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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

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I recently talked about how I enjoy getting to grips with some Christmas reads at this time of year, and An English Murder was the first of my planned reads. A commenter on that previous post reminded me about this book, which had been on my mental wish list for ages. I think I had meant to buy a copy last year but either couldn’t find a copy or didn’t get around to buying it. So, this year I snapped up this Faber Finds edition. It was exactly what I was in the mood for last weekend, getting my Christmas themed reading off to a flying start – I raced through it.

Cyril Hare was the Pseudonym for English judge and crime writer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. The only other Cyril Hare novel I have read is Tragedy at Law, which I can’t remember a thing about – but which has apparently never been out of print. Of that novel P D James wrote that it ‘is generally acknowledged to be the best detective story set in that fascinating world’.

Warbeck Hall in the fictional county of Markshire is the setting for this well plotted Christmas mystery. The snow is falling thickly as the guests begin to gather at Warbeck Hall, soon the house will be cut off completely from the outside world.

“At ten minutes to eight Briggs carried a tray bearing a decanter of sherry and glasses into the drawing-room. At eight o’clock precisely he sounded the great Chinese gong in the hall. It was an entirely unnecessary piece of ritual, for he had already seen for himself that all five guests were present; but as a piece of ritual he enjoyed it. The deep brazen notes pulsated through the great half-empty house, penetrating into the dilapidated spare rooms where no guest had been since the First World War, rousing echoes in servants’ quarters where no servant was ever likely to be seen again.”

Lord Warbeck is the ailing proprietor, spending most of his time in his bedroom now, where he is attended to by his faithful butler; Briggs. Lord Warbeck has chosen a small group of special people for what he firmly believes will be his last Christmas. There is his son Robert; leader of a small fascist organisation called The League of Liberty and Justice, Sir Julius; Lord Warbeck’s cousin – who as an M.P and chancellor of the exchequer for the new socialist government is of an entirely different political persuasion. Mrs Carstairs, a family friend and the wife of another rising politician, whose husband is away over Christmas. Lady Camilla, the niece of the late Lady Warbeck’s first husband. Lastly, Dr Bottwink, an academic from Heidelberg conducting some exhaustive research in the Warbeck archives, who has also been invited to stay.

The house is run with far fewer staff in this post-war world, where houses like Warbeck Hall can no longer exist as they once did. Joining Briggs who must now run things single handed is his daughter Susan, who has her own reason for spending Christmas at Warbeck Hall. Sir Julius’s close protection officer – Rogers is also installed below stairs. So, the scene is set as the guests settle in to afternoon tea on Christmas Eve and the snow piles up outside.

At midnight on Christmas Eve a sudden death occurs, a death by poisoning, a murder, which must have been committed by one of the people in the house – which is now completely cut off, even the phone lines have been brought down by the extreme conditions. It falls therefore, to Rogers; Sir Julius’s close protection officer to begin investigations, until he is able to hand the case over to his better qualified colleagues.

For those who – like me – find themselves wincing at the racial slurs and dreadfully outdated language that seem to creep into many of the Golden Age mysteries that we still enjoy reading – this novel will make a refreshing change. The fascist character is not portrayed well – he is viewed by the others gathered as someone who has lost his way, his organisation as a joke. The ‘foreigner’ in their midst serves to remind the reader of the terrible toll fascism has already taken, he is accepted by everyone (except Robert) on his own merits, a man of intelligence and great sense. Bottwink (a Hercule Poirot type – minus patent leather shoes) ably assists and advises the reluctant detective in his duties. The British class system and the changing times in post-war Britain are also highlighted.

“Absolute stillness surrounded the rambling old house. Not a breath of wind rose to stir the dense fog which had settled over the snowbound countryside. Not a sound penetrated through the freezing air. Peering from the high window of Lord Warbeck’s bedroom, Camilla Prendergast looked out into a world featureless, colourless and, to all appearances boundless. It was difficult to believe that beyond that blank expanse the business of living still went on; that in crowded sea-lanes about the coast, ships crept cautiously through the murk, or swung at anchor calling dismally to one another with their raucous sirens; that all over England, defying frost and snow men and women were gathered together to keep Christmas in a spirit of love and happiness.”

Christmas itself takes rather a back seat in this mystery, it is simply the means to bring everyone together, and give us a whacking great snow storm. I really didn’t mind that. I don’t want to say any more about the mystery, expect to say it is a fabulous Golden Age style mystery which is hard to put down.

There is something about murder at Christmas that old fashioned mystery lovers like, and this is brilliantly plotted, intelligent whodunit. A snowbound country house at Christmas is the perfect setting for it.

cyril-hare

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murder-at-the-vicarage

“There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

I think it must be something like thirty years since I read The Murder at the Vicarage, (I was very young) though I had forgotten almost all the details, I do remember how enthralled I was back then. It was the first time I think I had encountered anyone called Lettice in fiction, and the one part of the story I had remembered involves Lettice – she must have created quite an impression. The other thing I had forgotten was that Murder at the Vicarage, is the first Miss Marple story – set of course in her village of St. Mary Mead.

“The young people think the old people are fools — but the old people know the young people are fools.”

While I was reading – I distinctly heard the voice of the wonderful Joan Hickson, whenever Miss Marple spoke. It occurred to me, that Joan Hickson must have studied the character in the novels, and which better one to start with than The Murder at the Vicarage. It has all the ingredients of a classic mystery, gossip, peculiar telephone calls, anonymous letters, an affair, a mysterious woman, missing church funds and the death of a thoroughly unpleasant man. There are, plenty of suspects residing in St. Mary Mead, and no one is very sorry that Colonel Protheroe has been killed.

The story is narrated by Mr Clements; the middle-aged vicar, not long married to Griselda, a much younger woman. Pretty, kind hearted, she has a cheerfully slap-dash attitude to domestic matters, desperate to keep hold of their dreadful maid Mary.

“Some oysters which Griselda had ordered, and which would seem to be beyond the reach of incompetence, we were, unfortunately, not able to sample as we had nothing in the house to open them with—an omission which was discovered only when the moment for eating them arrived.”

Staying with the vicar and his wife is Dennis, the vicar’s sixteen-year-old nephew, who is dreadfully excited when he finds himself in the middle of a real mystery. Worried by Hawes; his new curate – who is rather too high church – Mr Clement’s is more frequently harried by Colonel Protheroe. Money has gone missing from church funds, and in his capacity as church warden, magistrate Protheroe is determined to get to the bottom of it. Mr Clements has a meeting with Protheroe scheduled, to examine the accounts.

Colonel Protheroe lives at Old Hall, with his second wife Anne and his daughter Lettice from his first marriage. Lettice seems to have affected an attitude of dizzy vagueness, which Mr Clements for one does not entirely believe. An unknown woman has come to live in the village recently, and all the old biddies who love to gossip, are desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, artist Lawrence Redding has been linked to Lettice, and gossip has it that Protheroe did not approve. There’s also a good bit of gossip about Gladys Cram, assistant to Dr Stone, in the process of excavating a site in the grounds of Old Hall. Miss Marple sees it all, she is a fine examiner of human nature.

“Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. A grown-up person knows the word because they’ve seen it often before.”

The day of Protheroe’s death, is the one on which the Vicar was due to meet his church warden, when a telephone call to the vicarage obliges Mr Clement to rush off to visit a parishioner, leaving a message for the colonel who will be waiting for him in his study. By the time the vicar returns, Colonel Protheroe is dead, shot while apparently writing a note at the vicar’s writing desk in the vicar’s own study.

The police are called, and we are introduced to Inspector Slack, who is keen to clear matters up quickly – and is too full of his own importance to listen to the vicar’s statement about the clock in his study. Miss Marple is quickly in the thick of it – demonstrating as only she can, what an acute observer of life she is. Miss Marple’s cottage is next door to the vicarage – and she had a perfect view of all the comings and goings on the fateful day.

The Murder at the Vicarage is great comfort reading, though I really don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best, in fact if I am honest, I prefer the Poirot novels. However, I loved getting to grips with this one again – prompted by a read-a-long on a Miss Marple Facebook group.

Agathachristie3

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hogsbackmystery

Hello, I feel as if I have neglected this blog a little this week. I have simply been very busy and over-tired. I haven’t read as much as usual so far during July and I am finding that frustrating, I am fighting a constant battle with wanting to read but being almost too tired to manage more than a few pages. Having failed to get beyond about page 80 with my previous read, I opted for something altogether different. When times are tough, I reach for a Golden Age crime style novel, and the wonderful British Library Crime Classics came to my aid with The Hog’s Back Mystery.

This is the first mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, that I’ve read, a prolific writer I wasn’t even aware of before. The Hog’s Back Mystery was his fourteenth novel, the fifth featuring his well-known policeman Inspector French.

Freeman Wills Crofts, was a railway engineer who began writing in 1919 during a long illness. Hi first novel The Cask was published in 1920 and he followed it up with almost one book every year for the next thirty-seven years. As well as mystery novels, Freeman Wills Crofts published short story collections and both stage and radio plays. In his introduction to this edition, crime writer Martin Edwards, describes The Hog’s Back Mystery as the work of a skilled craftsman at the height of his powers.

“A short curving drive brought them to the house, a typical modern South of England cottage, with lower walls of purple brick, upper storey and roof of ‘antique’ red tiles and steel-framed casement windows. In front and at both sides the trees had been cleared back to leave room for a small garden. All round was the wood.”

The Hog’s Back Mystery is set near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs of the Surrey countryside. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a particularly secluded spot, in their cottage St Kilda. As the novel opens, Julia Earle and her sister Marjorie – who is visiting – are meeting Ursula Stone, an old friend from schooldays, off the train. The three women are all somewhere between thirty-five and forty, but Julie’s husband who she only married a few years earlier, is already sixty and semi-retired from his practice. Ursula immediately senses that the Earle marriage is not as happy as it could be. It becomes obvious that Julie is very friendly with a neighbour Reggie Slade – a man residing with relatives, whose only real talent seems to be his knowledge of horses. Already feeling a little unsettled with the atmosphere at St Kilda, Ursula is further convinced that things are far from right when she is obliged to go up to London for the day. Having clearly heard Dr Earle announce his intention of playing golf at the links near Guildford, Ursula is therefore surprised to see him sitting in a car with an unknown woman in a London street.

“Slowly the hours of that day dragged away without bringing to light the slightest information about the missing man. Earle had utterly and completely vanished – vanished instantaneously. At one moment seated in his chair, settled down for the evening, entirely normal, dressed for the house: three minutes later, gone. Neither sight nor sound of his going: no trace left: no hint either of cause or method: no suggestion of motive: no explanation anywhere of any part of it. Spirited away!”

Three days later, on a seemingly normal Sunday evening, while Ursula is visiting some other friends a few miles away, Dr Earle disappears from his sitting room, while Julia and her sister are clearing away the supper things. An extensive search is carried out, but it appears as if Dr Earle was only wearing his slippers, had no coat with him, and had been in the middle of reading the Observer. By the end of the night the police have been called, and Inspector French of the Yard is soon on the case.

French is faced with trying to discover whether the case is a domestic one of deliberate disappearance or something much more sinister. The case is further complicated by two further disappearances, at least one of which French is convinced is a murder. Yet, if all three people have really been murdered what can the motive possibly be?

I found this novel deeply engaging, it’s ingeniously plotted and the solution is fiendishly difficult to work out – I wonder if anyone actually ever does. Unusually, Freeman Wills Crofts satisfies the armchair detective by providing; in the final chapter where French sets out his evidence – the page numbers where the clues could have been spotted. Although the character development is not as strong as some other mystery writers of this period – Freeman Wills Crofts writes a very compelling mystery, which I couldn’t help but enjoy enormously.

freemanwillscrofts

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appointmentwithdeath

I think I am sometimes in danger of forgetting how much I love Agatha Christie. The 1938 club provided me with the perfect excuse to pick one up – one I have certainly read before, long enough ago to have forgotten the crucial details. I love the familiarity of Agatha Christie’s world – old fashioned and a little class conscious it might be – there is nevertheless a wonderfully polite kind of justice within the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery which is oddly comforting. Appointment with Death is a Poirot mystery – and he was always my favourite.1938club

On his first night in Jerusalem Hercule Poirot over-hears part of a rather odd conversation while fiddling with his window at the Solomon Hotel.

“You see, don’t you that she’s got to be killed?”

Poirot doesn’t attach too much importance to the words at first – realising he has heard only a snippet of a conversation – totally out of context. Poirot remembers the words of course, and knows that he will recognise the voice again should he hear it.

Staying in the same hotel is the Boynton family from America. The Boyntons stand out rather – as they make a point of keeping themselves to themselves. Already they have come to the attention of Sarah King a young woman from England who has just completed her medical degree, and a Frenchman; Dr Gerrard a renowned psychologist/psychiatrist – not sure which. The two doctors put their heads together and discuss the peculiar family – Sarah has her romantic eye on one of the sons – despite having only spoken to him once in the corridor of a train.

Mrs Boynton is a truly horrible creation – with obvious malice, she keeps her family in thrall to her peculiarly cruel whims. Almost an invalid – Mrs Boynton’s family run around her, ensuring she has what she needs. Terrified of upsetting her, they won’t allow themselves to get drawn into interacting with fellow travellers. Mrs Boynton is the step-mother to Lennox, Raymond and Carol, Lennox’s wife Nadine probably the least damaged of the group, while Mrs Boynton’s own daughter Ginevra – the youngest appears to be the most nervously affected.

“And then, suddenly, the old woman’s eyes were full on him, and he drew in his breath sharply. Small black smouldering eyes that were, but something came from them, a power, a definite force, a wave of evil malignancy. Dr Gerrard knew something about the power of personality. He realised that this was no spoilt tyrannical invalid indulging petty whims. This old woman was a definite force. In the malignancy of her glare he felt a resemblance to the effect produced by a cobra.”

Sarah tries to engage Raymond in conversation, while Mrs Boynton watches with grim disapproval from nearby. The conversation is not repeated. Later Sarah manages to snatch a late night conversation with his sister Carol – but Mrs Boynton discovers Carol returning to her room, and any future meetings are stopped before they can be arranged. Frustrated Sarah allows her dislike of Mrs Boynton to show, causing a little scene on the steps of the hotel on the day she and Dr Gerrard and two other western tourists leave Jerusalem for a tour of Petra. Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce are Sarah and Gr Gerrard’s companions in the car driven by a local guide.
In Petra there is a camp set up for the tourists, some people staying under canvas some in caves. Already settled into the camp at Petra when Sarah King and her party arrive, are the Boynton family with Jefferson Cope; an old friend of Nadine Boynton’s from before her marriage.

As you might expect, it isn’t long before Mrs Boynton is found dead in her chair in front of her cave. Evidence of a needle prick in her arm, and certain items having gone missing from Dr Gerrard’s tent, point to a suspicious death.
Hercule Poirot is staying in Amman with a letter of introduction to Colonel Carbury, Carbury has already been informed of Mrs Boynton’s death, a death he really isn’t happy about. He consults Poirot and Poirot promises to have the matter satisfactorily explained in twenty-four hours.

“We will make them tell us what it is,” said Poirot.
“Third degree?” said Colonel Carbury.
“No.” Poirot shook his head. “Just ordinary conversation. On the whole, you know, people tell you the truth. Because it is easier! Because it is less strain on the inventive faculties! You can tell one lie – or two lies – or three lies or even four lies – but you cannot lie all the time. And so – the truth becomes plain.”

The comings and goings of everyone in the camp are gone over in minute detail – but I had already more or less worked out who did what and why – though not quite the how. There are various rules to an Agatha Christie mystery which I suppose are well known. Hercule Poirot spends something like fifty pages setting out various theories attached to each person in the camp at the time of the murder, dismissing them one by one until the culprit is revealed.

This is not the best Agatha Christie novel, it’s not quite clever enough for that – but I do think it’s a very enjoyable one, hugely readable and for me comfortingly familiar.

Agathachristie3

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trouble on the thames

With thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy

I hadn’t heard of Victor Bridges before spotting Trouble on the Thames on the Netgalley site. I requested it because it sounded right up my street, a 1930’s spy story possibly the next best thing to a 1930’s murder mystery. I enjoyed the novel; it’s pacey, well plotted and compelling. Although it’s not the greatest suspense type novel I have read – the tension wasn’t quite there for me – I would probably read more by Victor Bridges in the future. Definitely, Trouble on the Thames is a book worth reading, despite my – only very slight – reservations. Espionage, murder, escaped prisoners, amnesia all play a part in this almost forgotten thriller from 1945.

Set towards the end of the 1930’s when war in Europe already seems like a fore gone conclusion, Owen Bradwell; a Royal Naval commander returns to London to attend a medical board. While out at sea he had suddenly discovered himself to be colour blind – he knows already his days at sea are over. An old friend gives him a room in his flat – where a Jeeves type manservant ensures everything runs smoothly and Bradwell is greeted each morning with a sumptuous breakfast. Bradwell hopes an introduction to a big cheese in Whitehall will lead to gainful employment more challenging than other shore bound jobs. Captain Greystoke tells Bradwell about one of his former colleagues, who killed himself, following an act of Treason. Greystoke wants Bradwell to spy on the spy; Mark Craig generally believed to be a Nazi agent, the man behind Bradwell’s former colleague’s betrayal. The gang are holed up in a property on a little Island on Thames Ferry, close to Playford where Bradwell had been contemplating going for a little fishing. Bradwell is able to use his little weekend away as cover for his activities.

“Now that he was actually embarked on his adventure he was conscious of a feeling of exhilaration to which he had been a stranger since that fateful night in the Indian Ocean. With something definite to do, some really important task on which to concentrate his energies, the black cloud of depression so long hanging over his spirits seemed to have suddenly and miraculously dispersed.”

In Chelsea, two young women; Sally Dean and Ruth Barlow celebrating their first year in business together as interior decorators find themselves drawn into sorting out an act of blackmail against Sally’s sister. Sally’s sister, a silly woman who relies wholly on her beauty to get by, had a brief affair with Granville Sutton, a very unsavoury character, and wrote him rather compromising letters, now she is engaged to a rising politician and had received some nasty threats from her former lover. Sally is determined to help her sister by seeing blackmailer Granville Sutton herself – at his place on the river at Playford. Of course Sally is unaware of how many other people Sutton have upset, including Mark Craig, another victim of Blackmail – and gets rather more than she bargained for when she arrives at Sutton’s house.

London newspapers tell of a daring escape from Dartmoor, a prisoner has escaped, and is now making his perilous journey across the moor. First on foot and later by stolen motorcycle, the prisoner Wilson edges toward the capital and the river Thames. Who he is – and how he connects to the events on the Thames – only become clear later.

“As some ten minutes appear to have elapsed before the alarm was raised, Wilson must have had time to reach the shelter of one of the large straggling plantations that adjoin the prison. Since then nothing has been seen or heard of him. An intensive search of the surrounding moor, however, is now in progress, and with all the roads watched and every car and vehicle being held up for examination, it is not considered likely that the fugitive’s spell of liberty will be of very long duration. Contrary to the popular belief, founded upon sensational films and novels, every prisoner who has so far escaped from Dartmoor had been recaptured. In the majority of cases men give themselves up voluntarily on account of the hunger and exposure to which they are subjected.”

Granville Sutton is found with a knife in his back, and both Sally and Owen are right in the mix. When Owen Bradwell falls foul of the gang he is following, help comes in the unexpected form of Sally Dean. Nursing his wounds – Owen finds himself worried he might have blown his big chance – while finding himself very attracted to his rescuer. Owen is soon given ample opportunity to redeem himself when Sally is put in grave danger.

Both Owen Bradwell and Sally Dean are great characters – Owen is self-effacing and likeable, brave without any unnecessary machoism, while Sally is bright, tough and resourceful, a brilliant heroine who isn’t merely a romantic foil.

thames ferry

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the lake district murder

I really love these British Library Crime Classics – admittedly this is only the third that I have actually read, (I have two others tbr) – but the covers alone are so gloriously tempting! One of the other two BL crime classics I have read was The Cornish Coast murder also by John Bude – I loved the cosy atmosphere of that novel and the strong sense of place. If I’m honest, although I enjoyed this mystery, the complex unwinding of which will please many mystery fans, I did very much prefer The Cornish Coast Murder. That being said there is a lot to savour in this 1935 novel which was the first of John Bude’s Meredith mysteries. The Cornish Coast murder featured two amateur sleuths, amateurs are always fun, and the Rev. Dodd was such an engaging creation.

The Lake District Murder is set in a region away from the tourist areas of the Lake District, along the coastal area of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. On a March evening a farmer having run out of petrol further down the road, walks along to a remote garage on the road between Portinscale and Braithwaite. Here he makes a shocking discovery. One of the garage owners, Clayton, is sat in his car, a hose pipe attached to the exhaust, with the other end secured underneath a mackintosh wrapped around Clayton’s head. The police and a doctor are called, although there is no doubt that the man is dead.

“The man’s head was hooded in an oil-grimed mackintosh, which had been gathered in round the neck with a piece of twine. From the back Luke had mistaken this cowl for an ordinary leather driving-helmet. Frightened, bewildered, wasting no time on speculation, he laid his torch on the front seat and shot out a pair of shaking hands. Clumsily he undid the twine and drew aside the hood. Then, with an exclamation of horror, he started back and stared at the terrible apparition which confronted him. It was Clayton all right! Clayton with a fearfully distorted, blue –lipped, sightless face! He felt his heart. There was no movement! The man’s hand was cold!”

Everything points to suicide, but an investigation is begun as it must, and soon Inspector Meredith is having serious doubts that Clayton would have killed himself. Clayton was happily engaged to a local girl, their wedding just a few weeks away, he and his fiancée were planning a new life in Canada, and a witness who saw Clayton earlier in the day said how cheerful he was. Meredith is concerned, that this suicide could be murder staged to look like suicide, and he manages to get a post mortem ordered on the strength of his concerns. Meredith was right, Clayton had a powerful drug in his system, he was indeed murdered.

derewentClayton’s murder is soon linked to peculiar goings on at other remote garages, and soon Meredith is embroiled in a complex investigation. The mystery is a quite ingenious, it involves petrol companies, garages, hidden passages and a network of shady practices, Inspector Meredith is seriously tested in unravelling the details. Inspector Meredith is a middle- aged police man, a far cry from the angst ridden, loose cannon’s we are subjected to in modern police dramas, he is a traditional married man with grown up son, who manages to make it home for tea, and is always duly respectful to his superintendent. During his investigation Meredith shows himself to be a very practical and intelligent man. He rides around the countryside with his constable in a motorcycle and side car, enlists his photographer son’s help and constructs a brilliant piece of apparatus to aid the investigation. Eager for a result, Meredith refuses to get bogged down by the seemingly imponderable mystery, always throwing himself into every part of the investigation.

“The Inspector acted quickly. Running his bike behind a row of tar barrels, which stood on the edge of a little draw-in beside the road, he climbed the low wall at the foot of the fell-side and plunged into the spruce wood. Dodging this way and that among the thick and brambly undergrowth, he worked his way to a position somewhat behind and above the small group of buildings which constituted the Lothwaite. From a quick survey of the lie of the land, he realised with a thrill of excitement that it would be possible for him to get within ten yards of the group without any danger of revealing himself.”

The Lake District murder is more a 1930’s police procedural and the story of a well brought together investigation than the straight forward whodunit we expect from the golden age. Just as with The Cornish Coast murder, it is obvious that Bude knew the location well and had a great affection for it. The case is rich is detail and is a truly complex puzzle that keeps the reader guessing along with the investigators.

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fear stalks the village

It was only fairly recently that I first heard of Ethel Lina White, on Past Offences blog. On finding there were a number available quite cheaply as ebooks I happily downloaded a couple to my kindle. Ethel Lina White wrote seventeen novels published between 1927 and 1944 – placing her work firmly in that period of Golden Age crime fiction. Her first three novels however were mainstream works rather than crime novels, and Fear Stalks the village just her second published work of crime fiction.

The village in which we find ourselves is one of a very typical type, a highly idealised English village of this period. Inhabitants very rarely leave, and outsiders stand out. It is presented as a particularly serene and cosy place; here there exists a society of tea parties, suppers and garden parties, a society in which everyone has their place. Miss Asprey is the village saint, Mrs Scudamore the village conscience, there is the doctor and his wife, the Rector, the squire and his family, and a novelist among others – each of them play their part in making up this easy society.

“The village was beautiful. It was enfolded in a hollow of the Downs, and wrapped up snugly—first, in a floral shawl of gardens, and then, in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender grew in abundance. Bees clustered over sweet-scented herbs with the hum of a myriad spinning-wheels.”

villageAs the novel opens, Joan a fairly new inhabitant to the village, working as a companion to an old woman, highly respected in the village, plays host to a friend from London. Joan shows her friend around the village, boasting of its quiet perfection. The friend, a cynical writer, entertains the two of them imagining dark truths and hidden secrets, affairs, alcoholism, cruelty lurking beneath the idyll. Joan’s friend hurries back to London in some inexplicable relief – but as events later show, she really wasn’t so very far from the truth.

Joan, fearing being left on the shelf, has become attached to the village rector – although their relationship has so far had little chance to develop. When Miss Decima Asprey receives an anonymous poisonous pen letter, insinuating darkly of past misdeeds, she turns immediately to the Rector. Miss Asprey; a kindly charity worker, is in the minds of the villagers an undisputed saint.

“Yet, even then, the first blow was about to fall on the village. Far away, in the distance, sounded the postman’s double-knock. Presently, he appeared in sight, a little globe of a man, with steel-rimmed spectacles. He rejected the Rectory, but entered the gates of ‘The Spout’. They heard his familiar rat-tat, and then they saw him come out of the garden again, and go on his way—but they did not recognise him for the herald of disaster.”

Miss Asprey also employs a companion, Miss Mack who smilingly, runs around after her employer virtually never leaving her side, and a maid, whose Hollywood like beauty makes her stand out from the rest . It is inconceivable to anyone that Miss Asprey should have anything in her past to inspire such vile spite. In such a small village, the news of the letter is soon known by all, and fear, paranoia and suspicion take over.

“Fear—no longer a formless huddle, or a black flicker—stalked the village that night; like a garrotter, it lurked in the shadows, only to mark its prey before it leaped. The blinds were drawn earlier than usual, and, for the first time, four walls heard the circulation of scandal.”

White cleverly presents the fear of the title, character like; in the guise of a shadowy presence moving through the village, silently ruining the peace and easy society that had previously existed there.

Soon more letters follow, secrets are threatened with exposure – society breaks down. Suspicion is everywhere and the Rector is deeply troubled that his beloved village may never be the same again. Shockingly, some villagers are driven to terrible, desperate actions to escape rumour and the threat that their secrets might be exposed.

The Rector invites his old friend Ignatius to the village, a man frequently bored with little to do – he has been known to turn his intelligence to the solving of particular problems. Ignatius duly arrives, rather superior and certain of his own abilities, and sets about unravelling the mystery of the letters.

“His friend was very short and slight; at a distance, his insignificant figure suggested a schoolboy—but this impression was dispelled by a first glance at his face, which was lined, and acutely intelligent. Also—to put it mildly—he did not suffer from any inferiority complex.”

Ignatius employs what appears to be rather a complex and long winded way of getting at the truth, for Ignatius has a particular eye for detail, which soon starts to irritate his friend. Ignatius though is not deterred from his purpose to rid his friend’s village of the menace of uncertainty.

There are some cleverly executed little twists in this novel, which meant I kept changing my mind about what was what. There isn’t an enormous amount of action in this novel – which I don’t mind in the least – action is never important to me. I loved the sense of place; many of the descriptions are lovely, coupled with the depiction of an idealised society, which put under a very slight pressure begins to break down.

ethel lina white

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