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

Careless talk costs lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.”

agatha christie 2
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.

agatha_christie
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.

Amazon UK Link

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.

Amazon UK Link

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

Wonderfully atmospheric…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Meg has just become engaged to Geoffrey Levett when she begins to receive photographs which appear to show her previous husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared dead during World War One. Now the sender of the photographs has given her a time and place to meet, and Meg has asked family friend Albert Campion and Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke of the police to accompany her. The police catch the man but he refuses to answer their questions and, having no grounds to hold him, they are forced to release him. Shortly afterwards he is found murdered, and the last person who was seen with him was Geoffrey. Meantime a violent prisoner has escaped from jail, a man named Jack Havoc, whom Luke’s boss, Superintendent Oates, says is one of the only three wholly evil people he has come across in his career. This would appear to be confirmed when three people are found brutally murdered in a lawyer’s office, showing all the signs of Havoc’s modus operandi.

This all takes place in the middle of one of London’s famous pea-souper fogs that sometimes lasted for days. Because of these fogs London was nicknamed the Smoke, hence the title of the book. While there is a mystery at the beginning as to the photographs of the Major and why Havoc has chosen this time to break out of prison, we find out the answers to these questions fairly early on, and most of the book is really in the form of a thriller. Allingham uses the fog and some great characterisation to create a wonderfully threatening atmosphere and some truly tense suspense which kept me turning the pages long into the night.

It soon becomes clear that a group of men are involved, who have turned themselves into a band to busk the streets in order to scrape a living, though again for a long time we don’t know exactly what their involvement is. Some of the men are ex-Army, each of them has some kind of disability or deformity, and they are all led by the rather terrifying Tiddy Doll, himself an albino. I doubt a modern writer could or would use disability in the way Allingham does, to create a really creepy atmosphere reminiscent of freak shows in horror novels, so a reader has to be prepared to make allowances for the time of writing. It is, however, very effective, and serves as a reminder of how many men came back from war damaged physically or mentally.

Book 85 of 90

I’ve never been a huge fan of Albert Campion and therefore I was quite happy that he plays a rather low-key role in this one, mostly because the mystery element isn’t huge. This also means that his loyal henchman (aka dogsbody) Magersfontein Lugg has very little presence on the page, and for that I’m devoutly thankful. Allingham’s horribly snobbish portrayal of Lugg as the common working-class servant, complete with comedy name and accent, devoted to his upper-class owner master employer, is one of the major reasons Allingham and I don’t get along as well as I’d like.

Instead, in the first two thirds or so, we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new. Because of the air of horror, it reminded me a little of the atmosphere of decadence and Grand Guignol that John Dickson Carr creates in his early Bencolin novels.

Margery Allingham

The book was heading straight for the five-star bracket at this stage, but for me the main climax came too early, and the last section of the book felt needlessly long-drawn out. I haven’t mentioned Meg’s saintly father, Canon Avril, who has surrounded himself with various waifs and strays who form a kind of extended family (mostly of working-class people devoted to upper-class Canon Avril and Meg, but never mind). In the final section Allingham indulges in a, to me, rather tedious, lengthy theological discussion on what Havoc calls “the Science of Luck” and Avril refers to as “the Pursuit of Death”. Frankly I had no idea what it was about and cared even less. In practice it seemed to mean that Havoc felt luck comes to those who look for opportunities. Anyway it takes over in the final few chapters, dictating Havoc’s actions which become progressively unbelievable, as do Canon Avril’s. I’d rather authors stuck to showing good battling evil rather than pontificating about it, especially in religious terms.

I’ve swithered over a rating, and decided that sadly I can only give it four. Had it ended differently it would have been a five for sure, for the earlier excellently atmospheric thriller elements.

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

Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

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

Amazon UK Link

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R. Benson

Truly baffling…

😐 😐

Eustace Peters had retired from the Consular Service and taken a house in Long Wilton, the parish of which our narrator, Robert Driver, is rector. The two men had become friends, so Driver is shocked and saddened when Peters is found dead in his bed – murdered! The evening before Driver had spent the evening with Peters and some other guests: Callaghan, Thalberg and Vane-Cartwright, each of whom had been known to Peters from different contexts. Footprints in the snow suggest, though, that the murderer had come from outside the house, so suspicion falls first on the gardener who had been overheard threatening that he’d like to kill his employer. It is soon shown he could not have been the guilty man, however, so the other three men are elevated to the position of suspects. For some unexplained reason, the police seem to leave it mostly up to the rector to investigate.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but occasionally I come across one that baffles me utterly – not because of the mystery, but because the book is so bad I can’t understand why it is included. This is one of those. The writing is dull, plodding and repetitive, and the plot, such as it is, is stretched out far too thinly over a whole year, which coincidentally is how much I felt I aged while reading it.

There’s no real mystery. The rector happens on clues, stories and documents by chance and coincidence, which lead him to know who the murderer was and why. But does the book stop then? No, it meanders on and on, trying and failing to build a sense of tension. The story goes out to the mysterious colonial Far East and off to Italy, but the author chooses not to take the reader with it. Instead we stay in England, guests of the rector, the most insistent bore since the Ancient Mariner. We hear about all these possibly exciting events in far-flung places second-hand, through stories people tell the rector or letters they send him.

Challenge details:
Book:
4
Subject Heading:
A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 19
06

At the end, Benson treats us to excuses for all the plot holes and a kind of mass filling in of all the gaps in such a clumsy, amateurish way that I might have found it unintentionally hilarious had my brain not ceased to function several hours earlier. I could only assume he’d read back over his manuscript at the end, made a note of all the things that didn’t quite makes sense and, instead of going back and correcting them, simply tried to explain them away…

In particular, tardy attention had been paid to the report of the young constable who, as I mentioned [250 pages ago!], followed Sergeant Speke into Peters’ room, and who had incurred some blame because his apparent slowness had allowed some trespassers to come and make footprints on the lawn (I fancy his notes had been overlooked when some officer in charge of the case had been superseded by another).

Apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. For me, this was already one too many.

I downloaded this one from manybooks.com, but take my advice – don’t.

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

One for the Christmas stocking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

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After being rather rude about detective fiction to a man he later discovered was Graham Coombe, a publisher of the genre, Inspector MacDonald is surprised to be invited to a little party at Coombe’s house. The party is to be a treasure hunt, with a group of thriller writers and a group of more heavyweight writers competing to solve clues which will lead them to the treasure. Coombe thinks it will be amusing to have a bona fide detective there too, especially one who is on record as suggesting that real detectives are better at solving things than fictional ones. MacDonald hesitates, but in the end decides to go. So he’s on the spot when one of the guests is killed…

This is quite different in style to the other Loracs I’ve read. She was clearly having fun at the expense of her own profession and there’s some mild humour over various styles and personalities which Martin Edwards suggests in his introduction may have been influenced by her chums in the Detection Club. But it’s not as light-hearted as it at first seems – there’s a serious plot in there too.

Each guest at the party is given a literary pseudonym and part of the game is for them all to work out who each other is in real life, most of them never having met before. While this conceit is quite amusing, I must say it led to a good deal of confusion for this poor reader. For the first few chapters we are introduced to “Samuel Pepys”, “Jane Austen” and so on, and then after the murder they all start to be called by their “real” names, which, as is normal in the world of novel-writing, are often pseudonyms too. So with each character having at least two names, sometimes more, I spent a ridiculous amount of time going back to the list which is happily provided a few chapters in, of which pseudonym matches which “real” name. This also made me realise that I wasn’t building up a real picture of most of the characters, or they should have been recognisable by that regardless of which name was being used for them.

The plot is as complex as the names and really couldn’t be described as fair-play, I feel. However, since I can rarely work out whodunit and don’t make much of an effort to try, this didn’t bother me. The book has a traditional “closed circle” of suspects – it’s clear that it must have been someone in the house during the party who committed the first crime. It also has the kind of complicated murder method more common in a howdunit style of mystery, but in this one MacDonald very quickly works out the how and the reader is allowed to know too. Of course, there is a second murder, and it has aspects of the locked room mystery, again with a complicated method. So there’s a lot going on, too much, I felt, and too many coincidences at play.

Normally Lorac’s settings play a major part in her books, be it London in the Blitz or the rural Lune Valley. This one hasn’t got that – although Coombe’s house is in London it has more of the feel of the “country house” mystery, with most of the action taking place in people’s drawings rooms.

I enjoyed it more than this review is probably suggesting, but I didn’t think it was quite up to the standard I’ve come to expect of her. I liked that we got to see MacDonald off duty in the first section of the book, making him feel a bit more rounded as a character. And I always enjoy the way he’s a team player, involving his junior officers fully and neither ridiculing nor patronising them, as some Golden Age police ‘tecs do. So plenty to like about it, but I’d tend to suggest it’s one for existing Lorac fans – new readers would be better to start elsewhere, probably with one of her wartime books where I feel she excels.

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

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

Beware writers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

Searching for Cicely…

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Stephen Munro has run through the small inheritance left him by an uncle and finds he needs a job. A demobbed army officer from the upper classes, he has no useful experience, so the only job he can get is as footman to Lady Susan Carey at Wintringham Hall. Lady Susan is hosting a house party, and unfortunately for the new footman several of the guests know him on a social footing, putting him in a rather awkward situation. Especially so when Pauline, the woman he loves, turns up with her new fiancé. However when one of the guests goes missing in mysterious circumstances, Lady Susan turns to Stephen, for whom she has developed a maternal fondness, to act as a kind of private detective on her behalf…

This is a lot of fun, so long as you can overlook the basic silliness of it all. Pauline soon teams up with Stephen in the investigation and there’s more than a whiff of romance in the air, while the other characters range from Wodehouse-type silly asses, to nasty crooks, to pretty girls, to downtrodden companions. No police, which is odd given that the story involves not only theft but murder, but they must have done things differently in Sussex in the 1920s! The story was originally serialised in six parts in a newspaper, and I did wonder at points if Berkeley knew how it was going to end when he started it – it seems to wander around quite a lot in the middle, not quite sure if it’s a comedy or a serious crime story, and some of the characters’ personalities seem to change a bit as the story develops. However, it’s very entertaining, so I was able to forgive the lack of credibility and slightly chaotic plotting.

The British obsession with class is present in full force. The very idea of a young man from a good family taking a job as a footman is apparently hilarious, not only to the other guests but to the reader (most of whom would have been from the working class given that the newspaper in question was The Daily Mirror – proving, if proof were needed, that British elitism is a tradition upheld by those at the bottom as much as those at the top). To be fair to Stephen, he takes the job seriously and does it rather well for the short period before Lady Susan decides to convert him from employee to guest.

The mystery all begins when one of the guests, Freddie, insists on holding a kind of séance, naturally with all the lights turned out. When they are turned back on, it transpires that Cicely, a young protégée of Lady Susan, has disappeared. Some of the guests think supernatural forces are at work, others think Cicely is playing an elaborate hoax and will soon reappear when she tires of hiding, and others think that some kind of nefarious happenings are… er… happening. This last group feel vindicated when Cicely doesn’t reappear, and Lady Susan’s jewels disappear! Stephen and Pauline must try to find Cicely and work out what is going on. And then someone dies…

Anthony Berkeley

Not that that death in any way darkens the general tone of jollity and romance! Each of the characters has some kind of mystery about them or behaves in a suspicious manner, so Stephen and Pauline have great fun guessing at motives and wandering about the house by torchlight in the middle of the night, and so on. Lady Susan takes the loss of her jewels and a death on her property in her stride, showing the true stiff-upper-lip spirit of the aristocracy. Makes you proud to be British!

In the end, the solution is in one sense quite simple and in another so complex that two days after reading it I can’t for the life of me remember what it was all about! Seems to me there are loose ends lying around all over the place, unless they were all neatly tied up but lost in the general confusion. But all’s well that ends well, eh? And I enjoyed it very much while I was reading it, which is the main thing. One not to be taken too seriously, then, but great for when you just want a bit of light entertainment to while away a few hours.

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

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

Back on form…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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