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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

With thanks to the publishers for the review copy

I’ve been looking forward to trying the mysteries of E.C.R Lorac, her books have been reviewed very enthusiastically by lots of bloggers. I have a couple more Lorac tbr and anticipate them eagerly now. This Devon set mystery was a treat. A small, fairly isolated community is always a good setting for a murder story, and in this novel Lorac has created just such a community, steeped in secrets.

E.C.R Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett, she was a prolific writer of crime between the 1930s and 50s – and several of her novels are back in print thanks to the British Library. Murder in the Mill-Race first published in 1952 and shows real assurance in the plotting and characterisation.

Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife Anne; tired of the depressing slums, preventable disease and dirt of Northern city life, take the opportunity to swap life in a Staffordshire mill town for that of a Devonshire village on Exmoor. Raymond’s own poor health, the result of a Japanese prison of war camp, the reason for the change. In Milham in the Moor an elderly doctor is retiring, and Raymond decides to take over the practice, which is widely spread out over a large, sparsely populated area, but which should nevertheless make for an easier life.  Dr Brown will be staying in his own house, still overseeing the care of the children at a local children’s home; Gramarye. So, Raymond eventually agrees terms with Lady Ridding – a wily old aristocrat who drives a hard bargain – for he and Anne to take over part of the Dower House within the grounds of The Manor House. The Dower house is beautiful, and Anne falls in love with it instantly, it does seem as if she and Ray will be living their dream life.

Soon after their arrival in Milham in the Moor the Ferens begin to see that beneath the rural charm of their new surroundings there is also malice and hatred. The first indication of malign feelings comes almost immediately after the couple move in. They have already heard a good deal about Sister Monica – the warden of Gramarye – whose goodness everyone talks about as being something close to saintliness. When Sister Monica appears at the Dower house, walking through an open door while the Ferens are deep in conversation (Anne suspects her of listening) Anne is immediately convinced that she is wholly bad.

“Anne jumped up and ran across the room. The drawing-room, where they sat, faced south, as did the front-door which stood wide open to the sunshine. Glancing through the open door of the drawing-room, Anne had been aware of a shadow in the wide entrance hall beyond. When she reached the hall she had to choke back an exclamation of astonishment. In the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight, stood a figure so tall and dark and unexpected that Anne had a sudden qualm of discomfort, a sense that she was facing something unreal and utterly unlike anything she had ever known.”

Following an uncomfortable tea-time at Gramarye where Anne witnesses the unnatural silence of small children who have been trained to act like tiny automatons – Anne is even more horrified by the woman who in her heart she has already decided is wicked. Gramarye has been run for thirty years by Sister Monica who makes sure everything runs to her exacting and often eccentric standards, she is assisted by two old retainers; Mrs Higson and Hannah, who both declare Sister Monica to be wonderful – but is she?

“Gramarye smelt of floor polish and carbolic and soap: something of the unwelcoming smell of an institution, but behind the overlay of modern cleanliness, the smell of the ancient house declared itself, of old mortar, of stone walls built without damp courses, of woodwork decaying under coats of paint, of panelling and floor boards which gave out their ancient breath as the coldness of the stone house triumphed over the warmth of the midsummer evening.”

Ray doesn’t like the woman any more than his wife does – but in his new position is unwilling to indulge in gossip or speculation.  The Ferens have heard that a year before they arrived in the village a young woman drowned in the Mill-Race – she had been working at Gramarye – sent there to work from elsewhere, known as a bad girl. John Sanderson, the bailiff found her body.

A few months after the Ferens arrival – another body is found in the Mill-race – Sister Monica appears to have been knocked on the back of her head before falling into the water. Sergeant Peel has the thankless task of unravelling the truth – but with everyone talking of Sister Monica in hushed tones as if she really were a saint and no one really telling him anything – the villagers keen to keep their secrets, it isn’t long before Scotland Yard are brought into the affair – and Chief Inspector Macdonald is sent to investigate.

Macdonald is sensible, no nonsense detective who Lorac first wrote about in the 1930s. I like policeman like Chief Inspector Macdonald – no frills detectives who are utterly believable, a safe pair of hands.

Murder in the Mill-Race is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

Regular readers will know how much I enjoy reading these British Library Crime Classics, and I how I also enjoy novels set or (better still) written during thee Second World War. Death in Captivity is a little different to many of the vintage crime novels getting re-issued – I do love those country house/society murder mysteries, but it’s so interesting to have something completely different. Perhaps I don’t read enough of these kinds of novels to say for sure, but there can’t be many vintage mystery novels set in a prisoner of war camp.

Death in Captivity is set in an Italian prisoner of war camp, among the mainly British officers and men held there in 1943. While their treatment is not exactly kindly, neither is it quite as bad as it could be – though the men are on a constant high alert – and we soon get to know of some recent shootings in the camp, reminding us of the perilous situation. They are watched over by Captain Benucci of the Carabineri, who really is a nasty piece of work.

Several British officers live in slightly less crowded conditions than many of the other men and it is these men who make up the escape committee. They are all notorious escapers and have all already had several adventures. The majority of the camp take their duty to escape the enemy very seriously, and so there is always at least one tunnel under construction at any one time. The most likely tunnel to succeed is the one under hut C, entered through a trap door under the cooking stove in the hut kitchen.

“One only had to see it in operation to realize why it had escaped all searches. Like the African elephant in its native jungle, it defied detection by its immensity. The Italian Security Police, as they probed and searched with ant-like zeal each night, running steel spikes between bricks and tapping on floors with leather hammers, were looking for something altogether different – something smaller and slighter. A trap-door which consisted of a single slab of concrete, six feet by six feet and over two feet deep; a trap door which weighed nearly half a ton and needed four men, assisted by double-pulleys to lift it was something outside their ambit. It evaded search by being too big to see.”

The men go down to the tunnel to work in teams, the entrance closed up after they finish, ready for the next team the following day. So, when the body of a fellow camp mate is found in the tunnel, after it is opened up for the first time on a particular day – no one can work out how he got there. It is a classic locked room mystery – but with a big difference.

The dead man is a Greek soldier; Cyriakos Coutoules a man who had become very unpopular among the men following rumours that he was spying for Benucci. I couldn’t help but think how typical it was that the foreign Ally was the one singled out for blame – but probably exactly what would happen too. In fact, Michael Gilbert is very balanced in his portrayal of heroes and villains – not all the British are seen as heroes and not all the Italians are evildoers.

The first problem facing the men is how on earth to get Coutoules out of the tunnel – without attracting the notice of the Italian guards – the second problem what to do with him afterwards, he’ll be missed at the next roll call after all. Their solution is ingenious. Of course, the Italians have to know about the death – but the escape committee try to stage manage the whole thing under the watchful eye of Colonels Lavery and Baird, and Captain ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles is put in charge of discovering who killed Coutoules, for no other reason, it seems, than his penchant for detective fiction. None of this prevents another member of the escape committee being marched off to solitary confinement by the Italians, under threat of firing squad.

Meanwhile, the digging of the tunnel must continue in earnest – as rumours reach them that the Allies are drawing closer all the time, and it is starting to look as if the Italians will surrender. If that happens, the general belief is that the prisoners will be handed over to the Germans. Goyles tries to find out more about the dead man’s movements on the day he died, with nothing much at his disposal, interviewing other prisoners is about all he can do. While gossip of the dead man’s betrayal persists, it begins to seem likely there is another spy in camp – a German agent, passing information back to the Italians.

As the day when all the prisoners could find themselves handed over to the Germans approaches, the escape committee put together an extraordinary plan – to save everyone. The battle for escape takes precedence over the solving of the mystery – though the reader has no doubt that at some point Goyles will solve the riddle.

The ending is full of adventure, and fully satisfying– but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it. Death in Captivity really is a page turner – very hard to put down. The only other Michael Gilbert book I have read – another BLCC reissue – was Death has Deep Roots, also taking the Second World War as its theme, for those liking wartime stories and mysteries, they make a great pairing.

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Received from the publisher with thanks

I have always had a fascination for the Second World War, it’s a period that lends itself perfectly to all kinds of rich storytelling. So, a golden age type mystery, set during the war definitely appeals. Recently the lovely people at the British Library sent me two of their recent publications – both set during the war – I was keen to dive in. Death has Deep Roots was the first of the two I chose to read.

Michael Gilbert is a new name to me – but I think he may have been capable of poking some gentle fun at the genre of Golden age fiction itself.

“‘Dammit.’ Said Macrea irritably, ‘this isn’t a detective story. The murderer doesn’t have to be one of the principle characters. It might have been an old enemy of Thoseby’s, who happened to choose that moment to finish him off.”

Death has Deep Roots is actually set about three years after the war ended – a woman goes on trial for the murder of a man in a London residential hotel. However, the case harks back to events in France during the war – and the defence are on a race against time to unearth the truth.

As the novel opens the trial of Victoria Lamartine begins in London, an eager crowd of spectators waiting outside to get into the court. Vicky is a hotel worker, having come to London after the end of the war, and following the death of her child from malnutrition. She appears to be the only logical suspect for the murder of Major Eric Thoseby at the hotel where she worked. The prosecution maintain that Major Thoseby had been Vicky’s lover – and the father of her dead child. Vicky has always said her child’s father was another English serviceman, she met during the war, apparently captured by the Gestapo – and not seen since. Certainly, Vicky had seemed very anxious to contact Major Thoseby in the weeks before his death.

Mademoiselle Lamartine changed her counsel the day before the trial starts – so the judge agrees to delay the start of the trial to allow the prisoner’s new defence team to prepare. Mr Macrea is the newly instructed defence barrister – and he contacts solicitor Nip Rumbold – who works alongside his father as a junior partner in the firm of Markby, Wragg and Rumbold – to assist him. With no time at all to spare – and just an eight day delay to take advantage of – Nip Rumbold finds himself on a ferry crossing the channel. Rumbold snr enlists the help of his old friend Major McCann to help undertake enquires in London – a man who is definitely not afraid to get stuck in.

In France, Nip Rumbold must trace the roots of Thoseby’s murder in London to the dark days of the occupation and the risks taken by resistance fighters like Vicky. From the beginning, it seems as if Nip’s footsteps are dogged by others.

“Two minutes later Nap was stepping quietly off the darkened side of the train. He retrieved his own humble grip from behind a pile of lobster baskets and set out at a round pace along the quay.

There appeared to be no barrier to mark the end of the Gare Maritime and in a few minutes he was rounding the landwards end of the jetty. The railway sheds were deserted and the arched colonnade where by day the fish sellers and the greengrocers hold their market, was black and silent.

As his footsteps rang out on the cobbles the stone arches threw back the echo. It was almost as if someone was walking behind him, in the shadows. He stopped abruptly. The echo stopped also. But did it stop quite quickly enough?”

As he travels through the Angers region, he is soon putting himself in great danger. Michael Gilbert recreates the fear and suspicion still hanging over people in France living in the former occupied zone. People from both sides of the channel are displaced or missing – it’s not always certain who’s alive, who’s dead – who was loyal to the allies and who responsible for acts of betrayal.

Back in London the trial gets underway – with the defence team waiting anxiously for news from France that will convince a jury of Mademoiselle Lamartine’s innocence. Other residents and staff members of the hotel are examined, and cross examined, and a time line established. One of the residents is said – by the police – to have a number of criminal associations – and it appears that two other members of the hotel staff were in the same region of France as Vicky during the war – and why, if Vicky was so anxious to meet up with the deceased did she go out quite casually that evening only returning after Thoseby had arrived at the hotel?

“‘I will make myself plain,’ said Macrea. ‘Will you tell us, once more – I haven’t yet quite got it straight – when did you first hear from Major Thoseby?’

‘Two days before. On the 12th, that would be, his letter arrived. By the evening post.’

‘Have you still got that letter?’

‘No. I think it has been destroyed.’

‘Why?’

‘I am not a lawyer. I do not keep copies of all letters that are sent to me.’”

I love Courtroom scenes in novels – and these scenes are particularly good. Gilbert captures beautifully the psychology and tension of the courtroom. I found this a compelling and intelligent mystery – that combines courtroom drama with a dangerous fact finding mission across France. This mystery would particularly suit those who like their golden age mysteries to be a little less cosy than the traditional country house type (I still love those kinds too though).

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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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Review e-book kindly sent by the publisher.

There’s nothing quite like spending the weekend with a good old murder mystery that becomes increasingly hard to put down. Dean Street Press – publisher of those lovely Furrowed Middlebrow titles – also publish a number of Golden age mysteries. One of their most recent titles to be released is The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton. The kindle edition is already available (here in the UK at least – with the paperback released at the beginning of March).

Moray Dalton I have since discovered was the pseudonym of Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir. She published twenty-nine mystery novels between 1924 and 1951 and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall was one of her fifteen Inspector Hugh Collier novels. It seems that Dean Street are currently re-issuing five of her novels. I shall probably want to read them all.

In his introduction to this edition Curtis Evans calls The Strange Case of Harriet Hall ‘one of the finest detective novels from the Golden Age of mystery.’ That is quite a claim – whether it deserves such an accolade I shall leave to others to decide – but it really is very good – with a couple of big surprises (I guessed one of them- but that didn’t spoil it).

Amy Steer is a young woman living alone and quite friendless in London, constantly doing the round of employment agencies – and coming away with nothing. Her landlady wants her out – and she has no money left. Glancing through the advertisements in a national newspaper in some desperation Amy comes across a personal ad – someone enquiring for relatives of Julius Horace Steer – who could discover something to their advantage. Amy recognises the name of her father who died when she was two. She answers the advert immediately and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall in the station first-class ladies waiting room.

“As she turned away a tall woman came quickly through the swing doors, and after a swift appraising look round, moved towards her. She was well dressed in black with a long silk coat with a collar of fox furs, and her hard handsome face was heavily made up.

‘You are Amy Steer? My dear child – come and sit down.”

Mrs Hall tells Amy she is her father’s sister – and that the advert had been in the paper everyday for a fortnight. She tells Amy she lives quietly in the country – supported by the kindness of friends.  Having fallen out with her nephew Mrs Hall wants to reconnect with her brother’s child – and asks Amy to go and live with her in Larnwood. She gives Amy £100 to buy clothes she says she will need for meeting new people.

Things seem to be looking up for Amy – and despite the suddenness of the whole thing, Amy is excited to have money and the ability to buy new clothes. A few days later with her trunk full of new clothes she is on the train for Larnwood. During her journey she strikes up a friendly conversation with a young man sharing her compartment Tony Dene – he is going to the same station as Amy and offers her a lift at the other end. Only just before the train gets in Tony learns that Amy is the niece of Harriet Hall and his whole demeanour changes. When the train pulls in young Mr Dene rushes off – leaving poor Amy to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage.

When Amy arrives, the cottage is deserted – but the door open and the kitchen stove is warm. Thinking Mrs Hall must have just slipped out – Amy settles down to wait – but her aunt never appears. The next day – it is Tony -whose family live in the Dower house a short walk away – who makes a very grim discovery in the well at the bottom of the garden.

Mrs Hall might not have been to everyone’s liking, even poor Amy had tried not to think of her as a little vulgar with her costume jewellery and bright make up – but why would anyone kill her? Just why had the apparently respectable, likeable Dene family at the Dower house been in such thrall to Mrs Hall? Mrs Dene seems nervous whenever her old friend Harriet is mentioned, Tony and younger sister Mollie clearly hated the woman they considered grasping and impossible – their elder sister the rather brittle Lavvy, the beauty and their mother’s favourite, hated her too, though is mostly concerned with her society engagement. Lavvy’s a selfish snob, desperately clinging to her brilliant engagement, terrified his awful mother will whisk him away as the scandal of a murder hits the press.

“We’ve managed to head off the Press men so far. But that won’t last. We can’t escape publicity, and the reading public enjoys murders.”

The local police get the investigation underway and seems hardly anyone has an alibi. It isn’t long, however, before Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard has been called in. Collier is a man of calm, good sense, empathetic and fair. I really liked Collier – he was such a nice, gentle man, sensible and kind. Dalton’s characters are all excellent actually, she slowly reveals the characters of the Dene family – and we soon see perhaps not everyone is telling the truth.

Some big surprises and another death – soon have everyone talking, the press is very excited – and all the circumstantial evidence seem to be pointing in one direction. However, Collier is not a man to rush into things.

I loved this excellent Golden Age mystery – a couple of unexpected revelations make this a memorable mystery – and one that will make you want to read more by this writer soon.

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cof

This book was one of those chance buys. I was on holiday in Devon last year, mooching around a charity shop’s bookshelves. They had one shelf of old books – labelled rather optimistically ‘Antique and collectable.’ Well, I snaffled up three lovely old tomes from that shelf – and this was one of them. A book I knew nothing about, by a writer I had never heard of. It was the fragile old dust jacket that did it – I am a sucker for these vintage mystery covers.

Well I now wonder if I should have heard of the writer – Mignon G Eberhart was an American mystery writer who between the late 1920s and the 1980s produced over fifty novels. Another Woman’s House comes about halfway through her writing period – and though the plot is probably a little thin, there is something very compelling about Eberhart’s storytelling, and I enjoyed it enormously. Her characters are particularly well drawn I thought.

“It was still another woman’s house.
Nothing in the house had changed; nothing perhaps could change. Alice with all her beauty, her grace, her unerring taste for beauty might have put a spell upon the house and everything within it.”

The novel takes place over one twenty-four-hour period, and Eberhart slowly ratchets up the tension – as the truth of what happened when a man died is slowly revealed.

For several years Myra Lane has been living in England with her guardian; an elderly American woman who married a title – Lady Cornelia Carmichael was a good friend of Myra’s mother. Meanwhile Myra’s brother Timothy was educated in America and often spent time with Cornelia’s nephew Richard Thorne and his wife Alice at their beautiful house overlooking the sound.

Now, with the war over, Myra and Miss Cornelia have been living at Thorne House with Richard for almost two years. Timothy is out of the army and living in nearby New York. Myra has been blissfully happy at Thorne House – and has fallen in love with Richard. However, Richard’s wife Alice is still living, convicted of murdering a neighbour; Jack Manders – she has been in prison for two years. Myra has decided that she will have to leave Thorne house and move in with her brother – she won’t be able to cope with being in the same house as Richard now she woken up to her feelings. She is sure that Richard will never divorce Alice anyway while she is locked up.

Everyone adored Alice, an elegant beauty she decorated the Thorne house to absolute perfection. Generally considered an angel of pure goodness – no one expected a woman like her to be convicted, and in the unlikely event that she really did kill Jack Manders – he must have deserved it – is the general consensus.

On the day the novel opens, Myra and Richard take a walk in the gardens before dinner – and Richard reveals that he feels the same about Myra and wants to marry her. When they return to the house, two people are waiting for them in the library – the state Governor – and Alice Thorne. Myra and Richard listen bewildered to the Governor’s story of a changed statement, and immediate pardon, how he had taken it upon himself to bring Alice straight home. Alice is sent upstairs to rest while everyone tries to make sense of what has happened – dinner is delayed for several hours.

another woman's house

It becomes clear that with Alice freed – and unable to face trial for the same crime again, a new investigation will get under way. The chief suspects; Webb Manders the brother of the man Alice was convicted of killing, Myra’s beloved brother Tim and of course Richard himself – it was his gun Alice was seen holding moments after the death of Jack Manders. Two other people are also involved, Alice’s close friend – Mildred Wilkinson, another wealthy woman who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor – and Sam the Thorne family lawyer another Alice adorer.

Questions abound. Who killed Jack Manders two years earlier? Why did Webb Manders say he had seen Alice standing over Jack with a gun? – and why has Tim Lane suddenly changed his evidence after all this time? Where is Richard’s gun – which was never found?

In the midst of all this – as Alice lies looking pale and beautiful in her bedroom upstairs – Richard declares he no longer wants to be with Alice – he is it seems determined to settle down with Myra. Alice is home though, and she wants her life back, she loves her house and she wants to be a wife to Richard again.

“She wanted to hurry from the room – from the drone of the rain on the flagstones outside, the wavering curtains, the cupid. She made herself sit down again in Richard’s chair. She would think and reason out – and then dismiss this intrusive, stubborn uneasiness which nudged at her as if it had hands, pointing, a voice saying in a breathless whisper, look, look here I am: Murder.”

It is very easy for the reader to quickly work out what’s what. As far as the characters go, it seems Myra is the brightest of them all, but even she takes rather too long to realise the truth. In a sense it doesn’t matter that this mystery is easy to work out – the plot might not be the most complicated of this kind of novel, but I found the novel to be hugely enjoyable and very compelling.

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Agatha Christie is always a safe bet for a quiet weekend, when already feeling over tired or unwell. I have had this book club edition of Destination Unknown among my Christie collection unread for years. I love the 50’s cover. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a cape just like that.

If you open up an Agatha Christie novel looking forward to a nicely arranged corpse in front of a roaring fire, and Hercule Poirot standing over them – then this one might disappoint – though it shouldn’t. There are no corpses – and no Poirot or Marple – not even a brace of Beresfords.

This is one of Christie’s thrillers – and it is excellent in a similar way to the They Came to Baghdad was. Like so many Christie’s novels set in the places she travelled to – there is a great sense of place, and she always portrays that peculiar species – the Brit abroad – so well too. In place of bodies, poison, blackmail and detectives, we have British Intelligence, disappearing scientists, a shadowy organisation proposing a new world order, and a wonderfully plucky woman.

“Why do you decry the world we live in? There are good people in it. Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground for kindliness and individuality than a world order that’s imposed, a world order that may be right today and wrong tomorrow? I would rather have a world of kindly, faulty, human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy.”

A famous British scientist Thomas Betterton has gone missing – and with conflicting reports of sightings, British intelligence are getting twitchy. For Betterton is the inventor of ZE Fusion, and it is well known that there are those who would like to get their hands on it. Other scientists have also disappeared. A man called Jessop invites Betterton’s wife in for a little chat – no one is quite sure if she knows where her husband of six months has gone or not. Olive Betterton is exhausted from the press speculation and worry – and asks permission to go abroad to get away from it all – she was thinking about Morocco.

Permission granted Olive Betterton sets off, a carefully orchestrated tail in close pursuit. However, Olive’s plane to Casablanca crashes, and Olive lies insensible in hospital, one of just a few survivors, the doctors predict she won’t live long.

Meanwhile Hilary Craven has also arrived in Casablanca from England – though luckily for her on the next plane, she was originally booked on the same plane as Mrs Betterton. Hilary is a broken woman, realising her escape from England has really changed nothing, she has decided to end it all in her hotel room. Hilary’s child has died – her husband left her and has married again, what does she have to live for? All Hilary wants is for the misery to end. However, someone has noticed her, noticed how her age, height, red hair makes her vaguely similar in appearance to Olive Betterton. Those vague descriptions once shown inside a passport would be the same for both women. As Hilary sits on her hotel bed with a glass of water and a handful of pills, the locked door opens, and in walks a man she’s never met before – but Olive Betterton would know as Jessop.
Hilary is persuaded to undertake a very dangerous mission – after all if she is so keen on death – there might as well be a purpose to it, and Jessop thinks there is a high chance of death.

“‘Within a day or two Mrs Craven will die in hospital, and Mrs Betterton will be discharged, suffering slightly from concussion, but able to proceed on her tour. The crash was genuine, the concussion is genuine, and concussion makes a very good cover for you. It excuses a lot of things like lapses of memory, and various unpredictable behaviour.’
Hilary said: ‘It would be madness!’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Jessop, ‘it’s madness, all right. It’s a very tough assignment and if our suspicions are realised, you’ll probably cop it. You see, I’m being quite frank, but according to you, you’re prepared and anxious to cop it. As alternative to throwing yourself in front of a train or something like that, I should think you’d find it far more amusing.’
Suddenly and unexpectedly Hilary laughed.
‘I do believe,’ she said, ‘that you’re quite right.’”

We follow Hilary as taking up the challenge issued by Jessop, she travels through Morocco – meeting up with various characters, not all of whom she can be sure are who they say they are. Hilary is bright, unafraid and desperate for something to distract her mind from her hopeless misery. As she journeys toward her unknown destination in the guise of a dead woman, Hilary begins to want to live.

I won’t say too much more about the plot – as it would be too spoilery. The plot is fairly improbable to say the least. But if you are huddled under a blanket on a wet Saturday afternoon – do really care if it is improbable? Christie’s storytelling is great, and Destination Unknown is a real page turner. Naturally there is a lovely little twist at the end – and a fairly satisfying ending – the reader needs to suspend disbelieve – but overall this is a great bit of cold war escapism.

 

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