FictionFan Awards 2019 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1965 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help…

Berkeley wrote this to parody how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times means that he is also recognised wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky!

Despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense. Recently re-married, Ernest is rethinking his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s war-time attitude. Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

As poet Richard Cadogan walks along an Oxford street at night, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Then he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, and as a little added bonus, this is the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Highly entertaining!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

I gave sixteen vintage crime books five stars this year, so the decision was by no means easy. However, Gilbert had two in serious contention, this one and Smallbone Deceased. In the end, the unique setting of this one made it stand out from the crowd.

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

This is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. Tense and hard-hitting, but the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour. One that shows the wonderful versatility in the genre – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual

PS – I suddenly realised I couldn’t bring myself to write any reviews this week, so I’m taking a week or two off till my enthusiasm revives. I’ll still be posting the awards posts on Thursdays though. See you soon! And to those who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving! I’m thankful for all of you… 😀

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

Poisoned chocolates??? Blasphemy!!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. Firstly, Graham and Joan Bendix were happily married, so what would Graham’s motive have been? Secondly, and more importantly, he had had no chance to poison the chocolates – he had been given them by a man at his club, Sir Eustace Pennefather, that very morning. Sir Eustace himself had received them that morning through the post, so it appears that perhaps the intended victim was Sir Eustace. This would make more sense, since Sir Eustace has a shady reputation regarding money and women. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help. Enter Roger Sheringham and the members of his Crimes Circle…

As Martin Edwards explains in his introduction, Berkeley wrote this to show how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Of course, I spotted the solution straight away. So did all six criminologists, although each spotted a different one. Unfortunately, when my solution showed up in the very early stages of the book, I, along with the amateur ‘tec who proposed it, had to hang my head in shame as the others neatly demolished it, showing me that each of the clues I had carefully collected couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant. After that, I decided to resign as a detective and simply watch the rest at work!

Challenge details:
Book: 22
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1929

They’re an intriguing and mismatched bunch, brought together simply because each has an interest in crime. Roger Sheringham is Berkeley’s recurring amateur detective, but it should not be assumed that that means his solution will necessarily be the right one – Berkeley apparently enjoyed making him get it wrong occasionally. There’s a famous and rather pompous defence barrister, a dramatist of the intellectual variety, a novelist who delves somewhat pretentiously into the psychology of her characters, a detective-mystery writer who thinks rather highly of himself, and a rather insignificant little man who is in perpetual awe of everyone else. Each approaches the problem from a different angle, and since they and the victims and suspects all move in the same social circles, several of them have the advantage of being able to add details from their own knowledge. I admit it – I was totally convinced by every solution they offered, which suggests I must be the detective-mystery writer’s dream reader!

Anthony Berkeley

While the cleverness and originality of the plotting are what make the book unique, it’s also well written and has a good basic mystery at its core. Berkeley might be having a bit of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own, but it’s not at all done with a sense of superiority or sneering. His affection for the conventions comes through clearly even as he subverts them and in the end it is fair play – there’s nothing to stop the armchair detective getting to the real solution except for all the delightful red herrings and blind alleys along the way. But is the real solution really the solution? For a bit of extra fun, the BL have included an alternative solution written later by another mystery novelist, Christianna Brand, and have enticed Martin Edwards to come up with yet another!

A most enjoyable read – light-hearted, amusing and clever, and fully deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 169…

A fourth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’ve been falling behind on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but it’s time to get back on track!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all the books from the third batch of MMM books, here goes for the fourth batch…

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

This is a book that gets mentioned all the time by vintage crime enthusiasts so it’s well past time I found out what the fuss is about. I’ve only read a couple of short stories from Anthony Berkeley to date – I thought one was great, the other silly. Let’s hope the book is great!

The Blurb says: Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates.Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.

Challenge details

Book No: 22

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1929

Martin Edwards says: “As Roger [Sheringham, Berkeley’s detective] reflects…’That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective-story. One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they’re all equally wrong.'”

* * * * *

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

A re-read of one of my favourite Christies, narrated by Captain Hastings himself, Hugh Fraser. Joy!

The Blurb says: The Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police.

Challenge details

Book No: 24

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1930

Edwards says: “Christie’s sly wit is also evident in the presentation of village life. When Raymond West compares St Mary Mead to a stagnant pool, Miss Marple reminds him that life teems beneath the surface of stagnant pools.”

* * * * *

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Next to London, Oxford must surely be the murder capital of England… in the world of crime fiction, at least!

The Blurb says: As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best.

Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…

Challenge details

Book No: 49

Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder

Publication Year: 1946

Edwards says: “The second chase culminates at Botley fairground, and an out-of-control roundabout; Alfred Hitchcock bought the right to use the scene for the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

* * * * *

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Courtesy of the British Library, who are republishing this one in August. I love the House of Commons as a setting for murder… in the fictional sense, of course!

The Blurb says: Originally published in 1932, this is the first Crime Classic novel written by an MP. And fittingly, the crime scene is within the House of Commons itself, in which a financier has been shot dead.

Entreated by the financier’s daughter, a young parliamentary private secretary turns sleuth to find the identity of the murderer – the world of politics proving itself to be domain not only of lies and intrigue, but also danger.Wilkinson’s own political career positioned her perfectly for this accurate but also sharply satirical novel of double cross and rivalries within the seat of the British Government.

Challenge details

Book No: 89

Subject Heading: Singletons

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “A remarkable number of Golden Age detective stories were set in the world of Westminster, presumably because politicians made such popular murder victims. None, however, benefited from as much inside knowledge of the Parliament’s corridors of power as The Division Bell Mystery, whose author was a former MP and future minister.”

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

* * * * *

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