On this blog, Crossing Examining Crime, I plan to mainly review crime fiction. I also enjoy reading translated crime fiction. I will primarily be reviewing books, but occasionally I will comment on films, TV series and theatre productions. I also write articles for CADs (Crime and Detective Stories) magazine and Mystery Scene Magazine.
One of the many, many highlights of the 5th Bodies from the Library conference this year, was the chance to buy an early bird copy of this short story anthology. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first one, (thoughts on which you can read here), made me all the keener to get my mitts on the second collection. As with the first anthology, Tony Medawar has selected and introduced the stories.
No Face by Christianna Brand
The backdrop to this, never been published before, short story is a seemingly uncatchable serial killer, who mocks the police in phone calls, suggesting that since they have no face, they can never be caught. Superintendent Tomm is nowhere near to identifying the culprit, yet the story’s focus is on an undervalued and suspicious informant from the public, whose eye on the main chance may be the undoing of him. I’ve tried to not say too much about the plot, as I think it would ruin reader enjoyment. The informant element of the piece is especially well done, though I think readers may have an inkling of where the plot is going. I would also say there is something quite Carr-like in the opening and closing of this story as well.
Before and After (1953) by Peter Antony
Peter Antony is the penname for twins, Anthony and Peter Shaffer, and I have been wanting to read their mystery novels for a while. Unfortunately, copies of these books are rather thin on the ground and are fairly pricy to buy. So, I was really pleased this short story was included in the collection.
It begins with a nurse discovering their invalid employer, dead. Scotland Yard advise the local inspector to allow Mr Verity a hand in the case, given his proximity. Verity is of an irascible nature and he doesn’t have the most convivial of personalities. His conversation has to be borne with ‘fortitude.’ Verity has his work cut out though in this case, where there is a family full of suspects, though most of them have an alibi, which places them 12 miles away from the victim. Added to which the door to the victim’s bedroom was watched over by the night nurse.
This is an entertaining story from the Shaffer twins and the ending draws a smile. Also, this writing team have a flair for description, which means they pack a lot of meaning into few words:
‘Even in death Mrs Carmichael’s face still held the irritability of one forced to lean on others who were all too often engaged elsewhere.’
‘Mr Verity jumped out of the car with all the deftness of a rhinoceros in labour, and charged inside.’
Hotel Evidence (1934) by Helen Simpson
In the introduction to this collection, Tony Medawar mentions that some of the stories reside more on the fringes of the mystery genre and Simpson’s tale is the first of these. Murder is not our focus, but rather a married couple. It seems that Henry Brodribb’s wife wishes him to pretend to have an affair so evidence can be gained for her to divorce him and be with another man. Suffice to say Henry is no one’s lothario. Whilst this may seem like a very minimalist plot, the author does a great deal with it and her characters are crafted with a great deal of care. There are also a number of social and cultural elements which will be of interest for the reader. For instance, the female characters seem to do a good line in tacky gifts for poor Henry, such as a tiger skin hot water bottle and a monkey shaped pipe rack, (of which the monkey is wearing swimming trunks). Henry’s wife’s reasons for leaving him are also quite amusing, in particular why she feels her new man is so right for her, (bridge playing is a factor in this).
I have read, Enter Sir John (1929), which is a novel Simpson co-wrote with Clemence Dane, but I didn’t know a great deal about the author, so I found Tony’s bio to the piece especially interesting. She started out her life in Australia, then France and finally the UK. She worked as an interpreter and cipher clerk in WW1 for the Admiralty. The most bizarre thing I learnt about her was that she travelled to Hungary with her husband in the 1930s, ‘to research sightings of werewolves and vampires,’ as you do. I really would have loved to be a fly on the wall of that visa interview!
Exit Before Midnight (1937) by Q. Patrick
This is one of the longest pieces in the collection, feeling more like a novella, and it is also one of my favourites as well. The story takes place on New Year’s Eve. Leland and Rowling Process company are finalising a merger with the Pan-American Dye Combine, yet Carol Thorne, a secretary in the company finds a threatening letter on her typewriter. It warns that if the shareholders vote this deal through then the majority of them will be killed before midnight, when the merger would become valid, with the presumption that the heirs would have to have a re-vote. Of course, the vote goes through and just as they are pondering the letter, the lights go out and by matchlight the first victim is discovered. But worse is to come! The phone lines are cut, the lift won’t work and the fire escape is blocked. The group are trapped on the 40th floor and it is not long before someone twigs that the killer is no outsider… This is an interesting situation to solve and the writer is adept at keeping you guessing as to who is responsible, with character behaviour being used well to create various red herrings.
Room to Let by (1947) Margery Allingham
This is a radio play Allingham did for the BBC. It is set at a dinner gathering of the November club, where famous detectives meet and discuss crimes. There is a rather difficult guest called J. J. Jones, who thinks he is the best detective, claiming that he is ‘the only detective alive never to have a failure.’ So, when Curly Minter, a retired policeman, gets up to talk about the Marlborough Road Murder, an unsolved case, Jones is confident he can deliver the solution at the end. But has he bitten off more than he can chew? For this is no ordinary case, involving no less a killer, than Jack the Ripper himself! This is a delightfully ghoulish tale, with a nice spot of melodrama. The solution is rather truncated, though understandable given the demands of doing a radio play.
A Joke’s a Joke (1938) by Jonathan Latimer
Latimer’s story concerns a man who is well-known for playing pranks on co-workers. Some of these pranks are harmless and some have far reaching consequences, but one day he goes too far when he decides to prank his co-worker Stewart… I think this type of plot has a lot of potential, but I don’t feel it is fully realised in this story, which has only a minor sting in its tale. Again, I would say this story could only be very loosely described as a mystery.
The Man Who Knew by Agatha Christie
Derek Lawson is convinced there is something wrong in his flat, that there is some danger lurking within. A fruitless search nearly eases his mind, when he sees on the theatre programme in his hand the words: ‘Don’t go home.’ Soon he begins to notice that things have been opened in his flat and he finds a revolver in his tie drawer; recently fired. He senses that he is being set up by someone and this notion is strengthened when he learns of the murder of his uncle, a man who he has recently had an argument with. Given the brevity of the story, the consequences of discovering the mess he has been landed in, are somewhat truncated. Though I would say the ending is still satisfying. According to the bio Tony writes for this story, it came ‘from an undated typescript written some time between 1918 and 1923. It was first published in Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making (2011) by John Curran.’
The Almost Perfect Murder Case (1929) by S. S. Van Dine
Philo Vance recalls a famous case of the past; the Wilhelm Beckert murder, which took place in 1909 in Chile. At the start of the story we are told that ‘the detection of [the killer] hinged on a mere misunderstood connotation of a simple Spanish word.’ I did anticipate the twist in this one, but I did enjoy the language-based clue. Tony’s bio on Dine himself was very interesting to read, as I didn’t know much about him, though it does sound like he was as annoying in person, as his amateur sleuth was!
The Hours of Darkness (1949) by Edmund Crispin
This novella has never been published before and as a keen fan of Crispin’s work, I really enjoyed it. It begins with a hide and seek game at a house party in the countryside, on Christmas Eve. Given the time of year Noel Carter is far from pleased by Janice Mond’s choice of hiding place, which is outside. We watch their love/hate relationship develop, whilst a late guest arrives; a mystery writer. Their arrival ends the game and we begin to hear references to a past criminal case, one of the guests is connected to, as well as a recent attack on another guest. Yet the tension rises sharply when it is discovered that one of the guests has been murdered in the long gallery, in a particularly violent fashion. But who could have done it? And is it connected to the previous case? Who was the man, who was seen in the gallery prior to the killing? And of course what did the victim’s last words mean?
But where is Fen you ask? Well he is trapped within that hellish place, known as a children’s party. Those who have read other Crispin novels will know that Fen is the last person to be left at such an event, only rising to the challenge slightly better than his colleague, Wilkes, whose attempt at making up a fairy tale is certainly interesting. The murder couldn’t have come any sooner for Fen, who happily dashes off to solve it, singing various carols during the interviewing of the suspects.
As with other authors in this collection I learnt lots of new nuggets of information in Tony’s bio section. From the fact that it only took Crispin 2 weeks to write The Case of the Gilded Fly, to this delightful anecdote about him as a child:
‘he was a nervous shy child and his parents would often recount how, on leaving a children’s party at the age of seven, he had thanked the hostess for inviting him and explained that, although he had not enjoyed himself, it was not her fault.’
A version of this novella, not featuring Gervase Fen, was performed on the BBC home service in 1949.
Chance is a Great Thing (1950) by E. C. R. Lorac
This short story revolves around an ageing aunt of Peggy Tiler’s. She has a heart condition and Peggy is not keen on leaving her alone in her home. But she also wants to continue her wedding plans, so she is thankful when Mrs and Mr Banks say they will keep an eye on her. Yet it is not long before Mr Banks mentions the aunt’s will… For me this tale starts well, creating a few red herrings, yet the ending is so brief that the story’s denouement is a bit of a flop.
The Mental Broadcast (1945) by Clayton Rawson
This is another tale in the collection which hangs on to the fringes of the mystery genre and it takes place at the Great Merlini’s magic shop. He is asked for an impromptu card trick for a book someone is collating, and the story then proceeds to describe the trick. Not particularly edge of your seat reading, but it may appeal more to readers with an interest in card tricks.
White Cap (1942) by Ethel Lina White
Tess Leigh’s life is in the balance, and all because after washing her hair she wore a cap to walk to work… Neither her love life, nor her work life are going well, as within the day both take a huge blow and mostly because of a superior who makes the lives of her subordinates, hell. Yet it soon transpires that Tess has even more things to worry about, when a fateful walk places her in a tricky situation… Given the constraints of the size of the story I think White did a good job at balancing the requirements of each stage of the tale and the ending has a very quirky feature.
Six Pennyworth by John Rhode
This is a play, which according to Tony may have been intended for an amateur dramatic performance. It is set in a pub during the blackout and it contains a wall with antique weapons on. It begins with two wives lamenting the absence of their husbands who have been called up and as a few new customers arrive, we see the new barman incompetently trying to fulfil their orders; an element which I think brought a lot of comedy to the piece. Yet it is the arrival of one new customer which sours the jovial atmosphere. So, when the lights fuse, it shouldn’t take you too many guesses to figure out who gets a knife in the back… Inspector Waghorn, another customer, solves the case in an interesting manner and the conclusion is a strong one; entertaining, but with an unexpected dark undercurrent.
The Adventure of the Dorset Squire (1937) by C. A. Alington
Alington is not an author I have heard of before, so I was intrigued to see what sort of mystery he wrote. This one has quite a Wodehouse feel to it, as Ivor talks about a house party in Dorset and what happened in the 10 minutes after the lights go out. Expect blood, a flood and plenty of thuds!
The Locked Room by Dorothy L Sayers
The final tale of this collection is another unpublished novella and it too features a country house party. Lord Peter Wimsey is down to give his opinion on some books, though he is far from enjoying himself, due to his hosts, the Deerhursts. Thankfully Betty Carlyle is there to keep him company and given the way he discusses first kisses with her, before moving on to a practical demonstration, I think we can assume he hasn’t met Harriet Vane yet. His hosts are financially in low water due to poor money control, though selling their library may help matters. So, no one believes him when Mr Deerhurst threatens to blow his brains, but the following morning it seems he has done just that. Gun in hand and a locked room situation seals the deal for the local police, but does Wimsey agree? The ending on this one also feels a bit short, though I think the reader is sufficiently prepared for the identity of the culprit.
I think this collection is rather like a box of chocolates. There will be those tales which are your go to favourites, whilst others might be like new flavours, which on reflection were rather good. There are of course those stories, which are like chocolates you try to palm off on relatives at Christmas, but the sheer variety of tales, (in terms of medium and theme), means there will be something for everyone.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): An Academic (The Hour of Darkness)
Calendar of Crime: October (2) Author’s Birth Month (Jonathan Latimer)
I’ve not read many books by Bellairs, only three others in fact, but I have to admit I’ve not read a dud one yet and today’s post sees my third Bellairs review this year. Suffice to say Bellairs is definitely an author deserving of his reprints.
An explosion at the Excelsior Joinery company, which kills three of its 5 directors, means this book starts with a very literal bang and once it looks to be a case of deliberate arson and murder, Inspector Littlejohn is called into investigate from Scotland Yard. Arson and explosions are not the mainstay of vintage detective fiction, at least not in my reading experience, so this added a novel twist to the plot. It goes without saying that Excelsior was financially on the rocks and on the verge of bankruptcy, but is this more than an insurance scam? Shady financial dealings certainly come into the matter and Bellairs own experience in banking means this part of the book is expertly created and told in a lively fashion. A lot of scrutiny is given to the surviving directors and Littlejohn’s investigation soon leads him to home in on one of the victims; a man for whom his enemies could have formed a long queue.
Police procedurals are not always my cup of tea. Often, they veer towards violence and the nature of the police investigation, when poorly told, creates a rather bland impression for me. Yet, for me, Bellairs is a brilliant example of how to write such a mystery well and without recourse to adding in an amateur sleuth. I think what makes his police investigations so engaging to read, is how they used as a vehicle for the author’s deft characterisation skills. He is adept at including the small or inconsequential detail, which brings the whole scene and characters to life. The opening chapter when the explosion has just occurred and there is chaos is a case in point. Even characters who have little more than walk on parts, lay anchor in your memory, such as this one:
‘They’ve all had it,’ said a man called Prime, who was the Johnny-know-all of Green Lane. And this time he was right.
Even in this tragic set of circumstances Bellairs adds a note of comedy, such as when he relays how the local police inspector was summoned from the local cinema and the reaction it caused.
Moreover, it is through the various interviews with suspects and witnesses, that layers are peeled off the relationships the directors had with each other and other people. Littlejohn does not have an overwhelming personality, but his understated humour prevents him from becoming tedious or dreary. Equally I think his quieter personality makes more space or provides a helpful contrast to the people he is dealing with.
So another good read from Bellairs; an author I definitely recommend everyone trying.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Crime Involved Fire/Arson
I first heard about this author on Dan’s blog, The Reader is Warned, when he reviewed Roth’s novel, The Mask of Glass (1957) in 2017. So yes, it has taken nearly 2 years to get around to reading one of her books, but hey I got there in the end and I am very glad that I did too!
The opening chapters set up the chain of events which lead to redhead American, Laura Selby, coasting her car down a mountainside road to Geneva, in near darkness. She has of course taken the route less travelled, in a car not designed for such a journey and has managed to run out of petrol, hence the coasting. She is on her way to Italy for a holiday, whilst waiting for the man she loves to complete his divorce. Laura perhaps reaches the pinnacle of foolishness when she stops her car due to sensing something is wrong. After a fumbled exit from the car, she gets around to the bonnet and the second chapter of this book ends thusly:
‘And then the car, its brake released as she tripped against it, pushed her gently into the nothingness, and slowly, almost reluctantly, followed her over the edge.’
Never has such a tragic moment been written so wonderfully in such an understated tone!
Yet readers might be confused when the next chapter switches to DI Medford, who is given a new case; namely a woman’s body has turned up in a trunk in Banford. It has been in there for 2 weeks, so decomposition is advanced. Nevertheless, her red hair, amongst other things has remained… A missing person’s report from Laura’s fiancé, John Sefton-Smith forges a link. But is it the right one? Is the body really Laura’s? Yet how did it end up in the trunk? It is not long before unfortunate circumstantial evidence leads to the arrest of John for Laura’s murder. But is a miscarriage of justice about to take place?
So, as you can see from my synopsis, we have quite an unusual case to solve. The reader certainly has a key piece of information that the characters spend most of the book trying to uncover, but the question for us, is how does it match up with the body in the trunk? Any reader’s theory has to deal with that body. But it is even Laura’s body? And if it isn’t whose could it be? Through posing such a mystifying set of circumstances, Roth produces a delightful variation on the whodunnit formula.
Added to the interesting puzzle factor, Roth’s writing style is a delight, with its understated strain of comedy. The reader encounters this from the very first page when Laura takes her irritation at herself for picking such a rambling route, out on her car:
‘Only the English would permit sidelights that were so pale and nondescript as to be non-existent. Another manifestation of understatement, perhaps. Or, more likely, some of their damned politeness. She had a momentary but vivid picture of an English car manufacturer saying to his factory head, ‘Very little voltage in the sidelights, mind you. Don’t want to disturb people, you know.’’
Whilst the ending veers slightly into sensationalism and melodrama, this does not impact the romance element of the book, with Roth taking an unvarnished approach to relationships. Laura is not giddy about John and certainly does not wear rose coloured spectacles. In fact, the early narrative says that: ‘She found him rather a source of bewildering irritation, spiced by the moments when he looked quietly at her…’
So why did I not give this book full marks? Maybe I’m being picky, but the ending for me was imperfect. The solution works out fine, but for me it was too rushed, especially the moment of revelation. This rushed feeling is perhaps exacerbated by the number of subgenres this story is cramming in. Moira at Clothes in Books sums it up well when she talks about ‘Roth’s strange combination of rural police procedural, international suspense, and romance thriller. And throw in courtroom drama when her fiancé (John who gave her the scarf) is tried for her murder.’ For the majority of the book this merging of subgenres works well, but it is in the final third of the book, where the two latter subgenres are vying for space, a vying which makes it mark on the story’s denouement.
However, I wouldn’t let this put you off trying the book, as overall it is a really great story and I am looking forward even more now to reading the second book I have by Roth in my TBR pile. There are a number of copies for under £5 online, so I recommend snapping up a copy asap!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Author not from your country
Calendar of Crime: November (3) Primary Action Takes Place in this Month
This is my first read from Bush, published after the end of WW2, but like Agatha Christie’s texts from the time, there is much to be learnt about post-war life: German POWs still being held on British soil and rationing are put two examples. The lens through which we see this world is tinged with a conservative nostalgia for the past and a dislike for current government practices, but I wouldn’t say that mars the book in any way.
Like other titles in the Ludovic Travers series, Bush begins his story with a gripping narrative hook. Amateur sleuth and unofficial advisor for Scotland Yard relays to Superintendent George Wharton an encounter he has had recently at his club, where a friend of a friend, Major Guy Pallart, has calmly admitted he is planning on committing a murder and has no intention of being caught for it. Was Pallart just joking? Or does he really mean it? Travers is sufficiently convinced he might have been serious, to the extent that he goes visiting in the area Pallart lives, in Essex, with a view to finding out more about him. Travers is keen to prevent the crime before it happens, yet what actually transpires is far from what he anticipates… Boating accidents, disappearances, secret lives and pasts, all play their part in muddying the waters for Travers.
Anthony Boucher, in his 1949 review of this book sums it up well:
‘Ludovic Travers, his star amateur sleuth, is in fine form here… there is one of those wonderfully intricate alibis… and it’s all told with the quiet skills, not devoid of humour which Bush has been developing in recent years.’
I definitely agree that Bush demonstrates a flair for telling a story well here. His use of the first person narrator is particularly subtle, as in comparison to some first person narratives I have read, it feels far more unobtrusive.
A key part of the enjoyment of these tales by Bush, is the dynamic set up between the Superintendent and Travers; the latter of whom asserts how they make such a good team:
‘George and I make a team of opposites. He is huge and lumbering with a back like a barn-end. I am six-foot three and lean at that […] George is reasonably patient and remorselessly inquiring; I persist in treating life more flippantly and am always on the look-out for short cuts and quick results.’
Furthermore, I would say their differences contribute a lot to the flow and readability of the narrative.
Set within the post war period, the author treats us to an interesting array of characters from a French chef and German POWs, to a ne’er-do-well nephew, as well as a number of war veterans; the latter group being one of the best delineated ones. Ludovic makes for an interesting lead and his conservative leanings are more amusing than anything else and in part I think he almost makes fun of himself when airing such sentiments: ‘I must I say I liked him, as far, that is, as a man of my generation and outmoded views can like one so much younger and virile than himself.’ Whilst in other instances this amusement takes on a bemused tinge for the reader, such as when characters regard playing in a dance band as a deplorable thing. Though, in fairness, they do admit that at least being in a band is one step up from being a crooner! Suffice to say Ludovic is no one’s fan of a crooner: ‘Someone asked for my opinion of crooners and I said I’d cheerfully witness their execution,’ though he does let slip that he likes some jazz.
Alibis form a central part of the ensuing murder investigation and I like how the narrative at times forewarns readers of impending conversations in which a vital clue will be issued. Given the complexity of the case Bush delivers to his readers, such hints are certainly helpful. The complexity of the puzzle, in the main, rests upon the how of the crime(s), as I think the ‘who’ of the case will partially be solved quite quickly by the reader. Yet I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, as it is nice for the reader to have at least one part of the solution under their belt and there is plenty more for the reader to figure out. On a final note I thought the title for this book was especially effective, as it takes on quite an intriguing quality for most of the book. Readers new to Bush will be happy to know that they can dive into the series at any point and with the Dean Street Press’s sterling work in reprinting so many of his titles, (have they done them all yet?), such readers will have plenty of titles to pick from.
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Set in a small village
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.
This title has been sitting on my TBR pile since Christmas, so I’m glad I got around to this one. This is the second book in the Puzzle Lady series; my thoughts for the first one can be found here.
I’m surprise that more vintage crime fans haven’t tried these books yet, as for those who love a complex puzzle, this series would seem like an ideal option. Perhaps the “cosy” element of the books has put people off, but you would be wrong in thinking you only need to give this book only half of your attention. Believe me you need every little grey cell you possess, to fathom this mystery out!
Before the book even commences, Emma Hurley has died. Yet as a consequence a lot of unusual and deadly things are going to happen… A week later a drunk and incompetent burglar is found in her bed and the day before Emma’s will is read, he is found dead in a drainage ditch. All the unpleasant heirs have descended on the town and they are all desperate to be the recipient of Emma’s money. Yet, Emma left no ordinary will… After a few bequests she sets her relatives a challenge, a puzzle in fact and it just so happens that she names Cora Felton, a.k.a. the Puzzle Lady, as referee and judge. This is a role which has a $50,000 gift attached to it, the only problem is that Cora needs to solve the puzzle before the contestants. Regular readers of the series will know why this is problematic, but for those who don’t, it just so happens that Cora is only the face of the Puzzle Lady, it is actually her niece, Sherry Carter, who makes the crossword puzzles up, which Cora is so famous for. Whilst trying to keep this a secret, Cora and Sherry also have more than one death to unravel, as it seems that Emma’s treasure hunt has brought out someone’s murdering tendencies…
Going against the stereotypes and assumptions levelled at cosy mysteries, I would say Hall’s book is very well plotted. An interesting challenge is posed to the heirs, which the readers are allowed to get involved in. Crossword fans are going to have a field day with this book! Yet I would also say the book structurally has quite a pleasing GAD sting in its tail and Hall is adept at obfuscating the final solution with some good smokescreens. Cora Felton is a brilliant lead character and I would say she is an entertaining contrast to the catalogue of prim, polite and correct Miss Marple like sleuths. Her fallibility as a sleuth, who has to hide her incompetence in solving crossword clues, is also a delightful part of the plot and series. There is a romance subplot involving Sherry, yet I find the author has sensibly not let it monopolise the narrative and instead often adds into the central plot. The book could have been a bit shorter, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t its length put you off. After all, 370 pages is not bad, considering how long some of P. D. James and Elizabeth George’s novels ended up.
Calendar of Crime: July (9) Takes Places in the US or Canada
In today’s read things are certainly not going Hatty Savage’s way. Her day starts badly when Richard Sheridan, whose proposal she rejected the night before, is found dead in his bed; from an overdose of barbiturates. Awkwardly for her it also just so happens that the tablets were the ones she gave him. Suffice to say her reputation is somewhat tattered after the inquest and after a week of anonymous letters and phone calls, she goes off to Paris with an aunt. Little does she know that worse is to come, arriving in the form of Marguerite Grey. She first pops up at the inquest, telling all and sundry that Richard was actually going to marry her. This is not particularly believed, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the last you’ll see of her. She may have lost her man, but her eyes are still on the prize. Such ambition can only end in death, but once more it seems Hatty is compromisingly implicated. Arthur Crook is brought into the case and the reader can be confident that he always gets his man.
I wouldn’t say this is Gilbert’s most complicated mystery, but I think it is up to her high standards when it comes to storytelling. Seasoned readers will be able to anticipate one of the tale’s twists and with that the identity of the culprit. Though there are plenty of other likely candidates, so I don’t think the reader are completely confident they have the right answer. Equally I don’t think until Crook has his showdown readers will be able to iron out the details of how the crime was committed.
This is an unusual story in having two sort of female leads: Hatty and Marguerite. Whilst the latter is definitely a wrong ‘un, an anti-heroine almost, I wouldn’t automatically demarcate Hatty as the heroine. Hatty is an interesting character because she is not a wholly sympathetic one. She does bear some consequences of living the rich girl lifestyle and her honesty doesn’t always do her much favours, especially with the police. Her approach to relationships and marriage is also a little questionable. You could say she has a few lessons to learn. Yet in a way I think she is engaging enough that a reader would quite like to read a sequel novel featuring her. Both of these women in a way battle for page space in the narrative and I would argue that Marguerite becomes the more dominant, in terms of causing action and propelling the plot forward.
Crook is a delight as always and his manner of speaking, invariably raises a reader smile, with his humorous straight talking:
‘And it stands to reason someone did it and you don’t go around sticking knives into people’s backs because you’ve finished your library book and there’s nothing good on the telly.’
The social/cultural side of the novel is also quite interesting in the way it records the ways society was changing. At the start of the book in particular I would say there is a struggle going on between the old and new, such as in the way young woman met men and brought them into their existing social circle. This way was of course much freer, something Hatty’s mother doesn’t quite agree with:
‘She wondered about this Alan Duke; it was Victorian to expect references these days, but sometimes she thought the Victorians had quite a lot of sense on their side.’
And in fairness to Hatty’s mother, the lack of information people have on their neighbours’ past histories in the post war period, does become relevant to the final solution.
Finally for readers who enjoy glimpses of contemporary fashion, there are a number of “fashion” moments in the book and especially for my clothes loving blogger compatriot, Moira (Clothes in Books), I have included an image below of the sort of hat Hatty wears at the start of the book, which is likened to a beehive.
Hatty’s mother thinks it an ‘absurd fashion,’ but I got to admit I do rather like it!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Lawyer/Barrister/Judge
Reading figures have picked up a little this month, with 10 book reviews, 1 film review and a post on the latest Bodies from the Library conference.
Even more importantly it was actually a good month in terms of reading quality as well and I am in the unusual position of having four quite diverse stories holding joint second place. These titles are:
Both Fitt and Dalton were first time encounters and from what I have read, I definitely think I would try more of their work. Whilst the Brand and Christie novels were re-reads for me and it is amazing how much you can forget in a 6-year gap, but at least I hadn’t forgotten how great they are. So who could steal first place from these writers? Well the answer is Celia Fremlin and her 1972 novel, Appointment with Yesterday. Not only is there a wealth of fascinating social detail in this piece, but the central character, Milly, is engrossing, as is her predicament and the reader is compelled to keep reading in order to find out what will happen to this fugitive on the run…
With bigger projects and activities out of the way I am hoping this coming month will be a good one for reading. Just hope I haven’t jinxed it now…
Just managed to slip this final review in before the close of the month. It is another re-read and another book I haven’t read for 6 years. *sighs* Where does all the time go? This is a title which I have a lot of fond memories of and would probably feature in my favourite Christies list. It seems like I am in good company as well, as Christie remarks in the foreword to the book that it is ‘one of my own special favourites.’ Like many a fan I would love to know why she found it a ‘pure pleasure’ to write and why it required more thinking time than many of her other books.
For those new to the book, here is a quick summary:
‘The Leonides are one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. At least they were, until the wealthy grandfather, Aristide, is murdered with a fatal injection of barbiturates. Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior and suspected of having an illicit affair. While Scotland Yard struggles to find clues, the murderer has not anticipated the determination of Charles Hayward, fiancé of the millionaire’s granddaughter, to solve the crime from the inside…’
This is Christie’s 4th (?) mystery novel with a nursery rhyme and this re-read has definitely left me with the impression that this is a precursor to Ordeal by Innocence (1958). There is of course the setting of the relatively isolated family home, from within there is a tight knit community, with its own specific quirky and dysfunctional nature. Then both of them play around with the concept of the fairy tale. I’ve talked about how Ordeal by Innocence does this in myreview of last year, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much and will start with Crooked House. In this earlier novel Christie gives the relationship between Sophia and Charles a fairy tale sheen, as the very crux of the plot is them removing an obstacle which is impending their romance. It just so happens that this obstacle is murder… Brenda Leonides, Aristide’s second wife and now widow, describes their meeting and subsequent relationship ‘as quite like a fairy tale.’ Yet interestingly, Sophia, later on in the book questions this rosy way of describing things and implies that their union had little to do with coincidence and fate and that Aristides went into this relationship with his eyes open, being perfectly aware of his wife’s little deceptions. It suited him to have that sort of a companion, so in a way he created his own happily ever after. In contrast I think in Ordeal by Innocence, when Rachel attempts to construct her own fairy tale of being the perfect mother, her endeavours are all for nought and actually contribute towards her own death.
Another significant parallel between these two texts is how the surviving family members, are keen that ‘the right person’ killed the victim i.e. the one whose expulsion from the group would be the most convenient, despite the characters knowing deep down it would be the wrong person. There is also the need to solve the case, in order to spare the remaining family members from rumours and suspicion. Comparing the two central victims of these books, I think Aristide is much more favourably portrayed, as the likeable rouge, than Rachel who is depicted as a damaging presence to those around her, despite her best intentions. On balance I think today’s reviewed title provides the most unsettling read, which is what earlier fairy tales tended to do.
Although it focuses on one particular family, there are a wide range of character types, especially when it comes to the women. For instance, there is Magda who is Sophia’s mother and an actress and there is Clemency who is a scientist and whilst she is said to be ‘ruthless too, in a kind of cold-blooded impersonal way,’ I think Christie does a good job at showing a more vulnerable side to her later on. The marital pairings in this book are also intriguing as Christie seems to have paired up the most unlikely of people. Though these bizarre combinations seem to work rather well, a point which the text explicitly makes.
I think there are some good puzzling aspects to this mystery, such as the issue of the motive, as initially because Aristide has his made relations financially independent, money doesn’t seem to be a likely cause, for quite a while in the case. A missing will also adds to the mystery; an aspect I had actually forgotten about.
SPOILERS WARNING (For Crooked House and The Murder at the Vicarage)
There is a positive army of red herrings in this book, (and yes, I did google the correct collective noun for herrings). One of the main ones is the idea of Brenda having committed the crime due to being in love with the children’s tutor, Laurence Brown and even a theory of them both being guilty is well developed by the characters. This is one I think most readers will pick up on, but then there is always that nagging doubt that Christie is pulling a double bluff on them, as occurs in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). The duplication of the name Laurence, (regardless of the spelling difference), heightens this uncertainty. Even when it comes to Sophia and Charles, we cannot completely write them off as innocent, as we all know that Christie is more than capable of having the stereotypical young lovers be the guilty party. I think Christie herself attempts to set up this sense of unease from the very first page with one of Charles’ first descriptions of the woman he loves:
‘she looked refreshingly English and that appealed to me strongly after three years without seeing my native land. Nobody I thought, could be more English – and even as I was thinking exactly that, I suddenly wondered if, in fact, she was, or indeed could be, as English as she looked. Does the real thing ever have the perfection of a stage performance?’
It is with red herrings such as these that Christie keeps the readers’ attention and their suspicions shifting around the different characters, whilst keeping their eye off the real killer.
So now on the killer… I think it is very deliberate that Christie separates Josephine’s first appearance in the book from the others and quite a while after the others. Moreover, Josephine’s entrance into the book is markedly different from the others, as Charles first encounters her, having just woken up. His blurred and unfocused vision gives him a very peculiar view of her, and it is reasonable to suggest that he has similar blurred vision when it comes to assessing her true role in the crime. This is a little ironic, given that his outsider status was to give him the advantage of a clearer perspective on matters. The way Josephine begins to unravel everyone’s perfected façades, places her in the position of acting as a kind of irritant, which shakes things up and makes things uncomfortable. This does not denote her out right as the murderer though, as amateur sleuths equally fulfil this role at times. Whilst she is not portrayed as anyone’s junior Miss Marple, I can definitely see a glimmer of Mrs Bradley. This is partially due to the way both characters are described, and I immediately thought of Mrs Bradley in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), when Josephine’s ‘beady’ eyes are mentioned. Equally phrases such as ‘malicious gnome,’ are very much in keeping with the names Mrs Bradley gets over the course of her cases. Like with Mrs Bradley’s unconventional behaviour, there’s even something rather likeable in her difficult and bold nature, such as when she talks about her brother:
‘He says women can’t ever be great detectives. But I say I can. I’m going to write down everything in a notebook and then, when the police are completely baffled, I shall come forward and say, “I can tell you who did it.’
Despite her awkwardness, there is a part of you which wishes she could solve the crime and show the male characters up; a plot trajectory which would not be implausible for a writer like Christie. I might be thinking a little too much outside of the box, but I was also reminded of the witches out of Macbeth, when it came to Josephine. Parallels appear in terms of physical description, as at one-point Charles says that: ‘her appearance had the suddenness of a demon in an old-fashioned pantomime. Her face and hands were filthy and a large cobweb floated from one ear.’ Also a bit like the witches’ deceptive prophecies, Josephine’s own comments to Charles about the case have more than one interpretation and as Charles says, ‘Josephine was always right’ – though perhaps not in the way you expect.
Christie tends to keep Josephine relatively out of sight in the first third of the novel, with Charles often derailing suspects from talking about her, wishing to ask a different question. Christie is also very bold and daring in that she has Charles’ father, the Assistant Commissioner, outline what killers are like; an outline which ultimately Josephine fulfils, yet I think Christie is good at keeping your attention away from the making the connection. That is of course unless you are Ben at The Green Capsule, whose little grey cells were on top form when he read this book.
Even on a re-read I still felt this ending had a lot of impact and Christie makes a sound choice in not completely vilifying her culprit. Though as is always the case, invariably, the book’s ending garners a lot of different viewpoints, as Christie super fan, Brad, is not so keen on it, finding it to be a little rushed. I do like his idea that Josephine may have enjoyed the notoriety of being a famous killer, but I also still really enjoyed the ending Christie delivers and as has been proven a short while ago, it makes for a great TV film finale.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Unusual Murder Method
Calendar of Crime: March (6) Original Publication Month
Yesterday was the fifth Bodies from the Library conference, (seriously can it be 5 already?!) and it was another successful event. But then we expect no less, right?
The opening panel included Jake Kerridge, Moira Redmond and Richard Reynolds and it was entitled: Is the Golden Age Humdrum? The trio covered a wide range of aspects, though centring on the criticisms made by Julian Symons, who used the term humdrum to describe a number of Golden Age authors he didn’t particularly like. The discussion also considered the gender divide when it came to certain vintage authors and their readership. Moira also got asked about which writers wrote the best dressed characters in the golden age and her two selections were Ethel Lina White and Dorothy L Sayers.
John Dickson Carr
Following on from this was Tony Medawar’s The Puppet Master: John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) and his talk should definitely win the prize for best power point slides. Trying to talk about Carr’s extensive career is no mean feat in 30 minutes, but Tony was more than up for the challenge, covering more well-known information, alongside more obscure details about his life and work. Perhaps the most exciting piece of news was the fact that Bodies from the Library 3, which is being released next year, will be including a previously unpublished Carr novella.
Before our first break of the day, we had Sarah Ward’s talk: City and the Countryside in E. C. R. Lorac’s Crime Novels. Sarah’s talk was fair in addressing both the strengths and weaknesses of Lorac’s work and I agree that the settings and character relations, are two of the best features of Lorac’s stories. The historical and social context was also brought into the discussion, which I equally enjoyed listening to.
After the break John Curran treated us to his talk: Two (Undeservedly) Forgotten Crime Club Authors. This was certainly the most cryptic talk title, but I can reveal that two writers under discussion were Nigel Fitzgerald and D. M. Devine. I’ve heard of both of these authors prior to the conference and even seen some of their books in charity shops from time to time. But I’ve never thought to give them a go, perhaps because the covers had not given me the impression they would be my sort of thing. However, if John likes them, then they must be worth a go! Fitzgerald was an Irish writer, who mysteriously ended his days in Wairarapa, New Zealand. He had two series characters; an amateur sleuth and actor named Alan Russell and a professional called Superintendent Duffy. His 12 novels are mostly set in Ireland, often with village settings. They often include macabre murder methods and he even wrote two impossible crime novels: The Student Body (1958) and Suffer a Witch (1958), the latter involving a disappearance from a watched post office. I’m going to avoid the non-series novel, This Won’t Hurt You (1959), a dentist set mystery. This is based on John’s comments that it has the worst murder method – namely an injection into the jaw, (possibly of formaldehyde, can’t quite remember), which then dissolves the person’s jaw whilst they’re still alive. Yes, the audience did collectively groan at this point in horror… However, I am tempted to try some of Fitzgerald’s other titles, including Ghost in the Making (1960), The Candles are All Out (1960), The House is Falling (1955) and Black Welcome (1961); the latter 3 all being John’s favourites, (can’t be a bad place to start after all). Moving on to Devine, he was a Scottish writer who worked at the University of St. Andrew and I enjoyed hearing about his entry into the crime writing world; taking part in a mystery novel writing competition only eligible for dons, despite only being a secretary, which led to him losing first prize when the truth emerged. A number of his mysteries do have academic backgrounds and Arcturus Crime Classics have reprinted both My Brother’s Killer (1961) and The Sleeping Tiger (1968), so they are reasonably easy to procure.
Next up was The Max Carrados Tales of Ernest Bramah; a talk which was given by Dolores Gordon-Smith. Max Carrados is not a sleuth I am overly fond of, but listening to Dolores is always a delight. It was particularly interesting to hear of Dolores’ own sleuthing into the possible origins of the character’s surname, Carrados, which I never realised was such a rare name at the time.
Post lunch we experienced the radio play, this time being Sweet Death by Christianna Brand. Unlike in previous years, the play was actually performed by a live cast, which I felt really brought the story to life and I hope this is an approach they will use again.
Hot on the heels of the play was Christine Poulson’s talk, Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy. Christine focused on McCloy’s earlier works, tantalising us with the ingenious plots and murder method contained therein. I’ve been sitting on the fence when it comes to McCloy, with my last read by this author being somewhat lukewarm. However, I feel Christine’s talk has convinced me to give McCloy another chance, so I am going to keep my eyes peeled for Dance of Death (1938), Cue for Murder (1946) and The Deadly Truth (1943), as their plots sounded the most unusual.
The 8th session of the day starred Julius Green and John Curran, whose talk was entitled: Agatha Christie: Playwright. Given the scope and range of Christie’s plays, this talk was more selective in what it chose to talk about, looking more at how Christie’s talents have been overlooked in this arena, rather than in giving a chronological summation of them. In particular the various alternative endings for the certain plays were also discussed and it was fascinating to consider how experimental Christie could be with her plays.
A picture of June Wright at work in the telephone exchange
For the next talk of the day, I think I would be a little too biased to give any opinions on its potential merits, as this was the talk I was giving: Solving Crimes Down Under: June Wright (1919-2012). But I really enjoyed giving the talk and I can safely say that no mouldy fruit was thrown in my direction and nor did I run over my time limit, (so Mike didn’t need to grab his vaudeville hook)!
After the final break of the conference, we had Martin Edwardsand Christine Poulson in conversation with their talk: Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder. I felt these two worked really well together as a speaking duo and like Tony Medawar they were able to provide a talk which catered to audience members who were new or familiar with Hare’s work. I was especially interested to hear how Tragedy at Law (1942), was a title Michael Gilbert read whilst imprisoned in an Italian POW camp; a read which convinced him to continue with crime writing after the war. I also never knew how the death of Cyril Hare influenced P. D. James having her first novel taken on by the publishers, Faber.
Following on from this were Jim Noy and Daniel Curtis, who presented The Ten Types of Impossible Crime and I am sure they probably broke conference records in discussing 41 stories, within 30 minutes! It was an impressive tour de force and I am sure they could probably turn it into some kind of Britain’s Got Talent act. Much furious scribbling took place during this talk to write down the names of the various titles and authors and I’d like to think some of these might make there way on to my TBR pile.
The conference concluded with a panel called: Ask the Experts. During the day audience members were able to write down their questions and these were then discussed during this session. Questions ranged from titles from favourite authors you wouldn’t recommend and ideal titles for younger readers, to whether there was an American golden age, which golden age authors wrote the most and which Agatha Christie murder method would you use if you wanted to kill someone. In regards to this last question it was interesting to hear that Moira would go for The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), with the duplicitously tight dress, whilst Tony went for The Pale Horse (1961). Conversely Sarah said the method she wouldn’t go for was the one in Sleeping Murder (1976), involving literary recitation post kill. Martin enigmatically said he knew which one he would go for, but that he couldn’t possibly reveal it… Anyone else a little worried? Perhaps the funniest question was written to Moira, asking how well she thought the audience was dressed. Suffice to say she gave the correct answer!
As you can see it was a fantastic and action-packed day and what really made this conference extra special was the opportunity to meet up with old and new friends, especially those founded in the blogosphere. In particular it was extra exciting that Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery blog was able to make it, all the way from California. Now that’s dedication to the genre!
So here’s to Bodies from the Library 2020! (Got to be one surely? – I think a riot might break out if there wasn’t!)
This has been quite an overdue re-read for me. Many eons ago I’m sure Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery blog, did a post about this very book and at the time I blithely said I needed to re-read this one… In the interim many other bloggers have got around to trying this one out from Dan at The Reader is Warned, to JJ at The Invisible Event and Ben at The Green Capsule. So, 6 and a half years since I first read this book, I have finally re-read it.
In this book Inspector Cockrill is off on a package holiday, a tour of Italy, of sorts. As the plane lands and the tour party begin their journey, we are introduced to the various holidaymakers. There’s a novelist called Louvaine Barker, who is forever trying DIY make up and fashion tips from magazines, we have Mr Cecil a fashion designer, then there’s Leo and Helen Rodd; the former an ex-pianist due to the loss of an arm whilst cycling in the countryside, as well as Miss Trappe and Vanda Lane. Conducting the tour is the suave Fernando Gomez, who is keen to make a hit on Miss Trappe, who is said to come from Park Lane. It goes without saying that as the first couple of chapters unfold, many a secret is hinted at, secrets which their owners are keen to hide at all costs. We also see Leo making quite a hit with the ladies of the group, especially Louvaine. The close of chapter 2 has a foreshadowing effect, heralding the island of San Juan el Pirata, as the location for an impending murder. But who will be the victim? The local policing methods are far from ideal and they are more than happy to arrest and execute anyone at random from Fernando to even Inspector Cockrill himself! The stakes are high, but with no forensics to go on and some very slippery alibis, this could be Cockrill’s hardest case to solve…
There are a lot of reasons for loving this book and the beginning is certainly one of them. Inspector Cockrill’s flaccid enthusiasm for his fellow holidaymakers is delightfully depicted. He really isn’t the sort of person you can imagine enjoying such a holiday, which makes it all the more fun for the reader. He’s not even keen on flying:
‘Inspector Cockrill looked out and down and saw nothing but a very small patch of grass which they were certainly going to miss and a very large building composed entirely of glass which they were quite certainly going to hit.’
The way Brand introduces the whole party before homing in on a handful of characters is also skilfully done with her characterising of different holidaymaker types:
‘inexperienced ones who never could make out whether you called this place Mill-an or Mil-ann, experienced ones who phased them all by calling it Milarno […] robust ones who drank water out of taps and confounded the experienced ones by not going down with bouts of dysentery, anxious ones who refused all shellfish, raw fruit and unbottled beverages and went down with dysentery before they had even started…’
Adding to the sometimes less salubrious destinations of holiday tours, we get wonderful lines delineating setting such as this one: ‘And next morning there was a dip in the glorious, mud-coloured Mediterranean, sweetened by the sewers of Rapallo.’ More disturbing is the fact that everyone still went into the sea…
As in other works, the author unfurls a volley of false solutions at the reader, some more seemingly easy to decide as false than others, with Brand slipping in the truth between the lies, of course. This worked in my favour for the re-read, as whilst I thought I had remembered who had done the deed, it turns out I had only remembered one of the wrong solutions. Equally Brand concludes the book in what I feel is her trademark way, with plenty of oomph, surprise and a definite thread of poignancy. Whilst Inspector Cockrill is the main investigative figure, I enjoyed how he often opens out the case for the discussion, amongst the suspects, critiquing their thoughts internally. I felt this approach encouraged an armchair sleuthing role for the reader themselves, though you would need to be one smart cookie to figure this one out in its entirety (so not me basically). So overall, I would say this is a strong read and also a very apt one, given the summer holidays looming. Though maybe you shouldn’t read it if you’re going on a holiday tour…
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): On an Island
Calendar of Crime: February (7) Book Title with a Word Starting with the Letter F
Also is it just me, or does Brand have the characters suggest solutions which can also be found in Christie’s books? I know there is one blatant reference to The Murder on the Orient Express, but I feel like there were others as well (I won’t mention them, for fear of spoilers.)