Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

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Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Profit motive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…

This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.

Freeman Wills Crofts

He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)

I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…

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

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…

This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.

Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.

Margot Bennett

The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.

Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.

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

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Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares

Recommended to old Argentinians…

😦

Don Isidro Parodi is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but for which the police found it convenient to frame him. He now is known as a kind of consulting detective, to whose jail cell people bring their insoluble mysteries, and he tells them the solution. Like The Old Man in the Corner, of whom Parodi is clearly a parody (geddit?), there is no investigation in the middle. And I didn’t even like The Old Man in the Corner much…

Oh dear, another of Martin Edwards’ 100 Classic Crime books that I’m abandoning – I fear he and I simply have very different tastes at times. I rarely enjoy spoofs even when they’re well done, and for my money these are not well done, though perhaps that owes something to the awfulness of the translation. Six supposedly humorous tales, they are in fact overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation – a narcissistic simpleton who “hilariously” reveals his own foolishness while attempting to show how superior he is. Sadly, I quickly began to see the authors as being not significantly differently from these clients, although obviously I’m aware Borges has God-like status in the literary world. One day maybe I’ll look up wikipedia to find out why – it certainly can’t be because of these stories.

Challenge details:
Book: 98
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1942

The stories reference the famous detectives of the Golden Age and have lots and lots of winking references to people and events I assume were well known in the Argentina of the time, so that, to be fair, maybe they’re more fun if you’re an old Argentinian. But I doubt it.

* * * * *

Having had a run of 1- and 2-star abandonments in this challenge, I’ve been debating whether to continue with it. However, looking back, in fact of the forty books I’ve read so far, I’ve given twenty 5-stars, and several more 4. So I’m going to assume I’ve just hit an unlucky patch and soldier on for a while longer. I mention this merely because I wouldn’t want my deeply unenthusiastic recent reviews to put anyone off reading Edwards’ book, which I enjoyed very much, or trying some of his recommendations for themselves. As always, my reviews are simply my subjective reaction, not a critical evaluation. You may love the ones I hate…

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (Maigret 53) by Georges Simenon

Family dynamics…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Léonard Lachaume, head of the long-established Lachaume biscuit firm, is found shot dead in his bed, Maigret finds his family’s behaviour unusual. No one seems to be openly grieving and, unlike what normally happens in Maigret’s long experience, the family have not gathered together to support each other – instead they all seem to be keeping to their own rooms. It looks on the surface as if the shooting may have been the result of a burglary gone wrong, but right from the beginning Maigret has doubts about this theory. He wants to question the family more deeply but they have brought in their lawyer – another oddity at this stage in the investigation, Maigret feels – and the new young examining magistrate in charge of the case expects Maigret to play it strictly by the book, and do nothing without consulting him first. Maigret is feeling old…

Sometimes the short length of Maigret novels seems perfect to me for the story he tells, but occasionally I feel there’s more in there to be revealed and so the end seems very abrupt. This is one of the abrupt ones. The story is very good with quite a lot to say about the changes in French society at the time of writing – the mid ‘50s. Maigret himself is within a couple of years of retirement and is feeling that the changes to the investigation system, with examining magistrates now taking precedence over the police detectives, make him and his methods out of date. Not that he admits to having a method, really – he simply asks questions till he gets to the right answers. And now that magistrates have the right to take over the questioning, he feels his hands are tied.

Georges Simenon

I was very surprised at the talk of dowries, which are central to the story. I had no idea this system had continued so long in modern France. The Lachaume family has a respected name but no money, since their biscuits have long fallen out of favour with fickle public tastes. So the two sons of the family, Léonard and Armand, must marry for money. The two women they choose are daughters of self-made men, with plenty of money but no family pedigree. It all sounds quite medieval – although marrying for money still goes on informally in all societies, here it’s all contracted and formal, registered by a notary, and with little, if any, talk of love or even affection between the contracting parties. Needless to say, it doesn’t add up to a happy household, especially once the dowry money is all spent in a fruitless attempt to prop up the failing business.

Despite the restrictions on his usual methods, Maigret finds ways to work within the rules the examining magistrate sets him. His persistent but sympathetic questioning of witnesses allows him to get an understanding of the family dynamics, and this, together with his ability to guess at the hidden meaning of physical clues, enables him to finally get at the truth. However, it all comes together very suddenly in the end, and left me with one or two unanswered questions. An extra twenty or thirty pages could have turned this good novella into a great one. Still enjoyable, though, and well worth the few hours it takes to read.

Book 14 of 20

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The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Accountably neglected…

😦

John Talbot always hated Jimmie Tunstall from the time they were boys at school and extrovert Jimmie would torment the introverted John. Now, years later, Talbot writes down the story of their relationship to prove, so he tells us, that he is not mad. Of course, whenever a narrator tells you he’s not mad, then you kinda know he is. After several years of absence, Tunstall returns to the town where Talbot still lives, now with a wife he adores but who doesn’t love him, and a young son who’s not fond of him either. They both quite like Tunstall though. Unable to put up with Tunstall’s overbearing personality any longer, Talbot murders him. But soon he begins to feel that Tunstall is still around – is, in fact, in some way controlling Talbot’s behaviour, making him do things he would never have dreamed of – bad things! Guilt? Madness? Or is something supernatural going on…?

I don’t know. I got bored with being bored halfway through and decided I didn’t care. I often wonder why already successful authors sometimes decide to rip off a great classic and then do it so badly. It must be the ultimate in hubris. “Aha!” I imagine Walpole thinking to himself one day, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll take the basic premise of Jekyll and Hyde, tell it sort of from the perspective of Hyde, fill it with lots of sex and endless, repetitive and exceptionally dull padding, and everyone will see what a great and original talent I am!” Poor Walpole, with your 27 ratings on Goodreads – looks like the reading public felt that the greatness and originality all belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson (373,463 ratings).

Challenge details:
Book: 101
Subject Heading: The Way Ahead
Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards must see something in this that I missed, since he included it in his 100 Classic Crime novels. As well as mentioning Jekyll and Hyde, he also says it’s reminiscent of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and yes, there is a similarity, but again, that was original and great, whereas this is a rip-off and dull. Edwards says it’s “unaccountably neglected” – I would argue that it’s accountably neglected, very accountably…

Book 12 of 20

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The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The prestigious old firm of Shentall’s Potteries has a problem – it seems someone may be leaking its designs, allowing counterfeiters to flood the market with cheap copies. The current head of the firm, Luke Shentall, has his suspicions of who is guilty, so calls in a private investigator to find proof, or alternatively to prove someone else is the culprit. It’s the investigator, Nicholson, who tells us the story, and he starts in the middle with the discovery of a body in the ark, a vault in which the liquid clay is stored…

This is a very different take on the traditional detective story. The narration gives it something of the style of the noir first-person private eye stories of the US, but without the true noir feel. Nicholson (we never learn his first name) is indeed a man with his own sorrows, somewhat world-weary but still with the ability to believe in the good in people. The other characters however are all fundamentally decent even if they each have their flaws, so that the effectiveness of the story comes from the fact that quite soon neither Nicholson nor the reader really wants any of them to be the guilty party. And especially we want Corinna Wakefield, Luke’s suspect, to be innocent – the reader because she quickly gains our sympathy and liking; Nicholson because he increasingly finds himself developing a deep attraction to her.

The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime. Kelly paints a full and affectionate portrait of the landscape and culture of the Staffordshire area and its traditional pottery industry, showing how the old methods and family-run businesses are gradually giving way to newer techniques, more cost efficient, perhaps, and certainly cleaner than the old coal-fired kilns, but also more impersonal. Shentall’s is one of the old firms, and while Luke has introduced up-to-date machinery and equipment, he works hard to retain the traditional atmosphere and values of this being a family concern – not just his own family, but his employees also passing their skills down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. This is partly why his suspicions have fallen on Corinna – as a talented designer, she has been brought in from the outside, and Luke can’t bring himself to believe that his long-term employees, many of whom worked for his father and even his grandfather before him, could betray the firm.

Kelly shows the soot-blackened buildings, the constantly-burning furnaces that can be seen from the older coal-fired kilns day and night, the pit, known as Etruria, where Wedgwood’s factory once stood, now the site of an iron works. These could easily be made visions of an industrial hell, but Kelly shows them as having a kind of dark beauty and as the beating heart of this community whose existence is inextricably linked with the potteries that provide their pay and their purpose.

I stared down into the pit, at the black buildings silhouetted against the flushed sky, buildings, some of them, flickering within, as if a river of liquid gold were rolling through them. Clouds of steam and smoke drifted across the shadowy vale, rosy steam, lit from the fires below. There was a continuous hollow rushing sound, broken by clanks of shunting. An engine, raised on a bank, black and red, like a slide, moved slowly backwards and forwards. The whole pit seemed to breathe as it worked; for though it was past midnight on Saturday, and the Newcastle neighbours’ windows were dark, naked lights on gantries and signals glittered all over Etruria.

Mary Kelly

The plot is divided into three sections: the first, a short one describing the finding of the body, though we aren’t given the victim’s identity at this early stage; then two long sections, one set before the finding of the body and one after. Because of the more literary, descriptive prose style it took me a little longer than usual to settle in, but once I had I became completely involved in the slow playing out of the story and in the characters that Kelly creates so well – not just the main players, but the other members of the staff and workers of the pottery, each of whom has their own part to play. The mystery is rather secondary to Nicholson’s growing dilemma – his distaste for the job grows as his feelings for Corinna deepen, and his initial pretence of befriending her so he can get close to her feels sordid now that he discovers he would like to be more than her friend. But he’s a hired hand and must do his best for Luke, and it seems more and more that, innocent or guilty, Corinna is at the heart of the mystery.

I thought this was great, and the ending, when it came, arose perfectly from the characterisation and motivations Kelly had so carefully and subtly built throughout. Shall I admit that it actually made me cry, just a little? Not a thing that happens often, especially in crime novels. A travesty that this one should ever have been allowed to become “forgotten” – Martin Edwards refers to it as her “masterpiece” and for once that word seems perfectly chosen to me.

Book 10 of 20

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Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret 62) by Georges Simenon

The art of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having returned home late after grinding a confession out of a young lad, Maigret is wakened early to the news that a fellow police officer, Inspector Lognon, has been shot in Avenue Junot. He’s still hanging on to life, just, but hasn’t been able to talk yet, so Maigret has very little to go on, especially since the men at Lognon’s local station don’t know what he was working on. House-to-house inquiries soon reveal that recently Lognon has been spending his nights with a beautiful young woman in Avenue Junot. Somehow, though, Maigret can’t see him as a Lothario, and suspects there must have been another reason for these nocturnal adventures. The easy way to find out would be to ask the young woman – but she has disappeared…

I’ve only read a few Maigrets so far and have enjoyed them all to varying degrees. This one has leapt into the lead as my favourite so far, though I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why it stood out above the others. I think I simply liked the plot and the motivation more than usual, since Simenon’s storytelling, settings and characterisation tend to be consistently good in my limited experience.

Maigret’s hunch soon proves to be correct that Lognon was investigating someone who lived on Avenue Junot. Lognon was known as a conscientious and good detective, but always unlucky. This meant he always missed out on the promotions he felt he deserved, and his unappealing wife was very ready to show her disappointment in him. Maigret realises that Lognon was working secretly on a case, hoping to break it all by himself and finally get recognition and the rewards of success. Instead, now he is lying in a hospital bed and his colleagues have no idea what crime he felt he had discovered. Maigret and his team will have to start from scratch, interviewing all the residents of the Avenue looking for suspicious or guilty behaviour. Soon Maigret will find himself deep in the sometimes rather murky world of art and art collectors.

Georges Simenon

It’s very short even for a Maigret, but packs a lot in. It’s a police procedural rather than a whodunit, in the sense that there’s no pool of suspects. Maigret soon hones in on Lognon’s target, but the question is: what crime did Lognon think had been committed, and why was he shot? The clues are given gradually and I, for once, had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but that didn’t prevent my enjoyment of watching Maigret’s steady and relentless pursuit of the truth.

We also see quite a bit of Maigret’s wife in this one, and while she is treated rather as if she as intelligent pet rather than an equal, it’s nice to see how much Maigret loves her. And I must admit, the amount of alcohol that Maigret slurps down during every investigation always entertains me – even during interviews with suspects in the police station the booze flows freely. Makes me kinda wish I was French… 😉

Great stuff – a quick read, short enough to be devoured in one session if so inclined, and both interesting and entertaining. Highly recommended!

Book 6 of 20

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The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

The second death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

When Albert Campion, gentleman detective, gets an urgent message from an old friend to come to the village of Kepesake, he’s not surprised to learn it’s because there’s been a murder. However, when he comes to view the corpse, he’s more than surprised – he’s shocked! The dead man is “Pig” Peters, a former schoolmate of Campion’s who used to bully the younger boys, including Campion himself. But the shocking thing is that it’s only a few months since Campion attended Peters’ funeral. So how can he possibly be here, freshly dead? And what is the meaning of the cryptic anonymous notes that both Campion and another old schoolmate are receiving?

I haven’t read many of Allingham’s books, mainly because I don’t much like Campion as a detective. Like Lord Peter Wimsey he has an aristocratic background and the snobbery level in the books is high, especially in her supposedly comic portrayal of Campion’s valet and sidekick, the unendearingly common Magersfontein Lugg. Even his silly name makes me grit my teeth. To make up for these annoyances, however, Allingham provides intriguing mysteries, usually fair play, although so devious that I can rarely work them out until all is revealed.

Challenge details:
Book: 25
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1937

This one is unusual in that Campion tells us the story himself – usually the books are written in the third person. I quite enjoyed getting inside his head for a change. He often comes over as a sort of silly ass, an upper-class twit whose brilliance everyone underestimates because of the Wodehouse-ish (or Wimsey-ish – I’m never quite sure which it is that Allingham is attempting to parody) way he talks and behaves. But the first person approach takes the edge off the silliness, and I actually found him far more likeable when we could see his thought processes, especially since he tells us when he got things wrong.

Margery Allingham

The slight downside of the first person, though, is that Allingham has to tread the line carefully neither to reveal too much nor to make it too obvious when Campion is holding things back for the purposes of the big reveal. She does pretty well, on the whole, but I did manage to guess the who and the why and even had an inkling of part of the how. There was still enough that I couldn’t work out, though, to keep me turning the pages quite happily until Campion explained it all at the end.

I’m still not sure why Allingham gets ranked as one of the Queens of Crime – for my money she’s not a patch on ECR Lorac, for example, who is a “forgotten” author. But I suspect that’s more down to my subjective taste regarding style than an objective judgement about quality – I really don’t like the snobbery that comes with aristocratic detectives – and there’s no doubt Allingham has her fair share of dedicated fans. I don’t think I’ll ever class myself as one of them, but I find her quite entertaining for an occasional read. And, overall, for me this was one of the more enjoyable of the Campion novels.

Book 4 of 20

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Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

There’s only one word for it…

🙂 🙂 😐

When Jim Henderson receives an invitation to spend the weekend at Thrackley, the country house of a man called Edwin Carson, he’s puzzled. Although the older man claims to have been a friend of Jim’s long dead father, Jim doesn’t remember ever meeting him or even hearing his name. However, Jim’s found it difficult to get employment since he came back from the war, so the idea of some free food and free accommodation are very welcome, especially when he discovers his old school friend Freddie Usher has also been invited. Carson is a collector of jewels, and it’s not long before the reader discovers his methods of collection aren’t always honest. Over the course of the weekend, Jim will find himself surrounded by thefts, missing persons, murder and attractive women.

When I say that I preferred this to the only other book of Melville’s that I’ve read, Quick Curtain, I have to qualify that by pointing out that I thought Quick Curtain was pretty awful. This one isn’t awful, but it’s not good either. The plot is a mess, full of inconsistencies, holes, continuity errors and coincidences. There’s no mystery aspect since we know early on that Carson is a villain, so it all comes down to whether he’ll escape or be caught. It’s redeemed somewhat by the enjoyable banter between Jim and his old school friend, and by the light-hearted romance that Jim has with Carson’s daughter, Mary. This keeps it readable, so that despite my harrumphing every time the plot took another leap away from credibility, I managed to stick with it quite easily to the end.

And what an end! Sometimes the word silly doesn’t cut it, while farcical implies a level of skill that is distinctly missing here. Throw in a lot of big reveals, have some terrible things happen and no one seeming to much care, have the police totally laid back about the various criminal acts that have been carried out by the guests, and really, what is the right word to describe this shambles? The one that seems best to fit is preposterous. And what’s even more preposterous is that it seems to have been quite a hit when it came out, even being made into a movie. (Note to self: don’t watch it…)

So not awful, but close…

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

Book 2 of 20

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The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Starring Marina Gregg…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

From the oldest inhabitants to the newest of newcomers in the new housing development, all of St Mary Mead is agog. Gossington Hall has been sold, and the buyer is the famous movie actress Marina Gregg and her fourth – or is it fifth? – husband, film producer Jason Rudd. The villagers’ first chance to see the star up close is when Marina hosts a charity event in support of the St John’s Ambulance Society. While most of the villagers are restricted to attending the fête in the grounds of the Hall, a select few are invited to join Miss Gregg inside for cocktails. One of these lucky people is Heather Badcock, local representative of the Ambulance Society and lifelong fan of Marina Gregg. In fact, it’s while she’s boring Marina with a long story about how they met once before long ago that Mrs Badcock is taken suddenly ill, and then dies. Mrs Bantry, the previous owner of the Hall, witnesses the whole thing and rushes off to relay the story to her old friend, Miss Jane Marple…

First published in 1962, this is one of the later Christie stories, at the tail end of her own golden age, just before the quality of her books began to show serious decline. There is a bit of rambling and repetitiveness in this one, but not too much, and the portrayal of the changes to the village and a very elderly Miss Marple coping with modern life are great. I always feel that in these later books especially, Christie used Miss Marple as a conduit through which to muse on her own reactions to ageing and the changes in society.

Marina Gregg was played by the beautiful and much-married Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 film, opposite a marvellous performance from Kim Novak as Lola Brewster, her rival and now to be her co-star. This is a bit of a deviation from the plot of the book but the two women ham it up for all they’re worth and make the parts so much their own that now, when I read the book, it’s them I see in the roles. I always felt that Marina’s life mirrored Elizabeth Taylor’s own scandalous (for the time) life, and wondered if Agatha Christie had had her in mind while writing. However, wikipedia tells me Christie probably had a different actress in mind, but Marina will always be Elizabeth Taylor to me! (Do not look this up on wikipedia if you intend to read the book, as it is a major plot spoiler.)

Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to the case. He already knows Miss Marple from a previous case so has no hesitation in discussing this one with her and seeking her assistance in understanding the locals. It’s good to have Mrs Bantry back too – one of my favourite occasional characters. I find it a little sad to see Miss Marple quite so old and physically frail in this one, although her mind is still as sharp as ever. But the star is the star – Marina Gregg’s personality and presence dominate the book, and Christie gives an excellent and credible portrayal of the mixture of egocentricity and vulnerability of this woman, always on show, never able to be scruffy or rude, loved by so many but unable to find true happiness in her private life.

….“She’s suffered a great deal in her life. A large part of the suffering has been her own fault, but some of it hasn’t. None of her marriages has been happy except, I’d say, this last one. She’s married to a man now who loves her dearly and who’s loved her for years. She’s sheltering in that love, and she’s happy in it. At least, at the moment she’s happy in it. One can’t say how long all that will last. The trouble with her is that either she thinks that at last she’s got to that spot or place or that moment in her life where everything’s like a fairy tale come true, that nothing can go wrong, that she’ll never be unhappy again; or else she’s down in the dumps, a woman whose life is ruined, who’s never known love and happiness and who never will again.”
….He added dryly, “If she could only stop halfway between the two it’d be wonderful for her, and the world would lose a fine actress.”

The plot is great, with one of Christie’s best motives at the root of it. It is fair play but I’d be amazed if anyone gets the whole thing – the who perhaps would be possible, but the why is brilliantly hidden in plain sight. One of my pleasures in re-reading these Christies is knowing the solution and so being able to spot how cleverly she conceals the real clues among the red herrings. She hardly ever cheats and it’s a joy to see a mistress of the craft at work. And, of course, Joan Hickson is, as always, the perfect narrator for the Miss Marple books. Great stuff!

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

An Alpine holiday…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Book cover and link to Amazon product pageA group of young people are off on a trip to the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. With sixteen places in the group, it’s been a mammoth job to get everyone organised and some last minute cancellations mean that a few places have been filled by friends of friends, not directly known by other people in the group. So when some money goes missing from one of the hotel rooms, suddenly suspicion begins to threaten what had been up till then a most enjoyable jaunt. Meantime, back in London, a body has been found burned beyond recognition in a house fire. The police soon have reason to suspect this was no accident however, and the print of a ski-stick in the ground outside the house has Inspector Rivers intrigued…

Carol Carnac is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote the Inspector MacDonald series of police procedurals under another pseudonym, ECR Lorac. Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been republishing so I was intrigued to see if I liked her as much in this incarnation, with Inspector Rivers as the lead.

The skiing party is a lot of fun, with the main characters being on the whole an extremely likeable bunch of privileged but not horribly snobbish English people, delighted to escape from the post-war rationing and dismal January days at home for pristine snow and sunshine, skiing by day and dancing the nights away. As Lorac, I’ve commented many times on how great she is at creating the settings she chooses, and that’s apparent in this one too. The freezing weather in both the beautiful Alps and in dank and dreary London is brilliantly described and contrasted, and adds much to the enjoyment.

The one real weakness of the book is the size of the skiing party. Sixteen characters are far too many in a short book – most of them never become more than names, and many have no part in the story at all. Very few of them have space to develop distinct personalities and I was still having to think hard to remember who was who even as the book neared the end. The introduction tells us Carnac based it on a real skiing party of which she’d been a member, but it would have worked much better in the book if she’d cut the cast list down to a more manageable size.

However, I still enjoyed the picture she gave of these young people participating in what was still a rather unusual sport at that time. While it was still mostly the preserve of the elite, Carnac shows how foreign travel was gradually becoming more accessible to ordinary working people in the years after the war. She also reminded me of the days, which I only just remember, when people were restricted in the amount of currency they were allowed to take out of the country, and how problematic this could make foreign travel.

The London end is equally well done, and Rivers and his sidekick Lancing make an excellent team. The plot is a little convoluted, but works, and shows the gradual change in detection methods towards forensic evidence, with much nifty stuff around fingerprints. Both men are coincidentally skiers themselves, so when the trail leads to the Alps they can’t wait to get over there. And it all leads up as you’d expect to a thrillerish ending on a mountain slope in the middle of a snow-storm.

Thoroughly enjoyable despite the overabundance of characters – I’ll be looking out for more of her books in her Carnac persona now too.

20 Books of Summer logoBook 1

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

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The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

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The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

A mystery to me…

😦

This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. There are twelve stories and I made it through almost four of them before I decided I’d rather be cleaning the cats’ litter tray.

Sometimes when I dislike a popular book or author, I can see why the world loves them even although I don’t. But not with Father Brown, I fear. Nonsensical plots, frequently poor writing and ridiculous scenes of the priest with a few words bringing hardened criminals to repentance leave me struggling to find anything to admire in these. Throw in Chesterton’s supercilious disdain for anyone from a creed other than his own – i.e., Roman Catholicism – with his sanctimonious sneering reserved especially for atheists and Jews, and I find the stories often actively unpleasant as well as unentertaining.

Let me give you an example, which includes major spoilers for one of the stories, The Queer Feet. A group of rich gentlemen have a monthly dining club during which they use their own valuable set of fish knives and forks. On this evening, while they dine in one room of a restaurant, Father Brown sits locked in in another, writing a letter on behalf of a dying man. (Why locked in? No idea, other than that the plot requires him to be unable to open the door and look out.) Hearing footsteps outside in the corridor, he miraculously extrapolates from the sound of them a) that something queer is going on b) that it must be someone pretending to be a gentleman part of the time and a waiter the other part and c) that therefore this individual must be stealing the valuable cutlery about which Brown miraculously seems to know and d) that the criminal is getting way with this imposture because gentlemen and waiters all wear black jackets and it is therefore impossible to tell them apart. Having worked all this out on the basis of the sound of the footsteps, and having then discovered that there’s a second door in his locked room which has been unlocked all along *eyeroll*, Brown tackles the dangerous criminal, and with a few words persuades him to repent, turn over the loot and depart to lead a better life. I think my favourite line, showing Chesterton’s poor grasp of either writing or arithmetic – perhaps both – must be:

The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told.

Challenge details:
Book: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

Still, at least that line made me smile, unlike this, from the following story, one of several snide remarks about Jews and their supposed love of money:

…squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Café Riche.

Other reviews inform me he’s even worse later about Indians and Chinese people. Of its time, of course, and I’d doubtless have been able to overlook it had I been enjoying the stories more.

Then there are the moments when he reaches for the heights of grandiose melodrama, and misses by a mile:

Lady Galloway screamed. Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now. They saw the proud, white face of the Scotch aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house. The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

What can I say? Obviously other people see something quite different when they read these stories or they wouldn’t be as lastingly popular as they are. For me, they’re a 1-star fail, but statistically speaking there’s a good chance you’d love them. Go figure.

Goodreads ratings

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Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Simply not cricket!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mysteries from the Golden Age, this contains 15 stories, as usual with a mix of well-known and lesser known authors. As the title and cover imply, the theme in this instance is sport, and a different sport features in every story. There are the sports that are well known for skulduggery – horse racing and boxing, for example – and the sports which are usually, or were at that time, held to be the squeaky clean preserve of the English gentleman – rowing, rugby and, of course, cricket. In some of the stories the sport matters in terms of the plot, while in others it merely forms an interesting background to a more traditional mystery.

As always, I found the quality variable, although in this one most of the stories fell into the middling range for me, between average and good, with just a couple standing out as excellent and only one which I thought was so bad it didn’t really merit inclusion. There were only one or two where I felt my lack of understanding of the sport in question got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, and since I’m not very sports-minded this would probably be even less of a problem for most people.

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

The Boat Race Murder by David Winser – Set in the run up to the all-important annual race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, this is a story of competitiveness and ambition taken to extremes. It’s very well written, told by a first-person narrator who was in the Oxford team. It does assume a bit more understanding of the technicalities of rowing than I possess, but it gives a great and very authentic feeling background to what it’s like to be an “Oxford Blue”, the hard work and teamsmanship, and all the pressures and celebrity that come with being at the top of an elite sport.

The 1930 Oxford Crew

Death at the Wicket by Bernard Newman – During a match, a cricketer is struck by the ball and later collapses and dies. It appears to have been an accident, but was it? Our narrator is not convinced and sets out to investigate. The cricketing story here assumes the reader understands the dangers and ethical questions around “bodyline” bowling – a technique that came in the 1930s whereby the bowler deliberately aims the ball with the intention of intimidating the batsman, leading to many injuries. It was (is?) considered deeply unsporting. However, the story is well written and ultimately depends on human nature rather than cricketing shenanigans, so is enjoyable even for people who don’t know their googly from their silly mid-off.

The Drop Shot by Michael Gilbert – as two men watch a squash match, one tells the other of another match years earlier that resulted in the death of one of the players. This is very well told and doesn’t require any knowledge of squash to understand the plot. It’s not a mystery – more of a morality tale about greed and competitiveness, and how fate makes sure one gets one’s comeuppance in the end. I enjoyed it a lot.

Dangerous Sport by Celia Fremlin – the sport here is really incidental to the story, being merely that a school sports day provides the backdrop to one of the major events. It’s the story of a mistress who is tired of her lover lying to her, especially since he’s not very good at it. She likes to catch him out in his lies, but has gradually come to realise that his wife and family will always be more important to him than she is. So she decides to do something about it. This suspense story has an almost noir feel to it, in that no one is likeable and there’s no hope for a happy ending. It’s extremely well told and psychologically convincing, especially of the thoughts and feelings of the mistress. I shall look out for more from this new-to-me author.

And it also has a Holmes story, which seems to be a regular feature of these collections, certainly for the last several anyway. This time it’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter (rugby) – not a particularly strong mystery but, as always, a very well told and interesting story.

So plenty of variety and lots to enjoy, and a great way of participating in some strenuous sports without leaving the sofa. Recommended.

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

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Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Double the pleasure…

Every now and then the British Library produces a twofer in their Crime Classics series – two full-length novels by the same author in one volume – and these always feel like an extra special treat, especially when the author is one of the ones who has become a readers’ favourite, as John Bude apparently has. I must admit, although I’ve enjoyed the previous Bude novels I’ve read, he hadn’t become one of my personal stars, but I hoped maybe these two would raise him up to that status. And they did! I loved both of these very different novels…

Death in White Pyjamas

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having made his fortune in business, Sam Richardson is now enjoying his middle years by using his wealth to support a small theatre company, led by director Basil Barnes. Barnes’ artistic drive and Richardson’s knowledge of the type of thing he himself likes to see performed on stage make for a winning combination, and Richardson’s wealth allows Basil to hire a core group of established actors and actresses along with a few promising newcomers. In the winter months they perform in the London theatre Richardson has bought, and during the summer closed-season he throws open his country home to any of the regulars who need a little break or for the group to gather for early rehearsals of the next season’s plays. This summer most of the company are staying at Richardson’s house, while Basil has bought a little cottage close by and is in the process of fitting it out to his own taste. However, as in any group, there are tensions and jealousies under the surface, and murder is waiting in the wings…

This is one of these mysteries where we slowly get to know all the characters and possible motives before the crime is committed, so my advice is – don’t read the blurb on the back or the introduction until after you’ve read the book! Half the fun is seeing all the convoluted threads that seem to give each of the characters reasons to want rid of one or more of the other ones, and the identity of the eventual victim is not at all clear until the murder actually happens. It almost gives two mysteries – the first, who will be killed, revealed around halfway through, and then the second, who is the killer?

The characterisation is great. There are all the theatrical stereotypes – the old character actor, the beautiful young ingénue, the aspiring playwright, the predatory director, the money-minded producer – but they’re all brought beautifully to life with a lot of warmth and humour, so that they don’t feel at all stale. Once the victim is known, the whodunit is reasonably easy to guess, but the howdunit aspect is great fun, and as with the best vintage crime there are happy endings for those who deserve them and justice for those who don’t. Excellent!

Death Knows No Calendar

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his old friend Lydia Arundel is found dead in her locked artist’s studio with a gun close at hand, Major Tom Boddy finds he can’t believe that she was the type of woman to ever contemplate suicide. So he sets out to investigate, armed only with his extensive knowledge of detective fiction and ably assisted by his batman, Syd Gammon. Although he has his suspicions from an early stage, he soon realises there are several people with the motive to do away with Lydia, a woman whom men fell in love with too easily, and who enjoyed her power over them too much. But even if he works out whodunit, he knows he’ll never be able to persuade the police that she was murdered unless he can solve the mystery of how the crime was done…

There’s more than one “impossible” scenario hidden in this gem of a book, which will please fans of the locked room style of mystery. But for me the greatest joy is in Major Boddy’s character – he’s one of these traditional old colonials who is scared of nothing and assumes nothing is beyond him. When he sets his mind to a task, he sees it through. But he’s also kind-hearted and, typical of the fictional type, gives the impression of being rather baffled by human behaviour, especially of the female variety. There’s so much humour in this book – I smiled and chuckled my way through it. As well as the locked room aspect, the setting is another much-loved vintage crime staple – the small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, or think they do at least. As in Death in White Pyjamas, the identity of the killer is easier to work out than the method of the crime, and in this one the amateur detection efforts of the Major and Syd are hugely entertaining. I think I enjoyed it even more than Death in White Pyjamas.

So two great books in one volume – I hereby officially declare myself a John Bude fan and now can’t wait to read more of his stuff. Doubly recommended!

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

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

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Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Gothic mystery on the Rhine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. When his body is examined it transpires he had been shot before having kerosene poured over him and being set alight. Castle Skull belonged to the famous stage magician Maleger, whose own death many years earlier was somewhat mysterious – he disappeared from the carriage of a train in motion and was found in a river below the tracks. Did he fall or was he pushed? Or did he jump? He bequeathed the spooky Castle Skull jointly to his friends, D’Aunay and the actor Myron Alison and it has been empty except for an old caretaker ever since. Situated on the other side of the Rhine from Alison’s own house, the castle is built in the shape of a death’s-head gazing out over the river, windows placed to look like eyes, and the battlements resembling the teeth of the skull. But why was Alison there, and who killed him? D’Aunay doesn’t have faith in the local police, hence his request to the famous Parisian detective. But the local police have also called in an expert – von Arnheim of the German police, an old adversary of Bencolin’s when they were on opposite sides during the war…

The story is told by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s young American friend who acts as his sidekick. When they arrive at Alison’s house, they find an assorted bunch of people in residence – Alison’s hearty poker-playing sister Agatha, concert violinist Émile Levasseur, modern youngsters Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan who may or may not be in love, and D’Aunay and his beautiful but unhappy wife Isobel. Bencolin and von Arnheim are soon in more or less friendly competition to find the solution to the mystery, but there’s never any doubt in Jeff’s or the reader’s mind as to who will win out in the end. After all, it’s 1931 and we couldn’t have the German win, now could we?

This is the third book in the Bencolin and Marle series, written when Carr was a young man still learning his craft. Like the first, It Walks by Night, this is as much horror as mystery, although the decadence of It Walks by Night has given way to a rather more Gothic feel in this one. There is the same almost hallucinatory air to some passages, brought on by the constant consumption of vast quantities of alcohol – there’s almost a “lost generation” feel, especially to the younger characters: Sally, Dunstan and Jeff himself. Bencolin is frequently described as Mephistophelian, both in his appearance and in his almost supernatural ability to intuit the truth. Maleger’s magic was of the scary kind – Jeff saw him once when he was a boy and found his act terrifying – and it appears he liked to be just as mysterious and frightening off-stage. And the castle itself is the ultimate in Gothic – ancient, deserted, filled with hidden passages and secret chambers, and deliciously spooky.

John Dickson Carr

The plot veers into high melodrama – perhaps a little too high. I felt at points that Carr was trying too hard, piling horror on grisly horror, with a Poe-esque feel of madness underlying the whole thing. However, it’s very effective and the evil motivating the plot matches the wonderful setting of the castle perfectly, as it gradually builds towards a tense and atmospheric climax with some truly horrifying imagery. Jeff is an appealing narrator who gets involved with the characters rather than simply observing Bencolin’s methods. I didn’t get anywhere close to working it out – looking back perhaps it’s fair play, but I reckon you’d have to have a pretty fiendish mind to solve it from the clues given. Fortunately, Bencolin has just such a fiendish mind…

Marginally, I preferred It Walks by Night, but both are excellent, and in both the horror aspects arise out of purely human evil – no supernatural elements required. I don’t know whether Carr continued with the horror theme in his later work or went down a more traditional mystery route, but the strength of his writing and plotting suggests to me that he could have done either with equal success. I’m looking forward to finding out…

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

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

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

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