The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

Hidden behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.

The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.

The current sad little nutter tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:

Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.

So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.

So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.

Picture credit: Reuters
When the Great Leader says clap, you clap…

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

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Tuesday Terror! Death in December by Victor Gunn

Don’t go into the Death Room!!

crimson-snow

Each time I’ve reviewed one of the British Library anthologies of vintage crime stories, I’ve commented that several of the stories have a touch of horror. The latest collection, Crimson Snow, is no exception. This story is taken from the collection and would be perfectly suitable for a Tuesday ‘Tec post, but instead I’ve decided that it should be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2Death in December by Victor Gunn

Victor Gunn
Victor Gunn

“Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us,” said Johnny gaily, as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. “Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter.”

Johnny Lister and his boss, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell, affectionately known as Ironsides, are on their way to a Christmas house party at Johnny’s father’s place. General Lister has only recently inherited Cloon Castle to add to his existing collection of mansions, so this is Johnny’s first visit there. Johnny’s high spirits aren’t shared by grumpy old Ironsides…

“The name’s enough to give you a fit of depression,” growled the Chief Inspector. “It’s a wonder they didn’t call it Gloom Castle, and have done with it.”

ironsides-sees-red

There’s snow on the ground and the look of the sky says there’s more on the way as they drive along the entrance road to the castle. Suddenly, a strange figure appears out of the gloom – a man in a “queer, old-fashioned cape, and a high-crowned wide-brimmed hat”. He is staggering and Johnny thinks he must be ill, but by the time the car gets to where the man was standing, he has gone. Johnny shrugs and drives on, but Ironsides growls at him to stop and go back. Johnny protests, but Ironsides insists…

“I don’t know what I think,” interrupted Bill Cromwell. “Either I’m mad, or blind – but I’ll swear that there were no footprints in the snow. Didn’t you notice?”

Back they go, but find no trace of the man nor any footprints. They shrug it off because they are stout Englishmen, but secretly they’re both a little spooked. And the spookery gets worse when, after dinner on the first night, General Lister is persuaded by the assembled guests to tell the story of the Death Room, prompting his guests to ask who’s been given that room…

“Nobody is sleeping in the Death Room,” interrupted the general, almost curtly. “The Death Room is downstairs, and it is always kept heavily locked, so there’s no sense in discussing it at all. It has been locked for over a hundred years.”

the-dead-man-laughs

Naturally, this is too tempting to resist. Although the general is unwilling, one of his guests, a rather obnoxious young man, Ronnie Charton, becomes determined to spend the night in the Death Room and eventually the general is forced to give way. A decision Ronnie soon begins to regret, when he is wakened in the middle of the night by a horrible cry. By the light of the moon he sees a dreadful sight…

Panic seized him – an awful, crazy, nightmare panic. He flung himself round towards the door, his shoes slipping and slithering on the floor, so that he lost his balance and crashed into the end of the heavy table. Rebounding from this, he tottered to the door, and managed to turn the key in the lock. He was breathing in great sobbing gulps, his face turned over his shoulder, staring… staring…

* * * * * * *

Despite the fact that this is actually a crime mystery, it has some brilliantly atmospheric horror writing in it, and Ronnie’s experiences in the Death Room genuinely raised the hair on the back of my neck! The castle is a great setting – only parts of it have been modernised, so there are long unlit cobwebby passages, dark gloomy corners and a family crypt complete with disturbed coffins, not to mention the legend of the Death Room itself. It’s up to Ironsides, with Johnny’s help, to find a rational explanation of events, in which they get no help from poor Ronnie, whose nerves are so badly affected that, after incoherently babbling out his story, he collapses into a state of shock and semi-consciousness. And you remember the snow? Well, it fell… and it fell… and it fell… so no hope of assistance from the outside world for a while…

three-dates-with-death

Johnny’s general air of lightheartedness is a nice foil for Ironsides’ grumpiness, and provides plenty of humour to offset against the horror. Together they make an excellent team. The whodunit part is perhaps easier to work out than the fiendishly plotted howdunit of the ghostly goings-on, and the eventual solution depends on a nice bit of detection. I’d love to read more of the adventures of Johnny and Ironsides – I may have to start a petition to force the British Library to bring some back from the bookish Death Room…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Deep and crisp and even…

😀 😀 😀 😀

crimson-snowThe latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…

As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.

chalk-outline

There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.

crime-scene-tape

Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…

Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.

handcuffs

Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.

* * * * *

So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…

blood-spatterNB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Invisible Assistant (An Eli Marks Short Story) by John Gaspard

Abracadabra!

the-invisible-assistant

Eli Marks is a stage magician with a penchant for getting mixed up in murder, often via his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. The books are full of humour and, though set in the present day, have plots that are reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, with clues, suspects, red herrings, etc. Having loved each of the full-length Eli Marks novels, I couldn’t resist seeing if John Gaspard could work the same magic in a short story, so this Kindle short seemed like a perfect pick for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

The Invisible Assistant

by John Gaspard

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John Gaspard
John Gaspard

Eli is performing at a corporate event and needs two members of the audience to come up on stage to help out with his next trick. To his less-than-thrilled surprise, one of the reluctant volunteers turns out to be none other than his ex-wife’s new husband, Detective Fred Hutton.

…I launched into my Cards Across routine, counting three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.

The trick involves Eli calling on his “invisible assistant” as the cards magically transfer themselves from one volunteer’s hand to the other’s.

(Eli’s trick is a little different to this one, but the basic idea is the same.)

After the performance, Eli’s ex-wife Deirdre explains that she and Fred were in the audience because she wants to ask his advice about an apparent murder/suicide case they’re working on. Two men were found dead in a house – one, Harley Keller, upstairs, shot through the chest, and the other, Josiah Manning, downstairs, shot in the head and with a gun lying at his feet. It seems obvious that Manning must have shot Keller first, then gone downstairs and shot himself. Fred’s happy with that theory, anyway, but Deirdre doesn’t buy it. Keller was a pro-suicide campaigner, believing people should be allowed to take their own life whenever they wanted. But Manning was passionately anti-suicide. The two men had clashed in public debates on the subject.

“So [said Eli], let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”

“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a sidelong glance at her husband. He did not return it.

Now Deirdre wants Eli to see if he can come up with an alternative explanation…

“On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”

“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”

“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that.

So the bickering Deirdre and Fred take Eli along to the crime scene…

From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talking in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation…

…on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.

* * * * *

This is just as much fun as the books! The short format obviously doesn’t allow for the complexity of plotting of the novels, and regular readers already know these three characters and the dynamics amongst them, so there’s no need for much character development. But all the usual humour is there and, as usual, Eli’s knowledge of stage magic plays its part. I didn’t work it out, or even get close, but found it nicely satisfying when all was revealed. Gaspard is great at this kind of “impossible” crime, where the fun is in working out how it was done, and the method is always beautifully quirky. The books are usually whodunits too, but the length restrictions of this one means there are no suspects beyond the two victims themselves.

It works perfectly as a standalone, either as a little treat for existing fans impatiently waiting for the next book, or perhaps as an introduction to Gaspard’s style for newcomers. It is very definitely a short story, not a novella – I’d say it took me about twenty minutes or so to read. But I was smiling for longer than that…

* * * * * * *

PS – After I’d posted this, the author John Gaspard kindly popped in to the comments to leave a link to where you can listen to this story for free. I’ve sampled it and love the narrator’s voice – just right for the story. Here it is… click on the red button to play…

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Or for the e-book version…

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The books in the series

The Ambitious Card

The Bullet Catch

The Miser’s Dream

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes ed. Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger

The game’s afoot…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

echoes-of-sherlock-holmesIn their introduction, the editors explain that they asked the contributors to this anthology for stories “inspired by Holmes”, and the contributors have risen to this challenge with a huge dollop of originality and imagination. There are 17 stories, some just a few pages, some more substantial. There are plenty of well known names here – Denise Mina, Anne Perry, John Connolly, et al, along with some I hadn’t come across before. I always enjoy this type of anthology as a way of being introduced to writers of whom I may have heard but not so far read – in this one, both William Kent Kreuger and Catriona McPherson fell into this category.

The standard is remarkably high, both in terms of creativity and writing. Of course, the quality is variable and my own preferences meant that I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but well over half the stories achieved 4 or 5 star status from me, and of the rest only a couple seriously disappointed. What I liked most was that, because the focus was on inspiration rather than pastiche, each story went off in directions that surprised and often delighted me. Some have based Holmes in the present day, or had their protagonist be inspired by Holmes and attempt to use his methods. Some have looked at stories in the original canon from a different angle. Some concentrate more on aspects of Conan Doyle’s life. And some have really used the original stories as a springboard to leap off into imaginative worlds of their own. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

Holmes on the Range by John Connolly – This is the first story in the book and immediately gave me the feeling I was in for a treat. The Caxton Private Lending Library is a place where the characters of great books go when their authors die. (Isn’t that already just such a brilliant idea?) But one day, something very odd happens – although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still very much alive, Holmes and Watson appear in the library following the events at Reichenbach Falls. They settle in quite happily and all is well, until ACD is persuaded to resurrect Holmes. What will happen when ACD dies? Will the library end up with another Holmes and Watson? Holmes sets his brilliant mind to finding a way out of this dilemma… A lovely conceit with lots of fun references to literature in general and the Holmes stories in particular, this is extremely well written and well told.

holmes rathbone

Before a Bohemian Scandal by Tasha Alexander – This tells the story of the Crown Prince of Bohemia and Irene Adler, and how she came to have the cabinet photograph that caused all the trouble. Very well told, and remains reasonably true to the spirit of the characters – Irene Adler showing all the spirit and intelligence that led Holmes to think of her as the woman.

The Spiritualist by David Morrell – It’s the latter days of ACD’s life. He has opened a spiritualist bookstore but can’t convince a disbelieving world that it is possible to communicate with the dead. One night when he can’t sleep, he is visited by the ‘ghost’ of Holmes, who takes him back through his life to try to work out why he has become so convinced of the truth of spiritualism. Very well written, and quite moving as we learn of the various tragedies in ACD’s life – his father dying in an asylum, the early death of his beloved first wife, the death of his son in WW1. A great story.

Mrs Hudson Investigates by Tony Lee and Bevis Musson – Ha! Suddenly in the midst of all these written stories a fun little graphic story appears! After Reichenbach, Mrs Hudson and Irene Adler team up to foil the nefarious plans of Moriarty’s housekeeper! The story is silly, but intentionally so, and the drawings add loads of humour. This is a nice little sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses.

mrs-hudson-investigates

Raffa by Anne Perry – This may be my favourite of all the stories, though it’s a close call. Actor Marcus St Giles is the latest TV Holmes. One day he is approached by a distraught little girl who believes him to be the real thing. She tells him that her mother has been kidnapped and begs for his help. He takes her to the police, but they think he’s pulling some kind of publicity stunt so refuse to believe him. So Marcus is forced to try to solve the case himself, with the help of his friend, the TV Watson. Great writing and quite touching in places, but with a humorous edge. The thing that makes it special is seeing Marcus’ character develop as his growing feelings of responsibility towards the little girl overcome his rather spoiled, bored attitude at the beginning of the book.

Understudy in Scarlet by Hallie Ephron – An actress is invited to, she thinks, reprise her role as Irene Adler in a remake of the earlier film that is now a cult success. But when she arrives on set she discovers she has actually been cast as Mrs Hudson and is expected to act as a mentor to the beautiful younger actress cast as Irene. Swallowing her pride, she agrees. But it’s not long before things begin to take a sinister turn… Lots of fun, well told and with plenty of Holmes’ references, but making no attempt to pastiche.

holmes-and-watson

As you can see, there’s plenty of variety in the approach the contributors have taken. Although not every story is 5-star, the standard overall is excellent, and I’m sure will please any fan of the originals as much as it pleased me. Highly recommended.

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

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Case of Oscar Brodski by R Austin Freeman

Death of a diamond merchant…

When she read last week’s guest post from Martin Edwards on Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, regular commenter BigSister (who, by an amazing coincidence, is my big sister) mentioned one of her own favourite early mystery writers, R Austin Freeman, and specifically his “inverted mysteries”, a format he apparently pretty much invented. This is a story that starts by showing the crime, including allowing the reader to know the culprit, and then shows how the investigator attempts to solve it. So, since one must always listen to one’s big sister (well, except when she’s praising Vin Diesel films or banging on about fantasy novels), I promptly selected what I think is the first of these stories for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

The Case of Oscar Brodski

by R Austin Freeman

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R Austin Freeman
R Austin Freeman

The first part of the story introduces us to Silas Hickler, a successful burglar with connections to the diamond industry, and a convenient conscience that allows him to commit his crimes without suffering too greatly from remorse.

No one, looking into his cheerful, round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Least of all, his worthy, high-church housekeeper, who was a witness to his unvarying amiability, who constantly heard him carolling light-heartedly about the house and noted his appreciative zest at meal-times.

Peter Copley (right) as Dr Thorndyke 1964
Peter Copley (right) as Dr Thorndyke 1964

One October evening, the aforesaid housekeeper is out and Silas himself is preparing to go on a journey to Amsterdam to sell some dodgy diamonds, when a man stops at his house to ask for directions to the train station. Silas recognises the man immediately as Oscar Brodski, a well-known and reputable diamond merchant. When Silas learns that Brodski is also headed for Amsterdam, he speculates that the merchant is likely to be carrying some valuable diamonds and immediately his greed begins to put ideas into his head. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time…

Crimes against the person he had always looked upon as sheer insanity. There was, it is true, that little affair of the Weybridge policeman, but that was unforeseen and unavoidable, and it was the constable’s doing after all. And there was the old housekeeper at Epsom, too, but, of course, if the old idiot would shriek in that insane fashion…

And so Mr Brodski’s fate is soon sealed…

So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.

John Neville (right) as Dr Thorndyke 1971
John Neville (right) as Dr Thorndyke 1971

* * * * *

Part 2 introduces Dr John Thorndyke and his sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who is our narrator for this section. Thorndyke is a scientific detective, who always carries a case filled with equipment, such as a miniature microscope. He happens to be on a train that is held up by the discovery of a body on the line, decapitated by a passing goods train but still recognisably poor old Brodski. Not convinced that Brodski’s death is accidental, he sets out to investigate…

“In a case of this kind,” he remarked, “we have to decide on one of three possible explanations: accident, suicide or homicide; and our decision will be determined by inferences from three sets of facts: first, the general facts of the case; second, the special data obtained by examination of the body, and, third, the special data obtained by examining the spot on which the body was found.”

With the help of Jervis and his trusty microscope, Thorndyke does exactly that, and, deciding that Brodski was the victim of murder, goes on to track down the perpetrator of the crime.

Barrie Ingham as Dr Thorndyke, 1973 (front, left)
Barrie Ingham as Dr Thorndyke, 1973 (front, left)

* * * * *

Well, I found this thoroughly entertaining! The first section takes us inside the mind of the murderer and has some great melodramatic writing that gives the whole thing an atmosphere of growing horror. By contrast, the second section is written very matter-of-factly, with Thorndyke relying almost entirely on forensic evidence to solve the crime. There are elements of Holmes in Thorndyke’s cerebral, scientific approach, but I would have missed the physical drama that usually livens up the Holmes’ stories, had it not been provided in the first section. Jervis is a much more perceptive sidekick than Watson, and the story hints that he is in fact being trained by Thorndyke to follow his methods rather than simply being a staunch friend. The police are, of course, pretty thick – initially dismissive of Thorndyke’s strange methods and then awestruck by his results.

I enjoyed Freeman’s writing style, especially in the first section, and the forensic stuff holds up well to age and is convincing, with only a couple of moments when Thorndyke seems to make spectacular assumptions based on very little evidence. First published in 1912, Thorndyke ends by suggesting there is an “urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police” in such cases. From the number of forensic experts infesting modern crime fiction, it appears he got his wish. I look forward to reading more of the Thorndyke stories.

* * * * *

I read the story in this Kindle collection, which I acquired for the vast sum of 49p. It doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but many other similarly priced collections are available. This particular story was originally published in the collection called The Singing Bone, or under the more prosaic US title of The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke.

dr thorndyke mysteriesAmazon UK Link

Alternatively, if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link.

I took the pics from an interesting post on a blog called Ontos, where the various TV incarnations of Dr Thorndyke are discussed.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (it’s not really a mystery in that sense)

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Dead Witness edited by Michael Sims

A mixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

the dead witnessMichael Sims begins his anthology of Victorian detective stories with an interesting introduction where he gives a potted history of the detective in literature, going back as far as Daniel in the Bible! Much of this is ground that has been covered many times, of course, but Sims doesn’t only stick to British detectives, as many of these anthologies tend to, so some of the information about early writings from America was unfamiliar to me. And he ranges more widely than usual in his selection of stories too, taking us to Australia, Canada, and even the American wilderness.

Sims brings in several writers I haven’t come across before, and in particular some of the early women writers of detective fiction. The stories are presented in chronological order and, before each one, he gives a little introduction – a mini-biography of the author, putting them into the context of the history of the development of the genre.

Overall, I found this collection more interesting than enjoyable. Unfortunately, my recent forays into classic crime have left me feeling that there’s a good reason many of these forgotten authors and stories are forgotten. Often the stories simply aren’t very good, and I’m afraid that’s what I felt about many of the early stories in this anthology. The later ones I tended to find more enjoyable, partly, I think, because the detective story had developed its own form by then which most authors rather stuck to.

Missing! Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation...
Missing!
Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation…

The book is clearly trying not to regurgitate the same old stories that show up in nearly every collection and that is to be applauded. However, some of the selections didn’t work for me, and I felt on occasion that the choices were perhaps being driven too much by a desire to include something different. For example, there are a couple of selections that can’t count as detective fiction at all – a newspaper report from the time of the Ripper killings, and an exceedingly dull extract of Dickens writing about his experiences of accompanying the police on a night shift, with Dickens at his most cloyingly arch. How I longed for Sims to have chosen an extract from Bleak House instead, to show one of the formative fictional detectives in action, Inspector Bucket.

It also seemed very disappointing to me that Sims should have chosen to use a short extract from A Study in Scarlet as his only Holmes selection. As a master of the short story form and major influence on detective fiction, I felt Conan Doyle should have had a complete entry to himself, and there are plenty of stories to choose from. We do get a complete Holmes pastiche in Bret Harte’s The Stolen Cigar-Case, which is quite fun, and a good Ernest Bramah story, whose Max Carrados clearly derives from Holmes. But no actual Holmes story!

Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories - available as a download from Audible or Amazon
Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories – available as a download from Audible or Amazon

There is also an extract from Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which kindly gives away the ending of the book, thus spoiling it completely for anyone who hasn’t read it. And an utterly tedious extract from one of Dumas’ Musketeer books, for which my note says simply ‘short, but not short enough’.

However, there are several good stories in the collection too, many of which I hadn’t read before. The Murders in the Rue Morgue puts in its obligatory appearance (and yet no Holmes story! You can tell I’m bitter…). There’s an interesting story from William Wilkie Collins, The Diary of Anne Rodway, where the detection element might be a bit flimsy and dependent on coincidence, but it’s well written, with a strong sense of justice and a sympathetic view of the poorer members of society. GK Chesterton’s The Hammer of God, which I recently included as a Tuesday ‘Tec! review, also came from this collection.

Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue Illustration by Harry Clarke
Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Illustration by Harry Clarke

The title story, The Dead Witness by WW (the pen-name of Mary Fortune), is apparently the first known detective story written by a woman. The plot is a little weak, but she builds up a good atmosphere and there’s a lovely bit of horror at the end which works very well. I particularly enjoyed Robert Barr’s The Absent-Minded Coterie, which has a nicely original bit of plotting, is well written and has a good deal of humour. Sims suggests Barr’s detective, Mr Eugene Valmont, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Hmm… on the basis of this story, I remain unconvinced.

So a bit of a mixed bag for me, really. I admire the intention more than the result overall, though the stronger stories towards the end lifted my opinion of it. One that I’m sure will appeal to anyone with an existing interest in Victorian detective fiction, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first anthology I’d recommend to newcomers wanting to sample some of the best the period has to offer.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Ah, Holmes, old man - there you are!
Ah, Holmes, old man – there you are!

Tuesday ’Tec! Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett

Fire and trouble…

The only thing of Hammett’s that I’ve read is The Maltese Falcon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But as well as Sam Spade, Hammett is famous for another detective – a nameless one, known only as the Continental Op (because he’s an operative of the Continental Detective Agency). This story is his first appearance, in 1923, so it seems like a good choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

 Arson Plus

by Dashiell Hammett

 

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

 

Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”

An insurance company has hired the Continental Op to investigate a house fire, in which the owner, a man named Thornburgh, died. They suspect arson, and Sheriff Tar quickly confirms this – the house was soaked in gasoline before it went up. But so far the police have found no clues as to who might have set the fire. He agrees to have the officer who’s investigating the crime bring the C.O. up to speed…

Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed: “Hey, Mac!”
The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together – MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing.
“What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?”
The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.

Sheriff Tarr then agrees that McClump should work with the C.O.

the continental op

On the night of the fire, Thornburgh’s servants Mr and Mrs Coons woke in the night to find themselves suffocating in smoke. Mr Coons managed to drag himself and his wife out, but by then the blaze was so strong he couldn’t fight his way back in to help Thornburgh. A passing motorist, Henderson, stopped at the scene and together they watched helplessly as Thornburgh tried to escape from his upper floor window… alas, in vain!

Thornburgh had only recently arrived in town and kept himself to himself. The Coons had only been employed by him on his arrival and so didn’t know him terribly well either, but they said he would shut himself away for hours in his room, and they believed he was working on some invention. The only visitor he had was his niece, Mrs Evelyn Trowbridge, who was also the beneficiary of his will and various insurance policies he had recently taken out. But Mrs Trowbridge had a cast-iron alibi for the night in question.

Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes – not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins.

arson plus

* * * * *

Although this is one of Hammett’s earliest stories, it already shows some of what made him such a successful and influential writer later in his career. The plot is nicely set up and rattles along at a good pace, although the detection element is pretty weak and crucial facts are withheld from the reader only to be presented after the C.O. has caught his culprit. But the writing is excellent, with a lot of wit, and the characterisation is strong throughout. We learn almost nothing about the C.O. himself in this one, except that he’s the kind of smart-talking, hardboiled character that Hammett and those influenced by him would develop over the next few decades. But through his narration, we get great snapshots of the other characters, often summed up in a few short lines that tell more than many authors can do in pages…

McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or -six, with all the nerve in the world – and most of the laziness.

The following paragraph is pretty spoilerish (and a bit of a mini-rant) so, if you want to read the story, you may want to skip it. I can’t find an online link, but the story is in…

the detective megapack

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Coincidentally, José Ignacio has also been reviewing a later Continental Op book this week, Red Harvest, over on A Crime is Afoot – a great blog for anyone interested in classic or contemporary crime fiction.

* * * * *

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The story ends with a crazy shoot-out of the kind that actually puts me off so much American detective fiction. I’m much more of a fan of the brilliant denouement type of story, followed by the culprit being huckled off in handcuffs. Partly this is just because I find shoot-outs immensely dull, especially since it’s always obviously the baddie who’s going to die. But partly, it’s because authors often use it lazily as a replacement for actually working out a clever way to trap the villain. That’s the case in this one – they all agree they don’t have much in the way of evidence that would stand up in court, so Hammett simply engineers a situation where it’s vaguely reasonable for them to gun their suspect down, and one is left to assume no questions will be asked afterwards. I think this is my favourite bit of dialogue in the story, AFTER the cop, McClump, has shot the suspect dead…

McClump spoke to me over the body.
“I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this [person].”

And I complain about today’s maverick policemen!

* * * * *

An enjoyable story in its own right, and one that makes for interesting reading in seeing the beginnings of what would develop into Hammett’s trademark hardboiled style.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday ’Tec! The Hammer of God by GK Chesterton

Brothers and fathers…

I’ve never been a particular fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but I stumbled across this story in Michael Sim’s anthology of detective stories, The Dead Witness, (full review to follow), and felt that it was about time he made his first appearance in…

Tuesday Tec2

The Hammer of God

by GK Chesterton

the dead witness

 

The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun was very devout, and was making his way to some austere exercises of prayer or contemplation at dawn. Colonel the Hon. Norman Bohun, his elder brother, was by no means devout, and was sitting in evening dress on the bench outside ‘The Blue Boar,’ drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday. The colonel was not particular.

Wilfred notices that Norman seems to be watching the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith is a strong giant of a man, upright and Puritanical, but Wilfred has heard some scandalous reports about the behaviour of his beautiful wife. As they pass each other in the street, Norman calls out to his brother…

“Good morning, Wilfred,” he said. “Like a good landlord I am watching sleeplessly over my people. I am going to call on the blacksmith.”

Wilfred looked at the ground, and said: “The blacksmith is out. He is over at Greenford.”

“I know,” answered the other with silent laughter; “that is why I am calling on him.”

mark williams as father brown
Mark Williams as Father Brown in the current well-regarded BBC adaptation

In despair at his brother’s shameful conduct, the devout Rev. Wilfred hurries on to his gothic-style church to pray. As he often does, rather than praying at the altar, he chooses another spot in the church for his private devotions – on this occasion, the gallery, where there is a rather beautiful stained glass window. He is still there sometime later when the village cobbler rushes in to inform him that a tragedy has occurred. Norman is dead, his head smashed by a single heavy blow…

He could only stammer out: “My brother is dead. What does it mean? What is this horrible mystery?” There was an unhappy silence; and then the cobbler, the most outspoken man present, answered: “Plenty of horror, sir,” he said; “but not much mystery.”

“What do you mean?” asked Wilfred, with a white face.

“It’s plain enough,” answered Gibbs. “There is only one man for forty miles round that could have struck such a blow as that, and he’s the man that had most reason to.”

gk chesterton
G K Chesterton

But it turns out the blacksmith has an unshakeable alibi. There are plenty of other people who may have had reasons to kill the wicked Norman – the village idiot whom he taunted, other husbands, perhaps women he had toyed with. But who could have struck such a mighty blow – and with the fairly small hammer that is found to have been the weapon?

Fortunately, there is one man in the village who may be able to work it out – Father Brown. Using his commonsense and his knowledge of human sinfulness, it’s not long before he confronts the amazed villain…

“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”

“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”

* * * * *

As always, there is a strong moral content to the story, and it’s this really that puts me off these stories. It’s not that I object to the battle between good and evil as a basis for a story – quite the reverse actually. It’s that I don’t enjoy the moralising tone that Chesterton employs through his priestly character. In this one (mini-spoiler alert) Father Brown plays on the conscience of the killer, preferring to give him the chance to do the right thing rather than handing him over to the police. All very well in fiction, but in reality I’d suggest the majority of murderers would take the opportunity to make good their escape and be on the next flight to Brazil or the Costa del Sol. So Father Brown’s uncanny ability to bring the bad guys back to the path of righteousness with just a few well-chosen words always leaves me unconvinced.

the hammer of god

However, the story is very well written as Chesterton’s always are, with a good deal of strong characterisation considering its brevity. And the puzzle, while not too hard to work out, is intriguing. One that I’m sure would be enjoyed by existing Father Brown fans, and would be a good introduction to him for newcomers, who should not be put off by my personal lack of enthusiasm for the character.

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

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

 

Tuesday ’Tec! The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

Make way for the soprano…

 

It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Murdered Banker

 

by Augusto De Angelis

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the murdered banker

Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.

“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?”
“There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.”
A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful.
“Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”

Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…

opera gif

I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.

“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”

Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.

But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.

Augusto De Angelis with his niece
Augusto De Angelis with his niece

There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.

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

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Secret of the Growing Gold by Bram Stoker

Wages of sin…

 

Having been kept awake all winter, the fretful porpentine is now off for a relaxing summer break in a spa hole-in-a-tree.

sleepy porpentine

But before he goes, one last chance for his quills to stand on end, with another Irish entry for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

The Secret of the Growing Gold

 

by Bram Stoker

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Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

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Two families live side by side, each once proud but now fallen, both in wealth and honour. The Brents are of high stock, while the Delandres are of yeoman class. When Margaret Delandre suddenly goes to live at Brent’s Rock, now home to Geoffrey, the last direct descendant of the family line, the scandal is great, for it is unclear if they have married. Margaret is a wild, evil woman and frankly Geoffrey is no great prize either.

He was almost a type of a worn-out race, manifesting in some ways its most brilliant qualities, and in others its utter degradation. He might be fairly compared with some of those antique Italian nobles whom the painters have preserved to us with their courage, their unscrupulousness, their refinement of lust and cruelty – the voluptuary actual with the fiend potential. He was certainly handsome, with that dark, aquiline, commanding beauty which women so generally recognise as dominant.

We do?? I mean, yes, of course, we do!

 

Well, such a combination is always likely to lead to the occasional tiff…

One thing would lead to another, and wine flowed freely at Brent’s Rock. Now and again the quarrels would assume a bitter aspect, and threats would be exchanged in uncompromising language that fairly awed the listening servants.

But during a trip abroad, Margaret meets with an accident when her carriage, conveniently being led by the exceedingly trustworthy Geoffrey, falls over a cliff. Her body is never recovered.

Some time later, Geoffrey meets a nice young Spanish lady and this time falls genuinely in love. They marry and he brings her to Brent’s Rock, and for a time all seems well. Until one day, Margaret’s brother Wykham Delandre…

…suddenly awoke to see standing before him some one or something like a battered, ghostly edition of his sister. For a few moments there came upon him a sort of fear. The woman before him, with distorted features and burning eyes seemed hardly human, and the only thing that seemed a reality of his sister, as she had been, was her wealth of golden hair…

begorrathon 2016

This vision tells him that she has come for revenge, not against Wykham (even though they had a severe case of sibling rivalry taken to extremes) but against ANOTHER! Later that night, Geoffrey’s bride is awakened as if by the sound of a latch opening. She does what any sensible woman would do in such circumstances – sends her husband down to investigate while she stays in bed…

…trembling, too frightened to cry, and listened to every sound. There was a long pause of silence, and then the sound of some iron implement striking muffled blows! Then there came a clang of a heavy stone falling, followed by a muffled curse.

Suffice to say, things are never quite the same again in the happy household…

* * * * *

This is a good little story, full of nasty people who deserve all they get – well, except for the new bride, who should probably have resisted feeling dominated by those dark, aquiline good looks. (Let that be a warning to us all, ladies! From now on, we should only go for blonds).

It’s in the gothic tradition of walled-up bodies and corpses that simply will not stay dead! But it has an original scare factor, which I must admit I found genuinely creepy. The moral of the story is that you should never argue with a man while he’s guiding your carriage along a cliff-path – or possibly that you should never go down to investigate strange noises in the middle of the night – or maybe that, when burying a body, you should take special care to do it thoroughly…

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

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * *

Wondering who the gorgeous mystery man is in the top gallery? Prepare to be even more scared…

Dubliners by James Joyce

All the living and the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the dublinersJoyce’s collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn’t use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader’s understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters’ lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader’s ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that’s my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

dublin

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

* * * * *

Since it seems to be a Dubliners tradition to name favourites, here are a few of mine…

An Encounter – this story of two young boys ‘miching’ from school is primarily an oblique and unsettling description of their encounter with a man whom we would today describe as a paedophile. But what I loved about it was the young narrator’s recognition of his own ambivalent attitude towards his friend…

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and halloed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

* * * * *

A Painful Case – a man re-evaluates his life following the death, perhaps accident, perhaps suicide, of a woman to whom he was once close. This is a wonderful study of that high moral rectitude that can so easily slide over into hypocrisy, and seems to me to be something of a metaphor for the mechanical, unfelt religiosity of much of the society Joyce is portraying throughout the book.

What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

* * * * *

James Joyce
James Joyce

The Dead – the longest and most developed story in the book, this ranges beautifully over the various guests attending an evening party, before finally focusing on one man who, in the course of the evening, falls in love with his wife all over again and then has the foundation of his marriage shattered by a sudden revelation. The writing in this one is superb, showing all the sense of community, all the close and distant relationships, that make up this society; but in the end reminding character and reader alike of the ultimate aloneness of the individual, of the unknowableness of even those closest to us.

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

* * * * *

Eveline – this is a beautiful story, full of emotional truthfulness, and my favourite in the collection. Following the death of her mother, a young girl fulfils the promise she made to her to keep the family home together, despite her father’s drunkenness and violence. But now she has met a young man, a sailor, who wants her to come away with him to Buenos Aires. She must decide between love and duty – but on a deeper level, her choice is between courage and cowardice – escape through the open door or remain in the cage. More than any other story, this one seems to me to sum up the major theme of the book, and broke my heart in a few short pages.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist…

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

“Come!”

begorrathon 2016

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Spiteful Shadow by Peter Tremayne

Getting into the habit…

 

the spiteful shadowSince it’s Reading Ireland Month, how about a detective who’s also a nun in 7th century Ireland? Strictly speaking, Peter Tremayne is an Englishman, but since he is a Celtic historian and was made a life member of the Irish Literary Society in 2002, I hereby declare him an honorary Irishman for the purposes of this post. There’s no doubt about Sister Fidelma’s nationality – she was born into the royal family of Munster, and is both a lawyer and a Celtic nun. The Sister Fidelma series appears to be on book 26 – however, it’s new to me. This short story was originally published in 2005, so let’s see if Fidelma merits the title of…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Spiteful Shadow

 

by Peter Tremayne

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Peter Tremayne
Peter Tremayne

Sister Fidelma has arrived at the Abbey of Durrow on a visit, only to be told by her old friend Abbot Laisran of a horrible murder that has taken place in the abbey. A young Sister is accused of killing one of the men in the community. But Abbot Laisran is worried…

“There are some things in life that appear so simple that you get a strange feeling about them. You question whether things can be so simple and, sure enough, you often find that they are so simple because they have been made to appear simple…”

Sister Scathach is a troubled young woman, who hears voices which she believes come from the Otherworld. These voices give her messages of doom – usually general ones about the destruction of the world and so on – and instruct her to give these messages out to the world. But one day, the message is more specific – that Brother Sioda is doomed to die by having his heart ripped out. And, just as she prophesied, the next day his bloody corpse is found spreadeagled on his bed. When the Abbot goes to Sister Scathach’s room, he finds a bloody robe and an even bloodier dagger, and the room is locked from the inside. So simple, indeed – and yet something doesn’t feel right. For a start, assuming the voices are not from the Otherworld, how could Sister Scathach have known about the girl Sioda had seduced some years ago? And what would be her motive for killing him? It’s up to Sister Fidelma to find the truth…

The Book of Durrow, dating to approximately the time of Fidlema's visit
The Book of Durrow, dating to approximately the time of Fidelma’s visit

Sister Fidelma may be a nun, but she’s not about to be taken in by the whole hearing voices thing…

“I believe in the Otherworld and our transition from this one to that but… I think that those who repose in the Otherworld have more to do than to try to return to this one to murder people. I have investigated several similar matters…there is always a human agency at work.”

However, one can’t help but wonder if, just occasionally, Sister Fidelma also hears voices from the Otherworld – in this case, the bit of the Otherworld that is situated in 221b Baker Street…

“My theory is that when you subtract the impossible, you will find your answers in the possible.”

When Sister Fidelma visits Sister Scathach in her cell and hears her own story of the mysterious voices, she is even more convinced that this is a very human murder, and sets out to find the culprit and the motive…

Celtic cross from Durrow Abbey
Celtic cross from Durrow Abbey

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Given the short length of this story, it’s interesting, though not really a solvable mystery for the reader. Basically each interview that Fidelma holds leads her one step further towards the solution until she reaches the culprit. However, it’s well written and the historical setting intrigued me a lot. Given Tremayne’s credentials as a historian, one assumes his depiction is reasonably accurate, and this early Christian society seems very different to the later monasteries and abbeys we might be more used to in historical fiction. For example, there is no rule to prevent marriage between the male and female members of the abbey, so they are not quite as we imagine nuns and monks, which throws open the whole question of possible motives.

There isn’t really enough room here to develop too much sense of place or characterisation, but it gives enough of a flavour of Fidelma and her way of life to make me interested enough to try out one of the full length novels. A decent introduction to what looks like it might be an enjoyable, fairly cosy series.

begorrathon 2016

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Little Grey Cells rating:

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

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Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

murder at the manorAnother in the British Library Crime Classics series, this is the third anthology of short stories edited by Martin Edwards, following Capital Crimes, stories set in London, and Resorting to Murder, stories with a holiday theme. This one, as the title makes obvious, is full of stories set in the traditional country house, so beloved of murderers that one can’t help but wonder why all the owners didn’t sell up and move into a nice little cottage somewhere. Though no doubt the twisted crime writers of the time would have tracked them down even there…

As Edwards says in his introduction, the country house is an ideal setting for the ‘closed circle’ type of mystery, where the suspects are defined by their presence in the house. It’s from this that the old cliché of “the butler did it” arises, though in fact this rarely was the solution. (In one of these stories, though, the butler did indeed do it, but I’m not telling which one…)

Several of the stories come from the Golden Age between the two wars, but there are also earlier and later ones. Many of the authors who appeared in the previous collections turn up again here and, as usual, they range from household names to the pretty much forgotten. One thing I’ve found, as I’ve read more of these short stories and some of the novels the British Library has revived, is that there’s a good reason for why some authors have remained popular while others have faded from the public consciousness. While the anthologies are interesting for seeing how the genre developed over time, there’s no doubt that the quality of the stories is variable, and with a few exceptions the better ones are from the authors whose names are still more familiar.

Although all of the stories contain a crime, some of them are really more horror than detective and, in fact, I tended to enjoy these more. Overall, I found this collection a little less enjoyable than the other two, though whether that’s because the average quality is lower or just that I’ve surfeited on vintage crime for the moment, I’m not sure. However, as always, there are enough good stories to make the collection well worth reading. Here are some of the ones I liked best…

The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle – the story of a young woman hired to look after a child, but with mysterious conditions attached. She must cut off her luxurious hair, wear a certain colour of dress and sit in the window for hours at a time. Then one day she finds a hank of hair in a drawer – hair that looks very like her own. And why is the door to one wing of the house always kept locked…?

the copper beeches

The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley – the more I read of Anthony Berkeley, the more I like him. This is a goodie that I used for a Tuesday ‘Tec post.

An Unlocked Window by Ethel White – again more of a horror story, about two nurses looking after a patient in an isolated house while a maniac murderer is on the loose. This one was adapted as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents… series. Check your windows before you go to bed…

Look behind you!!
Look behind you!!

The Horror at Staveley Grange by Sapper – a man dies inexplicably in his bedroom, and a few months later his son comes to the same fate in the same room. Now the remaining son is suspected of murder, but can amateur detective Ronald Standish discover the truth? There is proper detection in this but there are also some really quite shivery spooky bits…

The Well by WW Jacobs – a brilliant horror story from the man who gave the world nightmares with The Monkey’s Paw. I used this story for a Tuesday Terror! post.

the well 3

Weekend at Wapentake by Michael Gilbert – the last story in the collection and a good one to end on. When an old woman dies, a lawyer’s clerk becomes suspicious. He suspects he knows who killed her but has to find out why. And puts his own life in danger in the attempt. A nice, thrilling ending to this one to round the book off.

* * * * *

So, murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night! Despite the inclusion of a few that I felt were really pretty poor, most are at least good and some are excellent. And, as always, they give a chance to sample some authors who really deserve wider recognition than they have. I’m not sure reading all of these anthologies so close together does them proper justice, but I do recommend them individually, depending on what setting you prefer to satisfy your murderous impulses…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley

The reappearing corpse…

 

murder at the manorThe last time I reviewed an Anthony Berkeley short story, I wasn’t overly impressed. So, since I loved the one Martin Edwards has included in the latest of the British Library classic crime collections, Murder at the Manor, it seems only fair to redress the balance. Edwards tells us that Berkeley was praised by Agatha Christie, amongst others, for the intricacy of his plotting, and this story is a great example of that. So here goes for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Mystery of Horne’s Copse

by Anthony Berkeley

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Anthony Berkeley
Anthony Berkeley

 

It is over two years ago now and I can begin to look at it in its proper perspective; but even still my mind retains some echo of the incredulity, the horror, the dreadful doubts as to my own sanity and the sheer, cold-sweating terror which followed that ill-omened 29th of May.

Hugh Chappell , our narrator, has been visiting the family of his new fiancée, Sylvia Rigby. During the evening, they discuss Hugh’s cousin, Frank, currently on holiday in Europe with his wife. Frank and Hugh have had a difficult relationship – Frank is next in line to Hugh’s estate, should Hugh die childless, and he’s also a bit of a bad lot, though he seems to have settled down a little since he married.

Later, when Hugh prepares to take his leave, he discovers his car has broken down so he decides to walk home, taking a shortcut through Horne’s Copse. It is a dark night but although Hugh can’t see the path, he knows the copse so well he has no fear of missing his way. But halfway through, his foot strikes against an obstacle lying across the path, causing him to stumble.

I struck a match and looked at it. I do not think I am a particularly nervous man, but I felt a creeping sensation in the back of my scalp as I stood staring down by the steady light of the match. The thing was a body – the body of a man; and it hardly took the ominous black hole in the centre of his forehead, its edges spangled with red dew, to tell me that he was very dead indeed.

Worse is to come! Peering closer, Hugh recognises the body as that of his cousin Frank. But that can’t be – Hugh received a postcard from him from Italy only that day. Rushing home, Hugh contacts the police and returns with them to the copse. But the body has gone along with all trace of it ever having existed! The police think Hugh’s hoaxing them, but Hugh’s doctor, who knows Hugh suffered from shell-shock during the war, fears he might have had a hallucination.

No more comes to light and gradually the matter fades into the background. Until some weeks later, Hugh’s car again has a problem, and he again walks through the copse at night. And again, at the very same place, he stumbles over a body – Frank! This time stabbed in the chest. Checking that he is definitely dead, Hugh rushes home, phones the police and his doctor, and then hurries back to the copse. But again, the corpse is gone!

spooky woods

By now, even Hugh is beginning to doubt his own sanity, so he and Sylvia take a long holiday. On their return, Hugh hopes his nerves will have stopped playing tricks on him. But the very next time he walks through the copse, he again comes across Frank’s dead body!

This time I stayed to make no examination. In utter panic I took to my heels and ran. Whither, or with what idea, I had no notion. My one feeling was to get away from the place and as soon and as quickly as possible.

Without really being aware of what he’s doing, Hugh gets on a train to London. When he gets there, the newsboys are calling out about a body found in the woods. This time, the corpse was found, and it is indeed Frank. The police suspect the whole thing is a ruse of Hugh’s to murder Frank and get off with a plea of insanity, while his doctor isn’t altogether convinced that he’s not insane. But fortunately, Hugh meets an old school-friend, amateur ‘tec Roger Sheringham, who is convinced that Hugh is the victim of a plot…

* * * * *

This is a great story. Originally published as a serial, it’s split into short chapters each with a cliffhanger ending, and is very well-written. The mysterious reappearance of the corpse gives the whole thing a rather creepy, chilling feel, especially when Hugh begins to doubt his own sanity. I did work out part of the plot, but it’s more complex than it looks at first sight, with a nice twist before the end. Reasonably fair play though, I feel. The characterisation of both Hugh and Sylvia is excellent, with Sylvia in particular a likeable and intelligent character, reminiscent in some ways of Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford. Sheringham, whom I didn’t much like as a detective in the last story I read, is much less annoying in this one, and also takes a bit of a back seat, letting Hugh and Sylvia do the bulk of the legwork. It’s not simply about who murdered Frank – the real mystery is how and why the corpse kept reappearing…

Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version to link to, but Murder at the Manor is out now in paper format and for Kindle. I’ll be reviewing the full collection shortly, and this story will definitely be featuring as one of the highlights.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Christmas ’Tec! Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter

‘Tis the season to be jolly…

 

…and how better to be jolly than by spending time with some of our favourite ‘tecs? Not that you’d really expect grumpy old Morse to be the life and soul of the Christmas party, admittedly, but I wouldn’t mind “accidentally” bumping into Lewis under the mistletoe…

kissing

 

 

Tuesday Tec

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Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter

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Colin Dexter
Colin Dexter

It’s Christmastime in Oxford and Morse intends to spend it decorating, not the tree, but his kitchen.

“You sound more like Scrooge every minute, sir.”

“And I shall read a Dickens novel. I always do over Christmas. Re-read, rather.”

(Suddenly I’m thinking maybe I should check for Morsy under that mistletoe too…)

But before they break for the holiday, the mismatched pair have one more case to solve. Luckily for Morse, the crime took place in a pub, and it just so happens that they’ll arrive there at opening time…

…and it was Lewis’s job that day to ferry the chief inspector around; doubtless, too (if things went to form), to treat him to the odd pint or two.

The day before, the pub landlady had gone to the bank to get £400 in nice crisp new notes – the sum the pub’s patrons had raised to give to Littlemore, a local children’s home. But when she got back to the pub, the phone was ringing. Leaving her bag on the bar, she rushed to answer it and on her return discovered the money had been taken.

At the time of theft, there had been about thirty people in the saloon bar, including the regular OAPs, the usual cohort of pool-playing unemployables, and a pre-Christmas party from a local firm. And – yes! – from the very beginning Lewis had known that the chances of recovering the money were virtually nil.

John Thaw and Kevin Whateley as Morse and Lewis
John Thaw and Kevin Whateley as Morse and Lewis

Oh Lewis! You should have more faith! With a bit of dexterous questioning (hope you enjoyed that pun), Morse learns all he needs to know…

1. The pub landlord was late in getting back from the Cash and Carry.
2. The temporary barman is reluctant to discuss the state of his bank balance.
3. …

He now asked – amazingly! – whether by any chance the good lady [the pub landlady] possessed a pair of bright green, high-heeled leather shoes; and when she replied that, yes, she did, Morse smiled serenely, as though he had solved the secret of the universe…

You now have all the information that Morse had – I hope you’ve solved the case!

To Lewis’s amazement, Morse summons together staff and regulars, announces that he knows whodunit and where the money is now. And astonishingly, he goes on to tell them…

The thief might well have been tempted to spend the money earlier – but not any more! And why not? Because at this Christmas time that person no longer had the power to resist his better self.

Morse tells them that he expects the money to be handed in to the police station marked for Lewis’s attention by the following morning.

And so it was… leaving Morse satisfied and Lewis baffled. Which are you?

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This is a lovely little story, just right for the Christmas season. It’s only a few pages long, but plenty of time for some humour, a baffling mystery, a couple of nice red herrings, a bit of traditional Morse/Lewis repartee and a smile-inducing solution. Yes, I guessed it just before the end, but that didn’t spoil any of the fun. And any story that references Dickens and Scrooge gets my vote as being full of Christmas spirit!

Patrick Stewart as Scrooge
Patrick Stewart as Scrooge

And it seems that even Morse might have been infected by goodwill too…

And he smiled, for he knew that this would be a Christmas he might enjoy almost as much as the children up at Littlemore, perhaps. He had solved so many mysteries in his life. Was he now, he wondered, beginning to glimpse the solution to the greatest mystery of them all?

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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No link this week since it’s still in copyright, but I read it in this great (and currently ridiculously cheap on Kindle – it’s in the sale) collection of 60 Christmas crime stories by just about everyone you’ve ever heard of…

the big book of christmas mysteries

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett

The Adventure of the Missing Fiancé…

 

the detective megapackAlthough loads of classic out of copyright stories are available around the internet, I still struggle from time to time to find one for this little section, since general searches tend to bring up the best known stories again and again, leaving the more forgotten ones to remain in obscurity. So over the last few months I’ve found myself turning often to the Megapacks series published for Kindle by Wildlife Press. Each one costs pennies and contains a real mix of stories, and they do horror, crime and sci-fi packs.

Today’s story comes from The Detective Megapack, which has 30 stories, most of them old but with a few recent ones thrown in, including one that is original to this collection. Of course, the quality of the stories is always very mixed, with lots of them showing exactly why they’ve been forgotten, but there are always some goodies in them too. This one, which cost 59p ($0.89) has two Dashiell Hammett stories, Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Sherlock Holmes in The Five Orange Pips, and a story from R Austin Freeman, to go along with the many other authors I’ve never heard of. The packs do tend to have some typos, but considering the cost I think they’re great value and a fun way to be guided towards some stories that are a bit off the beaten track.

So I’ve randomly picked one of the authors I haven’t come across before (though I feel I should have) for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett

 

Vincent Starrett
Vincent Starrett

Our narrator “Gilly” Gilruth has turned up at the rooms of his friend, private detective Jimmie Lavender, to discover a client there telling her tale of woe. A week before she is due to marry, Miss Dale Valentine’s betrothed has gone mysteriously missing. Rupert Parris had phoned Miss Valentine on the previous Sunday evening to say he would arrive at her house in an hour and that was the last that had been heard of him. The enterprising Miss Valentine had managed to trace the call…

“Admirable!” my friend exclaimed. “The most sensible thing you could have done. Where did it come from?”

“That is strange too, and I can’t quite believe it. Perhaps the operator made a mistake and traced the wrong call; but I was told that it had come from the office of the Morning Beacon!”

Sending the young lady off with a reassuring promise to keep the affair confidential, Lavender wonders aloud if the obvious answer can be the correct one…

“A fine girl,” said my friend at length. “If this Parris has jilted her and run away for any reason, I’ll – well, I’ll make him regret it, Gilly, if he’s living!”

Vincent Starrett Bookplate
Vincent Starrett Bookplate

Now stand by for a Big Coincidence, for at that very moment our narrator remembers a letter, addressed to Lavender, which the postman had handed him on his way in. And the letter is from the office of the Morning Beacon! It transpires that the proprietor of the paper wishes to consult Lavender about an employee of his, a Mr Moss Lennard, who has been missing since Sunday evening! Lavender (like the reader) is quickly convinced the two disappearances must be linked. Poor old Gilly is struggling to cope though…

Lavender looked questioningly at me, and I looked back at him without a glimmer of light in my brain.

“Muddle is right!”, I said at length. “You guessed it, Jimmie!”

The muddle becomes even muddlier when the drowned corpse of poor Moss Lennard is fished out of a lake the following day – dead since Sunday. There are no obvious signs of violence but Lavender is convinced that Lennard had been blackmailing Parris and Parris has done away with him. But is he right? And if he is, how will he prove it? And where is Parris now??

* * * * *

This is quite a fun little mystery, owing a huge debt to the Holmes and Watson stories. In fact, Vincent Starrett was apparently well known as a Sherlockian and writer of Holmes pastiches in his day, and apart from name changes and the fact that this is set in America, this could easily be another. I’m not convinced it’s fair-play since the final clue comes from the discovery of a book called The Montreville Mystery, of which I can find no trace. If it existed and was well-known at the time this story was written (1922) then yes, anyone who had read it could probably have solved the mystery. But if, as I suspect, it is a made up title then I fear the greatest brain would be baffled. Except Lavender’s of course. Or anyone’s who had read the particular Holmes story which I suspect is the actual source for the plot – I won’t name the story since that would give the game away to all Holmes’ fans immediately.

However despite the familiarity of aspects of the plot and the mild feeling of cheating in the solution, this is well-written and enjoyable – light, very readable and held my attention throughout. I’d cheerfully read more of Lavender and Gilly’s adventures, and do recommend these Megapacks as a great starting point for finding introduction to “new” old authors.

Vincent Starrett's Gravestone - one feels perhaps fandom can sometimes be taken too far...
Vincent Starrett’s Gravestone – one feels perhaps fandom can sometimes be taken too far…

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

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Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus

A master of the short story form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

coup de foudreKen Kalfus has become one of my favourite writers since I first read Equilateral, his brilliantly written take on the Mars sci-fi story. His collection of short stories about Soviet Russia, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, confirmed my first impression, while also letting me know that he is a true master of the short story form. So I was primed to love this new collection, which consists of a novella and 15 short stories. And I’m pleased to say that the book lived up to, perhaps exceeded, my high expectations.

The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality. Landau, the Strauss-Kahn figure, narrates the story in the form of a letter to the maid. There is much here about the then political situation, with Greece teetering on the brink of financial meltdown and a real possibility of a domino effect across large parts of Europe; and, in his arrogance, Landau believes only he can save Europe and his downfall is Europe’s also. But monstrous though Kalfus paints him, we also see his concern in principle for the poor and less advantaged of the world. He recognizes the maid’s positional weakness as an immigrant who lied to get entry to the US to escape from a country where women are still treated abominably and where female genital mutilation is still routinely practised, and is sympathetic to her situation, while not allowing that sympathy to interfere with fulfilling his own desires.

strauss-kahn headlines

The story is extremely sexually explicit, but not pruriently. Rather, Kalfus is drawing parallels between economic and political power and sexual power, and the single-minded egotism that seems so often to be the driver behind both. I admit I felt uneasy, as I always do, about the morality of writing a story so obviously concerning real people still living. Not for Strauss-Kahn’s sake, I hasten to add, but I did wonder about the re-imagining of the maid’s story. Although depicted clearly as the victim, there are aspects of the story that made me feel as if it almost represented another level of assault, and I wondered whether she had been asked for and given permission to have her story told in this way. One could certainly argue that the salacious details of the story have already been so hashed over in the public domain that it can’t matter. But somehow I still feel it does. Despite that reservation, I found the story well written, psychologically persuasive and intensely readable.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

Fortunately the rest of the collection didn’t affect me with the same kind of internal conflict. Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events but not with the same kind of personalisation and intimacy of this first one. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. Here’s a small flavour of what can be found in the collection…

The Un- – a beautifully funny tale of what it’s like to be an unpublished writer – all the insecurities and jealousies, the stratagems for getting stories into print, the need to earn a living while waiting for the never-appearing acceptance letter. Witty and warm, Kalfus gently mocks the pseud-ness of so much of the writing world, but never from a place of superiority. It’s clear that this is autobiographical, and Kalfus was a member of The Un- back in the days before there was the possibility of solving the problem by becoming part of The Self-. He speculates on whether one can call oneself a writer before one is published. The drive to be published comes above all else, until he is suddenly hit with an idea – when suddenly it takes second place to the need to write.

An entire ward at the Home for the Literary Insane was occupied by people who insisted on favorably likening their evening-and-weekend scribbling to the work of the world’s most accomplished writers. Another ward was for people who compared their work to that of inferior writers who were nevertheless published; something snapped when they tried to account for the appearance of these mediocrities in print: it required a bloodlessly cynical theory of publishing or, even more, a nihilist’s genuflection before the mechanisms of an amoral universe.

Mr Iraq – this is the story of a journalist, normally on the left politically, who found himself supporting the Iraq war. Now in 2005, his father is attending anti-war demonstrations and his son is advocating bringing back the draft. This story gives a great picture of the dilemma in which left-wing supporters of the war found themselves when everything began to wrong and of the sense of alienation from politics with which many of them were left.

Teach Yourself Tsilanti: Preface – a charming little tale of unrequited love and longing disguised as an introduction to a rediscovered, long dead language, written by a man whose own love of words shines through in the precision with which he uses them to create beautiful things. I can’t help feeling this one may have an autobiographical element too…

How did Tsilanti gallants win their sweethearts? Not with testosterone-fuelled competitive violence, nor with gaudy displays of material riches, nor with glib lines of poetry ripped off from professional bards. No, the currency of love in the era of Tsilanti greatness was manufactured by patient, passionate, intimate instruction. The Tsilanti swain approached his maiden with fresh or obscure words, phrases, and sentences. With his glamorous baubles of language, he gave her a new way of thinking about the world and the distinct items that populate it. If she accepted his tribute, the Tsilanti couple began to share a common experience, a vision, and a life. This is all any of us can hope for within the span of our brief earthly tenures.

This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus. Occasionally shocking, hugely imaginative, full of warmth and humour and extremely well written, every story in the book rated at a minimum of four stars for me, with most being five. And Kalfus finishes the thing off beautifully with some Instructions for my Literary Executors, a little piece of mockery at the expense of the occasional pomposity of the literary world, but done so self-deprecatingly that any sting is removed…

4. The Collected Correspondence. I was never much of a letter writer, but in the course of a long and varied literary life, I’ve left a lot of messages for people, mostly on their answering machines. Place a query in the New York Review of Books; certainly many of these answering-machine tapes have been saved and my messages can be retrieved from them. Don’t edit the messages – please! I want posterity to “hear” me as I was…

 

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Tuesday Terror! Horrorology edited by Stephen Jones

horrorology coverA patchy collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

This collection of short horror stories has contributions from some of the best-known names in contemporary horror writing, many of whom also showed up in a previous Stephen Jones anthology, Fearie Tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed with this one. A few of the stories are good, but most are middling and one or two are frankly poor.

The blurb is a rehash of Stephen Jones’ introduction, which is written in the form of a Lovecraft pastiche, telling of how the stories to come were stolen from a book called The Lexicon of Fear in the Library of the Damned. This led me to think that the stories were going to be weird tales in the Lovecraftian tradition, but in fact they’re not. There’s no over-arching theme to the collection – each one is straight horror and unconnected to the rest. That’s not a problem – in fact, personally I prefer horror to weird – but I feel the blurb could be misleading.

Tuesday Terror

The stories range from a few pages to near novella length. Some contain huge amounts of foul language – the lazy author’s friend – and one, by Clive Barker, is little more than an excuse to be so sexually explicit it comes close to being porn. And there are a couple of gore-fests, although oddly these are two of the better stories despite the blood and guts elements. Many of the stories have good, imaginative premises, though some are followed through better than others.

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Here’s an idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Guignol by Kim Newman – Set in Paris at the tail-end of the 19th century, this is one of the major gore-fests. A series of gruesome murders have been committed in the Pigalle area, but because the victims seem to be poor and are often unidentified the police are making little effort to solve the case. So an unlikely group of three women, working for a mysterious man as a kind of dark version of Charlie’s Angels, are hired by an unknown client to investigate. It seems there may be a link to the Théâtre des Horreurs, where nightly performances set out to shock the audiences with displays of graphic blood-soaked horror. But are these performances, or could some of the actors be appearing for one night only? And are there powerful people protecting the show from investigation in the murder case? Graphic and gruesome, but also well written and gives a good feel for the period and the whole Grand Guignol atmosphere.

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Nightmare by Ramsay Campbell – a retired couple are on a trip to revisit some of the places the man remembers from his youth. They turn off the road in search of a great viewpoint he has fond memories of, but find that a village has been built there in the meantime. The villagers are unwelcoming, in a Wicker Man kind of way, but the man is determined to find his viewpoint…whatever the cost. The writing of this builds up a great atmosphere of tension leading to a satisfyingly scary climax. I must say this was pretty much the only story in the book that I found truly spine-tingling – a very traditional horror story but written with enough skill to stop it from feeling stale.

Ripper by Angela Slatter – The story of the Jack the Ripper investigation but with a couple of twists. The protagonist is Kit, a young police constable, but unknown to anyone she is actually a woman in disguise, who has taken the job to earn extra money to look after her mother and invalid brother. And the Ripper has a reason for taking trophies from his victims – he believes that they will give him access to supernatural powers. I always enjoy Slatter’s writing, and in this one she has created an interesting character in Kit. Women and witchery is a theme she returns to often and this is no exception. Plenty of gore again here, but it would be hard to do a Ripper story without it!

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So some good stuff here, but overall the quality is too patchy for me to give a wholehearted recommendation to the collection as a whole. My 3-star rating is an average of the ratings I gave to each individual story, which included a couple of 5s, a couple of 1s, and the bulk of the rest coming in as 3s.

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

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