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My affection for British Library Crime Classics is well know I should think. There are just so many great titles being released by them all the time, more I want to read than I may be able to. I have had Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm tbr for quite a while – and it really hit the spot last week.

Most of the BLCC mysteries are from the 1930s part of that Golden Age of crime fiction still popular today – other books, published later are very much part of that tradition. Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm however, was published later – 1960, and while retaining many of those Golden Age features, it has a slightly different tone. This is not quite the world of country house parties and telegram boys, there’s a little more grit and realism without any of unpleasant details that modern crime novels often see as a necessity.

Gil North was a new name to me, he is apparently best known for his Cluff books, which were adapted for TV in the 60s. This is the first novel in the Sergeant Cluff series, and I will definitely want to read more of them. Cluff is such a great character, spending time with him will be a pleasure. The one thing I didn’t like so much – is Gil North’s habit of describing women’s breasts – there is one character in particular whose breasts come in for more mentions than might be expected – and certainly far more than is required (that would be none). It was a small irritation but not completely off-putting.

Sergeant Cluff lives alone in an isolated cottage outside the small town of Gunnarshaw, an area of Yorkshire where he has always lived, and where his family has farmed. A somewhat gruff, middle aged man who has never married, and shares his home – and his adventures, with one of a succession of dogs called Clive.  Cluff knows everyone in the surrounding area, and everyone knows him. He is the kind of man who really understands people – he knows before they do how they’ll react, what mistakes they will make – and he is dogged enough to wait. Cluff is frequently at odds with his superiors, his inspector is irritated and perhaps a little undermined by Cluff’s knowledge of everyone in Gunnarshaw.  

A Gunnarshaw woman has been found dead by the police, following a neighbour’s concern. Amy Wright is found dead in bed, the house filled with gas. Amy married late in life, to a man much younger than her, she owns the house and has money in the bank – the neighbours think little of her husband – who hasn’t been seen for a couple of days, Amy’s adored little dog hasn’t been seen for about a week either.

The Police are sure about what happened to Amy – and the coroner agrees – the small town inquest, held in the town hall, portrayed to perfection by Gil North.

“Steam heating made the atmosphere warm. A film of condensation dimmed the windows. Everything in the hall took place at a pace slower than that in the town outside, a minor key, with a proper respect for the dead.

The people were as quiet as if they were attending a funeral service in church. They were as still as mice when a cat is about. They did not wriggle in their chairs. If they forgot themselves and moved they pulled themselves up sharply and glanced at their neighbours, embarrassed and ashamed. They suppressed their coughs, growing red in their faces. Those with colds dared only the tiniest of sniffs, tortured on the rack of respectability.”

Cluff is not so happy – he is certain that Amy’s husband bears some responsibility – either morally or criminally – he isn’t sure which, but he is determined to discover the truth. When Wright finally turns up – compete with an alibi that puts him working on a farm several miles away – still Cluff is not satisfied. Wright is clearly rattled by Cluff, reacting hysterically to his questioning at the police station. No one thinks there is a case – Amy took her own life – a tragedy but not worthy of investigation. Cluff takes leave so he can discover the truth about Amy’s death. Wright goes back to Amy’s house – knowing it is his now, as is all the money in the bank, but he can’t relax. Cluff is hard on his heels, literally stalking him through the Gunnarshaw streets, silent and watching outside the house. Within hours Wright is beside himself with fear and anxiety.

“He was harried along the never-ending road. The country about him was immense, threatening. He could feel the chill repugnance it had for him and his own being grew smaller, until he was less than nothing. The moors towered on this side and that. Their blackness merged with the blackness of the sky. They reached above him, groping towards each other.”

Cluff is perfectly at home in the rugged, Yorkshire countryside where he was raised. So sure, is Cluff of his quarry, he follows Wright to a sinister, isolated farm, where secrets wait to be discovered.

Sergeant Cluff stands Firm isn’t a whodunnit exactly – it is more about the dogged pursuit of justice – Cluff is a believer in the righting of wrongs, he sides with the underdog. North examines the psychology of people, how they act, react and feel about situations, what conscience they have about their actions. Overall, a good compelling little read (less than 200 pages – which is shorter than most of these) with a very well-drawn central character.

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dav

I had to take a short break from A Century of Books to read this, just what I needed – as ever I reach for vintage mysteries when I am over tired. These British Library Crime Classics always tick the box. John Bude is a familiar name to readers of British Library Crime Classics, they have published (I think I am right in saying) six of his mysteries, though I had only read two prior to this one. John Bude was the pseudonym for theatre producer and director Ernest Elmore and he was a very prolific writer.

The Cheltenham Square Murder comes with one of those handy little street plans so beloved of mystery writers from the Golden Age. How necessary this simple little drawing is I’m wasn’t sure – but I admit I did find myself referring to it to several times.

cofThe novel opens in a small, tranquil regency square in Cheltenham Spa, ten houses in a u shape around a communal grassy area of shrubs and trees. The inhabitants are generally middle aged – and quiet living. It is certainly not the kind of place, one would expect to encounter sudden and violent death.

However, all is not quite as it seems. Several residents have been locked in a dispute over the fate of an old elm tree, and bank manager Mr Fitzgerald appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Captain Cotton has been seen often in the company of Mr West’s wife, and set tongues wagging. Meanwhile the Misses Watt, are concerned with a secret they accidentally happened upon, while they nursed their neighbour Edward Buller in his delirium.

“There had come to his ears a strange, insidious sound – a faint zip, a long click, and a long drawn out sigh from Cotton. He swung round, puzzled, opened his mouth to speak and swayed there with his lips held slackly apart, staring. The glass dropped from his hand and was shattered on the parquet. He put down the decanter, shakily, took a couple of steps forward and again stopped dead.”

The square’s fraught rivalries are disrupted by the sudden, shocking death of one resident, shot in the head with an arrow through an open window. One of the other resident’s is a doctor and he is soon on the scene, but it appears that death was instantaneous. Suspects there are a plenty, especially as six of the square’s residents are members of the nearby Wellington Archery Club.

Fortunately for perhaps everyone but the murderer, celebrated crime writer Aldous Barnet has been staying with his sister at number 8, and Mr Barnet has invited his old friend Superintendent Meredith to stay while his sister is away. Meredith soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation alongside local policeman Inspector Long (whose ‘working class’ accent is just a bit overdone). They focus their attentions on the recently vacated house on the square – the skylights and a small landing window in a neighbouring house. The residents of the square are questioned thoroughly, with poor Inspector Long living in dread of his conversations with Miss Boon, a rather strident woman with a house full of dogs.

Secrets are there to be unearthed – and even a spot of blackmail to be revealed. Meredith and Long have their work cut out trying to figure out who did what and why. Just as they are starting to cast their collective suspicious eye on one particular person, there is another equally gruesome death on the square.

“One hand gripped the lapel of his velvet smoking-jacket. The other was closed over an unlighted cigar. His mouth was slightly agape. In three strides Meredith was across the room with the doctor close at his heels. Simultaneously their eyes met.”

Then Meredith hears about a bizarre incident on a farm, when a labourer found a ewe with an arrow buried in its head. Meredith can’t help but think that this must have something to do with his case.

No spoilers – I’m keeping this short. The Cheltenham Square Murder is an entertaining mystery with just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I eventually happen upon the culprit – but not very early on and only after changing my mind a couple of times.

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excellent intentions

So, July has been a bit of a slow reading month for me, more of that in my round up post on Wednesday. So last weekend, feeling very over tired I reached out for a little bit of vintage murder, ticking of 1938 in my A Century of Books in the process. I do love these British Library Crime Classics – admittedly they vary in quality, but they are perfect for lazy Sundays. I have several more on my radar as well as two or three tbr.

Excellent Intentions had particularly appealed to me because I had heard that it was structured a little differently to the usual Golden Age Crime novel. It is, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hull’s storytelling twist. It works well – however I guessed the truth very, very early on. When I say guessed, it was a guess formed by one line in the early pages (I can’t say more than that) – but as the novel progressed, I stuck firmly to my guess and it proved to be correct. None of that spoiled the novel for me, I found it highly entertaining.

Richard Hull writes with a good deal of wit – as well as huge amount of knowledge about all thing philately (more of that later) and the plot fairly skips along.

“‘May it please your lordship – members of the jury, on Friday, July 13th – a combination of unlucky days – Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate died in a railway carriage between Larkingfield and Great Barwick stations on the borders of Essex and Suffolk at approximately eleven fifty-seven in the morning. On Thursday August 9th the accused’ – with a melodramatic gesture which threatened to arouse anew Mr Justice Smith’s latent prejudice, counsel pointed to the dock and rolled out unctuously the full name of its occupant – ‘was arrested and charged with wilfully murdering him by administering poison to him, and it is on that charge that the accused now stands before you.”

The novel opens as a court case gets underway – someone is on trial for murder, only we don’t know who it is.

From here with the help of the excessively voluble prosecution barrister, various witnesses and the defence we see the events which led up to the trial. It is a particularly clever way of structuring a crime novel, the reader looking for clues as to who it is in the dock.

The victim was Henry Cargate, a typically loathsome golden age victim. A wealthy man who had not long moved into the big house in the village of Great Barwick. He had quickly become its least favourite resident, rude, obnoxious and favouring outsiders to workers from the village, he quickly puts the backs up of almost all the locals. On the day of his death, Cargate’s car won’t start and so he is forced to get a train from the tiny local railway station, Cargate is a man of easily roused temper, and this is enough to excite his irascibility. At the station he is seen, attempting to take snuff, as he waits huffily for the train. A porter causes him to drop his pinch of snuff onto the floor. The resulting fuss and bad temper made something of an impression on fellow traveller; Mr Hardy. Hardy’s curiosity roused, he watches Cargate, in the window reflection as the train leaves the station, taking another pinch of snuff – this time successfully. Only seconds later he is dead, and Mr Hardy is obliged to stop the train.

Enter, Doctor Gardiner whose suspicions are roused – despite everyone assuming natural causes. Thankfully Gardiner had thought to secure a sample of the snuff that had spilled from the tin onto the carriage floor for analysis. Gardiner had detected an odour in the railway carriage that he wasn’t entirely happy about. Inspector Fenby is called in to investigate further – and it is soon established that Cargate had been poisoned.

“It was a constant complaint of Inspector Fenby’s that he had to spend a great part of his time examining some subject which proved in the end to be irrelevant. He was always on the look-out for the danger and he tried hard to avoid entangling himself in such things. But you could never be sure. There were frequent traps. Certainly the actions of those concerned during the long central period of Thursday, July 12th were a good example of such a state of affairs.”

It appears there are four main suspects; the local vicar Mr Yockleton is one, he absolutely loathes the new squire, and his worship of money, whose only interest in the village church is what archaeological properties it might unearth. Cargate enjoys bating Mr Yockleton and they had a heated argument on the morning of Cargate’s death. Cargate is a very difficult man, and so the two members of his household staff Raikes the butler and Miss Knox Forster Cargate’s secretary must surely have motive too, they certainly had opportunity. As did everyone around the house that day, a bottle of cyanide had been purchased by Cargate for the destruction of a wasps nest by the gardener, the only local man Cargate employs. The bottle was in full view of everyone throughout the day.

excellent intentions2

Additionally, we meet Macpherson – a dealer in stamps. Cargate is a keen philatelist – but MacPherson has had reason to doubt his honesty but Cargate counteracts MacPherson’s accusations with accusations of his own when Macpherson travelled to Great Barwick to meet him. One of these two men is a cheat.

The amount of detail that Richard Hull goes into with regards to philately is quite astonishing – some may feel a little wearisome, I was completely bamboozled about various colours, marks and the amount of perforations a particular stamp had which made it valuable or utterly worthless. Whether Hull himself was a keen stamp collector or not I don’t know – perhaps he simply didn’t want his research to go to waste.

Excellent Intentions (the use of that title becomes clear) was a really great little mystery. I now have more Richard Hull books on my radar – I enjoyed the way Hull structured the story, and his ordinary, no nonsense Inspector Fenby is the kind of fictional policeman I like. A normal, reasonably intelligent man, doing his job well.

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murder underground

I am still very behind with my reviews; this book was my last read of April which I read during the readathon the weekend before last. Murder Underground was a good readathon pick, as it was a real old-fashioned page turner from the British Library.

“Dozens of Hampstead people must have passed the door of the Frampton private hotel – as the boarding house where Miss Euphemia Pongleton lived was grandly called – on a certain Friday morning in March 1934, without noticing anything unusual. When they read their evening papers they must have cursed themselves for being so unobservant, but doubtless many of them made up for it by copious inventiveness and told their friends how they had sensed tragedy in the air or noticed an anxious look in Miss Pongleton’s eyes.”

A Friday morning in 1934 seemed just as usual, people hurrying off to their daily toil, when a bundle of clothes on the stairs at Belsize tube station, turns out to be the body of Miss Euphemia Pongleton. A long-term resident at the nearby Frampton Hotel, her fellow boarders are not noticeably overwhelmed with grief, but they are all fascinated by the murder of a woman they knew – though generally disliked. It seems that Miss Pongleton was a very tiresome old woman, miserly, despite her apparent wealth, she would walk to Belsize tube to save a penny on the fare.

The police very quickly settle on Bob Thurlow, boyfriend of Nellie who works at the Frampton, who they believe had reason to kill her. Nellie is inconsolable, telling everyone at the hotel that her Bob wouldn’t do such a thing – reminding them how good Bob was to Miss Pongleton, taking her little dog Tuppy for walks for her. However, things don’t look too promising for Bob, who was on duty at the station at the time of Miss Pongleton’s death, and over whom Miss Pongleton was holding information that she had threatened to go to the police about.

The Frampton hotel houses an odd collection of residents; from the attractive, modern young women Cissie and Betty, to the novelist Mrs Daymer and the respectably serious Mr Slocomb who now occupies Miss Pongleton’s armchair, old Mr Blend and the much younger Mr Grange. Mrs Bliss is the woman who presides over the house and her residents, rather scandalised at the trouble that has been brought to her door.

“Mr Basil Pongleton’s departure from his lodgings in Tavistock Square, a little later on the same morning, was less sedate. He was obviously in a hurry; yet it was after ten o’clock when he passed almost directly beneath the Frampton, whizzed along through the tunnel in the direction of Golder’s Green. The underground train which he took from Warren Street at about 9.25 would have passed that spot nearly half an hour earlier, and his subterranean wanderings on that morning were to cause him a good deal of trouble.”

Miss Pongleton had two relatives living nearby, her nephew Basil, and niece Beryl (they are cousins not siblings), one of whom will come into her money. Beryl is already well off – and it is generally supposed that Basil will inherit – although Miss Pongleton frequently fell out with Basil and would threaten to disinherit him. Basil was in the vicinity of Belsize park on the fateful morning, and proceeds to make himself appear suspicious with his increasingly ridiculous antics and lies. The reader knows Basil is innocent – yet no character has ever done more to make themselves appear rather guilty. Basil and his absurdities are all rather hilarious, giving a nice little touch of humour to this vintage mystery. Both Basil and Beryl are frequent visitors at the hotel, and Basil has recently begun a little romance with Betty – who also gets drawn into to the hapless Basil’s muddles.

Bit by bit the residents of the Frampton hotel begin to expound their own theories about what happened to Miss Pongleton, and two of them set off to investigate an unexpected lead themselves.

Murder Underground is the second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery that I have read, the other was The Santa Klaus Murder which I thought was entertaining enough though a little weak. This was much better and thoroughly enjoyable. Another winner from the British Library’s crime classics.

underground steps

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thirteen guests

Thirteen Guests re-issued by the British Library Crime Classics has all the ingredients of an excellent mystery. A large group of people gathered in one place, vandalism, sudden death, secrets and superstition. J. Jefferson Farjeon was an extraordinarily prolific writer – the list of his works on his Wikipedia page is certainly impressive. I have previously read just one of them – A Mystery in White – which was very good indeed and would be perfectly suited to the weather the UK is currently experiencing.

Lord Aveling is hosting a hunting party at his large house, Bragley Court. The first guests have already arrived as beautiful widow Nadine Leveridge arrives at the station and comes to the aid of John Foss – injured as he leaves the train. Nadine insists that John accompanies her to Bragely Court where a doctor is regularly in attendance, as Lord Aveling’s mother-in-law is seriously ill.

“But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious lounge-hall… something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.”

The title refers to a superstition that the thirteenth guest to arrive will be beset by bad luck. John Foss is not the thirteenth guest to arrive – as his unexpected inclusion to the household precedes that of some of the invited guests. Lying in an ante room, where various members of the household regularly come to chat to him, John can’t help but notice that it is Mr Chaters who is the thirteenth guest. Mr Chaters we soon learn, is not a nice man, a man not adverse to a bit of blackmail in his bid for social advancement – his wife isn’t much better.

Other members of the party include: Lord Aveling’s family, his wife, daughter Anne and ailing mother-in-law, Mr Rowe, his wife and daughter Ruth – Rowe has made his money in sausages. Harold Taverley a keen cricketer. Leicester Pratt, an artist, commissioned to paint the portrait of the Honourable Anne. A politician Sir James Earnshaw, Edyth Fermoy-Jones a mystery writer, Zena Wilding an actress and Lionel Bultin a renowned gossip columnist. Leicester Pratt and Lionel Bultin seem to be great friends – sharing a wry view of proceedings. John, almost instantly smitten with Nadine, seems to be carrying a secret of his own, proves a popular member of the house party, making a friend of Harold Taverley and regularly visited by Anne and Nadine.

In the neighbourhood a stranger has been seen, carrying a large black bag. He seems peculiarly concerned with the time of the trains.

“A man sat at the uncurtained window of the Black Stag, staring with moody eyes at the deserted smudge of platform. He had arrived that morning on the 12.10. He had partaken of an unpalatable lunch, and had spent the early afternoon strolling about in a purposeless way, smoking incessantly, and almost as incessantly consulting his watch.”

Soon after the arrival of everyone at Bragley Court, Leicester Pratt discovers his portrait of Anne – has been slashed, after he unwittingly left the door of the studio unlocked.

Mr Chaters quickly makes himself very unpleasant to several people. That night the house is disturbed by the incessant barking of Haig; one of Lord Aveling’s dogs. Several people are observed by John from his position on the couch, wandering the house at odd hours, indulging in whispered conversations. The next day it is discovered that the window in Leicester Pratt’s studio has been smashed – from the inside – and poor Haig the dog brutally killed.

On the final day of stag hunting – a party from the house set out, leaving behind those whose interests lie elsewhere. Before the hunting party return, and just before a rider less horse is seen streaking past the house, an unidentified man’s body is found in a nearby quarry. Lionel Bultin stands guard over the body while help is fetched – and soon Detective-Inspector Kendall is on the plot.

“Detective-Inspector Kendall made no secret of the fact that he never did things by halves. He left nothing to chance—or so he boasted—and his methods, with which he permitted no interference from anybody, were almost blatantly complete. “If I’d been born with a kink in my brain,” he said, “I’d have been one of the big criminals, but fortunately for law and order my brain is not pathological, so I catch ’em instead.””

Hoping for an exclusive for his paper, Bultin is happy to assist the inspector and is really rather good at it. It’s not the only violent death, however, as the hunting party bring back news that one of the party is missing. Another dead man is found, and as the investigation gets underway, it is discovered that a tube of poison had been hidden away by the Chinese cook, a tube that is now missing.

I’ll say no more, there’s an ingenious solution, and a little romance all making for a very engaging mystery. The one possible weakness is that the solution is not really possible for the armchair detective to work out – we glean certain details after the fact – and the reader doesn’t witness much in the way of detecting. Still Thirteen Guests is readable and engaging, though a little slow to start, and I particularly liked the character of Lionel Bultin.

j jefferson farjeon

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portrait of a murderer

Firmly set during the Christmas period, A Portrait of a Murderer is more Christmassy than my last so-called Christmas mystery, but really it isn’t very Christmassy at all. Christmas is merely the device which brings people together, almost all of whom are absolutely horrid. There is absolutely no Christmas spirit in evidence. However, the story is deftly plotted and in a twist to the traditional whodunnit which I particularly enjoyed, we know fairly early on who the murderer is. I’ve always been a fan of TV detective Columbo, so I enjoy mysteries that use this device.

“”Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931. The Crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, not yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.”

Adrian Gray is a difficult old man, he has a poor relationship with his adult children and their spouses, having little time or respect for any of them. His eldest son Richard is a rising MP with his sights firmly set on the Lords, unhappily married to Laura, he is pompous, self-serving and ambitious. Gray’s sour daughter Amy has remained living in the family house, running it like a military operation, her life is narrow and joyless. Olivia is married to Eustace a Jewish financier (cue lots of horrible, stereotypical racial profiling, which is dreadfully uncomfortable and spoiled the book a little for me I have to be honest). Eustace is desperate for money, as is Richard, but unfortunately Eustace has mismanaged some of his father-in-law’s money too. Another daughter; Isobel cowed by a bullying husband, is treated with cool tolerance upon her return home.

“Isobel had always been the independent, the courageous one. She had found herself work in the neighbouring market town, had loved solitude, had read, had gloried in trips to London had haunted book-shops and art galleries. Isobel Devereux came back white and listless, meekly submissive to her father, and handing over to Amy, without demur, practically all the money with which her husband supplied her. She scarcely counted as a personality, but could be relied upon to perform those casual and thankless household duties that are invariably shirked by others.”

Gray’s second son; Hildebrand (generally called Brand) is an artist with a wife who is not welcome at his father’s house, (she has remained behind in Fulham) she is considered common – another stereotypical character portrayal I had problems with. Not only is poor Sophie deemed common, but presumably because of that commonness, she is sluttish, a drunk with the paternity of some of her children apparently in doubt. The last daughter Ruth appears to be the only one leading a normal life, quietly and happily married to a lawyer Miles.

Christmas 1931 and Adrian Gray assembles his family at Kings Poplar for Christmas. Snow lies thickly outside, but there is little warmth inside that house for anyone. Almost everyone inside the house that Christmas might have reason to want to kill Adrian Gray. However, it is just one of them who finds themselves surprisingly and unpremeditated a murderer. Self-preservation takes over – and the culprit sets about creating a false trail leading elsewhere – covering their own tracks as best they can. In this way we can no longer see them as an accidental murderer, but someone callous enough to lie, time and again, and ultimately, potentially see someone else hang.

From here on the novel is a psychological study of a murderer – what they do to evade capture, what they think, how they behave towards others.

On Christmas morning, the body of Adrian Gray is discovered, and it isn’t long before foul play is suspected. The murderer must surely be in the house. The police are contacted, and later that day Sergeant Ross Murray arrives to take charge of the case. Here is one character finely drawn by the author who looks like he will be far more interesting than any of the Gray family – unfortunately he is only around for a couple of chapters – fooled by the murderer’s perfidy, it is someone else entirely who tries to sort out exactly what happened in the early hours of Christmas morning 1931.

Reservations aside this is a very well plotted, intelligent mystery novel. The ending is very clever, and quite satisfying.

(No author picture, as I can’t find one.)

 

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somebody at the door

Somebody at the Door is one of the British Library Crime Classics more recent releases, with such a great title and a wartime setting I was very much looking forward to it.

“The train was now five minutes overdue. The platform was getting crowded. Among the people standing near Grayling recognized or thought he did, men with whom he travelled up every day. He was quite certain of one – the young man Evetts had reappeared. He began to edge away from him, still further up the platform, hugging his case. There was about £120 in the case, in pound notes and silver; he was not taking any risks.”

On a miserably bitter January evening in 1942 Councillor Henry Grayling catches a crowded train at London Euston which will carry him home to the suburbs. The blackout, makes for poor visibility, and Grayling is irritated by the crowds at Euston. Carrying over £120 in wages from the firm he is employed by – which he will distribute the following day – Grayling fights his way onto the overdue train. Sharing the compartment with Grayling are a few strangers; a couple of workmen, a middle-aged woman and her daughter, as well as several people he knows from his home in Croxburn. Evetts, a despised colleague from the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, is the first. Sat next to Grayling is the local vicar, and opposite him is a German refugee who Grayling has denounced on no evidence but his own suspicions. George Ransom a corporal in the home guard, who Grayling has had reason to take to task, and another local young man named Hugh Rolandson are all crammed into Grayling’s carriage.

Later that evening the vicar receives a frantic telephone call from Grayling’s wife, pleading with him to come to her house – where her husband is dying. When he arrives, the doctor has already been, but it is too late and Mrs Grayling, tells a spine chilling tale of hearing a noise at her door – and having found her husband collapsed – obviously dreadfully unwell. His case is missing – as of course are the wages that were in it.

Inspector Holly begins to look into the circumstances surrounding Grayling’s peculiar and unexplained death, drawing up a list of his fellow passengers on that last journey home. Holly begins investigating the other passengers and their relationships with Grayling, who he is beginning to realise was not very popular.

The results of the post mortem are astounding – Grayling died from mustard gas poisoning. Yet, how on earth could it have been administered?

The structure of this 1940s mystery is a little different to many of those golden age detective/police procedural novels. We are used to those novels where the detective visits or is visited by practically every character in the book – conducting interviews which gradually form a picture of what happened on the fatal evening in question.

In this novel, we see practically nothing of Holly’s investigation. He discusses his findings with his superior and tries out a couple of theories with him. Subsequent chapters then go on to tell the stories of several of those fellow passengers who were known to Grayling – none of them liked Grayling, several had reason to want rid of him, and they could all of them make use of that missing money.

As each character is explored in some depth – the reader can certainly play the armchair detective – I found myself dismissing some characters, while suspecting others. Each of these chapters could almost be a short story in itself – but as we inch closer to the truth, we also get a very realistic portrait of Britain under war conditions.

“The darkness of the sky had been lightening as he spoke; the moon, still invisible, must have been rising above the horizon. The disputed flashes had been occurring more frequently; now there came an unmistakable irregular hum. Barumba, barumba, barumba; it is not exactly that, but it is a sound that once heard is not again mistaken. The bombers were on their way. Soon there began the distant crump, crump of guns. Bright, large sparks occurred among the stars and vanished; they were bursting shells. The thud of guns seemed to bear no relation to them, which was a sign that the firing was still a long way away.”

Here, we have stories of love and loss, daring escape and financial ruin. Everybody, it would seem, has secrets.

I did start to flag a little in the middle of the book, some of these back stories are so detailed – that they become a little tedious. I was keen to find out who did it – and of course I had my own theories – it just seemed to take a while to get there. I would also have liked to know more about Inspector Holly.

Still this is a very enjoyable mystery, and I have seen other reviewers talking very enthusiastically about another Raymond Postgate mystery Verdict of Twelve – which I should probably seek out. All in all a good escapist mystery, perfect for long dark evening.

raymond postgate

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quick curtain

For several years I have had the idea that theatres are particularly good settings for murder stories. I suspect that idea was firmly planted in my mind by the Ngaio Marsh novels Opening Night and Enter a Murder. Admittedly Opening Night and Enter a Murderer may be the only murder mysteries set in the theatre that I had previously read, but still the idea persisted. So Quick Curtain has been on my radar for ages, and I was looking forward to it enormously. I was setting myself up for disappointment, really wasn’t I?

Don’t misunderstand me, I did enjoy Quick Curtain, the tone was not what I was expecting (more of that later) and at first, I was concerned that the plot seemed so obvious it is almost by the by (I should have had more faith). Still it was all very enjoyable and there is a lovely little twist (which I did eventually begin to see coming, but is non-the less brilliant). A bright, breezy, slightly tongue in cheek mystery – which I can see many people enjoying. However, if you only read one murder mystery set in a theatre make it Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh (my favourite of those two) once you have done that – if you find yourself in the mood for a second – Quick Curtain will probably do the job. (oh, yes, I know Ngaio Marsh wrote other theatre novels I just haven’t read the others).

Wikipedia describes Alan Melville as follows: an English broadcaster, writer, actor, raconteur, producer, playwright and wit. Certainly, his knowledge of the theatre and his wit is very much in evidence in his novel Quick Curtain, and it makes for a lovely quick piece of escapism. Dorothy L Sayers said of Melville that he ‘Blows the solemn structure of the detective novel sky high…’ He does do that certainly, I really hadn’t expected the light fizzing, satirical tone, but once I got used to that I began to enjoy the book more.

Douglas B Douglas is a leading light in London theatre – and a master at promotion. Such is the buzz created about his latest show, that the extravaganza Blue Music is an assured hit even before it opens. Melville gives a wonderful little glimpse of the theatre star groupies who even in 1934 it seems were apt to queue for days outside the stage door.

“Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day. On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester and finding out the truth of all those jests about the provincial Sabbath, seven grim females parked seven rickety camp stools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.
They were joined a little later in the evening by four more female and a lone male. They unpacked sandwiches and munched. They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks. They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas’s past successes, Miss Astle’s last divorce, Mr. Baker’s profile – both the port and the starboard view. They half slept. They suffered endless agonies on their stupid unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title ‘Gallery Enthusiasts’ three day wait for New Douglas Show’. They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair sized queue.”

The show gets under way with its two big stars Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle, and the audience are lapping it up, when Act two delivers something very unexpected. During a key moment of the action the star Brandon Baker is shot in front of a bemused audience who don’t at first realise that anything is wrong. In the audience is Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard, and his journalist son Derek. Inspector Wilson takes charge, and during the next frantic minutes of upset and confusion another member of the cast is found dead. It seems to be a tragic case of murder followed by suicide. Though is it? It soon transpires that the gun used in the show was replaced at the last minute, and Inspector Wilson makes an interesting discovery in the proscenium.

Derek offers his services as assistant to his father – in return for the exclusive story – and so it is, that the two begin their unconventional investigations. There is a light, bantering tone between father and son, hiding a deep affection for one another, at times it is a little reminiscent of Wodehouse.

“ ‘Toss,’ said Derek. ‘It’s the only satisfactory way of settling anything in this house. Got half a crown on you?’
‘Why half a crown?’ asked Mr Wilson, producing the coin named.
‘It’s much the best coin for tossing,’ said Derek. ‘Now, listen. Heads you go to the funeral, tails I do. Heads you give me a two-column report of the farewell performance for the Gazette. Tails you give me a half page verbatim account of what happened at the inquest. Heads I tell you anything that I heard at the inquest that might be in your line. Tails I tell you if I’ve seen anyone behaving suspicious-like at the graveside. Understand?’
‘Not a word of it,’ said Mr Wilson. ‘But never mind. Toss.’

Father and son compete rather, to see who can uncover the truth. How likely it is, that a Scotland Yard Inspector would allow his journalist son to trail around after him, attending the inquest and generally snooping around, doesn’t really matter, as a duo Wilson Jnr and Snr are highly entertaining. Derek is written with a touch of real comedy. His attempts at going under cover, sending cryptic telegrams back to his father, is really very funny. I really can’t say much more about the plot without giving too much away – but the ending is very satisfactorily unexpected – though as I said I did guess part of it.

These British Library Crime Classics continue to provide wonderful Golden age escapism. I can’t help but love a world where a hapless investigator sends telegrams rather than text messages.

Alan_Melville_(writer)

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murderofalady

I do enjoy a bit of vintage murder, as I discussed recently in a post dedicated to the genre of Golden Age Crime. Murder of a Lady, re-issued by British Library Crime Classics is a Scottish locked room mystery first published in 1931, it was the twelfth novel by Anthony Wynne to feature his amateur sleuth and physician Eustace Hailey. Anthony Wynne was a new name to me, but he was obviously very prolific, and apparently quite well known for his locked room mysteries.

The setting is Duchlan Castle in the Scottish Highlands, where the body of Mary Gregor the elder sister of the laird has been found locked in her own bedroom. Miss Gregor has been dealt a terrible blow, and despite a dreadful injury there is hardly any blood, and no weapon can be found. The door is locked from the inside, the windows barred, and, once the alarm has been raised, access to the room was achieved only with the help of a locksmith. The only clue – and it’s a strange one at that – is a tiny fish scale on the floor next to Mary’s body.

“‘This is the room; nothing but the lock of the door has been disturbed. I had a great shock myself when I entered and I would therefore prepare your mind.’
Dr Hailey inclined his head, responding to the Highlanders’s gravity with a reserve which gave nothing away. The door moved noiselessly open. He saw a woman in a white nightdress kneeling beside a bed. The room was lit by a paraffin lamp which stood on the dressing-table; the blinds were drawn. The kneeling figure at the bed had white hair which shone in the lamplight. She looked as if she was praying.”

Living in the house, is the laird; Major Hamish Gregor – known to all as Duchlan, his son Eoghan, daughter-in-law Oonagh and their young son, and four servants – two maids and two upper servants who are next to being members of the family; Christina, Eoghan’s old nurse, and Angus the piper. The laird’s wife died when Eoghan was a young child, and Mary had taken over the care of her nephew and been almost a mother to him.

Late at night on the day following Mary Gregor’s death, the Procurator Fiscal arrives at Darroch Mor, the home of Colonel John MacCallien, where Dr Eustace Hailey is a guest – with the grim news of the death of Miss Gregor. Having earned himself a reputation for helping to solve some high-profile crimes, Dr Hailey has been sought out to assist until a police man from Glasgow can attend. Dr Hailey accompanies the Procurator Fiscal to Duchlan Castle immediately to examine the scene and start talking to the dead woman’s brother.

Inspector Dundus arrives sooner than expected and reveals himself to be a serious young man, with his own way of doing things. Though perfectly cordial, he makes it quite plain that he intends to conduct the investigation himself, although he is willing for Dr Hailey to be an adviser at something of a distance. Hailey returns to Darroch Mor, happy enough to leave Dundus to his work.

Initially everyone is very quick to say how kind and respected Mary Gregor was, a charitable woman without an enemy in the world. Soon, however Inspector Dundus uncovers the reality, that Mary ruled the house with a rod of iron, her personality still pervades the house, affecting everyone who lives there. Her body shows evidence of a previous attack, perhaps many years earlier, and with it the suggestion of a family secret. Oonagh Gregor is frequently left alone by her husband who serves with the Royal Regiment of Artillery – recently returned from Malta and now undertaking special duties in Aryshire. Her relationship with her husband’s aunt is revealed to have been very difficult – and concerns over her young son’s health has obliged her to consult local physician Dr Macdonald – who has become something of a confidant and friend, none of which has gone unnoticed.

The castle grounds run down to the loch, from where local fishermen ply their trade – and the deeply superstitious locals believe that it is the ‘swimmers’ – mystical fish creatures from the loch who are responsible for the dark goings on.

“‘There’s queer stories about Loch Fyne as you may know. The fishermen tell very queer stories sometimes.’
‘So I believe.’
Mr McLeod roused himself.
‘Aye,’ he exclaimed with warmth, ‘it’s easy to say you don’t believe in old wives’ tales. But these men are shrewd observers with highly developed and trained senses. Who knows but what they may be able to see and hear and feel more than you and I could see or hear or feel? All the time they are watching the face of the water, which is the mirror of the heavens.’ ”

Mary’s death is followed by others – each just as improbable and circumstances decree that Dr Hailey is soon fully involved in the investigation. Things do get rather melodramatic, but the solution is very clever – which I hadn’t guessed at all.

Murder of a Lady is a very readable and entertaining mystery especially for fans of the locked room mystery, and I particularly enjoyed the Highland setting. Certainly, it is not the best of its type, however it has introduced me to a writer I would happily read more by.

anthonywynne

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12.30 from croydon

I wonder how many British Library Crime Classics there are? There appears to be millions and I am constantly worried I will miss some especially brilliant ones – as I have so many unread books already. So, I may have only read a handful of these books so far (several more tbr of course) – but this one is probably my favourite to date. I had read one Freeman Wills Crofts mystery before – The Hogs Back Mystery – which is really good, but in my opinion The 12.30 from Croydon  is far superior.

Now don’t judge me – but I am a bit of a closet Columbo fan. I don’t watch them so often these days – mainly because I have seen them all more than once, but I still love that rumpled little detective. The thing with Columbo is that the viewer always knows who the murderer is – they are often a little too sure they have committed the perfect crime. Along comes Peter Falk in his creased raincoat and pieces it all together bit by bit – he is always courteous and happily lets the criminal think him a fool. With Columbo the reader is always sure the murderer will get his/her just desserts – with this novel, however the reader can’t be quite so certain. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you either. From about the second chapter – we know who the murderer is – but there are plenty of things we don’t know. The main thing being whether they get away with it or not.

It’s never all that easy to review mystery novels – but this one is particularly difficult. Freeman Wills Crofts however is a consummate storyteller – and this novel is so compelling it is impossible not to fly through it.

“How strange it was, Charles ruminated that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!”

As the novel opens, a retired, wealthy manufacturer Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley and Peter’s young daughter Rose are on their way to catch the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Peter’s wife Elsie has been involved in an accident in Paris – and although not too badly hurt her family are naturally anxious to be at her side. Young Rose’s worry about her mother is over-ridden by her excitement at flying for the first time. It is also her grandfather’s first time flying – having been given permission to fly by his doctor – Andrew Crowther is travelling with his manservant Weatherup. The family enjoy a simple in-flight meal – and then prepare to land. When the plane comes to a standstill Andrew Crowther is found to be dead in his seat.

So far, so conventional, an opening reminiscent of other Golden Age mysteries – gets the story off to an excellent start. Then, in a flashback starting a few weeks before the death of Andrew Crowther, the viewpoint switches to that of his eventual murderer. Crofts allows us into the mind of a murderer, from the conception of the idea through the battle with conscience, the ingenious preparation for the murder of Andrew Crowther, the covering of the tracks and of course the eventual crime itself. Money is of course at the root of everything – isn’t it always. The financial crisis has hit some people hard, and Andrew Crowther was scathing about business failures – declaring them, the result of laziness. Charles Swinburn is now the owner of the manufacturing business his uncle built up, now Andrew Crowther is reluctant to help, sneering at his nephew for taking his eye off the ball – completely misunderstanding the reality of the financial crisis. Charles is about to go bankrupt – although he has managed to disguise from most people just how bad the situation is – and to top it all he has fallen hopelessly in love with a society beauty who will not be interested in a poor man.

“Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who were doing great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Then comes the terrible fear of detection – so sure that they’ve thought of everything, that nothing can betray them – and yet what if… Murder isn’t easy to live with. There is an inquest to sit through, a will to be read, equanimity to be preserved. There are several unexpected shocks along the way – and naturally, policemen asking questions. Another murder proves necessary, the grizzly business carried out and dealt with – and suspicion seems to be falling on someone else entirely – could the wrong man be about to pay for Andrew Crowther’s murder?

Unlike most Golden Age mysteries, the policemen are not at the centre of the story – in fact they operate rather more off stage. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is eventually brought in, when dissatisfaction with the inquest is expressed – and he quietly, and unobtrusively goes about his business.

It is the psychology of the criminal which is so well done here I thought – the self-delusion as well as self-justification, paranoia and simple connivance which drives the narrative and makes it so readable.

freemanwillscrofts

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