The Seat of the Scornful (Gideon Fell 14) by John Dickson Carr

Cat and mouse…

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When his daughter announces she is engaged, Mr Justice Ireton insists on meeting the young man. The first meeting doesn’t go well since the judge recognises Tony Morell as someone he has come across before, in the course of his job. The second meeting goes even worse. A phonecall to the local telephone exchange begging for help brings Police Constable Weems rushing to the judge’s holiday bungalow, where he finds Morell dead and Mr Justice Ireton sitting calmly in his chair, gun in hand…

The couple of Gideon Fell novels I’ve read previously have been “impossible crimes” and the emphasis has been on the puzzle rather than the people. This one is entirely different in tone, much more of a standard mystery, and as a result I liked it far more. It still has strong aspects of the howdunit to please the puzzlers out there, but there is also a group of characters with various motives for wanting rid of Morell. Gideon Fell himself seems less rude than in our previous meetings, and in fact has an almost Poirot-esque twinkle over the two young people we all soon hope to see become a romance. He is also rather clearer in how he works his way to the solution of the mystery, again relying more this time on the personalities and motives of the people involved, rather than sticking entirely to the technical aspects of how the crime was done.

Morell is a man with a reputation. A few years earlier he had become the centre of a scandal involving a rich young girl whom he had tried to blackmail into marriage. Now he says he wants to marry Connie, the judge’s daughter, and it’s not surprising the judge is not thrilled by that idea. But nor is Fred Barlow, the judge’s protegé, who fancies himself in love with Connie too. Or perhaps someone is exacting revenge for that earlier scandal, or maybe there are other secrets in Morell’s life that have made him a target. In a sense, this is the opposite of a “locked room” mystery – Morell’s body is found in a room to which many people could have had access, and who could have then disappeared into the night without being seen by any witnesses. So Inspector Graham and Dr Fell have to try work out the culprit from the physical evidence – who could have got access to the gun? Why is there a little pile of sand on the carpet? Why is the telephone broken? – and from what they learn about Morell’s background, through interviewing the various people who knew him or knew of him.

The book is also much stronger on characterisation than the other Fells I’ve read. The judge is a man who seems to enjoy the power his position gives him too much. His daughter, Connie, is dependent on him financially but chafes against his rather cold expectations of how she should behave. Fred Barlow is loyal to the judge for his past support, but is clear-eyed enough to recognise the strain of sadism the judge employs on the criminals who appear before him, and perhaps also on those closer to home. Inspector Graham is a solid, painstaking officer, not at all cowed by having to investigate a judge and his family and friends. Even PC Weems is well developed, as a young man just starting out in his career and sometimes feeling out of his depth but showing promise of developing into a good detective in time.

John Dickson Carr

First published in 1941 the book is set before the war, and among the group of younger characters there is still a mild feeling of the decadence that Carr employed so well in his earlier Bencolin novels. While it doesn’t have a strong element of horror in the way some of his other books have, there is a lot of tension in the latter stages and some scenes that have a definite air of eerie peril. I enjoyed it hugely and raced through it. Although the number of suspects is fairly limited I still changed my mind several times along the way, and found the ending satisfying, when Fell reveals the solution of both who and how, and tells us how he reached it. Good stuff, and I’m glad to have finally grown to admire Dr Fell after a fairly rocky start with this series. I’m now looking forward to reading more with my enthusiasm for Carr’s work fully restored!

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

Amazon UK Link

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence) by Agatha Christie

“Was it your poor child?”

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When Tommy and Tuppence visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada in the Sunny Ridge nursing home, Tuppence falls into conversation with a sweet but rather confused old lady called Mrs Lancaster. As Tuppence, in a thoughtful moment, gazes at the fireplace, she is startled when Mrs Lancaster asks, “Was it your poor child?” The way she asks sends a shiver down Tuppence’s spine (and mine). A few weeks later Aunt Ada dies and when they return to the home to collect her belongings, Tuppence determines to speak to Mrs Lancaster again. But they discover Mrs Lancaster has gone – collected by her relatives. Tuppence, with nothing but her instincts to go on, finds this puzzling and worrying, and decides to track Mrs Lancaster down. She meets with a brick wall, however, of lawyers and bankers none of whom seem to know exactly where Mrs Lancaster might be…

This is a late Christie, published in 1968, and as with many of the later books the plotting isn’t as tight as when she was at her peak. But although it all gets a bit rambly in the middle, it has a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. From Mrs Lancaster’s spine-shivering question, Tuppence finds herself entering a maze of old rumours and gossip, much of them about murdered or missing children. People are very willing to talk, but memories are vague and Tuppence finds it impossible to pin down hard facts or dates.

All she has to go on is a painting that Mrs Lancaster had given to Aunt Ada, of a house by a canal that Tuppence feels sure she has seen once before, perhaps from a car or a train. So while Tommy is off at a hush-hush conference with his old colleagues from his days in the Secret Service, Tuppence digs out train timetables and old diaries, and sets out to repeat any journeys she has made over the last few years in the hope of spotting the house again. But it seems that someone doesn’t want Mrs Lancaster to be found, and Tuppence soon finds herself in danger. Will Tommy find her in time?

Book 20 of 20

Tommy and Tuppence are the only detectives of Christie who age in real time, so in this book they are now in their sixties. Between this and the nursing home theme, there’s quite a bit of musing on ageing in the book, both on the physical limitations it brings and on the mental decline that faces some elderly people. Christie, herself ageing of course, does this rather well. Tommy and Tuppence still spar as much as they always have, but Tommy perhaps worries about his wife a little more now, feeling that Tuppence should recognise that she’s not a young adventurer any more and should take more care for her safety. But that wouldn’t be Tuppence’s style at all! Once she gets her teeth into a thing she doesn’t let go, no matter where it leads her.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser really is a fantastic narrator! He always brings out the humour in the books, but in this one he also creates the spooky atmosphere brilliantly, never over-acting but knowing exactly how to chill the reader. He copes with a range of elderly lady voices beautifully, bringing out all the fun of Aunt Ada’s rudeness and the pathos of Mrs Lancaster’s confusion. He differentiates the characters with a different voice for each and never slips, so that it’s always easy to tell who’s speaking even when several people are conversing together. And he does a great job with Tuppence’s character, making her just as enjoyable as she is on the page!

Despite the woolliness in the mid-section, the basic plot is strong and the unsettling atmosphere lasts all the way through to the chilling ending. A great way to finish the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge!

Audible UK Link

The Misty Harbour (Maigret 15) by Georges Simenon

Mystery man

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A man has been picked up in the streets of Paris, wandering around in what is clearly a state of distress. There is nothing on him to identify him and he doesn’t speak. Beneath the wig he’s wearing, the police discover a recently healed gunshot wound, which seems to account for his befuddled state. After a publicity appeal, a woman comes forward and identifies him as Yves Joris, formerly a captain in the merchant navy, now the harbour-master at Ouistreham, a small port in Lower Normandy. The woman is his maid, Julie, and she’s upset to find him in his present condition. She tells the police that he disappeared six weeks ago, and had no wound at that time. So when and where was he shot? And who tended his wound? How did he end up wandering the streets of Paris? Who gave him the little bundle of new banknotes found in his pocket?

Maigret accompanies Joris and Julie back to Ouistreham with a view to finding out what has happened to Joris. But the case takes a darker turn when the next day Joris is found dead in his bed, poisoned with strychnine…

This one is a real puzzle and Maigret has to do a lot of proper detective work to get at the truth. He also stays largely sober, spending more time on the case than in bars for once, which works well for me – I find his usual endless drinking rather tedious. He soon realises he needs assistance so sends for his dependable colleague, Sergeant Lucas, to join him. It becomes apparent that many of the people of the small town may be involved in some way, and as is the way in tight-knit communities, people are not always willing to share what they know with the police. So Maigret and Lucas have to do a lot of spying and eavesdropping to find out what’s been going on.

Book 18 of 20

As always, the setting is one of the main strengths of the book. Ouistreham is frequented by merchant ships plying their trade around the Nordic countries and across to Britain, and Simenon works this into the story. We soon learn there’s some kind of Norwegian link, while Julie’s brother, Big Louis, is a seaman on a ship that becomes the focus of Maigret’s investigation, since it was in port both when Joris disappeared and again when he is murdered. Louis has a history of violence and has spent time in jail, but Julie is convinced of his innocence in this matter. But then, is Julie innocent? It appears that Joris has left her everything he had, and since a large deposit has recently been made into his bank account she’ll do quite well out of his death. Suspicion doesn’t only fall on these two though – the local mayor is behaving oddly too, and Maigret soon becomes aware of a mystery man who was also in the town at the relevant time.

Georges Simenon

I must say I had no idea what this was all about until Maigret revealed all at the end, and I’m still not sure that all the loose ends are properly tied up. However, as I say regularly, I find my concentration levels dip more when listening to an audiobook than when reading, so it may well be that I missed some bits of explanation along the way. No matter – the fact that I felt a couple of minor questions were left unanswered didn’t spoil my enjoyment overall. Maigret’s depiction of this small working port is excellent, the detection element is well done, there is some good characterisation, and the major story revolves around messy human relationships – my favourite kind! One of the stronger Maigret novels for me, and I may well read it in a “proper” book format sometime to see if it clears up those bits of the story that remained misty for me this time!

Audible UK Link

Latter End (Miss Silver 11) by Patricia Wentworth

Repent at leisure…

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Two cousins are attracted to Lois – Jimmy Latter, older, well established and with a large house; and Anthony, young, good-looking, but just starting out in life. For purely mercenary reasons Lois opts for Jimmy, and becomes the chatelaine of Latter End. But now she has inherited a fortune of her own and is rather bored with Jimmy, which is a shame since he worships her. Which is more than can be said for his large household of distantly connected relations and ancient retainers, who can’t stand Lois – a feeling that is mutual. Lois wants to run things her own way and the first thing she wants is to get rid of all these people – Jimmy’s two younger step-sisters, a woman he grew up with and views as a kind of surrogate sister (although her view of Jimmy is somewhat less platonic), old servants who have been around so long they have come to be treated almost as part of the family, and so on. And she has Jimmy wrapped round her little finger, so she can always persuade him that her plans to send all these people away to fend for themselves are made for their own benefit. So when Lois turns up dead, poisoned, the field of suspects is wide. Jimmy, however, fears he may have driven Lois to suicide, so begs Miss Silver to investigate, hoping she will prove that Lois was murdered…

Lois is that stalwart of vintage mysteries, one of the things that makes them so enjoyable – a truly unlikeable victim that neither characters nor readers feel much need to grieve over. True, Jimmy grieves, but only to an extent – even before Lois died his eyes had been opened to her true nature, so if he can only be assured that her death wasn’t his fault he’ll be able to get over her pretty easily. The rest of the characters are frankly overjoyed that she’s gone – their only concern is that they don’t want themselves or each other to be accused of the murder.

Book 11 of 20

Although Lois’ duplicity and manipulation undoubtedly make her ripe for murdering, in her defence I have to admit that she had a point about the hangers-on in the household. Only two of them, step-sister Julia and cousin Anthony, seem to feel that they should make their own way in life. All the rest seem quite happy to live eternally in Jimmy’s home and off his generosity. Jimmy is old-fashioned enough to think his new wife should meekly fit herself in to all the existing household routines and traditions. Lois is not that kind of woman! She wants to be mistress of her own home, especially once she finds that she is in fact wealthier than Jimmy. Wentworth was clearly less sympathetic to that attitude than I was, and anyway when we first meet Lois she is attempting to revive her rejected suitor’s love for her despite now being a Married Woman so I quite agreed she is a Bad Lot Who Deserves All She Gets!

Patricia Wentworth

I loved this one. Wentworth writes exceptionally well for this genre, and while she doesn’t quite compare to Christie in terms of plotting, she manages a similar mix of mystery, suspense, occasional humour and a touch of romance. Miss Silver is not unlike Miss Marple in that she uses her status as an elderly spinster to open up the world of gossip above and below stairs, while her long life and keen intuition allow her to judge when people are hiding secrets. Like Miss Marple, she works in tandem with the police who know her of old and have a grudging respect for her abilities. However, she’s also different enough to avoid feeling like a carbon copy of Miss Marple. Miss Silver is a professional investigator, who takes on investigations for financial reward, and she therefore has a businesslike efficiency in place of Miss Marple’s disguise of fluffy ditheriness and random village parallels. Both ladies knit, however! Google tells me they both first appeared in 1927, so if this is correct, clearly their similarities are entirely coincidental.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Diana Bishop, and she did an excellent job. She has recorded millions of the Miss Silvers (approximately), and I can see they are going to feature regularly in my future listening! Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

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When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Painful…

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

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

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

Imagine over 200 pages of this. Imagine my pain.

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

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

Bernard Capes

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

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

Taking the low road…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

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When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3) by Agatha Christie

Careless talk costs lives…

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It’s 1940, and Tommy and Tuppence are desperate to help the war effort in any way they can. But they’re in their forties now, and Tommy is seen as too old for the armed services while Tuppence’s old skills from her days as a nurse in WW1 don’t seem to be in demand either. Tommy gets in touch with Mr Carter, now retired from the Secret Service, and asks if he can pull any strings. And then a Mr Grant shows up, ostensibly offering Tommy a dull but useful clerical role in Scotland. But when Tuppence leaves the room, Mr Grant tells Tommy this is a cover story – really the Secret Service want him to go undercover to a boarding house in the South of England from where they believe a top Nazi spy is operating. But they don’t know who – all they know is that it’s one of two people known only by their code initials, one male, one female – N or M. It’s vital the spy should be uncovered – the whole war depends on it! The operation is top secret and no one must know he’s going, not even Tuppence. So off Tommy goes, but when he gets there he’s in for a big surprise when he meets one of his fellow guests – Mrs Blenkinsop, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his eavesdropping wife…

I’m afraid when Ms Christie gets into espionage plots they become so convoluted and unlikely that I’m always left feeling if this was the best the Nazis could do the only wonder is they didn’t lose more quickly! But I don’t care – Tommy and Tuppence, especially Tuppence, are so much fun to spend time with that the plot can be as silly as it likes and I’ll still love the book! And there’s so much in it about the anxieties that would have been forefront in the minds of people on the Home Front that I expect it didn’t seem nearly so unbelievable when it was published in 1941 – Fifth Columnists, parachuting spies, those perfidious Irish, Nazi sympathisers, German refugees who might be spies… and all while Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine, and victory was far from certain. As would have been the case for so many people too old to serve, Tommy and Tuppence’s two children – adults now – are in the forces, and both doing jobs requiring a lot of secrecy so that their parents don’t even know where they are much of the time. It’s partly to take their minds off this constant worry that makes them both so keen to be doing something – anything – to help.

Book 3 of 20

The boarding house is filled with a variety of characters who all look innocent enough, but equally could all be N or M. There’s the retired military man who seems to despair of democratic Britain and feels the Nazis are doing quite a good job of running Germany – but is he really a Nazi sympathiser or just a grumpy old man? Is the Irishwoman loyal to Britain despite her husband’s Irish nationalism during WW1? Is the young German really a refugee from a regime he hates, or is he an infiltrator? What about the hypochondriacal man and his put-upon wife – are they what they seem? Surely the mother evacuated from London with her young child must be just what she claims? That was what made the idea of the Fifth Column so frightening – once you accept the idea as possible, then anyone could be a Nazi spy. And so every careless word could lead to death or disaster for our troops. Christie captures this feeling of paranoia very well.

Despite all this serious stuff, there’s also enough humour in it to stop the tone from becoming too dark. The banter between Tommy and Tuppence is always entertaining, and here there’s an added element in that we see how their children treat them as if they were ancient and past it, while Tommy and Tuppence in reality are doing a far more important and secret job than either of them. Albert makes an appearance, and while it’s always fun to see him, sadly he follows in the tradition of Lord Wimsey’s Bunter or Campion’s Lugg – the comedy working class character who adores and idolises his master or mistress. Albert actually refers to Tommy as his master, for goodness sake! So I’m glad he plays a fairly minor role, and am devoutly thankful that neither Poirot nor Miss Marple saw the need for a working class sidekick.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser is as wonderful as always. Here he gets the chance to play loads of different characters, from grumpy old men to beautiful, moody young women, not to mention the toddler who speaks mostly in baby language and gurgles, and he handles them all brilliantly! So, despite my niggles with the plot, this is a hugely enjoyable listening experience, and Tommy and Tuppence are as much fun as ever!

Audible UK Link

The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

Murder and waffle…

🙂 🙂 😐

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

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

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

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

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

AP Herbert

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

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

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

J Jefferson Farjeon

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

Amazon UK Link

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer

One for bibliophiles…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Sergeant Jack Wigan is on his way home from work one night when he comes across a drunk man swaying about in the middle of the road. He decides not to take him into custody, instead telling him to go home, and then accompanies him to make sure he gets there safely. The drunk man is Mike Fisk, a “runner” in the book trade, who’s been celebrating finding a rare and valuable edition of Keats’ Endymion. The two men hit it off and become friends, and Wigan is inspired by Fisk with an interest in rare books. Then one evening when he goes to call on Fisk, he finds him dead, stabbed and lying in a pool of blood with the book he was reading on the table before him – a rare book on the occult…

Martin Edwards tell us in his foreword that this book has had a kind of cult status for many years, and copies of it are hard to find and very expensive. This is the first time it has been reprinted in decades. The few initial ratings on Goodreads are not inspiring – they suggest the book may have been better left forgotten.

But when did I ever agree with the majority on books? It’s an oddity, certainly – not the greatest prose and the plot is rather loose and rambly, and there’s a weird thread running through it where sensible and rational people all seem to find the idea of raising the devil and demons not just possible, but quite likely. But for all that, I found that once I got used to the rather plain writing style I enjoyed it, and as it progressed towards the end, I got fully caught up in the story and found the tension building nicely.

Sergeant Wigan is a decent man with a strong sense of justice. Because of the knowledge he has gained of the rare books business, he is seconded to work on the investigation into Fisk’s death. The Inspector in charge of the case soon has a suspect in sight, and concentrates all his efforts on getting a conviction. He succeeds, and the man is sentenced to hang. But Wigan is unconvinced of his guilt, and sets out on his own time to find the true culprit before the sentence can be carried out. So it’s a race against time, with the clock ticking louder and louder as the fateful day set for the hanging draws nearer…

Apparently Farmer was himself a collector of rare first editions as well as being a former policeman, and he puts these experiences to good use in the novel. We get an idea of the life of a uniformed sergeant, running his squad, understanding his patch, and using his knowledge of the local criminals to keep the public safe. (It’s the 1950s, when these things were largely true. In fact, if anyone out there is as ancient as me, Wigan reminded me very much of Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green, the first TV police procedural in Britain.)

The rare book business is shown as home to all kinds of skulduggery and disreputable people, some truly loving the books but others simply seeing them as a way to make money from gullible collectors. Farmer shows us all levels, from the man selling books from a barrow, to the large traders selling from shops and catalogues, to the American millionaire, willing to pay any price or break any law so that his library will be better than anyone else’s. Farmer makes a few comments that suggest he may not have been pleased at so many rare British books making their way into American collections, and also hints a little sniffily that some collectors never read the books they display so proudly. It all felt very authentic to me, written by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. And there’s lots of enjoyable references to specific rare first editions, and an indication of how authors rise and fall in the fashionable stakes of the collectibles market, sometimes on something as simple as a new film or TV adaptation of one of their books.

The plot itself is fine, though with that weird occult thread that is a bit jarring at points. Happily, however, the villain is human, as is the motive. I don’t think it’s fair-play, but the race against time aspect makes it feel like a cross between a mystery and a thriller, so that didn’t bother me. Overall, it’s not of the quality of the best mystery novels in either writing or plotting, but Wigan is an appealing character, the look at the book trade gives it an added interest and its very oddity gives it a kind of unique charm. Well worthy of its place in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and recommended as something a little different from the usual run.

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

Amazon UK Link

Maigret and the Old Lady (Maigret 33) by Georges Simenon

Beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Valentine Besson is the old lady of the title, a still charming widow who lives in a small seaside town in Normandy. She comes to Paris to ask Maigret to investigate the death of her maid, Rose Trochu. Lest we should think this is because she cares about the girl’s death, Mme Besson makes it very clear that her real concern is that she believes the poison that killed Rose was meant for herself. Coincidentally, Mme Besson’s stepson has also approached Maigret’s boss to request that Maigret should help in the investigation, since he believes it’s beyond the abilities of the local force. So Maigret finds himself off to spend a few days at the seaside, trying to unravel the complicated family dynamics that seem to underlie the murder…

Valentine’s husband had been a rich man for a while, having developed a popular skincare lotion. But he had lost most of his money on wild speculations before he died, leaving Valentine comfortably provided for, but not wealthy. He also left two sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second marriage to Valentine. Had Valentine been rich, suspicion would naturally have fallen on these three, but they would gain little financially from her death so Maigret must look for another motive, and that proves elusive.

The setting of the small seaside town is done well, with Maigret reminiscing over holidays he has spent in similar places with his wife. The plot is also interesting, with the search for a motive being the major part of the mystery – once it is solved, the rest falls into place. Simenon shows the rather careless attitude of the Besson family to Rose, with the casual assumption that she was so unimportant that no one could have deliberately intended to kill her. It’s a strange kind of snobbery that suggests one must be a certain class to even be worthy of murder, or at least to have that murder be worthy of investigation by someone of the stature of Maigret. Even Maigret spends a good deal of time with the Bessons before he bothers to visit Rose’s family, which I must say didn’t endear him to me. The Trochus are conscious and resentful of this kind of dismissal of Rose’s death as merely being a fortuitous accident that got in the way of the more important intended murder of Valentine. Simenon shows this kind of class distinction quite subtly and the only characters who really come over sympathetically are Rose’s bereaved family.

Georges Simenon

However, even more than usual Maigret spends his time going from bar to bar drinking, or sitting with the old lady drinking. Everywhere he goes the thing that seems most on his mind is whether he’ll be offered a drink or not. At one point he actually falls asleep while talking to Valentine, not altogether surprising given that he’d already put away enough alcohol that day to sink the entire French fleet. This wouldn’t have been quite so annoying had it seemed as if he was getting anywhere with the investigation, or even trying. But he really just chats to people in an aimless way and allows events to unfold until the solution becomes unavoidably obvious. He does spot one or two things the local force had missed, but he doesn’t do anything with them – I’m being vague to avoid spoilers. I felt that when the local police detective questioned whether the great man was worthy of his reputation, he had a point! I certainly wouldn’t put this case down as a success, but Maigret seemed quite satisfied with his own performance.

So I have rather mixed feelings about this one. There’s enough in it to make it interesting, but I felt Simenon was to some extent simply going through the motions, keeping Maigret wandering around drinking and doing not much else till Simenon felt he could reasonably reveal the solution and bring the book to an end.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong who as usual did a fine job.

Audible UK Link

Post After Post-Mortem (Inspector Macdonald 11) by ECR Lorac

The psychology of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Surrays are a golden family, all highly intelligent and successful in their chosen fields and all happy in each other’s company. But recently the middle sister, Ruth, has been causing a little concern to her older brother, Richard, whose trained eye as a psychiatrist has noted that she seems to be struggling with stress. Her latest book has just been completed and will doubtless meet with the same critical acclaim as her previous work, and Richard suggests to their mother that she might try to tempt Ruth to go away for a holiday with her. But before this can happen, Ruth is found dead in her bedroom at her parents’ home, complete with sleeping pills, farewell note and a new will, leaving little doubt that she has taken her own life. Following the inquest which returns the expected verdict Richard returns to his own home, where he finds a letter from Ruth, written on the evening of her death and delayed in the post, in which she seems quite happy and is making plans for the following week. Although he’d rather not cause his family, especially his mother, any further anxiety, Richard feels he must show the letter to an acquaintance of his, Inspector Macdonald of the Yard, who confirms that the letter is reason to investigate Ruth’s death more closely…

Each time I read one of Lorac’s books I find it harder to understand how it is that she became “forgotten” when so many other writers, of equal or less talent, have remained more securely in print and public favour. I wonder if it’s that she tried so many different things, rather than finding a successful formula and sticking to it? As I was reading this one, I was convinced it must be quite a late novel, post-war, probably well into the ’50s. It concentrates far more than Golden Age novels usually do on the psychology of the various characters – on the effects of success and expectations, self-discipline and the impact of feeling driven to achieve. In that aspect, it reads more to me like the novels of PD James, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons and their generation rather than the mystery stalwarts of the between-wars era. I was surprised therefore when I read the foreword (after I’d read the book, of course) to discover that it was published in 1936, when I suspect it must have felt well ahead of its time – perhaps so much so that it didn’t quite fit with the expectations or preferences of mystery readers of the time. Pure speculation, of course, but I do feel you never quite know what you’re going to get with Lorac, in the way you do when you pick up a Freeman Wills Croft, a John Dickson Carr or even an Agatha Christie.

Inspector Macdonald is quickly convinced that Ruth’s death was murder, and he has a variety of suspects to consider. As well as the parents, the family includes Ruth’s two brothers and two sisters, and there was a small house party at the time with three men whom Ruth had invited, each connected to her writing career in one way or another. On the face of it, the members of this happy family could have had no reason to kill a beloved sister, but Macdonald feels that more than one of them is hiding something, perhaps to protect their mother from more hurt but perhaps for darker reasons. The same applies to the three guests – each seems reluctant to share information with Macdonald that he feels may be relevant, but that they feel may simply serve to tarnish the reputation and legacy of Ruth as a writer. Ruth herself was something of a contradiction – a brilliant intellectual with much to say in her novels about the human condition, but in her personal life emotionally naive and even repressed. Her recent infatuation with a man who seemed entirely not her type had appeared out of character to those who knew about it, and his rejection of her had broken through her usual cool reserve.

We get to know Inspector Macdonald quite a bit more deeply in this one, and he comes over as someone with empathy for those affected by crime, but with an over-riding belief that justice for the victim takes precedence over the feelings of the bereaved. We also see him take a personal dislike to one of the suspects, and his own self-awareness of that and determination to ensure he doesn’t let it sway his judgement. While he is looking for clues in the psychological make-up of the suspects, the reader is being given clues to his own psychology, and it’s all interestingly and credibly done. Detective Reeves is in it too, and again we get to know him rather better as an individual this time than in other books where he’s appeared.

I think it is more or less fair-play and I felt a bit smug because I spotted one of the crucial clues, although I couldn’t quite get from it to either the who or why. Perhaps a little darker than some of her other books as stories that go into the psychology of crime often are, I found it absorbing and very well constructed, so that there were no dips in interest level along the way. I say it every time, but Lorac really is the brightest star in the BL’s sparkling firmament and even if the series had done nothing else, bringing her back to her deserved prominence would still have made it well worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link

The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Place your bets…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our naive young heroine, Sylvia Bailey, was married at nineteen to a man many years her elder. Now, still only in her twenty-fifth year, she is a widow – beautiful and wealthy, and keen to experience something of the world. So off she goes to Paris where she makes friends with another guest in the hotel – Anna Wolsky, slightly older than her and with a gambling habit that could easily be called an addiction. Anna introduces Sylvia to Lacville, a little town not far from Paris, the main attraction of which is its casino which draws all sorts of people, desirable and undesirable, to its gaming rooms. One of the desirables is the swoonworthy Count Paul de Virieu, who is staying at the same guesthouse as Sylvia. He has looks, a title, an aristocratic family, a sexy French accent – everything a girl could desire, in fact. Unfortunately he is also a gambling addict, having already lost the fortune he had inherited. Sylvia, of course, feels that she can change him. Meantime, various people warn Sylvia not to openly wear the ostentatious pearls she bought herself as a kind of symbol of her new-found freedom, since some of the undesirables around town may be tempted by them into nefarious deeds. Our Sylvia ignores all warnings, of course. And then Anna, having had a big win one evening, disappears…

This is quite fun, although it’s far too long for its content (proving it’s not only contemporary crime fiction that suffers from this problem). It’s pretty obvious from early on which characters are goodies and which are baddies, although it’s not obvious to our Sylvia who almost inevitably trusts the untrustworthy and dismisses the good people who are trying to warn her she’s putting herself in the way of danger. Still, it wouldn’t be much of a book if she’d listened to them, left Lacville and put her pearls in the bank, I suppose. Instead, she sets out to find out what happened to Anna, to cure Count Paul from his gambling fever, and to have a little fun along the way. But dark deeds are looming and Sylvia is soon in peril.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

Sylvia is so naive and trusting it’s almost painful to watch her, especially since the idea of her taking off to Paris on her own is delightfully liberated for the period – the book was published in 1912. She’s certainly strong-willed, but seems to lack any kind of judgement regarding other people or her own safety. Back home in England, William Chester, the young trustee of the legacy left her by her husband, is waiting patiently for her to sow her wild oats, so to speak, and then come back and settle down into the respectable role of being his wife. Eventually he follows her to France, and is frankly horrified to find her in a gambling town, flirting with a penniless, if sexy, Frenchman. Is Paul after her money, or is he truly in love? Will Sylvia abandon her home country to live a precarious (if exciting) existence with her gambling Count, or will she return to England and a life of safe (if dull) domesticity with sensible Charles? Will Anna ever re-appear? Will Sylvia’s pearls lead to tragedy? Or will it all end happily ever after?

Not a patch on the wonderful The Lodger, the only other of her novels that I’ve read, but enjoyable enough. I do wish someone had insisted on editing out about a third of it though – it would have been a better book as a result. It has a kind of dramatic denouement filled with danger when all is revealed, but it’s so slow getting there and is all too well signalled for there to be much tension. However young Sylvia is an entertainingly wilful heroine, even if I did spend most of the time wanting to knock some sense into her. And it’s probably an age thing, but I really found sensible Charles much more attractive than sexy Paul… hey ho!

Book 2 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for February (I’m late!) – an entertaining choice! Well picked, People!

Amazon UK Link

Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A menagerie of murderers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr Shaitana loves to collect things – jewels, weapons, Egyptian artefacts, objects from the mysterious Far East, etc. One of his stranger collections is of uncaught murderers and when he meets the famous detective Hercule Poirot, he can’t stop himself from boasting about them. Almost against his better judgement Poirot is intrigued, so when Shaitana invites him to a little party to meet his murderers, he accepts. When he arrives, he finds there are eight guests including himself, three of whom he knows – Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race, whose career included intelligence work, and Ariadne Oliver, detective novelist, who believes that more crimes would be solved if only there were a woman at the head of Scotland Yard. [FF muses: Hmm! Wonder what she’d have thought of Cressida Dick! 😉 ]. It’s obvious, then, that the other four guests must be Shaitana’s murderers. And when later in the evening Shaitana is stabbed to death, it’s equally obvious that one of these four must have done the deed. It’s up to Poirot and the other three detectives to work out whodunit, but first they must look into the backgrounds of the four suspects to find out if Shaitana was right that they had each successfully committed a murder before…

….“He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil. Au fond, he was a stupid man. And so – he died.”
….“Because he was stupid?”
….“It is the sin that is never forgiven and always punished, madame.”

I love this one but I have two tiny reservations, so let me get them out of the way first. There are some unfortunate racial slurs in this and some attitudes to foreigners which were perfectly normal back then, but which may jar today. My other issue is that Christie assumes that her readers will understand the intricacies of the card game of bridge, which the suspects were playing at the time of the murder. Poirot uses the bidding and scores as a method to understand the personalities of the four players. Back then I’d imagine the vast majority of her readers did play bridge, or at least knew the rules. I, however, only have the sketchiest understanding of it so most of that was lost on me and I found my eyes glazing over during some of the rather lengthy dissections of the game.

However, there’s so much good stuff in it that these small points don’t spoil the overall enjoyment. Ariadne Oliver is always a favourite of mine when she turns up in a Poirot mystery, and in this one she’s especially fun as she explains to another star-struck character what being a mystery novelist is like – the hard work that comes between thinking up a plot and having a finished book, the pressure of publishing deadlines, and so on. She also discusses with Poirot how it’s possible to re-use plots so long as you disguise them well enough. I always feel Mrs Oliver gives us a real insight to Christie’s own writing life, and she does it with so much humour and such a complete lack of pomposity that it makes me like her even more!

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up.”

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver in the Suchet adaptation

Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race are occasional recurring characters too so it’s fun to have all of them working together. The four suspects each provide interesting stories. Young Anne Meredith (called after one of Christie’s fellow mystery novelists) seems too naive and innocent to be a murderer, but is she what she seems? Dr Roberts has all the opportunities given to him by his profession – has he bumped off one or two patients in his career? Major Despard has had an adventurous life in some of the far-flung corners of Empire, where dark deeds (and dead bodies) can easily be buried. And Mrs Lorrimer – she’s an enigma: ultra-respectable, it seems, and lives for her bridge. Can she possibly have murdered anyone? Shaitana thought so. Each of the four detectives brings their different expertise to bear – Poirot working on the psychology of the suspects, Race using his intelligence contacts to learn about Despard’s career, Mrs Oliver gossiping with Anne Meredith and her friend Rhoda, and Superintendent Battle doing all the painstaking police work. And each of them contributes valuable information, although of course it will be up to Poirot to solve the case in the end.

….“But I don’t doubt it will be essentially the same type of crime. The details may be different, but the essentials underlying them will be the same. It’s odd, but a criminal gives himself away every time by that. Man is an unoriginal animal,” said Hercule Poirot.
….“Women,” said Mrs. Oliver, ” are capable of infinite variation. I should never commit the same type of murder twice running.”
….“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.”

The solution is particularly good, with Christie misdirecting the poor reader (and most of the detectives) all over the place. It is fair play, I’d say, but with each of the suspects being suspected of other murders there’s the added element of solving all those mysteries too, and that adds hugely to the interest. One of her best, I think – one of many!

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and as always he does a wonderful job of giving each of the characters their own voice and persona.

Audible UK Link

Hope you enjoyed Christie Week – I’ve loved chatting Christie with you all!

Christie Week: Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) by Agatha Christie

Elementary, my dear Tuppence…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Partners in CrimeAlthough very happily married to Tommy, Tuppence Beresford is finding life rather monotonous, so when their old friend Mr Carter of the Intelligence Services puts a proposition to them, the young couple jump at the chance. Mr Carter believes a private detective agency is being used to pass messages in some kind of shady espionage plot. The owner has been arrested and Mr Carter wants Tommy to impersonate him and pass on information about any odd contacts he gets. Thus Tommy becomes Mr Blunt of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives and, having no intention of being left out, Tuppence is transformed into Miss Robinson, his confidential secretary. While they wait to be contacted by the spy ring, they investigate the various cases brought to them by troubled clients…

“I can look after her all right, sir,” said Tommy, at exactly the same minute as Tuppence said, “I can take care of myself.”

This is a bit of light-hearted fun from Christie, in which she shows her love for the mystery fiction world of which she was such a shining light. The book is in the form of short stories, each an individual case, with the background espionage plot only really appearing once or twice throughout. Tommy and Tuppence, having no experience of detecting, decide to learn the craft from the masters, so in each case they take on the personas of a different fictional detective and his sidekick.

I’m pretty sure when I first read this long, long ago, I’d have recognised a couple of the most famous, and assumed all the rest of the fictional ‘tecs were simply names made up by Christie. But after being steeped in Golden Age mysteries for the last few years, I now realise they’re all real – well, real in the sense that they are all based on fictional detectives or on the style of authors who would have been well known to Christie’s contemporary readers. Inspector French is there, and Inspector Hanaud, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, Roger Sheringham, Dr Thorndyke, Reggie Fortune, Edgar Wallace, and a few I still don’t recognise. Holmes, of course, and Christie even includes Poirot himself! She doesn’t go overboard with the references – she name-checks the ‘tecs and makes a few amusing observations about their style or mannerisms, but when the cases get underway Tommy and Tuppence revert to being themselves.

….As the visitor left the office, Tuppence grabbed the violin and putting it in the cupboard turned the key in the lock.
….“If you must be Sherlock Holmes,” she observed, “I’ll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labelled Cocaine, but for God’s sake leave that violin alone.”

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Agatha Christie

The cases themselves are quite slight and vary in quality and style. Some are humorous, some more serious, up to and including murder. A couple have a slightly spooky edge – something Christie always does well. T&T are a great partnership, though the format of this tends to mean that Tommy gets to be the lead more often, since he’s playing Blunt and all of the fictional ‘tecs are men. But Tuppence uses her ingenuity and intuition, not to mention using her social skills to mingle with the people involved in the cases and pick up bits of gossip. Albert, their usual assistant, is in it too, but only makes a real contribution to a couple of the stories.

….“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”
….“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men. Women are so much more thorough.”
….“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.

Truthfully, I’m not sure how much appeal this collection would have to anyone who didn’t already know and love Tommy and Tuppence from their first appearance in The Secret Adversary, but for fans it’s an entertaining addition to the full-length T&T novels, and the references to the other Golden Age ‘tecs is an added bonus for vintage crime enthusiasts, giving an insight into Christie’s own reading tastes. Hugh Fraser’s narration is, as usual, wonderful, and the format of lots of short stories gives him the opportunity to portray a vast selection of characters, from society women to foreign spies, all of which he does with great gusto. Lots of fun!

* * * * *

The fictional ‘tecs I still haven’t come across are…

Malcolm Sage created by Herbert George Jenkins

Francis and Desmond Okewood created by Valentine Williams

Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan created by Isabel Ostrander

Thornley Colton created by Clinton H Stagg

A new challenge? Hmm… no!! Not another one!! Although it’s tempting… 😉 Have you read any of these? Are they worth hunting down?

Audible UK Link

Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Best days of our lives?

😀 😀 😀 😀

(These Christie audiobooks narrated by either Joan Hickson or Hugh Fraser have become my stress relievers, and as we all know, life has been pretty stressful recently! I usually hold my reviews of them back, to have something to post when I run out of other reviews. But that hasn’t happened for ages, and some of the unposted Christie reviews are getting so old they’re going yellow round the edges. So join me for Christie week! A whole week of posts about the unrivalled Queen of Crime! 😀 Just a word on star ratings: for favourite authors – Christie, Dickens, Austen, Hill – I only rate them against their own best work, not other people’s. So a four-star Christie is still head and shoulders above most five-stars from other people. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but there’s no law says it has to… 😉 )

Cat Among the PigeonsIt is the start of term and parents are arriving to drop their daughters off at the elite Meadowbank school, where the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, has built a reputation for excellence. There are several new girls: Jennifer and Julia who are destined to become best friends, and Princess Shaista, a member of the ruling family in Ramat, a middle-Eastern nation that has just undergone a coup. Flashback a few weeks to Ramat, and we meet Bob Rawlinson, friend to Prince Ali Yusuf, the soon to be deposed ruler. Ali, aware of his likely fate, entrusts something of immense value to Bob and asks him to get it out of the kingdom. These two very different scenarios will soon cross into each other, bringing murder to the ultra-respectable Meadowbank.

Although this has never been one of my top favourite Poirots, it has lots of good things that place it high in the second tier. When I was younger Meadowbank seemed like a wonderful place, though now I find I hate the elitism of it and see no real signs of why it should be considered so remarkable – the girls we get to know seem a rather mediocre bunch on the whole, and are there exclusively because of their parents’ wealth and social position. Christie does address this through a conversation between a couple of her characters, but not convincingly.

The characterisation of the teachers is very well done. Miss Bulstrode is an inspirational leader (though she doesn’t seem terribly good at selecting staff!) while her long-time friend, Miss Chadwick, is one of these rather pitiable characters Christie does so well – a little lonely, loyal to a fault, often overlooked by stronger personalities. She reminds me of Bunny in A Murder is Announced. Miss Vansittart is the one considered likely to succeed Miss Bulstrode when she retires, although Miss Bulstrode is having doubts about her suitability. There are some new members of staff this term, each of whom may or may not be what she seems. It is one of these, Miss Springer the gamesmistress, who turns up dead in the new Sports Pavilion.

(FF muses: Hugh Fraser pronounces Miss Vansittart with the emphasis on “sit”. In my head it’s always had the emphasis on ‘Van’ – to rhyme with Fancy Tart. Hmm, that should pile the views in from Google searches from men who will be very disappointed to discover that my Fancy Tart is not at all what they’re searching for… 😉 )

The two girls we get to know best are fun. Jennifer is an unimaginative and unobservant child, devoted to her tennis, while Julia is quite the reverse – sensible, but curious and with lots of intelligence and initiative. As happens often in Christie novels, the children are far less fazed by the murder and mayhem going on around them than the adults. She shows them as partly excited and partly too self-absorbed in their own affairs to be frightened. Personally I find this more credible than if they were all having screaming hysterics all the time.

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Agatha Christie

There are a few reasons I don’t rate this quite as highly as some of the other Poirots, but none of these should be seen as major criticisms, simply observations. Poirot doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, and I miss him! Written quite late in Christie’s career, 1959, it shows a little of the weakness in plotting that became a feature of some of her final books. Well, perhaps not in plotting exactly, but in the presentation of the plot to the reader – I don’t think it could quite be classed as fair play, and Poirot seems to rather pluck the solution out of the air rather than build up to it by solid investigation. I’m never so keen on Christie’s occasional ventures into the world of international espionage – I don’t think she does it nearly as believably as her more domestic plots, and it does tend to mean there’s an awful lot of that British superciliousness towards foreigners that grates more with each passing year, although it’s clear from this one that Christie had herself moved on quite a bit from the worst of the colonial attitudes she showed in some of her earliest books.

(FF muses: One of the things I always remember about it from my first reading long, long ago is that, while all this is happening at Meadowbank, Julia’s mother is travelling to Anatolia on a bus, which seemed so exotic and adventurous to young FF, especially since I had no idea where Anatolia is. Now I know, and I also know we could get there in a few hours by plane and meet the 5 zillion other British tourists who’d all gone there too, and we could all pop out and have a Big Mac if we wanted, and I wonder if all our advances haven’t simply taken the romance out of life… but I digress!)

Despite my minor criticisms, this is a very enjoyable read, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent. A great way to spend a few hours!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Jumping Jenny (Roger Sheringham 9) by Anthony Berkeley

Gallows humour…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amateur detective Roger Sheringham is attending a fancy dress party at the home of a friend. The party’s theme is that all the guests should come dressed as famous murderers or their victims, and to add to the fun of the occasion the host has built a gallows on the roof terrace, and suspended three hanged dummies on it. It is this gallows that, by the end of the evening, will become the focus of the investigation into the death that brings the evening’s jollity to an end…

This is an “inverted crime” – that is, the reader sees the murder being done and knows whodunit, and then follows the detectives as they investigate. The victim is a woman, Ena Stratton – an attention-seeker and drunk who has annoyed just about everyone at the party in one way or another, mostly because they all feel sorry for her poor husband for being married to her, especially since he’s in love with someone else. So when she’s found dead, they’re all happy to think that she has killed herself and rid their pampered little world of an annoyance. But Sheringham isn’t so sure her death was at her own hands. So, as you would, he decides to tamper with the evidence to ensure that if one of his pals bumped her off they get away with it, and the death is neatly filed away as a convenient suicide.

Charming, isn’t it? Someone commented to me on a previous Berkeley review that he doesn’t like women, and I responded that I hadn’t read much of him yet and hadn’t become aware of that. I have now! The treatment of Ena in this one is way beyond typical sexism of the time – there is much talk of how it would be great if her husband could just get her locked away in an asylum, so that he’d be free to carry on his affair openly in her absence. Unfortunately, while the two doctors present at the party agree she’s a nuisance, neither of them is willing to declare her insane. Sheringham thinks that her husband should have beaten her into submission long ago – literally. So the party-goers’ delight at her unexpected death is unbounded – problem solved! Everyone is agreed that if her husband killed her, he was totally justified. Even the bit that the reader knows and the guests don’t – i.e., exactly what happened that led to the murder and who did the deed – is presented as if it is in some way justified by the fact that Ena is annoying. Poor Ena!

Anthony Berkeley

Having said all that, the book is as well-written as always and is enjoyable to read, with plenty of humour, some of it on the macabre end of the spectrum. Sheringham’s bid to mislead the police backfires somewhat, so that he finds himself as a suspect. (I hoped he’d be charged, convicted and hanged, personally – karma would have done its duty.) From then on, he spends his time encouraging everyone to commit perjury left, right and centre to prove the suicide theory, which they all cheerfully agree to do. And in the end, Berkeley throws in a final twist, which did nothing to redeem anyone in this reader’s eyes!

Berkeley was simply having some light-hearted fun here and clearly didn’t intend for the reader to take the book too seriously, and I found it quite easy and fun to go along for the ride. But I fear I shall no longer admire Sheringham as a person, though I will still enjoy him as a character. The whole thing is so far over the credibility line all the way through that even the ridiculousness of the final twist seems in keeping with the rest of the nonsense. So not one to take seriously, and not so much morally ambiguous as morally vacuous – but still highly entertaining…

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

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The Hollow Man (Dr Gideon Fell 6) by John Dickson Carr

Impossible…

🙂 🙂 😐

Professor Charles Grimaud is found shot to death in his room one night. The murderer couldn’t have left by the door since it was in the view of Grimaud’s secretary all through the relevant time. But the murderer also couldn’t have escaped through the window, since there had been a deep snowfall that evening, and the snow was undisturbed. It’s up to Gideon Fell to work out how the murder was done in the hope that that will also reveal whodunit. But just to complicate matters, another “impossible crime” is committed the same evening – a man is shot in an empty street in front of reliable witnesses, but the shooter is nowhere to be seen and again there is an absence of footprints in the snow.

I’ve long known that impossible crimes only interest me when they are packaged into a traditional whodunit with good characterisation, a range of suspects and plenty of motives. This would appear not to be how Carr works in the Gideon Fell stories – the emphasis is almost entirely on the way the crimes are committed, and frankly, in this one at least, the background story of why the murders were committed is a bit of a mish-mash of horror tropes and a convoluted and incredible motive backed up by a bunch of cartoonishly drawn mysterious characters. I loved his early Bencolin books, but this is my second Fell and they’re proving not to be my kind of thing, unfortunately.

Book 86 of 90

John Dickson Carr

Apparently what makes this one a classic for impossible crime aficionados is that, in the middle of the book, Carr pulls his characters right out of the story, has them admit that they are in fact characters in a book rather than real people, and then has Fell give a lecture on the history of the impossible crime mystery, including many examples, complete with spoilers, of other books in the genre. While I fully accept that this is interesting as an essay, it felt entirely out of place to me within the novel, and the spoilers annoyed me since I don’t feel that any author has the right to give spoilers in his book for the books of other authors. Therefore the very thing that many people praise this book for was the part that I liked least.

I wish I had enjoyed this more and because I enjoyed some of Carr’s earlier books so much I’m not yet ready to give up on him, so will continue to read at least a couple more of the Fell novels to see if by any chance I can get back in synch with him. I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.

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