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

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R. Benson

Truly baffling…

😐 😐

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for the Christmas stocking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

Beware writers!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

Searching for Cicely…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

Back on form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tragedy at Law (Francis Pettigrew 1) by Cyril Hare

Dispensing justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. He is rather a pompous man, full of pride in his own lofty position, and though he is a good judge on the whole he can be rather harsh on occasions, both in his sentencing and towards the various barristers who appear before him in defence of their clients. So when he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously, as does his wife, Hilda, who sets out to ensure his safety, roping in young Derek Marshall, the coincidentally named Judge’s Marshal who accompanies the Judge on his travels.

This one has rather an odd structure in that it’s mostly about a crime that hasn’t yet been committed, and there’s no certainty that it will be, or that it’s even being seriously contemplated. The various threats against the Judge gradually escalate into odd happenings that may be accidental or may be deliberate, and this creates an air of suspicion and growing tension as the Judge and his entourage move from town to town dispensing justice. Although it’s written in the third person, we see it for the most part from Derek Marshall’s perspective. He’s a young man who has been turned down for service in the army on health grounds, and feels as if he ought to be doing something more useful to help the ongoing war effort. He’s new to the Assizes, and so is the perfect vehicle for Hare to use to describe this rather archaic (and now defunct) system of travelling justice. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards informs us that Cyril Hare was drawing on his personal experience – “Fifteen years spent practising at the Bar, and a spell as a judge’s marshal, meant that he was ideally suited to describing life on a judicial circuit.”

Challenge details:
Book:
66
Subject Heading: The
Justice Game
Publication Year: 19
42

Despite the mass of detail about the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Assizes and some detours into points of law, this never gives the feeling of a dry information dump. Hare makes the Judge’s life and position a central part of the plot, so that all the detail feels necessary, never redundant. The plot develops quite slowly, but it never feels draggy because the writing and characterisation are so well done, and there’s some gentle humour which stops it from becoming too dark. Hare shows us that justice is not blind – that it tends to come down harder on “the common man” than on those in high social positions, as we see when the Judge himself crosses the criminal line by accident and everyone immediately conspires to hush the matter up, if possible. It may not be possible, though, and this forms a secondary strand, especially when events begin to suggest that the two matters – the threats and the Judge’s misdemeanour – might somehow be connected.

Cyril Hare

The book is billed as the first “Francis Pettigrew” mystery. Pettigrew is a barrister whose practice takes him round the courts of the Southern Circuit, so that he often finds himself appearing before Judge Barber. But although he does play a significant role in this one and is a very enjoyable character, he doesn’t feel like the main one – maybe Hare developed him as a central character and amateur detective more fully in later books. In this one, it’s young Derek and the Judge’s wife, Hilda, who are most prominent, and the Judge himself, of course. Hilda is a wonderful character, who reminded me not a little of a less caricatured version of that other famous, later, legal Hilda – She Who Must Be Obeyed, from the Rumpole books. This Hilda also bullies and cajoles her husband and is more ambitious for his success than he is himself. However, she’s an intriguing characterisation – a brilliant, qualified lawyer in her own right who, because of her sex, wasn’t taken seriously either by the men in her profession or by clients who wanted to be defended by a ‘real’ lawyer – i.e., a man. Now she acts as a kind of power behind the throne, often arguing points of law with the Judge, and it’s rumoured that his judgements often have more to do with her opinion than his. Hare shows a good deal of sympathy towards women’s exclusion from full participation in the legal profession in this era.

I’ve tried to say very little about the plot because it develops slowly and not knowing what will happen makes it more enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and looking back at the end I could see that Hare had fairly sprinkled all the information needed for the reader to work it out. Needless to say I didn’t! Yet another vintage mystery writer that I will be adding to my growing “must read more” list! Highly recommended.

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

Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage mystery stories from the British Library and Martin Edwards, this time themed around animals, birds and insects but happily they are all in the nature of clues rather than victims! There are fourteen stories in total, as usual including some very well known authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace, some that were new to me, such as Garnett Radcliffe and Clifford Witting, and some that have become stalwarts of this series, such as HC Bailey and F Tennyson Jesse.

This was an even more mixed bag than usual for me. Although there were several excellent stories, there were an equal number that I felt were quite poor. Overall my individual ratings for each story averaged out to just over 3½ for the fourteen, so that’s the rating I’m giving the book (rounded up). However, the better stories are very enjoyable, so if you don’t mind varying quality there’s still plenty in here to make reading it time well spent.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – This is an unusual one in that it’s told by Holmes himself, and Watson isn’t in it. Holmes has retired to the Sussex coast and is present when a teacher from the local school staggers up the beach, mutters something that sounds like “the lion’s mane” and promptly dies. His back is covered in weals as if from a scourge. Suspicion falls on another teacher, but Holmes has his own theory. I can’t tell you what creature is involved in this one since it would be a major spoiler!

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe – a colonial tale. A Rajah keeps a pit of vipers where he sentences criminals to die. There is a pole in the pit where the condemned person can hang above the vipers until their strength gives way and they fall to their doom. It’s a spectator sport! Our narrator tells of one man, unfairly sentenced, and builds some great tension as the man hangs over the pit. The story is complete tosh and has some unfortunate outdated racial stuff, but it’s well written and very entertaining and has a delicious sting in the tail which genuinely took me by surprise.

The Yellow Slugs by HC Bailey – a Reggie Fortune story. He is called in by Superintendent Bell to a troubling case. A small boy was seen trying to drown his little sister. Both survived and are in hospital. There seems little doubt that the boy meant to kill her, but Reggie wants to know why. He believes that there must have been a very strong reason for a child of that age to act that way, especially since the boy seems to love his sister. This is a chilling and disturbing story. I’ve read a couple of Fortune stories where children have been involved and they seem to bring out his strong sense of justice and an underlying anger, presumably the author’s, at some of the social concerns of the day. The title tells you which creature is involved, but you’ll need to read it if you want to know how!

The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt – A student is in lodgings when he is visited by a friendly but thieving jackdaw, who makes off with anything shiny he can find. But there’s a man going around the neighbourhood shooting birds, and he seems to be unable to tell the difference between jackdaws and crows (which everyone seems to think it’s OK to shoot).The student is scared for the jackdaw’s safety so decides to try to save it. This is very well done and all the stuff about the jackdaw’s behaviour is lovely. The mystery is weaker, but the entertainment of the story is all in the telling. No major plot spoilers, but for the worried I can confirm the jackdaw isn’t harmed.

So some excellent and varied stories and, as always, despite the varying quality in these anthologies, they are a great way of being introduced to new authors to look out for.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

Run, Rabbits, Run…

😦

Hugh Everton bumps into some old acquaintances in a hotel bar and accepts an invitation to dine with retired Judge Bath and his much younger and glamorous wife, Lucy. Tensions are high, since it becomes clear that Everton and Lucy once had a fling, and the other two guests, Atkinson and Cady, both seem to be watching the clock carefully, as if waiting for something to happen. And something does! A few minutes after the Judge has retired to bed, a shot is fired, and he is found dead on his bedroom floor. But by the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared…

While the world of vintage crime is a wondrous thing in which I’ve spent many happy hours over the last few years, occasionally I’m reminded that some authors become “forgotten” for a reason. I had a mixed reaction to Bennett’s earlier entry in the BL’s Crime Classics series, The Man Who Didn’t Fly, but this time my reaction was pure – this has to rank as one of the worst books in the series to date. I got so tired of it that I more or less gave up two-thirds of the way through, skimming the last few chapters to find out whodunit, although I can’t say I cared much.

There are three problems with it – major problems, that don’t leave much in the way of positives. The first is the truly dreadful style. The second is the convoluted and overly complicated plot. The third is the clumsy characterisation of a bunch of truly unlikeable, pretty despicable people – and that includes the hero. Some writers have a natural flow that may not be especially literary but is great for telling an interesting story. Others write so well that the writing itself can make up for some weaknesses in plot or characterisation. And then there’s Bennett. It seems to me as if she thought up a story (I’m sure there must be one buried in there somewhere) and then decided to experiment with style, with the end result being that the whole thing reads like a pastiche of the more realist mystery novels that were just then, in 1952, coming into vogue. It’s not dark enough to be noir, but she has attempted to give it that noir atmosphere of amorality and a kind of existential despair. She makes everything deliberately vague, not in a plot sense but in a writing sense, so that the book never flows – all the time the reader is left trying to catch up with things that should be made plain, but aren’t: for example, starting chapters with ‘she’ rather than a character name so that for the first couple of paragraphs we don’t know which character we’re reading about. I found it all intensely irritating.

Margot Bennett

Although it’s written in third person, we see the action almost exclusively through Everton’s eyes. Everton is a weak and cowardly man with a criminal background and a depressed and depressing outlook on life. He doesn’t respect anyone, and so it’s hard for the reader to get past his self-pity and misanthropy to see any good in any of the other characters. Most of the other characters sneer at him, and he sneers right back. But he also sneers at the one or two who try to be nice to him, which makes him deeply unpleasant to spend time with. I’m convinced Bennett thought that having an unlikeable lead character was terribly “modern”, and in that she’s right – that’s exactly why the Golden Age died as authors began to despise the conventions that had made the genre golden.

The plot starts out as a straightforward mystery, a mix of whodunit and howdunit, but soon descends into a convoluted mess, incorporating everything from blackmail to fugitives from the failed Fascist regimes of Europe. If she’d stuck to the basic plot it might have been a fairly good, if run of the mill, murder mystery, but each new chapter seemed to be adding another rabbit for the reader to chase, with the result that this reader lost all interest in trying to keep track of the original bunny.

No, I’m afraid this one was a major miss for me.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Careful with that knitting needle…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The long-term residents of Presteignton Hydro are mostly an elderly bunch, solid middle-class people, retired military men or the wives or widows of the same, and the occasional member of the titled gentry. So beautiful young Miss Blake stands out and becomes the subject of envy and gossip among the women and the target of lust among the elderly men. When she is found dead with a knitting needle through her brain, Inspector Palk finds himself up to his armpits in suspects, but soon catches his murderer… or so he thinks. And then another woman is found dead…

This is quite a fun mystery in the typical Golden Age style. The Hydro setting means there is a small circle of suspects, each with secrets and possible motives, while the police detective soon has to give way to the talented amateur – not that Mr Winkley, with his background in the military and his links with Scotland Yard, is exactly an amateur, but he doesn’t work through the normal police structure. He also doesn’t show up until the book is more than half over, so although poor Palk is upstaged at the end, it’s him we spend most time with in the early parts of the investigation.

Rutland has a keen eye for class and snobbery, and has a lot of fun with her characters, from the lowly housemaids all the way up to the not-quite aristocratic Lady Warme (her title a relic of her dead husband, knighted for being the man behind “Warme’s Patent Cornflour”, as her fellow residents can’t help reminding her from time to time). Palk is also fun, though we rather laugh at him than with him which I’m never as keen on. He jumps to conclusions, and having jumped is reluctant to ever admit he may have been wrong, so even the introduction of a second corpse, murdered in the same way, doesn’t shake his belief that he has caught the right person for the first murder. The second murder must be a copycat, he feels. But then the third body turns up and even he has to admit that three separate murderers might be stretching coincidence too far…

Although I enjoyed reading this overall, there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me and that I felt stopped it from reaching the top ranks of vintage crime. The first murder was of a perfect Golden Age victim – mysterious, shady background, not quite suited to her surroundings. The second victim, however, is a young woman who didn’t “deserve” to die and she left behind grieving relatives, whom I felt Rutland didn’t handle particularly well. The third murder was of someone else who, in my opinion, was too innocent to be a suitable victim, and I found it hard to reconcile the overall tone with these latter two murders. I also felt that the motive was a bit hackneyed and also a little obvious – I had a good idea of who the murderer was from quite early on, and also of why they were doing it.

As a result of these points I enjoyed the first half considerably more than the second. The characterisation of all the residents is well done – not too in depth and perhaps a little caricatured as “types”, but no less fun for that. As well as the Cornflour Widow and a variety of others, there’s the nurse seeking a husband, the put-upon doctor having to deal with as much hypochondria as genuine illness, the rivalry between the elderly men for beautiful Miss Blake’s attention, and the aspiring mystery writer whom Rutland uses to poke gentle fun at her own craft. In such a small, enclosed community there’s plenty of gossip along with the usual petty squabbles and resentments of those with too much time on their hands. Based on the first half it was heading for the full five stars from me, but I found my enthusiasm wore a little thin when the events darkened to a point where I found the light, humorous tone increasingly jarring.

Four stars, then, and I’d be happy to read more of Rutland in the future, though it appears she only wrote three books and then stopped, for reasons unknown.

This was The People’s Choice winner for September, and another good one – you’re on a roll, People!

Book 9 of 12

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

On a personal note…

Last week I had to make the difficult decision to have my dear little Tuppence put to sleep after a short but terminal illness. I tell you this not to seek condolences – I know fellow pet lovers out there know how hard these things are – but because I’ve always joked about her on the blog and didn’t want her disappearance to go unexplained. She was a little cat with a big personality, and her brother Tommy and I are missing her very much.

The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth

Dangerous inheritance…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chloe Dane’s family were once rich and lived in their ancestral home, Danesborough. But the family fell on hard times and now Chloe, at twenty, is an orphan, working in a dressmaker’s shop in the little town of Maxton. She’s not a languishing heroine though – she’s full of life and finds plenty of ways to have fun, and being very pretty is never short of admirers. Now her best friend is getting married and going off to India and Chloe is feeling that she needs a change. Out of the blue she is contacted by the new owner of Danesborough, a sort of distant cousin also called Dane, who is looking for someone to leave the property to when he dies. Chloe spends a week with him in Danesborough and develops an instinctive dislike of him. But then he dies, and she finds herself mistress of the house – or at least she will be when she comes of age in a few months time. Then, in the safe inside the black cabinet in the drawing room she discovers a dangerous secret and suddenly finds herself in grave danger, not knowing whom she can trust…

This is a lot of fun! Chloe is a lovely heroine, full of charm, brave, a little foolish, but determined to do the right thing at all costs. She has two main admirers and the reader quickly realises one of them is probably a baddie while the other is a goodie, but it’s not clear which is which till the end. The romantic element is as important as the mystery, and a lot of the suspense is around whether Chloe will pick the right man, both for her present safety and her future happiness. Both men are rather charming in different ways, and I must admit that, like Chloe, I changed my mind about which was the good guy several times through the course of the book.

There are also people who both Chloe and the reader know for sure are baddies – old Mr Dane’s secretary, Wroughton, and his friend Stran, who are determined to get hold of the documents from the safe inside the black cabinet. The only way they can do this is to find the combination to the lock, which only Chloe knows. So they need her alive, and they need to find some way to pressure or trick her into giving them the combination. And until Chloe reaches her majority, she can’t simply sack Wroughton and get rid of him. But she is equally determined that they won’t get the documents…

Patricia Wentworth

The characterisation is great, of Chloe especially – a hugely likeable heroine – but of all the other characters too. Wroughton is ostentatiously bad, but several of the other characters are beautifully ambiguous, both to Chloe and the reader, so that it’s impossible to fully trust anyone. Is Wroughton’s wife a poor little bullied creature who wants to help Chloe, or is she her husband’s willing partner, playing a part? Martin and Michael, both apparently in love with Chloe, but is one of them a member of the gang, trying to trick her? Are the servants loyal to Chloe, or to Wroughton? Chloe doesn’t know, and nor do we.

Wentworth puts poor Chloe through peril after peril, and she does a great job of building the tension as the story progresses. But it never gets too bleak – Chloe’s general high spirits mean she’s never down-hearted for long, and her natural courage and determination may falter occasionally but always spring back. And, although she gets help along the way from unexpected quarters, in the end it’s her own strength of character that carries her through. Thoroughly enjoyable – I raced through it, and am looking forward to reading more of Wentworth’s books soon.

This was The People’s Choice winner for August. Well done, People – you picked a good one!

Book 8 of 12

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Till Death Do Us Part (Gideon Fell 15) by John Dickson Carr

He didn’t see that coming…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Dick Markham’s brand new fiancée, Lesley Grant, shoots a fortune teller at the village fair, it looks accidental. But then the injured fortune teller reveals himself as a famous Home Office pathologist, and tells Dick that he had recognised Lesley as a serial poisoner of her previous husbands and lover, but that the police have never been able to get enough evidence to arrest her. Naturally Dick is shocked and unwilling to believe this, but he realises he knows very little about Lesley – she appeared in the village of Six Ashes just a few months earlier, and he knows nothing of her life before that. So reluctantly he agrees to help find the proof the police need. But later that night, the pathologist dies, in exactly the way he described Lesley’s former crimes as having been done – his body found in a locked room, his death by poisoning made to look like suicide. Then the famous amateur detective Gideon Fell arrives in the village…

I’ve loved Carr’s earliest books starring his French police detective, Henri Bencolin, but this was my first introduction to the detective he is best remembered for, Gideon Fell. In style, this is more in line with the normal Golden Age tradition, without the delicious atmosphere of decadent horror that pervades the Bencolin books. Carr is considered one of the greatest proponents of the locked room mystery, or impossible crime, and the emphasis in this one is very much on that aspect, although there’s plenty of room for some good characterisation and lots of clever misdirection.

On first meeting, I found I wasn’t wholly enamoured with Gideon Fell. He’s one of these arrogant know-it-all detectives, who is extremely rude to everyone around him, and he keeps his cards close to his chest except for the occasional enigmatic utterance. Perhaps he’ll grown on me as I read more of the books. Dick Markham, however, is a very likeable lead character, and his confusion over his feelings about Lesley is done very well. There is a mild love triangle, in that there is another woman everyone in the village expected Dick to marry before Lesley came along, and she provides another layer to Dick’s jumbled feelings. Lesley herself, as is necessary in a chief suspect, is not so well revealed – Carr very successfully keeps her ambiguous so that I swayed back and forwards many times as to whether she was guilty or innocent. If she is innocent, there are plenty of other characters who may have done the deed, though Carr doesn’t concentrate much on possible motives for them – the focus is more on how the deed was done than why. The same problem applies if Lesley is guilty – how did she do it?

John Dickson Carr

The locked room solution is excellent, and I think fair play for those who have the kind of mind that can work these things out. I almost never can, and this was no exception, but at least I understood the explanation at the end of how it was done and felt it was all quite feasible, which is considerably more than I can say for a lot of impossible crimes. The whodunit solution I found to be a bit of an anti-climax after all the intriguing ambiguity and false scents which came before, though again in retrospect I think Carr gave enough clues for the discerning reader to be able to beat the detective – not this reader though! But despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I enjoyed it very much. Often I find locked room mysteries are so focused on the puzzle they can be a bit dull, but Carr gives enough weight to the characterisation and Dick’s inner turmoil to keep it interesting. Personally I prefer the style of the Bencolin books, but that’s merely a matter of subjective preference due to my love of the horror aspects of those. For people who love a more traditional locked room mystery, then I can quite see why Fell would be the detective of choice. I look forward to getting to know him better.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Darkness at Pemberley by TH White

Mr Darcy would have been horrified!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

darkness at pemberleyWhen Inspector Buller is called to a Cambridge college to the murder scene of a young man who has been shot, it quickly appears that the solution is easy – another man is found dead in the building opposite, also shot but apparently by his own hand. The obvious conclusion is that the second man killed the first and then in a fit of remorse took his own life. Buller is unconvinced – he has spotted odd little things in the second man’s room that make him believe he has also been the victim of an elaborate murder. Buller investigates, works out who the murderer is but can’t find the evidence to charge him. The murderer confesses, but only without witnesses and mostly to boast about his own cleverness. Buller, disgusted with his own failure to bring the murderer to justice, resigns from the police, which he can afford to do since he is one of those fortunate Golden Age policemen with private means.

That’s all in the nature of a prologue. The real fun begins when Buller tells the story to his friends, brother and sister Charles and Elizabeth Darcy, current occupants of Pemberley. Yes, that Pemberley! Charles, who has his own reasons for hating the idea of someone getting away with murder, decides to stick his oar in. Thus begins a romping adventure, where the murderer is trying to do away with Charles, and Buller and assorted friends, together with the faithful staff of Pemberley, are attempting to keep Charles safe.

The word that springs to mind for this is preposterous. The story is ludicrous, the credibility line doesn’t even exist, and White has thrown every possible mystery novel trope in to make a kind of glorious Irish stew – locked room, impossible crime, revenge thriller, car chase, both academic and country house settings, maniacal villain, gory deaths, mysterious drugs, poisons, amateur detectives, police, moral ambiguity, extrajudicial justice, shades of Gothic horror, touch of romance, bit of humour, dramatic thriller ending. It ought to be a complete mess, but by some miracle I can’t explain, it works! I found myself racing through it with a smile on my face, rushing through a lot of total nonsense to an ending I knew would be completely over the top, and yet enjoying it thoroughly all the way. I think the reason White gets away with it is simply that he was a very good writer, and wasn’t trying to take himself too seriously. It reads as if he had as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
8
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

Although Pemberley is the main setting and Charles and Elizabeth are descended from the original Darcy and Lizzie, there’s no attempt to make this any kind of Austen pastiche. In fact, I’m quite sure Mr Darcy would have been horrified at the behaviour of his descendants and I’m rather surprised that White restrained himself from throwing his disapproving ghost into the mix, especially since restraint doesn’t seem to have been one of White’s authorial traits. But young Elizabeth does seem to have inherited her namesake’s forceful, independent spirit, sense of humour and desire to only marry a man she can respect.

TH White-min
TH White

Martin Edwards lists this in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Singletons section – that is, authors who only wrote one mystery novel in their lives. Part of me feels it’s a pity White didn’t write more of them, but a bigger part feels that it’s probably just as well, since I really can’t imagine how he could ever have topped this, and he’d pretty much used up a lifetime’s worth of plots already in this one novel. Unique, preposterous… and great fun!

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

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Cécile is Dead (Maigret 20) by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s lapse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Cecile is DeadCécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. And worse, everyone was teasing Maigret that she kept visiting because she had a crush on him. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

Realising the aunt must already have been dead when Cécile came to see him, Maigret suspects that she knew who the murderer was and wanted to tell him directly rather than report it to the local police. He feels that if he had only taken the time to speak to her, Cécile may not have been killed. Maigret is too sensible and too experienced to blame himself for her death – he’s quite clear in his own mind that the murderer is fully responsible for that – but nevertheless his slight lapse makes him even more determined than usual to see that justice is done.

This one has quite a complicated plot for a Maigret novel, with several suspects and possible motives. Mostly it’s set in the apartment block in Bourg-la-Reine that Cécile and her aunt lived in – a block that the aunt also owned. For it turns out that she was a rich old woman, but miserly, always convinced that her relatives were scrounging from her. She was also unpleasant, treating poor Cécile like an unpaid servant, being unwilling to assist her nephew even though he was out of a job and his wife was about to have a baby, and so on. She played her many relatives off against each other, hinting to each that they would be the one to inherit when she died. But these aren’t the only suspects – rumour has it that she kept large sums of money in the apartment since she didn’t trust banks, so anyone may have decided to break in, kill her and steal the money. However, the apartment has a concierge who controls entry to the building, so that if this was what happened, it must have been one of the other tenants, or the concierge herself.

Later in the book, Maigret finds himself being accompanied on his investigations by a visiting American criminologist, Spencer Oates, who has been given the opportunity to study the great man’s method. But Maigret, as he has said in other books, doesn’t have what he thinks of as “a method” – he simply speaks to the people involved, learns as much as he can about the victim, studies the location and the timings, thinks himself into the mind of the murderer, and uses his intelligence and experience to work out what must have happened. So he uses Oates as a kind of sounding board as he develops his theory, thus allowing the reader to follow his thinking too.

There’s a sub-plot about a man, one of the tenants, who has previously been jailed for his inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Some aspects of this might jar with modern readers, as girls are shown both as vulnerable and predatory. Although it’s an unfashionable viewpoint now, I find this much more realistic than the idea that girls remain innocent angels until the day they are legally adult, so I felt this was an accurate if unflattering portrayal of adolescent girls, and also that Simenon gave a contrast in Maigret and the ex-prisoner of the response of the good man and the bad – one resisting temptation, the other preying on vulnerability.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and as always he did an excellent job of creating distinctive voices for Maigret and all the other characters.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Overall, I think this is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, and the themes and characterisation have more depth. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity and his happy home life always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir. Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Trial by media…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Franchise AffairRobert Blair’s life as a country solicitor is peaceful and contented, though just recently he’s been wondering if it isn’t just a little too contented. When he is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help with a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant – she wants someone of her own class, and that means Robert. And the case sound intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard…

The Sharpes, mother and daughter, are eminently respectable ladies, though fairly new to the neighbourhood having inherited The Franchise just a few years earlier. So the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply. The whole thing would have been written off as nonsensical, but for the fact that Betty is able to describe things in the house and grounds that she couldn’t possibly have known, since she had never been in the house for legitimate reasons. However, Grant can find no corroborating evidence and so the matter would have rested, except that the local crusading newspaper decided to take the matter up. Now the Sharpes are being vilified and harassed, and the matter is no longer only one of whether or not they will be prosecuted – it becomes imperative to prove that Betty is lying so as to clear their names completely. And for Robert it has become personal as he finds himself increasingly drawn to Marion.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 87

Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact
Publication Year: 1948

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. Although it’s billed as an Inspector Grant novel, in fact he plays only a tiny part – the real “detective” is Robert, floundering a little out of his depth since he’s never had anything to do with the criminal side of the law before, but righteously determined to do everything in his power for his clients. He’s extremely likeable, and the ambiguity over Marion and Mrs Sharpe means that for most of the novel the reader doesn’t know whether to hope his romantic feelings for Marion will blossom, or whether he’s setting himself up for a broken heart. Marion and her mother are great characters – both opinionated individualists with a healthy cynicism about their society’s prejudices, but finding that when that society cuts one off, life, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, rapidly becomes intolerable. Although the reader also finds it difficult to believe that they could be guilty, it’s equally hard to see why and how young Betty could have invented such a detailed and consistent story. It was long, long into the novel before I felt I could decide on the Sharpes’ innocence or guilt.

The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. First published in 1948, the social attitudes are very much of their time, and it becomes pretty clear that Ms Tey was probably a good old-fashioned Tory snob whose ideas on class and politics ought to have roused my rage. But actually I found them amusing, and a great, if unintentional, depiction of that particular class of ultra-conservativism which still exists today, particularly in the letters page of The Telegraph and other newspapers read mainly by the retired colonels and maiden aunts of the Shires.

It’s also a wonderful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we are all too familiar, although it happens more slowly when people must write actual literate and grammatical letters to the newspapers and wait for them to be printed rather than firing off foul-mouthed libellous tweets, as we do now that we’re so much more advanced. Tey shows how quickly mob feelings can be aroused, and how easily some people will proceed to take what they would call justice into their own hands. She also shows, though, that there are decent people in the world who will rally round and help, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

Josephine-Tey-1934
Josephine Tey

I don’t want to risk any spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the gradual revelations are very well paced so that my attention never flagged, and I found the eventual resolution completely satisfying. But more than this, I found it a highly entertaining read with all the elements that make good vintage crime so enjoyable – an intriguing mystery, an atmosphere of building tension, a likeable protagonist who is neither alcoholic nor angst-ridden, a touch of romance, a sprinkling of humour. Great stuff! I now officially forgive Josephine Tey for boring me to death with The Daughter of Time and look forward to getting to know Inspector Grant and her better.

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

Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two-Way MurderAll the young men in the neighbourhood are on their way to the Hunt Ball at Fordings, and most of them also appear to be well on the way to falling in love with lovely young Dilys Maine. It’s a foggy, misty night and local man Nick Brent offers to drive Ian Macbane, a visitor to the district, to the Ball. But Nick makes it clear Ian will have to find another lift back, since he intends to drive Dilys home. As he and Dilys return along the low road, they see something lying in the middle of the road which on inspection turns out to be the body of a dead man. Gentlemanly Nick tells Dilys to walk the remaining short distance home so she can avoid getting involved in giving a statement to the police, since her strict father doesn’t know she’s at the ball. When the police turn up they quickly realise the dead man has been murdered, but before they can find out whodunit they will have to identify him…

In my usual way, I waited till I’d read the book before I read the introduction, so was completely unaware while reading that this book was from a “lost” manuscript, never before published. Martin Edwards had heard about it from a book-dealer friend some years ago, but it’s only now, when he has for some years been editing the British Library Crime Classics series and has done so much to return ECR Lorac to the prominence she deserves, that the BL agreed to publish it. Edwards tells us they have given it a light edit, simply to remove a few repetitions and duplications, but it is substantially as written. In my view, it is right up there with her best, which means it’s very good indeed.

It has a slightly odd structure in that the main investigative viewpoint changes as the book progresses. At first, a rather unlikeable “by-the-book” policeman, Inspector Turner, is in the lead, taking statements and jumping to conclusions and generally being annoying. Then for a bit Ian Macbane is in the limelight, as he sets out to do a bit of amateur detection, driven on by his desire to protect Dilys. Finally, for the bulk of the book, Inspector Waring of the local CID takes over. He’s a complete contrast to Turner – his method is to chat to the locals, pick up on gossip, listen to rumours, and generally feel his way through all the deceptions and half-truths the suspects and witnesses are feeding him, mostly in this unfathomable desire all the men seem to have to protect beautiful but pathetic Dilys (who in my humble opinion would have been vastly improved by having to take responsibility for her own life occasionally).

I liked Waring very much – Edwards speculates that perhaps he was a new venture for Lorac, getting away from her long-running series detective, Inspector MacDonald. Unfortunately she died not long after this book was finished so we’ll never know if she had planned to give Waring more outings. I like MacDonald too, but Waring has rather more personality and works more on instinct and knowledge of human nature, rather than the somewhat more procedural feel of the MacDonald stories.

There’s a fair amount of mild humour in the book and a smidgen of romance, just the right amount. But the important thing is the underlying mystery, and it’s excellent. Lorac shows how unreliable witnesses are when they’re trying to keep all kinds of secrets that have nothing to do with the crime itself, and Waring has a natural talent for sorting the wheat from the chaff and getting to the truth. I loved the crucial clue – very original, I thought – although obviously I can’t tell you anything about it. I had gradually come to suspect the right person, but quite late on and only after several false starts, and I still couldn’t work out how the thing had been done, or why. Waring remained a few steps ahead of me all the way through, and explained everything to my satisfaction in the end. Is it fair play? Yes, I think so – I think I had all the information that Waring had, just not the brainpower to work it out!

20 books 2019Book 2 of 20

Since a lot of it involves people driving around the district on various roads or walking along bridle paths, I longed for a map – I suspect if it had been published in Lorac’s lifetime there may have been one. But Lorac is always great at her settings so I was able to gradually develop a mental map of the area as well as a clear picture of the various types of people in this small rural community – the farmers and business owners, those with a long pedigree and the newcomers, the dissolute and the self-appointed righteous guardians of other people’s morals.

A real find for Martin Edwards, and I’m grateful to him and the British Library for giving us all the opportunity to enjoy it. Lorac continues to be the brightest shining star in the BL’s sparkling firmament. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Enough to drive a girl to drink…

🤬

The CaskAs a cargo ship is unloading at the docks in London, an accident causes a cask to fall and split. Two employees of the shipping company spot that some gold coins have fallen from it so not unnaturally they decide to have a little poke around inside to see if there are more. There are, but more shockingly there is also a dead hand which appears to be attached to an equally dead woman! So begins this ridiculously over-complicated, utterly tedious investigation into the death of someone I didn’t care about at the hands of one of the tiny group of suspects about whom I cared even less. If only the cask had been full of red wine, I could have got paralytically drunk and been happy…

Dear me, that’s the nearest I’ve come to death by boredom in a while! I’ve read a few of Crofts’ extremely procedural procedurals now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, but this one is in a class of its own. Pages and pages and pages of shipping routes of casks, three detectives going over and over and over the same pieces of evidence again and again and again, zero characterisation of victims, suspects or detectives – truly it is a mystery to me how anyone manages to make it all the way through to the end of this with their sanity intact. I gave up at 53% when it became clear to me that I would soon be screaming out loud rather than just inside my head. I was “interested” enough to flick to the last chapter to find out which of the suspects had done the deed, and when I got there I realised I’d been right along – I really didn’t care!

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book:
16
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1920

And since I’m moaning, let me have a brief rant about the dialogue. People do not speak as if they are a business letter. No one – NO ONE – ever – in the history of the universe – has ever said in conversation, and I quote:

“That cask, as you see, was invoiced out via Havre and Southampton on the 30th ultimo, and yet it turned up in London on Monday, the 5th instant,…”

Good grief! And then there’s the convoluted journey of the corpse-containing cask, which turns up in Paris, London, Southampton, Le Havre and Rouen, some of them several times. Why? WHY?? Why would a murderer go to these ridiculous lengths to get rid of a body? What’s wrong with burying it in the woods or, since it crosses the Channel at least three times as far as I could gather, dumping it in the sea? And I don’t wish to lower the tone, but would a corpse travelling about in a cask for days in the height of summer remain… ahem… fresh??

(I realise the answers to the above may be given in the 47% of the book I didn’t read, but despite my mouth-frothing ranting, I DON’T CARE!!)

icrofts001p1
Freeman Wills Croft

This was apparently Crofts’ first book, so a very strong argument against reading books in order. He undoubtedly did improve, even if his later books occasionally also bore me into fits of the screaming abdabs. At least he got over the desire to make his characters talk as if they were dictating letters to their secretaries. Apparently writer and critic Julian Symons classed him as one of “the humdrum school” of mystery novelists – on the basis of this one I feel Symons was being too kind. But Martin Edwards is even kinder when he uses the euphemism “meticulous” to describe the endless mind-numbing tediosity of repeated details. Amazingly the book has sold over 100,000 copies. I downloaded my copy free and yet still feel I’ve been overcharged…

If you’ve been having too interesting a time recently and feel the desire to be bored rigid for a change, you too can read this – it’s available here. But get your own cask of medicinal wine first – I’ll need all of mine…

The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link