Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

Death of a sadist…

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Bill Brent is disturbed in the middle of the night by what sounds like a scream coming from outside the window of the room below his. He rushes down and discovers the body of his host, Horace Manning, stabbed in the back as he sat at the desk in his study. Outside a storm rages, the storm that has forced a reluctant group of guests to spend the night in the house, and Bill finds the phones are down. Then when two of the younger guests offer to drive through the storm to fetch the police, they discover all the cars have been immobilised, with their tyres slashed and their tanks emptied. The guests must spend the next twenty-four hours in the house waiting for the storm to blow over, knowing that one among them is a murderer. We are then taken back twenty-four hours to meet all the characters, discover why they were in the house and learn that many, if not all, of them had good reason to want Manning dead…

Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction that sometimes books are forgotten for good reason, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. But I’m happy to also agree with him wholeheartedly that this is not one of those – this one fully deserves to be re-introduced to a new generation of readers. I can only assume it has been allowed to lapse into obscurity because it was the author’s only novel. Billie Houston was apparently one half of a very successful vaudeville act along with her sister Renée, in which Billie tended to play a boy to Renée’s girl. She wrote this novel backstage during performances. Unfortunately her stage career was cut short by illness, though she lived to a good age and in later life became a championship level chess-player. I’m also delighted that she and her talented sister, who had a much longer career that took her into the world of movies, hailed from my home town of Glasgow. I’ve spent far too much time in the last week looking both sisters up on the internet and searching for rare clips on youtube – again it’s surprising that two people who were big stars in their day now seem to be almost entirely forgotten, even here where they were presumably most famous.

Renée and Billie Houston

Anyway, the book! It’s remarkably well written and, perhaps unsurprisingly from someone used to writing comedy sketches, there’s quite a lot of humour amidst the darkness. The characters are rather stock ones for the most part but nonetheless very well drawn, and most of them are likeable. The exception is the victim, who is a horrible sadist, and so we need not waste tears over him. In fact, one is only surprised that it took so long for someone to do the world a favour and do away with him! Horace Manning is a scientist, working on a deadly gas to be used as a weapon of war. He has only one child, his daughter Helen, and although he has never physically abused her he has ruled her by psychological terror – he reminded me of Mrs Boynton, Christie’s wonderful sadist in Appointment with Death.

Now Helen is in love and Tony Fane, her young man, has sought Manning’s approval for their engagement which, to everyone’s surprise and disbelief, he has given. He invites the whole group over for dinner – Helen and Tony, Tony’s parents, Tony’s sister Kay (whom I couldn’t help feeling was something of an alter-ego for the author), and a couple of assorted friends who were present at the Fanes – Bill Brent, who along with Kay plays the role of amateur ‘tec and hero, Teddy Fraser who is in love with Kay, and Dr Henderson – Hendy – who is an old friend of Manning and Helen. The servants also play their part in the story, more so than is often the case in Golden Age mysteries – Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who also lives in terror of Manning and stays only out of love for Helen, the two maids, Alice and Mary, and Strange, the chauffeur,

But it is clear that Manning doesn’t intend to let Helen go as easily as that, so a feeling of impending doom hovers over the dinner table, while outside the storm that will trap them in the house approaches. And after dinner Manning does something so awful that everyone’s distrust of him turns to hatred, giving everyone a motive.

(Slight spoiler: this awful thing involves animal cruelty. It is a short episode and not too graphic, and despite my hatred of animal cruelty in books I was able to read on past it without feeling too upset. I think the fact that all the other characters had the same reaction of horror as I did made the author’s own opinion of it clear, and it is an important part of the plot. But be warned!)

Billie Houston

I admit it becomes ridiculous in the last thirty pages or so, but by that time I was having far too much fun to care. I guessed early whodunit and why, and was proved right, but again didn’t mind. The characterisations are so enjoyable, from blustering Sir Anthony Fane to his long-suffering wife, constantly shocked by the very modern manners of her children, to the young people with their various romantic entanglements that all need to be worked out by the end. Kay is delightful, and Bill is true romantic hero material. The rest of the women spend an inordinate amount of time fainting and swooning and being told to lie down and have a nice cup of tea, but it all added to the fun! I am truly sorry that Houston never wrote another, but I’m very glad the British Library has given us all the opportunity to enjoy this one.

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

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The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

Why do Golden Age criminals keep poisoning chocolates??

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Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard has been sent to the village of Sodbury Cross to look into a case that has baffled the local police for some months. Several people who had bought chocolates from the local sweet shop one day had fallen ill, and one child died. It transpired that some of the chocolates had been poisoned. The local gossip has fixed on Marjorie Wills as the guilty party – the young niece of a local peach farmer, Marcus Chesney. The local police don’t object to this suggestion but haven’t been able to find any evidence that Marjorie, or anyone else for that matter, switched the chocolates in the shop. When Elliot arrives in Sodbury Cross, he discovers that he has met Marjorie before, or seen her, at least, while on holiday in Pompeii, and he’d developed a bit of a fancy for her. So that gives him an added motivation to find the real culprit… assuming Marjorie is innocent. Marcus Chesney, meantime, thinks he’s worked out how the chocolate switching was done, and sets up a dramatic performance to prove his theory to his assembled relatives and friends. It all goes wrong when, during the performance, Chesney dies – poisoned! Everyone involved in the case was watching at the time, but they all saw different things…

While this is mostly a howdunit, there’s plenty of interesting characterisation and focus on the psychology of poisoners to stop the how aspects from making it too dry. The initial poisoning appears to have been completely random – anyone could have bought and eaten the poisoned chocolates. This suggests insanity on the part of the murderer. However the second poisoning, of Chesney, suggests a much more intricately planned and deliberately targeted murder, more indicative of a sane, intelligent mind. Along the way Carr has his characters discuss many real life cases as they try to get at the root of what is behind the crimes and whether the murderer is insane or not, and this is an added interest although some of the cases he mentions, which were probably well known at the time this book came out in 1939, have faded from the public consciousness now – or my consciousness, at least! But he gives enough information about each of these cases for the reader to be able to follow the discussions about them.

The howdunit aspect is more interesting than I usually find them. It depends less on fantastical devices and crazy methods than most “impossible crimes”, which made me quite happy! Instead the focus is on the unreliability of witnesses, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc., and, while it’s all a very complex way to commit a crime as howdunits usually are, it actually makes sense once all is revealed, for once. And because it’s not about widgets that miraculously open windows when an arrow is shot up a fireplace at the moment the clock strikes a quarter past nine (yes, I do get fed up with that kind of nonsense in Golden Age howdunits!), but instead is about what people have seen as opposed to what they think they have seen, it’s quite possible for the reader to follow along with the various theories and revelations.

Elliot is a likeable detective, although his decision to hide his pre-existing attraction to the chief suspect is a bit morally dubious. However, he reveals all to Gideon Fell, who happens to be in the neighbourhood. I haven’t quite got my head around who exactly Gideon Fell is. The police seem to use him on a semi-formal basis as some kind of consultant, but is he an ex-policeman? Or a private detective? Or simply a gifted amateur? The two or three books I’ve read so far don’t seem to clarify this – one day I might have to read the first in the series to find out. Anyway, everyone seems quite happy to have him involved. His personality in this one is rather less annoying than sometimes, and again I think that’s because the psychology is more important than the widgetry on this occasion.

John Dickson Carr

I enjoyed this one a lot. While I always admire Carr’s writing, especially his ability to create a tense, sometimes creepy, atmosphere, I sometimes find he gets too bogged down for my taste in the how at the expense of the why, which always interests me more. This one focuses about equally on both aspects, allowing me to admire the intricacy with which he plots while also having a proper mystery around motivation and psychology to keep me interested. I still feel his criminals could find much simpler methods to commit their crimes, but I know lots of people love the puzzle aspect of his books. I love him much more when, like here, the questions of who and why are at least as important as how.

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

Amazon UK Link

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

But solving them isn’t…

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As he travels to London by train, Luke Fitzwilliams finds himself sharing a carriage with an elderly lady who reminds him of his favourite aunt. Miss Pinkerton chatters in the way elderly people do (in Christie books, anyway), and Luke listens with half an ear as young men do (ditto). She tells him that she’s going to London to visit Scotland Yard, and then shocks him by saying she’s going to report a series of murders in her village of Wychwood. He doesn’t believe her, of course, but encourages her to go to the Yard anyway since he thinks they probably know how to deal with dotty old dears with vivid imaginations. A couple of days later he is sad to read in the paper a notice of her death, killed by a car on that day in London. But then a couple of weeks later he reads another death notice, this time of Dr Humbleby in Wychwood, the man Miss Pinkerton had mentioned as being the murderer’s next intended victim. So Luke decides to go to Wychwood to investigate…

Luke is an ex-policeman of the colonial kind, so investigation is something he’s used to. He manages to get an invite to stay with the local bigwig, Lord Whitfield, by pretending to be the cousin of Lord Whitfield’s fiancée, Bridget Conway, who happens to be the cousin of a friend of his. Complications ensue when he immediately falls for Bridget. He soon tells her the real reason he’s there and she helps him with local knowledge and introductions to the various people who might have been in Miss Pinkerton’s social circle. Because the whole story is so nebulous he doesn’t contact the police till quite late on, at which point Superintendent Battle plays a very small role. In the way publishers do at the moment, this is now listed as one of the “Superintendent Battle series”, but it really isn’t – it’s a standalone and Luke is the central character. Both Luke and Bridget are enjoyable leads, and there are lots of interesting secondary characters, many of them acting suspiciously in one way or another.

Agatha Christie

The plot is up there with her best, fair-play but still baffling, and with a great motivation for the murderer who, as Miss Pinkerton promises in Chapter 1, is “just the last person anyone would suspect”! There are two different kinds of pleasure for me when re-reading Christie. Either I’ve forgotten the plot and the solution, so have the fun of being baffled all over again, or I remember whodunit so have the pleasure of spotting the clues as I go, and admiring the way Christie deploys them. This was one of the latter for me, and it has some of her very best clues! In fact, the crucial clue almost equals the brilliance of the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which I have often declared to be my favourite piece of misdirection of all time. It’s right there, in front of the reader’s face, and yet not only does the poor reader miss the significance, it actually sends her off in completely the wrong direction. I don’t know any other writer who can do that with the apparent ease of Ms Christie – it truly is a joy to see such skill in action.

Great stuff, and Hugh Fraser’s narration of the audiobook is as wonderful as always. Pleasure guaranteed!

Audible UK Link

P.S. I’m running dramatically behind this week – will catch up with all your posts and comments over the weekend. Apologies!


Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson

Highs and lows…

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When a beat policeman stops a man running down the road late one night and demands to know what he’s up to, the drunken young man tells a rambling story of a door that opened and closed as if by itself in a shop that should have been locked up for the night. The policeman investigates, and discovers the body of Mr Dodsley, shot in the head, in the office at the back of his bookshop. Meantime, the House of Commons is having a late sitting amid an air of anticipation – “coming man” David Grafton is scheduled to lead the debate on an amendment which, if successful, may bring down the government. While waiting for the debate to begin, he is reading Death at the Desk, the new debut mystery novel written by his daughter, Margery, who happens to be engaged to the son of Mr Dodsley…

This one is a real mix of high and lows. The best bits are great, but the bits between are a real slog to get through. It starts with the lengthy conversation between the drunk and the policeman, that seems to go on and on for ever. Then it jumps to Parliament, where Ferguson skilfully evokes the late-night atmosphere in the gentleman’s club-like environs of the Commons, as the MPs discuss Grafton’s chances of success in the debate. Next day we meet the Grafton family at home, and they are a bunch of interesting, well-drawn characters – the ambitious Grafton himself, his social-climbing second wife, his son, just reaching adulthood and more interested in cars than politics, his secretary, who is also a friend of the son, and we learn that Margery’s engagement to Dick Dodsley has caused an estrangement, since the son of a bookseller is in the wrong social class for this upwardly mobile family.

Sadly, we then leave the Graftons and they almost entirely disappear for most of the rest of the book, except for Owen, the secretary, and Margery, the estranged daughter. Now we move to the police investigation, and I’m afraid that’s where it becomes a slog. Far too much time is spent on cigarette ends, timings, etc. There are too many clichés, such as the broken watch fixing the time of the murder (or does it?), the mysterious code in Mr Dodsley’s diary, and so on. It becomes ever more convoluted and less interesting as it progresses. The police are joined in their investigation by a private investigator, Francis McNab, who had been hired by Mr Dodsley to look into the theft of some valuable second-hand books.

There continue to be highs – it comes to life when various people are being interviewed by the police, since Ferguson has a knack for characterisation and is good at setting people within their social class, always so important at that time. But these highs are always followed by another of the interminable bits where the police and McNab discuss the same clues again and again. The basic plot is well worked out. However, despite the fact that I wouldn’t say it was fair play, somehow the guilty party seemed fairly obvious from early on, as did the probable motive, and neither of these were as interesting as the early Parliamentary setting suggested they might be.

On the whole, then, I feel this one can be summed up as ‘unfulfilled potential’. I’d be willing to read more from Ferguson because of his skill with setting and characterisation, but in the hopes that next time he’d avoid too many clichés in his plotting and cut out some of the repetition and drag in the investigation.

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

Amazon UK Link

A Man Lay Dead (Inspector Alleyn 1) by Ngaio Marsh

Murder with added Russians…

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Nigel Bathgate has been invited to a house party at Frantock Hall, the home of Sir Hubert Handesley. It is his first visit, made in the company of his older cousin Charles Rankin who is a long-time friend and regular guest of Sir Hubert. Likewise, the other guests are regulars too, so they all share an intricate web of relationships, friendships, affairs and jealousies. Sir Hubert has planned for this to be a murder weekend, where one guest will be appointed murderer and choose a victim, with the other guests playing detective. But after the lights go out as planned to signal the murder, the guests are shocked to find one of their number, truly dead, lying at the bottom of the stairs with a dagger through the heart. Enter Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn of the Yard…

This is an entertaining romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and nor must the reader! It’s always interesting to get a glimpse of how a long-running detective series starts out. Sometimes the detective springs fully formed onto the stage. Sometimes it takes a book or three for the author to settle into a style. This is one of the latter. While Alleyn is fundamentally the same man as in the later books, here he’s relentlessly light-hearted, always with a smart quip even when it seems entirely inappropriate, and horribly smug about his own superior mental prowess – not in an endearing-Poirot way, more in an I-want-to-punch-him way.

Inspector Fox, Alleyn’s right-hand man in most of the series, hasn’t yet been created, and Nigel Bathgate is given the role of sidekick instead. Nigel is a very young journalist whom Alleyn doesn’t know prior to this case, so it’s extremely odd that Alleyn takes him into his confidence when he has an entire police force of subordinates available to him, but never mind! Nigel is quite fun and promptly falls in love with fellow guest, Angela North, who is a modern young woman in the style of Tuppence Beresford. Nigel himself is not entirely unlike Tommy Beresford, and his role vis-a-vis Alleyn is reminiscent of the role a certain Captain Hastings plays elsewhere. I think it’s reasonably easy to see where Marsh’s early influences came from! In reality, Nigel’s role is to allow Alleyn to explain his thought processes for the sake of the reader, and it works despite the unlikeliness of it. The books do feel more realistic later in the series, however, once this sidekick role is handed over to Fox, a fellow police officer, although Bathgate continues to pop up quite often throughout the series if I remember rightly.

The plot! Hmm, well, let’s be kind and call it fun. The victim (whom I won’t name since it takes a while before the murder happens and we don’t know who will die) turns out not to have been a very nice person, so lots of people have motives, be it ill-treated lovers or jealous spouses of said lovers, or people who hope to inherit either money or some of the precious objects in the victim’s collection of rarities. And does the presence of not just one sinister Russian, but two, portend some kind of secret society with strange reasons for grudges? Of course it does! But is their grudge against the victim or are they up to something equally nefarious but coincidental? It always makes me laugh how often sinister Russians appear in Golden Age mysteries – they are responsible for a lot of the more preposterous plots of the time. I fear in this one the whole Russian strand was more like a comedy sketch than an actual plot, and became a little wearing in the number of clichés packed into it. Talking of preposterous brings me to the murder method. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely way to kill someone I’ve ever read – the Golden Agers were inventive, after all – but it’s high up the list.

Ngaio Marsh

I always feel a lot of leeway has to be given to the first in a series, especially when it’s also the author’s first novel. If it persuades a reader to come back for the second book, it has basically done its job, and happily the entertainment level in this one is high enough to make the reader willing to overlook some of the less polished aspects and leave her wanting more. And we’re in the happy position of knowing that Alleyn and Marsh went on to have a successful and highly regarded partnership. I’m enjoying revisiting this old favourite series and look forward to seeing Marsh’s style develop over the next few books.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, who does a fine job for the most part, although his Angela sounded a little too much like Lady Bracknell or Aunt Dahlia for my taste. But he did the comedy Russians well!

Audible UK Link

Grey Mask (Miss Silver 1) by Patricia Wentworth

Complicated but fun!

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Jilted on the eve of his wedding by Margaret Langton, Charles Moray has spent four years travelling the world, during which time his father has died and Charles has inherited the family home. Now back in England, he turns up unexpected at the house one evening, to find the doors unlocked. Cautiously entering, he hears strange voices and hides in a place where he can spy on the people who seem to be having a strange meeting. He is shocked to see a man in a grey rubber mask, apparently giving out mysterious orders to a stream of underlings who are called in to see him, referred to only as numbers instead of names. Charles is even more shocked when he recognises No. 26 as his lost love, Margaret Langton. Meantime, we meet young Margot Standing, freshly returned from school in Switzerland on the death of her extremely rich father. Margot is expected to be the heiress, but her father appears to have left no will, and questions are being asked as to Margot’s legitimacy. And then Margot goes missing…

I laughed at the complexity of the real blurb for this book when I read it, but now having tried to write my own little blurb I realise it’s not easy to summarise! The plot of the book is complicated in the extreme, but Wentworth handles it beautifully so that the reader is never left feeling lost. Despite this being billed as the first Miss Silver book, Charles is the real lead character, and he and his little group of friends are great fun to spend time with. Those friends soon include Margaret, though the question of why she is No. 26 in Grey Mask’s gang is left unanswered until late on in the book. It’s obvious that Charles and Margaret are the main love interest, if only Charles can work out what’s going on and save Margaret from whatever she’s become involved in. But there’s a secondary romance between dizzy but delightful young Margot Standing and Charles’ silly-ass friend Archie – I felt their romance would have fitted well in either Wodehouse or Heyer!

Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver has a small but important role. Because Charles is worried about Margaret’s involvement in whatever’s going on, he doesn’t want to go to the police, so he approaches Miss Silver on the advice of a friend. She is a professional private investigator, though an unlikely one, who knits babies’ bootees while conducting meetings. In this one, she’s a bit too miraculous and all-knowing, with no real insight into how she achieves her amazing results. There are also some derivative elements in the book, such as Grey Mask being a kind of take on Moriarty – the centre of a spider’s web of criminality where no one knows the names of the people above them in the organisation. However, it’s done well enough for the derivation not to be too off-putting, and there’s plenty of originality in other aspects to off-set it.

Forget credibility! The story becomes more ridiculous as it goes along, but fortunately the four central characters have become so much fun by then that I didn’t really care. It makes sense in that there are no gaping holes or loose ends, but that doesn’t mean it’s in any way believable. I had a good idea as to who Grey Mask might be from fairly early on, mainly because the hiding of his identity was a little clumsy – for a start we know from the beginning that he’s a man which immediately eliminates at least half of the characters. The underlying motive of the gang becomes clear quite soon, and the story is as much about keeping Margot safe while finding a way to bring the criminals to justice without risking Margaret’s involvement becoming known while sorting out the various romances… still with me? As I said, it’s complicated! But it’s also a lot of fun, and I raced through it with a smile on my face – who could ask for anything more?

Book 16 of 80

This was the book chosen for me by the Classic Club Spin Gods, and they picked a winner this time!

Amazon UK Link

Sinister Spring by Agatha Christie

Watching the detectives…

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Over the last few years, HarperCollins have been bringing out a series of lovely hardback collections of Agatha Christie short stories. Some have been reprints of existing collections, like The Tuesday Club Murders (aka The Thirteen Problems) or The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, while others are a mix of stories culled from various collections and put together to create a seasonal theme, such as Midsummer Mysteries and Midwinter Murder (which I haven’t read). This is their latest and, as you can tell from the title, it’s perfect for this time of year (unless you’re on the upside down half of the world!). If you’ve read a lot of Christie collections you may well find you’ve come across most of the stories before, but I always enjoy reading them again anyway and there are usually two or three in each collection that are new to me. Because these are taken from various other collections, there’s a real mix of detectives – Poirot and Miss Marple, of course, but also Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne and Harley Quin, plus a couple of stories that don’t star one of her recurring ‘tecs.

There are twelve stories in this one, and since regular Christie readers might want to know whether there are enough unfamiliar stories to tempt them, here’s a list of all twelve with tiny synopses that hopefully will be enough to let you know if it rings bells. My rating is in brackets:

The Market Basing Mystery (4) – Poirot, Hastings and Japp are on a little break in Market Basing when a man is found dead. It looks like he’s shot himself, but the doctor thinks this isn’t possible. A man is arrested and it’s up to our three sleuths to determine whether he is guilty or innocent.

The Case of the Missing Lady (5) – A Tommy and Tuppence story from Partners in Crime. In this one, Tommy is playing Holmes. An adventurer returns from the North Pole to find that his fiancée is missing. Can T&T track her down? Manages to be both tense and humorous – delightful twist!

The Herb of Death (4½) – One from The Tuesday Club Murders, I think. (I’m basing all these references to original sources on my unreliable memory, so forgive errors and omissions!) Mrs Bantry tells of a house party where foxglove got mixed in with the sage. All the guests recovered but one – a young girl called Sylvia. Was it bad luck or deliberate murder, and if so, why? Miss Marple will soon tell us…

How Does Your Garden Grow? (4) – Poirot receives a letter from an old lady requesting his help in an unspecified matter, but before he sees her, she dies. With the help of Miss Lemon, he starts quietly investigating her household to see if her death was suspicious or merely convenient. Rather reminiscent of the plot of one of her novels.

Swan Song (4) – An unexpected death during a performance of Tosca kicks off this dark and well-told revenge tragedy – a standalone with none of the usual ‘tecs.

Miss Marple Tells a Story (5) – From Miss Marple’s Final Cases. A woman is murdered while sleeping in a hotel bedroom. Her husband is accused, and his lawyer turns to his old friend Miss Marple for help. She soon works out why it seems no one noticed the murderer enter the room. An excellent howdunit!

Have You Got Everything You Want? (5) – Parker Pyne is on a train journey to Venice when a fellow passenger asks for his advice. She is travelling to meet her husband, but before she left she saw a message on his blotting pad which has left her fearful that something is planned to happen just before they reach Venice. Well-told and quite humorous, especially the ending!

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (4) – A howdunit about a woman whose priceless necklace is stolen while she and her husband are dining with Poirot. Another one where the plot is overly familiar to provide much in the way of surprise.

Ingots of Gold (4½) – Another Tuesday Club one, I think, this time told by Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond. It’s quite convoluted for a short story, involving two lots of missing bullion – one from Spanish Armada days, and one from a recent shipwreck. Set in Cornwall, it’s well told and entertaining.

The Soul of the Croupier (5) – The story of an ageing Countess, past lover of many rich men who showered her with jewels. But now her charms are beginning to fade, and she’s desperate for money, having long ago turned all those jewels to paste. While there is a mystery starring Harley Quin, it’s really the oddly sympathetic depiction of the Countess that raises this one above the average.

The Girl in the Train (5) – Light Wodehousian romp as our young hero, George Rowland, gets mixed up in the elopement of a Balkan Princess, plus a spy ring, and falls in love. Silly, but fun!

Greenshaw’s Folly (5) – 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. When the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved! An excellent story, taken from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

As you can see, all the stories rated between 4 and 5 for me – it is Christie after all! So unless you’re already familiar with most of the stories, this would be a great way to sample her range of detectives. And the hardback editions all have lovely bright designs which make them an attractive gift idea for the Christie fan in your life!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Two-Penny Bar (Maigret 11) by Georges Simenon

Down by the river…

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It all begins when Maigret tells a villain, Lenoir, that his final appeal has been refused, and that he will be executed the next morning. In his bitterness, Lenoir says it’s unfair that he should pay the ultimate penalty when others who’ve committed equally serious crimes go free. He then tells Maigret of the night that he and a friend witnessed a man drop a body into the Canal Saint-Martin. They then blackmailed the man for a while, but he later disappeared. Then, a couple of years later, Lenoir saw him again, in a little place called The Two-Penny Bar. But Lenoir was arrested for the crime for which he’ll be guillotined before he got the chance to start his blackmail again. He doesn’t tell Maigret the man’s name, but Maigret decides to visit The Two-Penny Bar anyway…

This turns out to be one of the best of the Maigrets, but I must admit it has an incredibly sloppy start. Not only doesn’t Maigret ask for the name of the murderer, but nor does he get a description of him nor even the address of the bar. It also relies on the premise that the murderer frequents the bar all the time, and wasn’t just a casual visitor on the occasion Lenoir saw him there. And finally, by an amazing coincidence, another murder just happens to take place in the bar while Maigret is there. I did consider giving up on it at this early stage on the grounds that it was all so unlikely, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

It takes Maigret a while to find the bar (which he finally does by another amazing coincidence), but when he does he finds it’s on the Seine on the outskirts of the city, and frequented by a group of regulars who either live nearby or visit regularly to row on the river, play cards, drink and generally relax. They’re a close-knit group. Maigret strikes up an acquaintanceship with James, a man who drinks even more than Maigret but is full of a kind of good-natured charm. Maigret soon comes to think he might develop into a friend in time, and the feeling seems to be mutual. James gives him the entry to the group, and since Maigret’s wife is off visiting her sister for the summer, Maigret takes to spending a lot of time with them all, gradually getting to see the dynamics and relationships among them. But he still doesn’t know who the murdered man was, nor if anyone in the group is the murderer.

Short even by Simenon’s standards, the pace of the book picks up a lot once all this preparatory stuff is out of the way. As I mentioned, there is another murder and there’s an obvious suspect for this one. What’s not so clear is the motive, and since the suspect has run away Maigret’s first job is to find him. But this crisis in the group has brought some of its secrets to light and given Maigret the leverage he needs to investigate them on a more formal basis. Another coincidence gives him the name of the original murder victim, and now he can look for a connection with any of the bar regulars.

Georges Simenon

It’s the characterisation that makes this one so good, though of the group as a group rather than of each individual within it. They’re a rather louche bunch, lazily drinking their way into flirtations and affairs with each other’s spouses, but always willing to lend a hand to each other whenever trouble looms. Their social gatherings seem to be the main purpose of their rather empty middle-class lives – their tedious day jobs merely the things that fund their lifestyle. However there are a couple of them that we get to know individually – James, whose incipient friendship with Maigret is very well depicted and whose character flaws become clearer as we, and Maigret, get to know him better; and Basso, the man initially suspected of the second murder, and we see his weaknesses and guilt at his feeling that he has betrayed his put-upon but loyal wife. And the last few chapters, when Maigret manages to trick the murderer into a confession, have considerably more emotional depth than is often the case in this series.

Lest you’re wondering that I haven’t mentioned Maigret’s drink problem as usual, I shall merely say that his drink of choice in this one is Pernod, and he downs enough of the stuff over the course of a couple of weeks to float a good-sized armada. However, he manages to stay sober despite it all – what a man!

So after a distinctly dodgy start, this turned into one of my favourites so far. I loved the portrayal of the group and fell under James’ always tipsy but never drunk charm, helped by an excellent interpretation of his character by the ever-reliable narrator of the series, Gareth Armstrong, who always makes these books a pleasure to listen to.

Audible UK Link

Death of an Author by ECR Lorac

Behind the nom-de-plume…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vivian Lestrange has become a publishing sensation with his literary mystery novels, especially his most recent smash hit, The Charterhouse Case. He is a recluse, however, refusing to meet journalists or even provide a publicity photograph. Eventually his intrigued publishers persuade him to meet them in person, and to their amazement he turns out to be a young woman! And then Vivian Lestrange disappears…

A very short blurb for this one because it’s so much fun I really don’t want to spoil it by giving too much away. It’s all about noms de plume and authors pretending to be someone other than they are, and the question raised again and again is whether it is possible to determine the sex of an author if all you have to go on is his or her writing. Lorac has her characters muse on whether we would know Dorothy L Sayers was female on the basis of her books alone? Is Conrad’s writing so masculine that no woman could have written his books? I loved this aspect because it’s a question I’ve often mulled, like most readers, I assume. Did anyone ever really believe George Eliot was a man, or do I just feel her books are unmistakeably feminine because I know she’s a woman? More recently, I don’t remember people saying Robert Galbraith’s first book couldn’t have been written by a man, but now that we know that’s a nom de plume for JK Rowling, it seems obvious they come from the pen of a woman. Of course, it has added piquancy because ECR Lorac is a gender neutral nom de plume and I have never been able to find a photograph of her. I know believe she was a woman because Martin Edwards tells me so, but I don’t know that her writing is distinctively feminine – her books are usually low on romance, for example. But then they’re also low on action thrills, often seen as the hallmark of male crime writers in that generation, and largely even still today.

Some of it is done slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I imagine probably reflected Lorac’s own experience within the publishing world. The men who claim that Lestrange’s books couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman clearly think that because the books are so good. How could a woman possibly put herself inside a male character’s head, they ask, dumbfounded, never wondering how male writers manage to think themselves into a female character. How could a mere woman understand so much about the less salubrious side of life, to come up with plots about vicious crimes and criminals? Lorac has other characters who answer those questions from the female perspective – i.e., that men really need to get over themselves and recognise that the days of women being pampered little Dickensian simpletons are long over. (I paraphrase!) Great fun!

The disappearance of Lestrange is investigated by two detectives – the local man, Inspector Bond, and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Warner. They work very well together, although they both hold wildly different theories of what’s happened. Again I have to be vague to avoid spoilers, but Bond believes Lestrange could indeed be a woman while Warner is adamant that the books could have been written only by a man. This means both men are carrying out separate but joined investigations, each trying to prove his own theory but open to the idea that the other man may be in the right. I swayed back and forward all the way through, and wished I could have read Lestrange’s novel to see if I could tell his/her gender for myself!

(Just as an aside, I mentioned a while ago that I now have a subscription for these books, and each month so far a little extra has been included – a bookmark matching the book cover or something like that. This book came with a postcard showing a book cover of Lestrange’s book, The Charterhouse Case, done as a BL Crime Classics book. A lovely touch that made me smile once I realised how it connected to the story.)

The plot itself is convoluted to the point where sometimes I had to read bits again, but it’s very clever and it all works. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but in this case I enjoyed the journey so much it didn’t bother me. One of the things I love most about Lorac is her unpredictability – she’s not afraid to try different things and often comes at her stories from an unusual angle. This one is delightfully different to her MacDonald books, and I loved it. I sound like a stuck record when it come to Lorac but… highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, Dix Steele, has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, where he plans to write a mystery novel. Or at least that’s what he told his uncle, who has grudgingly agreed to pay him a small allowance for a year while he tries his hand at writing. He tells the same tale to Brub Nicolai, a wartime buddy with whom he renews his friendship, and Brub’s new wife, Sylvia. But Dix has a dark secret – he likes to strangle young women. And Brub has a new career, as a police detective…

Told in the first person, this is a psychological study of what we would now call a serial killer. This has been done many times in the years since 1947 when this was first published, of course, so a trip to the inside of the head of a psychopath isn’t as startling as it may have been at the time. The gruesomeness of the murders is mostly kept off the page, and Hughes also keeps it clean – there are hints at a sexual element to the crimes, but we are not made privy to the details. All of this means that, although it probably counts as noir in terms of subject matter and outcome, it feels considerably lighter than the little classic noir I’ve previously read. Not that I’m objecting to that – a lot of noir is far too grim and bleak for my taste, and I’m always happier when graphic sex and violence is left to the imagination.

What I objected to rather more was the incredibly slow pace of the first half of the novel. We very quickly learn that Dix is a killer, and that L.A. is gripped by this series of murders. We see the fear of the women, and of their men on their behalf. And through Brub we see the bafflement of the police, getting nowhere in their investigation and unable to predict where and when the next murder will happen. All of this is excellent, but then it dips into a sort of longueur where these things are gone over repeatedly and nothing much changes. I found it required an effort of will to keep going.

Book 13 of 80

However, it picks up considerably in the second half, and happily I at last found myself gripped. Dix falls for a beautiful dame, Laurel, a sultry, sexy feline in female form. Is she a femme fatale? Or is she destined to be another victim? Is she a temptress, a loose woman, or a forerunner of the sexually liberated women about to hit the scene? Dix thinks he sees her for what she is and believes they are destined for one another, but is that how Laurel sees it? Is Sylvia in danger? We like Sylvia – she’s all that is good about America, according to the values of the time; the feminine woman, attractive but not too corruptingly sexy, the respectable home-maker, the loving support to her husband, the little woman who needs protection. Though there might be more to her than that – we see her only through Dix’s unreliable eyes, and he gradually comes to fear that she may have seen through his outer shell.

Dorothy B. Hughes

Hughes does an excellent job of using the uncertainty in Dix’s mind to keep the reader in suspense too. Does Brub suspect Dix of being the killer, or is that just Dix’s increasing paranoia at work? As Dix’s fear of being caught grows, everything that happens begins to take on a sinister feel. Is the gardener outside really a gardener or is he a police spy? Is that car following Dix or is it just someone heading in the same direction? Dix thinks he’s clever enough to fool Brub and anyone else who might suspect him, but still his actions grow more erratic. The paranoia is the element that makes the second half work so well.

I’m unconvinced about the psychology hinted at as to why Dix became a serial killer, although that may be because we are more used these days to the idea of serial killings as being senseless, motiveless crimes. However, I felt it worked well in the context of the book (sorry, I know I’m being vague here – it’s deliberate to avoid spoilers).

Overall, the suspense of the second half made up for the slowness of the first half and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Now to watch the film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame – I get the impression it might be rather different from the book which is always fun…

Book 1 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for January (I’m running late!), and proved to be an enjoyable one – thanks, People!

Amazon UK Link

Final Acts edited by Martin Edwards

Behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The latest of the British Library’s vintage crime anthologies, Final Acts contains fourteen stories all connected in some way to the theatre. There are on-stage murders, back-stage murders, off-stage murders! Lots of potential for disguises and make-up to fool the onlookers, and lots of dramatic reactions to events. And we all know about the loose morals of these actor types, so plenty of affairs, jealousies and betrayals to drive them all to become murderer or victim! I love the theatre as a setting for mysteries because the setting and characters are especially well suited to concealment and misdirection, and drama! What the audience sees is very different to the reality hidden behind the curtain.

There’s the usual mix of authors, some very well known, like Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, some who have become regulars in these anthologies, such as AEW Mason and Julian Symons, and a sprinkling of ones who are new to me. Of the fourteen stories, I rated twelve as good or excellent, and the other two weren’t complete duds either. That makes this one of my mostly highly rated of these anthologies to date. There’s the usual introduction from Martin Edwards, and little bios of the various authors preceding each story (I always read these after I read the story, because very occasionally they can be a bit spoilery).

As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel by AEW Mason – A struggling young singer is tempted to steal a string of pearls, but when she sneaks into the hotel room of the lady who owns them, she finds men already there, burgling the room. They are dressed for the masked ball that is taking place in the hotel that night, so she is unable to describe them clearly. Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London visiting his friend Ricardo, and becomes unofficially involved in the investigation which will take him into the world of opera. This is a fairly substantial story at around 50 pages, and I grow fonder of Hanaud and Ricardo each time I meet them. Neither of them is particularly likeable – Hanaud is one of these insufferable know-it-alls who is very mean to poor, pompous Ricardo. But there’s usually a lot of humour in the stories, the writing is very good, and this one is particularly well told, I think.

Blood Sacrifice by Dorothy L Sayers – Garrick Drury is an actor-manager, a great romantic lead with his finger on the pulse of what the public wants. John Scales’ first play is a dark and brooding tale of the degrading impact of war on his protagonist’s character. He’s thrilled when Drury contracts to produce and perform in the play, knowing this will bring him instant success. But the contract gives Drury the right to make alterations, and he turns the play into a romantic sob-fest with a happy ending. Scales grows to hate him… I’m not a fan of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, but I must say her short stories are excellent. This one is a great story with strong characterisation and motivation, and her description of Garrick Drury made me laugh – “Mr. Drury (forty-two in the daylight, thirty-five in the lamplight and twenty-five or what you will in a blond wig and the spotlight) was well fitted by nature to acquire girls…”

The Blind Spot by Barry Perowne – Annixter, a playwright, is in a club getting drunk because a woman dumped him. It’s when he’s drunk that his best ideas for plays come to him, and tonight it happens – a wonderful idea for a locked room murder mystery. He tells a man in the club all about it, in the way drunks do, then walks outside and gets hit by a taxi. When he comes to, he remembers everything about his plot except the solution to how the locked room element was done. He begins to hunt for the stranger from the club, but the man seems reluctant to be found… I thought this was a fantastic story, one of the best short mystery stories I’ve ever read. It starts out full of humour, then gradually the tension mounts and the denouement is beautifully paced so that the reader gets there just before Annixter does. I’ve only read two stories by Perowne and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Thirteenth Knife by Bernard J Farmer – Simone is a knife-thrower and each night she performs in a club, throwing her thirteen knives at Jean, the waiter to whom she’s engaged. But she has attracted the unwanted attentions of another man – a rich man, who’s used to getting what he wants. This is a very short story, so that’s as much as I can say without spoilers, but it’s very effective and manages to create real tension in such a short space. And a nice little twist in the tail!

So lots of variety, and loads of enjoyable stories – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club



While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company…

Still being a million miles behind with reviews, I’m going to do a few double posts over the next few weeks, containing two short reviews each, to cut into the backlog. First up, two mystery novels, one which I enjoyed very much and one which didn’t hit the spot for me…

Death at La Fenice (Brunetti 1) by Donna Leon

In the beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is appearing at La Fenice opera house in Venice when he is poisoned with cyanide during the second act interval. The show goes on front-stage with a stand-in conductor, but backstage Commissario Guido Brunetti is already discovering that Wellauer was roundly disliked by almost everyone who knew him. But who disliked him enough to murder him, and why? Brunetti decides that the only way to find the murderer is to learn everything he can about the victim, so he begins to delve into Wellauer’s past, where he will uncover some disturbing secrets…

I’ve read a couple of the recent entries in this long-running series and enjoyed them well enough, but not to the extent of being particularly inspired to read more. However, this first one turned up in an Audible sale and the narrator, Richard Morant, sounded good so I thought I’d give it a try. And I must say I thought this was vastly better than those later ones!

For the first novel in a series, the development of Brunetti as a character is excellent, and we begin to get a picture of his extended (and happily functional) family life. Venice comes alive, not so much in the sense of physical descriptions though they’re there, but as an atmosphere and a culture, a fully-rounded society. Leon talks knowledgeably about opera and music generally, and gives a good picture of a culture where the arts are both highly valued and well and widely understood. And the plot is excellent – it is dark, indeed it shocked me at a couple of points, but Brunetti’s humanity and sympathy towards the various suspects stops it from becoming too bleak. It’s a little weak on the investigative side, perhaps, but Brunetti’s colleagues avoid the mild caricaturing that I wasn’t so keen on in the later books – they are much more believable as real people here. I can now understand why so many people have become hooked on this series, and I look forward to reading more of the earlier ones.

Audible UK Link

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The White Priory Murders (Sir Henry Merrivale 2)
by Carter Dickson

Footprints in the snow…

😐 😐

James Bennett has been invited to a house party in the White Priory, home to the Bohun brothers, John and Maurice. The star guest is Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who has just walked out of a Hollywood contract so she can act in a play written by Maurice Bohun. The house is full of people connected to Marcia – fellow actors, people from the movie company, lovers actual and hopeful – and Marcia loves to be the centre of attention. In fact, it’s a real mystery why it’s taken so long for someone to murder her…

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr, loving some of his early books and not getting on well at all with his more famous locked room mysteries. This is one of the latter – in this case, the “locked room” is a pavilion in the ground of the White Priory where Marcia planned to spend the night alone (maybe), and is found dead with only one set of foot-prints, of the man who found her, in the snow outside. I must admit I’m weary of the one/no set of footprints in the snow trope beloved of locked roomsters, so my heart sank as we began to go through and discard all of the usual possibilities – secret tunnels, fresh snow falls, people dropping in from hot air balloons overhead (OK, I made that one up, but at least it would be different).

I’m afraid I found this dull, as I often do with locked rooms, and I didn’t like any of the characters including the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, retired policeman. All the intricacies of alibis and who could have got to the pavilion and how left me both confused and bored, and there’s lots of jerky dialogue that mainly consists of people being rude to each other. I eventually abandoned it at 60% and flipped to the end to discover whodunit. A week later, I’ve forgotten.

I’m sure this would work fine for people who enjoy locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. Unfortunately it just happens not to be my kind of thing.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

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

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

The mystery of the missing stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies – I gave most of the stories a solid four-star rating, with just a couple that didn’t work for me, and a sprinkling that gained themselves the full galaxy of five stars.

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Ginger King by AEW Mason – Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London, visiting his “Watson”, Ricardo. Because of his expertise, an insurance company asks him to look into a fire at a shop owned by a Syrian furrier. (Yes, there are some unfortunate out-dated racist attitudes – it’s a hazard of the era.) I particularly enjoyed this one because a cat plays a major role – the ginger king of the title. Happily the cat survives unscathed! Lots of humour in this one and a good, imaginative criminal method. Hanaud is more fun when he’s being a foreigner in England than when he’s in France, in my limited experience, especially since he mangles English idioms for our amusement.

Benefit of the Doubt by Anthony Berkeley – This is told as if it were a ‘true’ story, related by an elderly medical man about an incident that happened to him when he was a young, inexperienced doctor. One night he is called out by a worried young wife to see her older husband. However the man appears fine and jokingly assures the doctor his wife just likes to worry, so the doctor leaves it at that. But the next day the man is dead. The wife doesn’t blame the doctor, and since she doesn’t want an inquest and the doctor fears the possibility of being found to have been negligent, he signs the death certificate. That’s not the end of the story, though… A really good picture of a generally moral man doing the easy thing rather than the right thing, and how he himself perceives his own actions at the other end of his career.

The Magnifying Glass by Cyril Hare. A very short story, this one, and not a mystery. It involves two men fighting over some forged banknotes. One murders the other, and then tries to break into the murdered man’s safe. It’s a scorching hot day with a dazzling sun, and Hare uses the heat and the murderer’s awareness that someone may arrive at any time to build up a great atmosphere of tension. Can’t say more since it’s very short, but there’s a lovely twist in the tail.

The ‘What’s My Line’ Murder by Julian Symons. During a live recording, one of the panellists dies – poisoned – and another panellist, Gilbert Harding, investigates. Even my great age isn’t great enough to have a clear recollection of What’s My Line – a long-long-ago TV panel game, where the regular panellists had to guess the profession of mystery guests by asking them questions. However, the story stands even if you don’t remember the show. Symons includes some of the actual panellists – Gilbert Harding was one of them – and I did have a vague memory of one or two of them so that added to the fun, though I felt fairly confident that while he could make one of them be the detective he couldn’t make a real person be the murderer! A good mystery, entertainingly written.

So another great addition to this series – I hope Collins Crime Club continue to bring these out for several more years to come, so long as that well doesn’t dry up!

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

Amazon UK Link

Calamity Town (Ellery Queen 16) by Ellery Queen

All in the family…

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When Ellery Queen comes to the small town of Wrightsville looking for inspiration for his new novel, he settles into a house known locally as Calamity House. It was originally built for Nora Wright, one of the three daughters of John F and Hermione Wright, descendants of the town’s founder and acknowledged leaders of local society. But Nora never lived there, since she was jilted three years ago by the man she had planned to marry, Jim Haight. Now, not long after Queen moves in, Jim returns and the wedding is back on. No one but the couple themselves knew the reason for the split, but the Wright family make an effort to forgive Jim because they can see how much Nora still loves him. But then Nora is taken ill with all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning… and then another woman dies. Suddenly Queen finds himself with a real murder mystery on his hands and, with the help of Nora’s youngest sister Pat, sets out to investigate…

“Ellery Queen” is the pen name of a writing duo, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. I read a few of their mysteries back in my teens but have no real recollection of them, so for all intents and purposes this was my first introduction to them, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting! The focus is less on the crime and more on creating a picture of the Wright family and Wrightsville, and the tone is considerably slower and more literary than I anticipated. The writing is very good, especially the descriptive stuff about the town, and the depiction of how the townspeople are ready to turn on their most revered residents when scandal rears its head is perceptively and credibly done, as is the picture of the impact of the crime on the Wright family themselves. There’s some of the slickness of dialogue usually found in the “hard-boiled” school, but there’s too much warmth and affection for the major characters for it to be in any way noir-ish.

The Wrights have three daughters – Nora, vulnerable, reclusive and somewhat unstable after her jilting, but coming back into the world now that Jim has returned; Lola, who made a disastrous marriage followed by a scandalous divorce, and who is a kind of black sheep, though still loved by her family; and Pat, the youngest, beautiful, feisty, and expected to marry Carter, the town’s Prosecutor. But when Queen enters her life, Pat is more than happy to indulge in some serious flirtation with him, arousing Carter’s justifiable jealousy, and perhaps playing with fire, since it seems that Ellery and Pat are developing real feelings for one another. Pat is the central character along with Queen himself, and she’s very well portrayed – she is a bit weak and reliant on the men in her life, but that’s to be expected of the era, and she has an independent streak which makes her attractive.

Challenge details:
Book: 93
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1942

The story plays out over nearly a year, and I found this rather odd. Queen seems to put his life on hold for the duration, and we hear nothing about him being in touch with family or friends outside Wrightsville. It’s as if he arrives baggage-free and with all the time in the world, but no real explanation of that is given. Of course, it’s the sixteenth novel in a long-running series, so regular readers probably didn’t need much background by this stage, but I felt he was left as a bit of an enigma – a kind of mystery in himself. What made him pick Wrightsville? Does he fall in love in every book or is Pat special? Does he have a home and, if so, where? I guess the only solution to these mysteries is to read the earlier books! However, Martin Edwards, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, suggests this novel was a bit of a departure for the Queen duo – a stage in the evolution of their novels from ‘pure intellectual puzzle’ to a more mainstream novelistic style, in recognition of the changing tastes of mystery readers with the advent of writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley.

Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay
“Ellery Queen”

The plot itself is perhaps the weakest part of the book. To be honest, I felt the solution was pretty well sign-posted from very early on and my suspicions were proved right in the end. It seemed to take Queen an inordinate length of time to spot the bloomin’ obvious and there was certainly room for some trimming in the mid-section of what is rather a long novel by vintage crime standards. But this weakness wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment – the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople is so well done that I was happy to go along for the ride. A very enjoyable introduction to this series and I look forward to getting to know Ellery Queen the writing duo and Ellery Queen the character better.

Amazon UK Link

Death of Jezebel (Inspector Cockrill 4) by Christianna Brand

Knights in shining armour…

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A grand exhibition is taking place in post-war London and part of the show will be a pageant starring eleven mounted knights in armour and a damsel in a tower. Among the cast and crew are three people whose irresponsible actions a few years ago led a young man to commit suicide. Perpetua (Peppi) was engaged to Johnny Wise, but for fun her “friend” Isabel, known to her “friends” as Jezebel, decided to get Peppi drunk and throw her into the willing arms of womanising actor, Earl Anderson. On discovering this, Johnny drove his car into a wall. Now the three begin to receive threatening notes and it appears someone is out to avenge Johnny’s death. And then Jezebel is murdered…

This is only my second Christianna Brand and to be honest I didn’t think it came even close to the wonderful Green for Danger. The plot is relatively simple in the sense that we know the motive from the beginning. But it becomes a hideously complicated howdunit based on which of all these knights or other crew members might have been able to murder Isabel in full view of the audience, helped by the fact that they were effectively all unrecognisable in their armour. Solution after solution is presented, only to be knocked down again by some piece of evidence Cockrill or the local Inspector Charlesworth had forgotten or subsequently learn. Suspect after suspect confesses, only to have their confessions disproved by minute pieces of evidence.

Maybe it all hangs together in the end, but truthfully my eyes had glazed over long before it reached that point. My first problem was that, while the three had behaved a little badly, I felt that Johnny seriously over-reacted when, instead of punching Earl and dumping Peppi, he topped himself, and as such I didn’t feel any of them deserved to be murdered. Secondly, I didn’t like anyone so I didn’t care about the murders nor about whodunit. And lastly, I certainly didn’t care about how it was done, since each of the failed solutions seemed as likely, or that should probably be unlikely, to me as the final one.

Christianna Brand

On the upside, Brand writes well and amusingly. There’s lots of humour in the book, mostly around the unspoken rivalry between Cockrill and Charlesworth. Cockrill is attending a police conference in the area and becomes involved because he knew Peppi long ago, when she lived down in his patch in Kent. He’s used to being a big fish in the Kentish pool, but in the Great Metropolis he discovers most people have never heard of him or, if they have, it’s because of a case where he famously made a complete hash of it. Charlesworth is a younger man and Cockrill is determined to beat him to the solution. It was the entertainment value of this rather one-sided rivalry that kept me reading after the plot had ceased to interest me.

Overall, I enjoyed it well enough but it didn’t meet my perhaps too high expectations. It won’t stop me reading more of the Cockrill books, though – as well as these two novels, I’ve read several of Brand’s short stories in various anthologies and always enjoyed them, so I feel this one was a blip, probably because the intricate how of crime never interests me as much as the why.

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

Amazon UK Link

Crook o’Lune (Inspector Macdonald 38) by ECR Lorac

Old Macdonald wants a farm…

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Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is looking ahead to retiring from the police and is searching for a small farm to buy, farming having been his family background. He’s staying with friends in the Lune Valley in Lancashire while he looks around, and they recommend a farm that is likely to come on the market soon, Aikengill in High Gimmerdale. The old owner is recently deceased and his heir, his nephew Gilbert Woolfall, is a businessman in Yorkshire, so the locals expect he’ll want to sell up. At the moment, he’s spending time going through his uncle’s papers – a lengthy task since his uncle was a bit of an amateur local historian. But then there’s a fire at Aikengill, in which the housekeeper dies. The local police know Macdonald of old so ask him to help them investigate and Macdonald soon determines that the fire was deliberate…

In her own short foreword to the book, Lorac tells us that the places in the book are real although she may have occasionally changed the names, and in fact the house called Aikengill in the book is her own home in the Lune Valley. Her sense of place is always one of her major strengths and never more so than when she’s writing about this rural farming area, which she clearly knows intimately and loves. The book is full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Macdonald tramps o’er hill and down dale in pursuit of evidence, and we get an authentic inside look at the working lives of the sheep farmers and smallholders who farm the land.

The plot is also interesting, and rests in part on the long histories of families who live in an area for generations – a real contrast to her London-set mysteries, especially the ones set in the war years, when she often uses the mobility and impermanence of urban living to build her plots around. She has to be one of the most versatile writers from that period, handling rural and urban with equal knowledge and insight, and her skill in this gives her novels an authenticity of atmosphere whatever their setting.

First published in 1953, this one also gives a picture of a Britain still struggling to recover from the war, with the remnants of rationing still lingering and the nature of farming having changed with the drive to increase food production and food security. We also hear about the young men being called up for National Service, and how not all of them were happy to go. She’s excellent at setting her novels in their own time and showing a gradually or sometimes suddenly changing world, and like a lot of vintage fiction her books give a real picture of a period, more authentically than all but the best historical fiction.

We learn more about Macdonald as a person in this one too, because of the element of him looking to move to the area. We already knew from previous books about his love for this hilly country and his background in farming, but Lorac takes us deeper into his thoughts this time. He also interacts with friends – I only remember him with colleagues and suspects before, so this aspect makes him seem more human, as having a life beyond work.

Another one that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’ll say it again – how can it be that Lorac became “forgotten” when other writers of equal or less talent have remained in print all these years? An injustice that the British Library deserves thanks for putting right. Highly recommended, as always!

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

Amazon UK Link