden Latin translation; a book which I had never seen, but of which I had heard monstrous things whispered.

Finally the time comes for the people to make their way to the festival…

We went out into the moonless and tortuous network of that incredibly ancient town; went out as the lights in the curtained windows disappeared one by one, and the Dog Star leered at the throng of cowled, cloaked figures that poured silently from every doorway and formed monstrous processions up this street and that, past the creaking signs and antediluvian gables, the thatched roofs and diamond-paned windows; threading precipitous lanes where decaying houses overlapped and crumbled together, gliding across open courts and churchyards where the bobbing lanthorns made eldritch drunken constellations.

And yet still he doesn’t run…

* * * * *

Lovecraft’s style is so instantly recognisable and while he creates a wonderfully weird atmosphere of impending horror, I must admit his overblown vocabulary always makes me laugh! This story is much shorter than many of his rambling excursions through the terrors of Kingsport and its surrounds, and is very effective. It’s also utterly typical of his style so a good introduction for newcomers to his work, though I found I had to read quite a lot of his stuff before I became a real fan. If you’d like to find out exactly what happens at the festival, here’s a link. I promise it’ll make even your worst family Christmas look cosy in comparison and your weirdest relatives will suddenly seem normal…

(The porpy has now gone off to his hibernation box to dream of ghosties and ghoulies and Gothic horrors of all kinds. He’ll be back in the autumn, refreshed and ready for more!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Old Applejoy’s Ghost by Frank R Stockton

The spirit of Christmas…

I know lots of you don’t like scary stories, but not all ghosts are bad. This tale, taken from the collection Chill Tidings, features a ghost who would surely be welcome at any Christmas party…

Old Applejoy’s Ghost
by Frank R Stockton

Frank R Stockton

For many years old Applejoy’s ghost had wandered freely about the grand old house and the fine estate of which he had once been the lord and master. But early in that spring a change had come over the household of his grandson, John Applejoy, an elderly man, a bachelor, and – for the later portion of his life – almost a recluse. His young niece, Bertha, had come to live with him, and it was since her arrival that old Applejoy’s ghost had confined himself to the upper portions of the house.

Old Applejoy’s ghost had had the freedom of the house because any time his grandson saw him, he dismissed him as a dream. The house has become dull indeed in the grandson’s time, but now young Bertha has brought youth and beauty back to the hall, and the ghost doesn’t want to inadvertently scare her away. However, one night the ghost realises Christmas is coming…

“Winter has come,” he said to himself. “And in two days it will be Christmas!” Suddenly he started to his feet. “Can it be,” he exclaimed, “that my close-fisted grandson John does not intend to celebrate Christmas! It has been years since he has done so, but now that Bertha is in the house, will he dare to pass over it as though it were but a common day? It is almost incredible that such a thing could happen, but so far there have been no signs of any preparations. I have seen nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. I will go this moment and investigate.”

He descends to the kitchen…

….“Let me see what the old curmudgeon has provided for Christmas.”
….So saying, old Applejoy’s ghost went around the spacious pantry, looking upon shelves and tables. “Emptiness! Emptiness! Emptiness!” he exclaimed. “A cold leg of mutton, a ham half gone, and cold boiled potatoes – it makes me shiver to look at them! Pies? there ought to be rows and rows of them, and there is not one! And Christmas two days off!”

Old Applejoy’s ghost is determined that Bertha shall have the Christmas she deserves, but how to achieve it? He wanders to his grandson’s room…

….There lay the old man, his eyelids as tightly closed as if there had been money underneath them. The ghost of old Applejoy stood by his bedside…
….“I can make him wake up and look at me,” he thought, “so that I might tell him what I think of him, but what impression could I expect my words to make upon a one-chicken man like John? Moreover, if I should be able to speak to him, he would persuade himself that he had been dreaming, and my words would be of no avail!”


He considers talking to the old housekeeper, but…

“It would be of no use,” he said. “She would never be able to induce old John to turn one inch aside from his parsimonious path. More than that, if she were to see me she would probably scream – die, for all I know – and that would be a pretty preparation for Christmas!”

He looks in on Bertha, sweetly dreaming in a room lit by moonlight, and quietly murmuring the name “Tom”. Then suddenly she wakes…

….The maiden did not move, but fixed her lovely blue eyes upon the apparition, who trembled for fear that she might scream or faint.
….“Am I asleep?” she murmured, and then, after turning her head from side to side to assure herself that she was in her own room, she looked full into the face of old Applejoy’s ghost, and boldly spoke to him. “Are you a spirit?”

Delighted that she seems unafraid, old Applejoy’s ghost promptly hatches a scheme that she should speak to her uncle…

“When you have told him all the events of this night, and when he sees that they must have happened, I want you to tell him that it is the wish and desire of his grandfather, to whom he owes everything, that there shall be worthy festivities in this house on Christmas Day and Night. Tell him to open his cellars and spend his money. Tell him to send for at least a dozen good friends and relatives to attend the great holiday celebration that is to be held in this house.”

And will Tom be one of those guests?

* * * * *

If you want to know the answer to that, you’ll need to read the story – here’s a link.

Charming and fun, bit of humour, bit of romance, lots of cakes and mince pies, wine and plum pudding – a sweet little Christmas story. Wish I had a ghost to arrange Christmas for me!

(The porpy wishes you all a Very Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

One for the Christmas stocking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unlike a lot of collections put together by editors, Agatha Christie herself originally selected the stories for inclusion in this one, now reprinted by HarperCollins in a gorgeous special edition hardback complete with shiny foil highlights on the cover and delightfully Christmassy endpapers. In her original introduction, also included in the book, Christie tells us:

This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection. I am the Chef!

There are two main courses: ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; a selection of Entrées: ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Under Dog’, and a Sorbet: ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’.

Just six then, but most of them are longer and more substantial than a typical short story, allowing room for full mysteries complete with multiple suspects, plenty of motives and clues galore. I find this longer length works better in the mystery genre – sometimes when a story is very short, it’s also fairly obvious, with no room to hide those essential red herrings. The title story is the only one with a specifically festive setting, and Christie tells us that the Christmas house party in it is based on her own childhood experiences of Christmases spent with relatives in Abney Hall in the north of England.

I loved this collection. I’d read it before long ago and have read a couple of the stories more recently in other anthologies, but the rest had faded into the vast echoing recesses of my dodgy memory banks so that it felt as if I was reading them for the first time. I rated every story as either 4½ or 5 stars, and the fun of the stories was enhanced by the pleasure of reading it in such a well produced edition. Since I’d find it hard to choose favourites, here’s a very brief flavour of each story:

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding – When a young Middle-Eastern prince has a precious ruby stolen, he persuades Poirot to spend Christmas at a house party in King’s Lacey, where the thief is also a guest, in hopes of retrieving the stone without scandal. It’s a fun story with lots of humour, a kindly hostess and some delightful children who decide to give Poirot a murder for Christmas!

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – On the morning after a party, a body is found in a Spanish chest in the room where the party had been held. A man is quickly arrested, but the wife of the murder victim is convinced he didn’t do it, and asks Poirot for help. Not sure that this one is fair play, but it has a good “impossible crime” element to the solution and some enjoyable characterisation, with a very Christie-esque version of a femme fatale.

The Under Dog – When bad-tempered old Sir Reuben is murdered, it appears only his nephew had the opportunity, and he is arrested. But Sir Reuben’s widow is sure that Sir Reuben’s secretary is the guilty man and calls on Poirot to prove it. Poirot makes it clear that he will consider all the suspects equally though. And first, he has to discover if the nephew is really innocent. Nice twist in the howdunit aspect of this, and it turns out that many people may have had motives. I was satisfyingly surprised when the identity of the murderer was revealed.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds – Poirot and a friend are dining out when the friend points out an old man who eats regularly in the restaurant, always ordering the same dishes. However, the waitress tells them that the week before he had suddenly ordered a meal full of dishes he normally avoided. When Poirot later hears that the old man has died after an accidental fall downstairs, he is suspicious and sets out to investigate. The solution here may be a bit obvious, but it’s interestingly told, turning on how we all tend to be creatures of habit.

The Dream – Rich old Benedict Farley summons Poirot, He has been having a recurring dream in which he ends up shooting himself, and wants to know if Poirot thinks someone could be hypnotising him to kill himself. Poirot says no and is dismissed. But a few days later, Farley dies, apparently in exactly the manner of his dream. Finding Poirot’s name in the old man’s diary, the police call him in. This is very well done, and I enjoyed it even though I had a distinct memory of whodunit.

Greenshaw’s Folly – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. A niece of Miss Marple’s nephew is working for the old lady, going through old Greenshaw’s diairies, so when the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved. An excellent story, and a special treat to have a Miss Marple story to round off the collection.

Great stories and a lovely book – perfect gift material for the vintage mystery fan in your life, or better yet, for yourself! Ho! Ho! Ho!

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Whenever one of these British Library anthologies, be it crime, science fiction or horror, pops through my door, I rub my hands in glee, knowing that at least some of the stories will be great and I’ll be treated to a raft of authors, both old favourites and new acquaintances. This one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels. All those who, like me, loved The Red House Mystery and felt it was such a pity AA Milne only wrote one mystery novel will be delighted to know there’s a short story from him in this collection, and a fine one it is too!

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high. The lowest rating I gave was three stars (meaning OK), but by far the majority were either good or excellent. Eight out of the sixteen earned the full five stars. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

With such a cornucopia of goodies, it’s extremely hard to pick just a few to highlight, but here goes – three picked fairly randomly from my favourites to give a flavour of the variety…

A Question of Character by Victor Canning – Geoffrey Gilroy is a moderately successful thriller writer, but his wife, who had never written before their marriage, has now become a publishing sensation. When he finds himself being referred to as “Martha Gilroy’s husband”, he decides she’s got to go – a nice little murder will salve his vanity, plus it will allow him to marry his mistress, a woman who happily shows no inclination to write books of any kind. He plans the murder meticulously, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans! This is great – it becomes a fast-paced thriller half-way through and builds up some real page-turning tension.

Book of Honour by John Creasey – Malcolm Graham, our narrator, is a book distributor in colonial-era India. One day he gives a little money to a poor man, Baburao, who is trying to sell cheap postcards to eke out a living. Baburao uses the money to set up a rickety shelf from which he sells books. He approaches Malcolm, who again helps him, this time by allowing him to select some of his company’s books to sell, on credit. Baburao uses this favour wisely again, until eventually he has set up a thriving business as a bookseller, with his own shops. But Baburao never forgets his poor origins, and spends his time and money helping those in the famine camps. There is a crime in this one, and it’s rather a heart-breaker, but the overall story is of these two good men, Malcolm and Baburao, and their mutual respect and growing friendship. I thought it was excellent, full of humanity and warmth.

You’re Busy Writing by Edmund Crispin – Ted Bradley is a thriller writer who longs for peace to write. He sets himself a target of 2,000 words a day, but between his cleaning lady and her laundry worries, the telephone and random visitors at his cottage, he finds he’s constantly losing his flow just at the point when he’s come up with a killer metaphor or thrilling clue! On this day he’s already been interrupted countless times when a couple he barely knows turn up at his door, invite themselves in and make it clear they intend to spend the whole day and evening there, drinking his booze and keeping him from his work, until it’s dark enough for them to elope together, deserting their respective spouses. Let’s just say Ted finds a drastic way to solve his problem. Very funny, laugh out loud at some points, and one can’t help feeling it’s written from Crispin’s own experience, although hopefully he found other ways to rid himself of unwanted interruptions!

One final thought – the last four stories in the book are four of the very best. I’ve said it before, but anthologists should always aim to start with a great story or two to get the busy reader’s attention and goodwill, and then keep the rest of the best to end with, and that way the reader will promptly forget if any of the ones in the middle were a bit disappointing. This anthology starts with the weakest story of all in my opinion, but, dear reader, it’s worth rushing past that one because goodies await you in abundance! Highly recommended.

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

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Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Subtitle: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers

Wrong reader, wrong book…

🙂 🙂 😐

This is a collection of short stories and a few poems based on Māori mythology, as the subtitle suggests. Since I know nothing about Māori mythology, I thought this might be an interesting way to fill the gap, but sadly I had to conclude that I was wrong. In retrospect this book would work much better for someone who is already familiar with the mythology and, more importantly, knows a fair amount of the Māori language. The editors have chosen not to include footnotes or even a glossary to explain the many Māori words and expressions used throughout the stories. I get that – why should they? It is not their function to mollycoddle my ignorance. I would not expect someone writing in German to footnote every word for my benefit. Rather, I would choose not to read the book unless and until it was translated into English. With this one, I started out willing to google the translations of the Māori words, but in the end there were so many of them, and some of the stories depended so totally on understanding words or myths unfamiliar to me, that I found I was spending more time reading Google than the book. Eventually I found myself abandoning stories as it began to feel as if I were doing a translation exercise in school rather than reading for pleasure. So, not the book’s fault – it is clearly aimed at a demographic of which I am not part. Wrong reader, wrong book.

In light of that, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the stories I did make it through would be particularly insightful. I enjoyed some of them, both the retellings of original myths or the stories that took those myths and used them in a modern context. However, I felt the quality varied wildly from excellent to pretty poor. I learned a little about the mythology, though not as much as I had hoped. And I learned something about modern Māori culture, or at least about the authors’ chosen perspectives on Māori culture: the deprivation, the prevalence of substance abuse and incest, and their bitterness against the colonisers and current white population whom they see as the cause of their social problems. The stories set in modern times eliminated my cosy existing belief that somehow New Zealand was doing better on issues of racial harmony than the rest of us. But most of the stories left me feeling that I hadn’t understood them: literally, because I didn’t understand the many Māori words, or figuratively, because I didn’t understand the mythology and culture underpinning them. A fairly generous 2½ stars for me then.

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Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

The Queen of Crime presents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins seem to be doing a series of special edition hardback collections of some of Agatha Christie’s short stories, and this is one of them. First off, the books themselves are lovely, much nicer even than the cover images make them appear. They have touches of foil to make them appealingly shiny, the spines are as nicely designed as the fronts, and they all have endpaper patterns suited to the theme of the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few of them and they look great on the shelf.

This one has a seasonal theme – all the mysteries are set in the types of places we all long to visit for some summer sun. Sadly, I am of course reviewing it in entirely the wrong season, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that in book-blog world it is always summer for somebody, somewhere!

There are twelve stories, plus a short extract from Christie’s autobiography about a rather unpleasant incident in her childhood (which, to be honest, I felt jarred a little with the overall fun tone of the collection even if it did fit the summer vacation theme). The stories have been culled from various other collections, so that all of her recurring detectives are represented. Poirot and Miss Marple appear, of course, as do Tommy and Tuppence, Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quinn, and Parker Pyne, plus there are a couple of stories which don’t feature a ‘tec at all. As always the standard is variable to an extent, or at least my enjoyment is – I’ve never been a fan of either Parker Pyne or Harley Quinn, but I know a lot of people appreciate them far more than I do. In total, I gave five of the stories the full 5 stars, and the rest ranged between 3½ and 4½, so no duds and a very high standard overall.

Agatha Christie

I’ve highlighted a couple of the five-star stories previously on the blog – The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim and The Idol House of Astarte – so here’s a brief flavour of my other favourites from the collection:

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – A doctor friend is visiting Poirot when he receives a message from one of his patients, Count Foscatini, who says he has been attacked and is dying. Sure enough, when Poirot and the doctor get to his house, the Count is dead. Suspicion falls on two Italian men who were apparently the Count’s dinner guests that evening, but Poirot is not convinced! This is quite a slight story, but well done – a proper mystery complete with clues, etc., and rather Holmesian in style as the title would suggest.

The Rajah’s Emerald – James Bond (Ha! Not that one!) is in Kimpton-on-Sea and feeling left out. His girlfriend is staying at the posh Esplanade Hotel while he’s stuck in a cheap boarding house, and she seems more interested in her well-off pals than him. They decide to go for a bathe – the hotel crowd have private changing huts, but James must use the public huts which he discovers are queued out. So he nips into a private bathing hut that has been left open and quickly changes. However, after the swim, he inadvertently pulls on the wrong trousers – a pair that had been left in the hut by its owner. And then he finds something unexpected in the pocket… (see title for clue). This is great fun! A likeable lead character, lots of humour and a good little story – and yes, our James gets his own back on his snobby girlfriend in the end – hurrah!

Jane in Search of a Job – Jane is desperately seeking paid employment, so answers an advertisement in the paper. She finds that the job is to act as a double for a foreign princess, who fears an attempt is to be made on her life. Jane happily takes the job since not only is the pay generous, but she will get to wear some fabulous frocks as she pretends to be the princess. But all is not as it seems, and Jane will soon be in peril! What luck that she should meet a charming and heroic young man at just this time… Another one where the reader is completely on the side of the lovely lead character, and the story has just the right amount of danger, some humour and a smidgen of romance. What more could you want? This is another one that plainly shows the Holmesian influence on Christie’s early stories, but as always she takes an idea and makes it her own.

So a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories in an attractively designed hardback. Perfect gift material, I’d say, for either existing fan or newcomer. Or for yourself, of course…

(Ooh, and as I went to get links, I’ve just discovered they’ve issued an Audible version too with Hugh Fraser, David Suchet and Joan Hickson narrating the various stories! Sounds fab!)

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

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Tuesday Terror! Randalls Round: Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott

Bedtime reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀

First published in 1929, this was Eleanor Scott’s only collection of weird stories although she wrote several books in other genres. This edition includes all nine of the stories in the original collection, plus two written by “N. Dennett”, now believed to have been a pseudonym of Eleanor Scott, which was itself a pseudonym, the author’s real name being Helen Leys. The introduction is by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, who has appeared on the blog twice before as editor of two excellent collections, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, and The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. In fact, Worth takes a large part of the credit for inspiring my interest in weird fiction, so I’m always pleased to see his name pop up.

In his introduction, Worth tells us that the collection didn’t sell well on its original publication, which he suggests was more to do with poor marketing than the quality of the work. While he points out that many of the stories and the general style are rather derivative of other writers of the period, especially MR James, he suggests that Scott took the weird genre in her own direction towards what would later, quite recently in fact, come to be called “folk horror”. He also says that despite the somewhat derivative quality of some of the stories she makes them her own, and describes them as “intrinsically excellent”.

Even with my limited knowledge of weird and horror fiction, I did indeed find that many of the stories felt quite derivative, not just of James but especially of Machen, and being forced into this comparison didn’t work to Scott’s benefit, since I feel Machen is significantly better at “folk horror”, even if it didn’t exist as a genre when he was writing. On reading over my notes on each story, it appears I also had some issues with her endings, being annoyed sometimes by them being left too ambiguous to be satisfying, and then with other stories lamenting that the ending was too obvious, or too neat, or too well explained. Maybe I was just in a picky, Goldilocks kind of mood! There was only one story where I felt the ending had been exactly the bowl of porridge I’d been looking for.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I enjoyed the collection overall, and there were a few stories that I thought were excellent. Scott was very good at creating an atmosphere of unease and some parts of the stories are genuinely scary, with a nightmarish quality to them. In fact, Scott claimed the stories were based on her own nightmares (although Worth amused me by commenting that “one wonders how much these were influenced by her bedtime reading”). I gave three of the stories 5 stars, one 3 stars, and all the rest either 4 or 4½, so a consistently high standard throughout with no real failures. As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

Celui-Lá – On the advice of his doctor, Maddox goes for a break to a small village in Breton, where he stays with the local priest. Maddox is walking on the beach when he sees a strange figure, digging in the sand. The figure sees Maddox and runs off, so Maddox goes to where it was digging and finds an ancient parchment. The priest believes the words on the parchment are an incantation – but too late! Maddox has already read them aloud! This one felt particularly derivative, but it’s well written and quite effective in creating a nightmarish atmosphere, and this was the one where I felt the ending achieved the perfect balance of being ambiguous but satisfying.

The Tree – Two young artists, a couple, take a studio, outside which grows a giant ash tree. Ralph hates it and wants to chop it down, and Nan reluctantly agrees. But then Ralph has a dream in which every axe stroke against the tree seems also to be cutting into him, so they decide to keep the tree. But somehow it has worked its way into Ralph’s mind, and now everything he paints has the tree in it, spoiling his work. Nan decides to take drastic action… Again derivative – Worth mentions Walter de la Mare’s The Tree, which overall I feel is a better story – but it’s again very effective at creating an atmosphere of impending dread.

The Old Lady – Our narrator, Honor, is a student at Oxford. She bets a friend that she can get on with anyone, and her friend chooses Adela, another student, a shrinking, silent girl. Honor duly befriends Adela, and is able to wangle an invite to her home in the holidays, where Adela lives with her guardian – a creepy, ancient old woman. Honor is invited back for the midsummer break, but Adela warns her that mysterious deaths tend to happen around midsummer. This is a spooky one, but Honor is delightfully feisty and doesn’t plan on being anybody’s victim! A very enjoyable story even though the ending is a bit too abrupt.

So a good collection rather than a great one for me, but an interesting addition to the BL’s always intriguing Tales of the Weird series.

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

* * * * *

Later…

*Gulps* I forgot to put the porpy’s bit in and now he’s furious! So here he is…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮

(I’m off to hide now… see ya later!)

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

Back on form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. I was a little disappointed in the last collection, and speculated that there must be a limited number of good uncollected stories still to be found. I’m delighted to say that this fourth anthology has proved me wrong – I happily eat my words! There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given. These are fun, showing how the authors used the pictures as inspiration to come up with some intriguing little stories. They reminded me of the “writing prompts” that are common around the book blogosphere.

Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. Overall, my individual ratings work out at around 4 stars as an average for the full seventeen stories, but I feel I enjoyed the collection more than a 4-star rating suggests, so 4½ stars it is (rounded up). Before I list my four favourites, I’d like to give honourable mentions to ECR Lorac, whose very short Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip is a clever cipher story; Passengers by Ethel Lina White, which is the original short story that she later expanded to become The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) – I think I actually enjoyed it even more in this short version; and The Post-Chaise Murder by Richard Keverne, a historical mystery set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and very well done. As you can see, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking favourites, but here are the chosen ones!

Shadowed Sunlight by Christianna Brand – as I said, this one is the length of a short novel with all the benefits that has in terms of room for character development and a more complex plot. A group of people are on a yacht when one of them is killed by cyanide poisoning. All the people aboard may have had a motive and it’s up to DI Dickinson from Scotland Yard to find the solution, which he eventually does by having a tension-filled reconstruction of the crime. The characters are very well drawn, although not very likeable, and there is a revolting “adorable child” whom surprisingly no one shoves overboard – a sad mistake, in my opinion. Dickinson is well portrayed as a detective tackling his first solo case and fearing he might fail.

Child’s Play by Edmund Crispin – Judith is the new governess to four children, three the children of her employers and the fourth a young girl, Pamela, whom they took in when family friends died in an accident, leaving her an orphan. Pamela is unhappy, partly through grief for her parents and homesickness, and partly because the other children bully her. And then she is murdered. Gosh, this is a dark one! There is so much psychological cruelty in it – not just the children’s bullying but also the mother turning a blind eye to what’s going on, and Judith’s angry reaction. It’s very well done, and remarkably disturbing for such a short tale.

The Police are Baffled by Alec Waugh – the plot of this will sound very familiar, so a reminder that it was first published in 1931. Two men fall into conversation in a pub, chatting about how hard it is for the police to find a murderer when there’s no apparent motive or the person who will gain most has an unshakeable alibi. One suggests to the other that they should swap murders – he will kill the other man’s wife, if the other man will kill his rich uncle. It’s short, very well written, and in my opinion much more effective than Strangers on a Train (1950). Since Highsmith would only have been ten and in America when this story made its appearance in a British magazine, I assume the similarities are simply coincidental, but they’re still remarkable. Alec Waugh, incidentally, was Evelyn’s older brother.

Riddle of an Umbrella by J Jefferson Farjeon – this is one of the six stories based on a picture, in this case a picture of an umbrella leaning against a railway signal post. The narrator is walking by the railway one night when he sees first the abandoned umbrella, then a cap on the railway line. Puzzled, he walks further along the line and discovers a body, and also that the line has been sabotaged. And then he spots that the signal has turned to green – a train is on the way! The resulting story is a mixture of thriller and mystery as he tries to avert an accident and work out why the man is dead. Short but excellent, a good plot with touches of both humour and horror.

So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!

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

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Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage mystery stories from the British Library and Martin Edwards, this time themed around animals, birds and insects but happily they are all in the nature of clues rather than victims! There are fourteen stories in total, as usual including some very well known authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace, some that were new to me, such as Garnett Radcliffe and Clifford Witting, and some that have become stalwarts of this series, such as HC Bailey and F Tennyson Jesse.

This was an even more mixed bag than usual for me. Although there were several excellent stories, there were an equal number that I felt were quite poor. Overall my individual ratings for each story averaged out to just over 3½ for the fourteen, so that’s the rating I’m giving the book (rounded up). However, the better stories are very enjoyable, so if you don’t mind varying quality there’s still plenty in here to make reading it time well spent.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – This is an unusual one in that it’s told by Holmes himself, and Watson isn’t in it. Holmes has retired to the Sussex coast and is present when a teacher from the local school staggers up the beach, mutters something that sounds like “the lion’s mane” and promptly dies. His back is covered in weals as if from a scourge. Suspicion falls on another teacher, but Holmes has his own theory. I can’t tell you what creature is involved in this one since it would be a major spoiler!

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe – a colonial tale. A Rajah keeps a pit of vipers where he sentences criminals to die. There is a pole in the pit where the condemned person can hang above the vipers until their strength gives way and they fall to their doom. It’s a spectator sport! Our narrator tells of one man, unfairly sentenced, and builds some great tension as the man hangs over the pit. The story is complete tosh and has some unfortunate outdated racial stuff, but it’s well written and very entertaining and has a delicious sting in the tail which genuinely took me by surprise.

The Yellow Slugs by HC Bailey – a Reggie Fortune story. He is called in by Superintendent Bell to a troubling case. A small boy was seen trying to drown his little sister. Both survived and are in hospital. There seems little doubt that the boy meant to kill her, but Reggie wants to know why. He believes that there must have been a very strong reason for a child of that age to act that way, especially since the boy seems to love his sister. This is a chilling and disturbing story. I’ve read a couple of Fortune stories where children have been involved and they seem to bring out his strong sense of justice and an underlying anger, presumably the author’s, at some of the social concerns of the day. The title tells you which creature is involved, but you’ll need to read it if you want to know how!

The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt – A student is in lodgings when he is visited by a friendly but thieving jackdaw, who makes off with anything shiny he can find. But there’s a man going around the neighbourhood shooting birds, and he seems to be unable to tell the difference between jackdaws and crows (which everyone seems to think it’s OK to shoot).The student is scared for the jackdaw’s safety so decides to try to save it. This is very well done and all the stuff about the jackdaw’s behaviour is lovely. The mystery is weaker, but the entertainment of the story is all in the telling. No major plot spoilers, but for the worried I can confirm the jackdaw isn’t harmed.

So some excellent and varied stories and, as always, despite the varying quality in these anthologies, they are a great way of being introduced to new authors to look out for.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! Wandering Willie’s Tale by Sir Walter Scott

The road to hell…

A classic Scottish horror story this week, just in time for the spookiest night of the year! This story appears in the novel Redgauntlet, which I haven’t read, but as a complete story in its own right it’s probably one of the best known pieces of Scott’s writing. It is written in Scots and although some of the vocabulary might be unfamiliar, I think it’s mostly possible to pick up the meaning from the context…

Wandering Willie’s Tale
by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Far and wide was Sir Robert hated and feared. Men thought he had a direct compact with Satan—that he was proof against steel—and that bullets happed aff his buff−coat like hailstanes from a hearth—that he had a mear that would turn a hare on the side of Carrifragawns —and muckle to the same purpose, of whilk mair anon. The best blessing they wared on him was, “Deil scowp wi’ Redgauntlet!”

Wandering Willie is a wandering musician, who tells the tale of his grandfather Steenie Steenson who was once a tenant of the wild-living and wicked Sir Robert Redgauntlet.

There dwelt my gudesire, Steenie Steenson, a rambling, rattling chiel he had been in his young days, and could play weel on the pipes; he was famous at “Hoopers and Girders”—a’ Cumberland couldna touch him at “Jockie Lattin”—and he had the finest finger for the backlilt between Berwick and Carlisle.

Steenie was a favourite with Sir Robert for his skill on the bagpipes, but business is business, and Steenie had fallen behind with his rent…

He got the first brash at Whitsunday put ower wi’ fair word and piping; but when Martinmas came, there was a summons from the grund−officer to come wi’ the rent on a day preceese, or else Steenie behoved to flit.

(Flit means move house – i.e., if Steenie doesn’t pay the rent, he’ll be forced out of his house.) So Steenie scrapes and borrows till he’s made up the full amount of 1000 marks and off he goes on the due day to pay the rent…

Dougal was glad to see Steenie, and brought him into the great oak parlour, and there sat the Laird his leesome lane, excepting that he had beside him a great, ill−favoured jackanape, that was a special pet of his; a cankered beast it was, and mony an ill−natured trick it played—ill to please it was, and easily angered—ran about the haill castle, chattering and yowling, and pinching, and biting folk, especially before ill−weather, or disturbances in the state.

‘The foul fiend, in his ain shape,
sitting on the laird’s coffin!’

Sir Robert isn’t well…

Sir Robert sat, or, I should say, lay, in a great armchair, wi’ his grand velvet gown, and his feet on a cradle; for he had baith gout and gravel, and his face looked as gash and ghastly as Satan’s. Major Weir [the ape] sat opposite to him, in a red laced coat, and the Laird’s wig on his head; and aye as Sir Robert girned wi’ pain, the jackanape girned too, like a sheep’s−head between a pair of tangs—an ill−faur’d, fearsome couple they were.

Steenie hands over his bag of money and the Laird says he’ll write him a receipt. But before he can…

Sir Robert gied a yelloch that garr’d the Castle rock. Back ran Dougal—in flew the livery men—yell on yell gied the Laird, ilk ane mair awfu’ than the ither. My gudesire knew not whether to stand or flee, but he ventured back into the parlour, where a’ was gaun hirdy−girdie—naebody to say “come in,” or “gae out.” Terribly the Laird roared for cauld water to his feet, and wine to cool his throat; and hell, hell, hell, and its flames, was aye the word in his mouth.

And Sir Robert dies! Now the new Laird, Sir Robert’s son, demands the rent from Steenie and refuses to believe it was paid. The only thing that will convince him is a receipt in Sir Robert’s hand. Steenie rides off, woebegone and angry, cursing the old Laird. But some miles from the castle he meets a stranger who offers him a solution…

“Now, I can tell you, that your auld Laird is disturbed in his grave by your curses, and the wailing of your family, and if ye daur venture to go to see him, he will give you the receipt.”

And, desperate, Steenie decides he must go…

Steenie demands his receipt…

* * * * *

This is a great tale if you can manage the Scots. While it’s told as a tale of the supernatural, most of the events have an alternative logical explanation so you can decide for yourself if Steenie really ventured into the realms of the after-life to try to get the receipt, or if maybe strong drink had something to do with the story. The first paragraph can be pretty off-putting as it refers to lots of Scots history and people who are pretty obscure even to Scots now, never mind non-Scots. But it’s not important to the story that follows, and once it gets properly underway the historical background becomes largely irrelevant. There’s too much humour in it for it to be truly scary, but poor Steenie goes through plenty of peril to both his body and soul as he faces the old Laird in his hellish halls, and the ape, Major Weir, adds to both the humour and the horror.

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy wishes you a Spooky Hallowe’en!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End edited by Joan Passey

Not a pasty in sight…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another recent issue in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this anthology contains fifteen vintage horror stories, all set in spooky old Cornwall. Well, actually two or three of them are “true” accounts from memoirs and so on, rather than stories as such, but all including some ghostly or terrifying natural occurrence. There’s the usual mix of very well known authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, along with some names that were completely new to me, like Mary E. Penn and someone going simply by the initials M.H.

This may be the most mixed of all the collections to date for me. There are some great stories in here, several well-known and others I hadn’t come across before, but there are also a considerable number of duds which I felt really weren’t worthy of inclusion. I gave seven of them 5 stars and another two rated as 4. The remaining six were evenly distributed – two apiece to 3, 2 and 1 stars. One of the 1-stars was particularly annoying since it was a story by Mary E. Braddon – Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement – which was shaping up to be excellent and then stopped abruptly what seemed like halfway through. Whether this is a publishing error or whether Braddon never completed the story I don’t know and I haven’t been able to track down an online version to check, but since the intro doesn’t mention that it’s unfinished, I have to assume error.

Some of the 4 and 5 star stories have appeared here on the blog before in the Tuesday Terror! slot: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe, The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, a wonderfully dark Holmes story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s a flavour of a few others that I particularly enjoyed:

Ligeia – Arthur Rackham

The Phantom Hare by M.H. – Told by Bessy, a farmer’s daughter, this is the story of Hubert, a rather nasty young man who is pursuing a local heiress when he suddenly finds himself being haunted by a white hare. Local superstition has it that if a man deserts a woman and she dies of it (as you do!) then the woman will return in the form of a white hare when her former lover is about to meet his doom. Bet Hubert wishes he hadn’t deserted Bessy’s old school friend now! Very well told, with excellent characterisation of Bessy and a good local feel to the superstition, it culminates in an ending that may not be surprising but is still satisfying.

In the Mist by Mary E. Penn – Narrated by the local vicar, who tells of two young parishioners, Winnie and Noel, who are deeply in love. But Noel is a jealous type, always accusing Winnie of flirting, and one day in the midst of an argument Winnie breaks off their engagement. Later that night, they meet on the cliff edge and Noel tries to win her back. But Winnie falls over the cliff and disappears, presumably sucked out to sea. Did she fall though or was she pushed? This isn’t really horror – it’s more melodramatic romance, but it’s beautifully done and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Coming of Abel Behenna by Bram Stoker – Two Cornish fishermen, Abel and Eric, had grown up together and were best friends. But both have now fallen in love with the same woman – the frivolous and indecisive Sarah. Since she refuses to choose, the men propose they should toss a coin for her and she agrees! The winner will take the small accumulated wealth of both men and go off on a trading voyage for a year to try to make enough money to marry on. Abel wins, and duly sets off on his travels. But will Eric, mad with love and jealousy, stand by his bet? This is an excellent story, Bram Stoker at his very considerable best. It is a story of passion, guilt and revenge – nothing supernatural, purely humanity and nature combining to chill the reader’s blood, and the ending lingers long after the last page is turned.

The Mask by F. Tennyson Jesse – Another about a woman with two suitors and just as dark as the Stoker story, but otherwise entirely different. Vashti Bath chooses James Glasson, a cold and domineering man destined for success. An accident damages him badly, though, destroying his prospects and forcing him to wear a mask, and he becomes even harsher to Vashti. Soon she turns to her other old suitor, Willie Strick, a weaker man but still passionately in love with her, and they start an affair. But then one night James returns home unexpectedly and finds Willie and Sarah together… Again a story of human passions rather than the supernatural but it gets very tense towards the end and has some real touches of horror.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

So plenty of excellent stuff here, but because the quality ranges so wildly and because several of the best stories are ones that have been collected many times before and may be familiar to horror readers already, I’m a little wary of giving this one a blanket recommendation. If you’re newish to the genre and haven’t read many of the stories I’ve mentioned, then there’s plenty in here to interest and entertain despite the duds. However if you’ve already read several of the stories I’ve named, you might end up disappointed with the rest of the collection. For me, there were enough good stories that I hadn’t read before to make it enjoyable overall.

(Since he was in Cornwall, the porpy
enjoyed a little paddle in the sea…)

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! The Name-Tree by Mary Webb

Torment among the trees…

Each autumn and winter for the last few years, I’ve been reading a ton of vintage horror short stories and I admit that most of them, while enjoyable at the time, are soon forgotten. But occasionally one lingers, and this is one of those. I read it a year or so ago, in the Weird Woods anthology, and it has haunted me a little ever since…

The Name-Tree
by Mary Webb

Mary Webb

Cherry Orchard was for sale. The impossible thing, the thing that had yet threatened them always out of the misty future, had become fact. She could not believe it.

Laura’s father has become an invalid and their small stock of savings has dwindled. Now her father must sell the orchard which Laura has loved all her young life…

‘I’d as lief,’ she muttered, ‘think of selling myself.’

The father and daughter have a new neighbour who has come to pay them a visit…

Julius Winter was the new owner of Bitterne Hall. He had brought with him a wife almost as rich as himself, a Lady in her own right, and exactly like a pink sweet. Before Julius shone a vista of pleasant days with many smaller pink sweets about him.

Laura’s father tells her to show Julius the orchard and as they pass the great laurel tree outside the house, Laura tells him it is her name-tree…

‘This is my name-tree,’ she said. ‘Do you know the old belief about name-trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls.’

Julius is fascinated by Laura’s deep passion for the orchard and his fascination soon turns to lust and a desire to possess…

He watched her, standing slim and gauche, in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.

Apollo and Daphne by Henrietta Rae
Definite vibes of the Apollo and Daphne myth in this story…

And so he offers her a bargain…

….‘Would you like to keep Cherry Orchard for ever?’
….She looked at him, frowning.
….‘I will buy Cherry Orchard and give it you, if you will give me the keys of Heaven.’
….‘And Heaven is—?’
….‘Your love.’

Laura is silent for a long time, as if communing with her beloved trees. Then she replies:

….‘I have no love to give,’ she said at last, ‘to you or any man.’
….‘Before the fruit falls in your orchard,’ he said, harsh and low, ‘you shall give it to me.’

And Julius, sure of his own power, buys the orchard and Laura’s home…

* * * * *

It’s not just the obvious masculine dominance in the story that makes it disturbing, though that’s important. It’s also Laura’s connection with nature which seems to go well beyond the norm, into a kind of witchy-woman feel – an elemental thing, a sexless dryad made human, female and powerless. The orchard and the trees are given a consciousness and have a kind of symbiotic relationship with Laura, as if she is their guardian and they are hers, but neither with the strength to withstand male destructiveness. Julius is a strong, pitiless man and Laura’s father is weak and selfish, but they both understand the power of money as a means to possess those things they desire. But at what cost?

The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her. His soul could only reach the outer fringes of hers; his voice strove to win her; his eyes burnt on hers, but she lowered her lashes and was mute. She remained aloof: but through the body he would reach her. She should have nothing of herself left, no corner of her spirit that was not his.

Very well written in a folklorish style and strongly feminist in message, all the darkest parts are left vague and undescribed, and are all the more disturbing for it. I can’t find an online version of the story on its own, but if you would like to read it it’s one of the stories in a collection called Armour Wherein He Trusted, which can be downloaded free at fadedpage.com – here’s the link. Or of course you can read it in Weird Woods.

(The porpy didn’t get scared but he got angry!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
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Future Crimes edited by Mike Ashley

Time travel, telepaths and technology…

:mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.

As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.

Here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.

Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.

So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.

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

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim by Agatha Christie

Never bet against Poirot…

I seem to be reading as many mystery short stories this autumn as horror, so it’s time to let one of the greatest detectives of all time take over the Tuesday slot for a change! The story will have been collected many times, I imagine, but I read it in the new collection from HarperCollins, Midsummer Mysteries, which I’ll review fully soon…

Tuesday Tec2

The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

.….Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cups and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.

If I were Hastings, I’d find the temptation to unstraighten the cups and saucers again irresistible! Anyway, Japp arrives…

….“Hope I’m not late,” he said as he greeted us. “To tell the truth, I was yarning with Miller, the man who’s in charge of the Davenheim case.”

Poirot and Hastings are immediately intrigued, having seen the story in the papers…

….For the last three days the papers had been full of the strange disappearance of Mr. Davenheim, senior partner of Davenheim and Salmon, the well-known bankers and financiers. On Saturday last he had walked out of his house, and had never been seen since.

On Hastings remarking that in these days of technology it ought to be impossible for someone to successfully disappear, Poirot demurs…

….“Mon ami,” said Poirot, “you make one error. You do not allow for the fact that a man who had decided to make away with another man—or with himself in a figurative sense—might be that rare machine, a man of method. He might bring intelligence, talent, a careful calculation of detail to the task; and then I do not see why he should not be successful in baffling the police force.”

Japp then slyly suggests that of course Poirot would not be baffled…

….Poirot endeavoured, with a marked lack of success, to look modest. “Me, also! Why not? It is true that I approach such problems with an exact science, a mathematical precision, which seems, alas, only too rare in the new generation of detectives!”

Japp says confidently that the detective in charge of the case is excellent at spotting clues, but Poirot is unimpressed. He feels that in a case like this, merely collecting clues will not be enough – one must exercise the little grey cells. Grinning, Japp suggests a wager…

….“You don’t mean to say, Monsieur Poirot, that you would undertake to solve a case without moving from your chair, do you?”
….“That is exactly what I do mean—granted the facts were placed before me. I regard myself as a consulting specialist.”

….Japp slapped his knee. “Hanged if I don’t take you at your word. Bet you a fiver that you can’t lay your hand—or rather tell me where to lay my hand—on Mr. Davenheim, dead or alive, before a week is out.”

And so the race is on…

* * * * *

Considering how short a story this is, there’s a good plot, plenty of clues and it is essentially fair play. It’s also a light-hearted tale, with lots of humour in the banter between our three favourites, Poirot, Hastings and Japp. In these very early Christie stories – this one is from 1923 – it’s often easy to see the influence of Christie’s love for the Holmes and Watson stories, not just in the relationship between Poirot and Hastings, but sometimes also because she picks up on elements from the stories and uses them, not in a plagiarising way but as jumping off points for her own originality. This one takes a couple of points from one of the Holmes stories – which I’m not going to name since it would be a spoiler for anyone who knows those stories – and builds an entirely new set of characters and motives around them. I have to admit that once I recognised the influence, I was able to quite quickly work out the mystery, but if anything that added to my enjoyment rather than diminishing it. I love sharing my own Holmes geekery with Ms Christie!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Good Lady Ducayne by Mary E Braddon

Pack the mosquito repellent…

Not all horror has to be horrifying to be entertaining. This story is distinctly lacking in fear factor and has no supernatural elements in it at all. But it has a lovely touch of human wickedness, a heroine I defy you not to fall in love with, some beautiful Italian settings, and a swoonworthy romantic hero…

Good Lady Ducayne
by Mary E Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Bella Rolleston had made up her mind that her only chance of earning her bread and helping her mother to an occasional crust was by going out into the great unknown world as companion to a lady.

Bella’s mother, having been deserted by her wastrel husband, now ekes out a precarious living as a seamstress. She and Bella may want for material things, but they each have a naturally happy nature and are friends as much as mother and daughter. So to Bella the idea of going off as a companion is in the nature of an adventure as much as a matter of necessity. She signs on with an employment agency where she is interviewed by a Superior Person…

The Person was of uncertain age, tightly laced in a black silk gown. She had a powdery complexion and a handsome clump of somebody else’s hair on the top of her head.

The Person is unimpressed by poor Bella’s lack of accomplishments but is happy to take her fee. Bella is no shrinking violet to be intimidated by Superior Persons, however, and after she has visited the agency a couple more times to remind the Person of her existence, the Person introduces her to a lady looking for a companion…

Never had she seen anyone as old as the old lady sitting by the Person’s fire: a little old figure, wrapped from chin to feet in an ermine mantle; a withered, old face under a plumed bonnet–a face so wasted by age that it seemed only a pair of eyes and a peaked chin. . . Claw-like fingers, flashing with jewels, lifted a double eyeglass to Lady Ducayne’s shining black eyes, and through the glasses Bella saw those unnaturally bright eyes magnified to a gigantic size, and glaring at her awfully.

Despite her appearance, Lady Ducayne seems kind and generous enough, and seems less concerned with Bella’s lack of accomplishments than she is to be assured that Bella is healthy and strong…

….‘I want a strong young woman whose health will give me no trouble.’
….‘You have been so unfortunate in that respect,’ cooed the Person, whose voice and manner were subdued to a melting sweetness by the old woman’s presence.
….‘Yes, I’ve been rather unlucky,’ grunted Lady Ducayne.

Very unlucky, as Bella later discovers! Lady Ducayne’s two previous companions, both also young girls who seemed healthy, had both soon faded and died of unspecified disease. Bella, however, is thrilled to be offered the job, and even more thrilled when Lady Ducayne asks her…

….‘You don’t mind spending the winter in Italy, I suppose?’
….In Italy! The very word was magical. Bella’s fair young face flushed crimson.
….‘It has been the dream of my life to see Italy,’ she gasped.

And at first the dream is dreamy indeed – beautiful scenery, luxurious hotel and Bella is given plenty of time to herself. She quickly makes friends with another visitor, Lotta Stafford, who is staying in the hotel with her handsome brother who has just passed his medical exams and is about to embark on a career as a doctor. Bella writes all about them to her mother back home…

….Her brother won’t allow her to read a novel, French or English, that he has not read and approved.
….‘”He treats me like a child,” she told me, “but I don’t mind, for it’s nice to know somebody loves me, and cares about what I do, and even about my thoughts.”‘
….Perhaps this is what makes some girls so eager to marry–the want of someone strong and brave and honest and true to care for them and order them about.

Well… hmm… perhaps!

Sadly, it’s not long before Bella’s health begins to fade, and she is troubled by bad dreams and frequent wounds on her arms which Lady Ducayne’s doctor assures her are caused by mosquitoes…

‘And to think that such tiny creatures can bite like this,’ said Bella; ‘my arm looks as if it had been cut by a knife.’

But young Dr Stafford is not convinced by the mosquito story – he has a very different theory of what is happening to Bella…

* * * * *

Lots of fun in this one! Herbert Stafford reminds me very much of Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, another handsome young hero I’m sure I would have found insufferable in real life but is perfectly suited to his heroine. Bella is charming and Lady Ducayne is wonderfully drawn as an old, old woman clinging desperately to life…

…he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived, a face that should have been hidden under a coffin-lid years and years ago.

Ouch! Must remember to keep using the wrinkle cream!

If you’d like to read this one, here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than many of the stories I’ve chosen, so save it for when you have a good half-hour or so to spare – it’s worth it though! Or you can find it in The Face in the Glass, a collection of Braddon’s stories, most of which, I should warn you, are much darker and sadder than this one.

(The porpy was fairly relaxed during this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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