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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

My second read for the 1936 club was The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. If you haven’t heard of the novel – I bet you have heard of the film(s) it has been adapted for film and TV three times, firstly and most famously by Alfred Hitchcock. The film versions go by the name The Lady Vanishes – and I am fairly sure I have seen both the old Hitchcock version and the 1979 version that starred Cybil Shepard and Angela Lansbury. However, it must be some years since I saw either of them, and I haven’t seen the more recent TV adaptation, so my memory of the plot was sketchy. A young woman searches a train for a middle aged woman called Miss Froy, who everyone she speaks to insists was never there. More than that I couldn’t remember.

Ethel Lina White was a fairly prolific writer of mystery novels and stories, and The Wheel Spins was her ninth novel. I read an earlier novel, Fear Stalks the Village by her a few years ago, and a very memorable short story in Murder at the Manor an anthology of stories from the British Library edited by Martin Edwards. With The Wheel Spins it is easy to see what attracted Alfred Hitchcock to the story – to be so sure of something, and yet have everyone around you telling you that you’re wrong – it’s the stuff of nightmares. Throw in a sinister doctor and his peculiar patient, a crowded train, and the isolation of a language barrier, and suddenly we can all imagine being so disorientated that we begin to doubt our own mind.

“The horror persisted. Blackness was behind her and before—deadening her faculties and confusing her senses. She felt that she was trapped in a nightmare which would go on for ever, unless she could struggle free.”

Iris Carr is a young, attractive society woman, staying in a remote corner of Europe with a group of noisy, attention grabbing friends. The group have not made themselves popular in the hotel and following an awkward disagreement Iris decides to stay on at the hotel for a day or two after her friends depart by train. Glad for some time on her own, things don’t get off to the best of starts when Iris goes walking by herself and gets lost. Her confidence shaken she decides to carry on her journey to Trieste the next day after all.

An odd incident at the station where Iris is hit on the head and briefly loses consciousness leaves her feeling a little unwell, but she catches her train and finds herself stumbling into a carriage which is already rather full. The only other English speaker in Iris’s compartment is a middle aged tweedy type of woman who introduces herself as Miss Froy. Miss Froy has been working as a governess for the children of a local aristocrat – whose widow the baroness is another of the inhabitants of the carriage. Despite not being Iris’s kind of person at all, she agrees to have tea with Miss Froy in the dining car, where Miss Froy proceeds to tell her about the home she is travelling back to. Miss Froy has two very fond elderly parents anxiously waiting for her safe return, and a family dog who will take himself off to the train station to meet her when he senses her approach. Miss Froy’s, simple joy at returning home impresses itself on Iris’s mind – she finds she can picture the fond elderly parents and the eagerly waiting dog – making her all the more anxious that the family should be reunited.

Back in their train compartment, Miss Froy continues to be quite chatty, but overall, very kind. She gives Iris some aspirin and tells Iris to rest. Iris soon falls asleep and when she wakes Miss Froy is no longer sitting in the seat opposite her. Having waited some time for Miss Froy to return to her seat – Iris eventually plucks up courage to speak to the other people in her compartment.

“Where is Miss Froy?” asked Iris. “Miss Froy?” repeated the baroness. “I do not know any one who has that name.” Iris pointed to the seat which was occupied by the little girl. “She sat there,” she said. The baroness shook her head. “You make a mistake,” she declared. “No English lady has sat there ever.” Iris’ head began to reel. “But she did,” she insisted. “I talked to her. And we went and had tea together. You must remember.” “There is nothing to remember.” The baroness spoke with slow emphasis. “I do not understand what you mean at all. I tell you this…There has been no English lady, here, in this carriage, never, at any time, except you. You are the only English lady here.” 

They all claim that the lady Iris describes was never there. Only, Iris knows that she was.

There begins a desperate search for Miss Froy, the woman who was so kind to Iris and whose home coming is so eagerly anticipated. Also, on the train are some of the people from her hotel – but they are every bit as unhelpful – no one claims to have seen Miss Froy – Iris can’t understand how that can be the case – but then, why would all these people lie? She begins to question her own memory – could she have made Miss Froy up? She doesn’t really think so.

Iris enlists the help of a young engineer; Max Hare and the professor who he is travelling with. She starts to make quite a nuisance of herself – getting more and more irate and her behaviour begins to elicit some very unwelcome attention and could be about to put her in great danger.

This was an excellent quick read – a very quick read actually, as I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.  

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

I have been lucky enough to receive quite a number of these British Library Crime Classics from the publisher – probably more than I can actually cope with if I am honest judging from the number still unread on my shelves. However, when Murder’s A Swine dropped through my letterbox recently a quick glance at it told me that I wanted to read it almost immediately. My interest in it was sparked mainly by the author – Nap Lombard – not a name I heard before, but the author details on the back of the book reveal this to have been a pseudonym. Nap Lombard was in fact the joint pseudonym used by writer Pamela Hansford Johnson and her first husband writer and journalist Gordon Neil Stewart. Under the name Nap Lombard, the pair wrote two mystery novels during their marriage this was the second of them. Writing partnerships always fascinate me, how is the work divided up? – does one person write chapter one, the other chapter two and so on – or does one write and one come up with all the ideas? With a mystery novel this seems even more complicated.

First published in 1943, this Second World War mystery is very entertaining, there are some very odd goings on indeed – which are just spine tingling enough.

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

On a wintry night in the London blackout a young air raid warden in company with amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof find a body partly hidden in the walls of the air raid shelter which serves the block of flats where Agnes lives. As the police begin their investigations into who has died and how, the block of flats where Agnes and her husband live are further disturbed that very same evening when Agnes’ upstairs neighbour Mrs Sibley is terrorised by the deeply unpleasant sight of a pig’s head at her fourth floor window. Mrs Sibley who lives with her great friend, a writer of girls boarding school stories is deeply distressed and Agnes and her husband Andrew – having just arrived home on leave – busy themselves with helping to soothe the poor woman’s shattered nerves.

With the discovery of more unsavoury threats and notes signed ‘pig-sticker’ Agnes and Andrew – throw themselves wholeheartedly into investigating the mystery themselves. They rather put the backs up of the police lead by the absurdly named Inspector Eggshell, and really get on the nerves of Andrew’s cousin; Lord Whitestone a Scotland Yard big-wig with the unfortunate family nickname of Lord Pig. It is quickly deduced that it is more than likely that the culprit is living among them and is one of the other tenants in the block of flats. Someone is not who they say they are. What at first seem little more than unpleasant and inappropriate pranks start to look more sinister when a connection is made between one of the residents and the dead man.

When poor frazzled Mrs Sibley and her friend leave London for a riverside retreat – they are followed – and it isn’t long before the ‘pig-sticker’ seems to have claimed another victim. 

“Coincidence plays a large part in life; but in the drama of Mr Coppenstall and the pigs it played a very small one.

The only coincidence, indeed, lay in the fact that at this moment the Wrong Person was reading the telegram.

‘Name of Kinghof?’ the boy said, meeting the Wrong Person on the stairs.

‘That’s right,’ said the Wrong Person, putting out a hand, and returning with the envelope to seclusion and a steaming kettle. Handed in at Hooham at 4.45. Good enough. The Wrong Person resealed the envelope and stole out to slip into the Kinghof’s letter box.”

Despite stern warnings from Andrew’s titled cousin to not get involved it seems Agnes and her husband just can’t help themselves. Having worked out why the ‘pig-sticker’ has been targeting his victims – the only thing left to do is discover who he is. There are a few red herrings along the way, as Agnes unwittingly uncovers a sinister right wing political group and puts herself in danger during first aid training. I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of spoilers.

One thing that irritated me a bit was the too frequent descriptions of Agnes – who we are cheerfully told doesn’t have a very attractive face, but whose legs and figure are marvellous and so it didn’t matter. To have been told this once I might just about forgive but having the fact rammed down my throat subsequently was unnecessary and irritating. Perhaps readers in 1943 would have felt differently – I wonder? This is a small thing and perhaps dates the book a little – but certainly wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment.

Murder’s A Swine is a thoroughly well written novel (which is what I would expect from PHJ) with some delicious little slices of humour, especially in some of the dialogue, and in Agnes and Andrew’s interactions with Lord Pig. There is some really well realised characters throughout the novel with even very minor players emerging well fleshed out. Agnes herself is an especially likeable character, witty and imaginatively intelligent with a wonderful tendency to quote the sayings of her aunt General Sidebotham. Through her eyes we see something of the times in which the story is set – little glimpses of War time England which really give this novel a great sense of period.

All in all, though I found this a very entertaining mystery, with just the right amount of nerve jangling suspense. One of the most interesting aspects is that there is not a huge list of suspects – yet even within the narrow field of possibles the authors really keep you guessing.

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With thanks to the British library for the review copy.

On Boxing day, I put aside my huge copy of London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes that I was reading, needing a fiction break – and picked up my second BLCC novel of the month. It was the perfect read for those couple of days after Christmas. Don’t worry, I finally finished London War Notes on New Year’s Eve and hope to review it later this week.

Crossed Skis is by Carol Carnac – a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote mysteries under the name E.C.R Lorac who will be familiar to many BLCC fans. While Lorac mysteries tend to feature her Scotland Yard detective Inspector Macdonald, the Carnac novels feature a different Scotland Yard man, Julian Rivers – who I found a very likeable character.

In this mystery two distinct storylines eventually converge – as the reader knows they will. It is a really good device and really helps to up the pace – moving us back and forth from an Austrian ski resort to the damp, grey chilly early days of a London New Year. Both places are portrayed brilliantly – the depressing leaden skies that so often come with a British winter being replaced by the brilliance of bright blue skies and clean snow.

“New Year’s Day, 1951 was as dreary a day as an English winter can devise. It dawned with a bitter wind, while rain and sleet drove in a mixture of perishing misery across drab London streets. At nine o’clock, a half-hearted pallid light shone on throngs of office workers who battled their way through slush and gale or stood in depressing queues at bus stops. After that half-hearted effort at daybreak, a sort of sullen deterioration set in, and by midday a yellow gloom was deepening to obstinate darkness.”

In Bloomsbury, London, a boarding house fire leads to the discovery of a rather gruesome scene. A man slumped over a gas fire, burnt beyond recognition – in a house had been assumed to be empty. There is little if anything for the police to go on, unsure whether this is murder or a tragic accident. However, one strange clue does suggest the possible involvement of a skier.

Meanwhile, a large party of skiers meet at the golden arrow arch in Victoria station on New Year’s Day to begin their journey to an Austrian ski resort. There are fifteen of them, the sixteenth member of the party will be arriving by plane. They are excited to be off – looking forward to blue skies and skiing in sunshine after the drabness of London streets. Bridget Manners is the organiser of the party – harried to pieces by a multitude of last minute changes that have been taking place. While several members of the party know each other quite well – others are total strangers, being friends or acquaintances of friends who have jumped at the chance of a New Year’s skiing holiday as various members of the party drop out or fall ill at the eleventh hour. One member of the party is running very late – and only just makes the train – but eventually they are all off.

The one slightly frustrating thing about the novel’s opening which starts with the skiing party at Victoria, is that we are introduced to a large cast of characters immediately and learn practically nothing about most of them. As the novel progresses I realised this was intentional and necessary to the plot – and quite clever – as the reader ends up as unsure as the holiday makers themselves about who is who. This feeling is added to successfully with several jokey conversations about the horror of people’s passport photographs and how they could almost be anybody.

Back at the fire damaged house Inspector Brook must decide what direction the case is to go – he is clearly a fairly sharp man himself but Scotland Yard are soon consulted and he finds himself working with Inspector Rivers as well as the fire investigators. The police also have reason to believe that the death of the man in the fire damaged house may well be connected to another unsolved crime. Inspector Rivers is also very interested in the evidence which points to a skier having been involved – and so soon the police are on the trail of parties leaving for ski resorts on New Year’s Day. It doesn’t take them long to find out about Bridget’s party.

“In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody looked different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, colour was brighter. Clearly defined, sharp cut, brilliantly lit, everything had a quality of vividness and vitality which was exciting, so that fatigue was forgotten and laughter bubbled up in a world which was as lovely as a fairy-tale.”

In Austria things get off to a great start, the weather is perfect, and the party have started to bond together well. Some of the skiers are staying in the hotel with others in lodges in the grounds. A couple of days into the trip and one of the skiers finds he has some money missing – this is the start of the party beginning to wonder about some of the members of the group. Then Bridget’s friends back in England contact her to say a police inspector has been asking questions about her tour group.

This is a brilliantly immersive mystery, with two wonderfully evocative settings. Interestingly, Martin Edwards in his introduction says the novel was based loosely on a ski trip Carol Carnac herself took with a group of friends with the character of Kate a self-portrait of the author herself.  

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

I read my first Nancy Spain book – Not Wanted on Voyage six years ago – (rather shocked when I looked it up, I thought it might be two or three) and so was delighted to receive this new edition from Virago of Death Goes on Skis. There is another Nancy Spain novel due for reissue in the spring.

Nancy Spain was quite a character, something of a household name in the 1950s and 60s, a writer and broadcaster she made regular appearances on TV shows like Juke Box Jury which I may have heard of but am too young to have ever seen.  In her introduction to this edition Sandi Toksvig talks about what a fan she has always been of Spain’s and how for her, Nancy Spain paved the way for other gay women to make their way in multimedia – before that was even a thing.

Nancy Spain is not a conventional storyteller – so her mystery novels do not really follow the usual conventions either. Death Goes on Skis is farcical and funny, her characters bright, witty and devastatingly sharp. The detection part of this novel (and the only other one I have read) kind of takes a back seat – as Spain’s society types try to figure what is going on while not taking too much of a break from their usual pursuits, which so often seem to include, gossip, flirting, gambling, and the consumption of champagne and in this novel a bit of skiing.

I think it would be fair to assume that what was considered funny in 1949 may not always be considered entirely appropriate in 2020. So, the one slightly odd note for me throughout the novel was the name of the fictional country Spain chose as her setting– Schizo-Frenia. Maybe not the most offensive thing I have read but it just jars a little.  

Miriam Birdseye with her usual little troupe of admirers is off to the slopes – though Miriam seems more interested in gossip and champagne than skiing. Fellow ski resort guests include Miriam’s fellow amateur sleuth Natasha Nevkorina with her husband Johnny DuVivien and stepdaughter Pamela. Also, of the party are the wealthy Flahertés: handsome playboy Barny, his wife Regan and their two rather horrible children their governess, Roasalie and Toddy and Kathleen, Barney’s cousins. Barny’s mistress Fanny Mayes (AKA Lady Sloper) and her husband are also of the party. We first meet these characters as they travel to the ski resort by train. Miriam and her companions Roger and Morris arrive later. So, the scene is set – as they say.

“At Unteralp Miriam Birdseye cantered from the near funicular to the funicular. She ran, an easy first of her little school of chums. They were none of them athletes.

She looked very spectacular and cheerful, with her lovely long legs moving like a race-horse. Her ridiculous hat (something like a coal-black church steeple) threw a fantastic shadow across the platform.

The sun had now come out and everything seemed altogether gayer. Miriam often had this effect on the weather.

Fanny Mayes was not pleased.”

Soon a death occurs, which some people assume is suicide but is soon shown not to be. This brightens things up considerably for Natasha who was rather worried about being bored. She is soon getting stuck right into trying to figure it all out – consulting with Miriam every now and again, who to my mind never seems to do very much at all.

Barney has taken to skiing in a big way and his technique has been so praised that he decides that despite everything else that is going on he will enter the skiing championships which are being held on the slopes above the hotel. Natasha has taken a bit of a shine to Barney as has the governess who writes letters to her old friend all about her ‘Mr Rochester’. Natasha has begun to regret her marriage to Johnny and decides she will have to leave him.

When a second death occurs, it does begin to look as if things are all pointing in the direction of one person. However, Miriam and Natasha (with Johnny’s help) are on the case – well sort of – and gradually they begin to unearth some of what has been going on. However, with the local authorities keen to tidy things up quickly and neatly will the culprit ever be brought to book?

“It was indeed snowing. The wind, whirling up the valley from Kesicken, or down from Mönchegg, was unable to make up its mind which way it was prevailing. Clouds of snow blew off the pile of firewood, like spray. Little drifts formed behind chairs on the wooden duckboard and shifted backwards gradually. The outlines of everything outside the hotel slowly became muffled.

Johnny could see Regan Flaherté’s body ahead of him, outside the front door. It lay curiously twisted, already half covered with snow. The wind blew in his face and soaked him.”

Nancy Spain’s characters are not all very likeable – and are not supposed to be – they are all a type and she writes this type well. Armchair detectives may find this frustrating as a mystery novel – there are few clues to follow and as I said all that seems to take something of a back seat. Miriam Birdseye the supposedly brilliant society sleuth does not do very much – though she has a sharp eye which little escapes. All in all, this is great, witty escapism, a little dated in places perhaps but I am always happy to read things in the context of the times anyway. I definitely want to read more of these, so it is exciting that Virago have begun to re-issue them.

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

Well, it is always nice to have something of a Christmassy nature to read in the run up to Christmas. The British Library publish a few seasonal mysteries and anthologies which are perfect for the time of year, A Mystery in White, Portrait of a Murderer and The Santa Klaus Mystery just some of the Christmassy mysteries I have read in previous years.

In many of these stories Christmas is merely the device used by the author in bringing people together – there is often little in the way of what we might call Christmas spirit. In A Surprise for Christmas superbly edited by Martin Edwards this device is used a little less, because the stories themselves are so varied with different story telling styles employed. Here we have long held secrets, a Christmas ghost, jewellery thefts old stories of death and menace and a London criminal gang. The twelve stories in this collection vary in length considerably, but there is not a poor one among them, though of course I had my favourites. The authors themselves a veritable who’s who of Golden Age fiction, including Margaery Allingham and C K Chesterton though many of the immediately less recognisable names will be familiar to readers of British Library Crime Classics. Before each story there is a mini author biography – which helps set the story into some kind of context and is useful for readers not familiar with that writer’s work.

The collection opens with The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep by Catherine Louisa Perkis – the earliest of the stories first published in Ludgate Monthly in 1893. The story introduces the female detective Loveday Brooke who went on the appear in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke (1894). In this story Loveday works for a detective agency and is employed to solve a country house mystery. Some expensive jewels have gone missing while the household and guests were at dinner. Around the same time Loveday is intrigued by a newspaper report about a black bag found on a doorstep – her employers irritated at her distraction can’t understand her interest. Loveday’s method of detection is swift and intelligent paying close attention to detail and apparently missing nothing.

In Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh an elderly man is found dead sat next to his radio set on the morning of Christmas day.

“On the 25th of December at 7.30 a.m. Mr Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his radio set.

It was Emily Parks, an under-housemaid, who discovered him. She butted open the door and entered, carrying, mop, duster, and carpet-sweeper. At that precise moment she was greatly startled by a voice that spoke out of the darkness.

‘Good morning, everybody,’ said the voice in superbly inflected syllables, ‘and a Merry Christmas!’”

(Death on the Air – Ngaio Marsh)

We quickly learn that the victim was a mean, bullying individual – who held his family and those unfortunate enough to work for him in thrall to his temper. Marsh’s famous police duo Alleyn and Fox arrive and are aided in their investigations by the family doctor. The family, the secretary and the butler appear to each have motive for the crime – but how on earth was it achieved?

The title story is by Cyril Hare, A Surprise for Christmas is the shortest story in the collection at only five pages, and the one I can probably talk about the least. It is however one that stands out for me for its wonderful twist. Showing us that even the shortest of stories can pack quite a punch.

By contrast – Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (the pseudonym of Lucy Malleson) is the longest story at something like 80 pages. The story begins on a foggy Christmas Eve in London. A young woman is preparing for a romantic, Christmassy evening with her fiancé – a doctor at one of the London hospitals. She is shopping when the fog comes down so thickly that she momentarily loses her bearings and finds herself in the wrong street. This is how she stumbles upon a little shop she has never seen before and is enchanted by the ring on display in the window. Her purchase of the ring propels her unwittingly into the middle of a terrifying conspiracy by a London criminal gang. The story has more of a thriller feel to it – but it is wonderfully taut storytelling and a real page turner.

In the ‘60s crime story; Father Christmas comes to Orbins by Julian Symons a seemingly unremarkable bookseller is in fact planning an audacious jewellery heist from a local department store with a group of assorted undesirables.

“He believed himself to be, in a quiet way a master of the criminal world.

Those associated with him were far from that, as he would immediately have acknowledged…There was Stacey, who looked what he was, a thick-nosed thug, there was a thin young man in a tight suit whose name was Jack Line, and who was always called Straight Line, and there was Lester Jones, the spotty assistant in the Jewellery Department.”

(Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons)

The final story in this collection is The Turn again Bell by Barry Perowne not an author I have come across before. On the day before Christmas Eve a village rector prepares for Christmas and for the wedding of his son on Boxing Day. Surrounding this eleventh century church there is a spine-tingling legend, that the church bell will toll unheard by anyone else if the rector of the church is due to die within the year. This is not the typical mystery story perhaps but I loved the simple wisdom of the rector and the atmosphere of the village with its ancient church.

This was a lovely collection, particularly good because there is some real variety here as it is not all country house murders (though I admit to being fond of those). Perfect company over this Christmas week I would suggest if you’re in the market for something of the type.   

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

The progress of a Crime with its vibrant cover showing a bonfire against a pitch black background, seemed like it would be a perfect easy read in the run up to fireworks night. I tend to find I can hear fireworks where I live for most of the winter – and they have been particularly noisy the last few days – I suppose its one thing people can still do.

Julian Symons was a new name to me – yet he was an enormously prolific writer. As well as many crime fiction novels and a great many short stories Symons wrote books of political and military history, biography and poetry. This novel from 1960 won the Edgar award for best novel in 1960.  If I am being totally honest, I was expecting more of a mystery than I got with this novel. There is plenty to appreciate in the novel – but little for the armchair detective to get stuck into.  

The first thing fans of golden age/vintage crime etc should be aware of is that this is not really a mystery novel in the usual sense. Actually the title is in itself a big clue to the kind of story we get here – at first I had thought it might be a police procedural and it is up to a point – however this isn’t a mystery where someone must discover the culprit of a crime. Instead this is much more a novel that shows how the police bring their suspects to book and prepare for the court case. One of the things I liked the most, was what a strong sense of period there is throughout the book – from the treatment of suspects by the police – to the working class home of one particular character – it has a strong early 60s vibe. I couldn’t help but think what a good dramatisation it would make – most of what little tension there is comes from the people and their relationships rather than from the crime.

Symons also shows us how the crime is seen from the perspective of a group of journalists – a couple of local reporters and a London journalist who arrives to cover the case. This is an unusual angle, showing how involved the London press could get with a case – going as far as paying legal costs in return for interviews and photographs that would grace the pages of the paper for several days after the case is finished.

On bonfire night there is a fatal stabbing on the village green in the village of Far Wether – local reporter Hugh Bennett had driven the twelve miles from the (unnamed) city to find out about the village tradition of burning an effigy of the local squire – instead of Guy Fawkes – which has been going on for generations. While talking to the locals he hears about some trouble with a group of city Teddy Boys the previous week – and how they were sent off with a flee in the ear. Notes made – Hugh decides to stay and watch the spectacle for himself.  Things begin as they are meant to – the locals standing around watching – but soon the sound of motorcycles can be heard in the distance.

The group of teenage boys arrive – it’s dark and the air is full of bonfire smoke – it becomes difficult to be certain what exactly happened. A child is knocked to the ground, someone is heard calling ‘get him King’ a man is stabbed – but which one of the gang did the deed?

“There followed a cry, a long wailing animal cry. Dark figures ran over the green. There was the sound of motorcycles starting up and roaring away down the road. And after that, in spite of the fire’s crackle and the spit and bang of fireworks, there was what to Hugh Bennett, seemed very much like silence.”

Superintendent Langton is a stolid, cautious kind of man, who unfortunately does not have the full confidence of his Chief Constable – so the chief calls in Detective Superintendent Twicker from Scotland Yard to work with him on the Bonfire night stabbing. Langton has already identified the boys on the motorcycles – knows where they all work together – now they need to bring them in – separate them and try and break the story they will have cooked up between them. There is something of a cloud over Twicker too – something which went wrong a few years earlier – he’s a man who needs to prove himself. With Twicker comes Detective Sergeant Norman, a younger ambitious man. It becomes fairly obvious early on – which of the boys is likely to be the real culprit – and soon the police have two suspects who they are able to charge with the crime and bring to trial. The police’s methods of questioning a long way from what would be appropriate today – although possibly in real life they may have been even worse.

“This also was routine, something that had been done and said ten thousand times in a hundred police stations, and Twicker, as he looked at Norman’s fleshy face set in its mask of good humour, and at Garney’s, in which fear was beginning to replace arrogance, felt nothing at all. Lies and tricks, threats and promises, these were the methods that brought results.”

Hugh Bennett becomes drawn into the case in his role as a local reporter – although he is also a witness – which his horrible boss at the paper is rather glad about. The story gets sent out to the London papers – and soon enough a London reporter is working alongside Hugh. They set their sights on the family of one of the suspects – a family living in Peter Street – the name adopted by the gang. The sister is Jill – a young primary school teacher – who Hugh is clearly drawn to – and their father a local councillor and long time member of the Labour movement. The London paper offer to pay the legal costs in return for a series of interviews and photographs. It’s an offer that goes against everything the boy’s father believes in – but he needs to help his son.

As I said, there is little work for the armchair detective to do – but in the atmosphere of the early 1960s the conflict between different generations and its portrayal of police methods The Progress of a Crime paints a vivid picture.

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I do enjoy these Second World War mysteries, and so when this one came through the door recently I knew it would be right up my street. E. C. R Lorac has quickly become something of a favourite among regular readers of the British Library Crime Classics series – though I had only managed to read one of them before, I have a couple more tbr.

E. C. R Lorac is the penname of Edith Caroline Rivett – who also wrote as Carol Carmac and produced an impressive number of Golden age crime books. Checkmate to Murder was first published in 1944 when the author was at her writing peak.

The novel opens on a foggy night in London’s Hampstead, an odd group of people are gathered together in an artist’s studio. I particularly enjoyed the opening to the story, which immediately transferred itself in my mind to a stage set. Characters moving in and out and around each other just as they might on a theatrical stage really helps the reader visualise the setting. Gathered together that evening are artist Bruce Manaton, his sitter, André Delaunier decked out in the robes of a cardinal, alongside two chess players bent over their game in concentration. In an adjacent kitchen Manaton’s sister Rosanne, also an artist, is getting supper ready and popping in and out of the studio from time to time.

“Rosanne, standing looking at the studio and its occupants, was intensely aware of the decorative quality of both of the groups in it on that foggy winter evening. She did not often paint herself now: line work was her medium, but she felt an impulse to indulge in a modern composition in which both chess players, painter, and sitter should form a pattern, irrespective of distances and planes.”

She pops outside to check on the blackout – as they have had problems with it before – and is visited by Mrs Tubbs, a cheerful cockney char lady who comes daily to help their immediate neighbour and landlord Mr Folliner, a miserly recluse. Mrs Tubbs leaves, and the stage – as they say – is set.

Not long after this Neil Folliner, the Canadian nephew of old Mr Folliner arrives on leave and finds his uncle dead. Neil is immediately arrested by special Constable Verraby who was coincidentally on the scene too. The assembled company of the studio are briefly drawn into the unexpected drama by the special constable who deposits his quarry at the studio while he goes off to telephone the official police. Neil Folliner has hurt his foot, and while being attended to insists on his innocence, to the odd group collected around him. It is noted by one of the chess players that Verraby looked afraid – but what could he possibly have to fear?

It’s not long before Chief Inspector Macdonald and the men from the CID are on the scene. He is immediately faced with a perplexing collection of alibis and suspicions that are to lead him and his team in various directions. The previous occupants of the studio are soon added into the mix of suspects. It seems few people had reason to like old Mr Folliner, and locally there have long been rumours of his having squirreled away money and valuables in his broken down house.  There’s some nice interplay between police colleagues – and Macdonald seems to be a practical, sensible man.

“Macdonald went up the front steps and let himself in at the door: it had been left on the latch, and once inside he flashed his torch round the spacious hall and shivered. The place was dank, cold with an even coder chill than the outside air. The paper on the walls, once ‘grained and varnished,’ hung in strips, ghostly lines of white showing where it had come unstuck from the damp walls. The house smelt of mildew, unwholesome, sour. There was worn linoleum on the floor and the stairs, its pattern long since worn off by the passing footsteps. As he reached the turn of the stairs, Macdonald saw a line of light beneath a door, and he advanced towards this and let himself carefully into a brightly-lighted room at the back of the house.”

E. C. R Lorac is so good at setting a scene and creating atmosphere, she does this throughout the novel – it adds to the sense of theatre which I rather enjoyed.

The mystery is of course set against the backdrop of London in wartime, the dense fog lending an extra layer of darkness to the blacked out streets and adds a wonderful atmosphere to this mystery.

Checkmate to Murder is a good satisfying mystery – the denouement is clever; deftly explained. I was nowhere near guessing the truth.

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A friend popped in to see me a couple of weeks ago, returned a book I had loaned her and then produced this one – which she thought I would like. It just happened I finished a book a couple of hours before she had arrived and hadn’t decided what to read next. Miss Pym Disposes looked exactly what I was in the mood for – and I have meant to give Josephine Tey a try for years – so it did seem like the perfect moment and in fact it was.

As I mentioned in a recent post: The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye – I like rather a lot from my mysteries. While I appreciate a fiendishly clever plot and a totally unexpected denouement, I really like to become fully invested in the characters – as I would in any other kind of novel. I like a good sense of place, some description to sit alongside the mystery. I do not like lots of gory details, and I don’t expect a body in the first chapter necessarily – I like an author to trust in their reader’s sense of anticipation. Miss Pym Disposes ticked almost all my mystery novel boxes – the thing I really appreciated is that in this novel Josephine Tey takes her time. For two thirds of the novel, Tey gives us a novel about a woman visiting a girls physical training college – she introduces us to members of the staff and student body with acuity – involving us the reader in the life of this community. Of course, we know or at least sense that something will occur – and so there is a delicious sense of anticipation – and when ‘the moment’ comes we care about it so much more.

I very much liked Jospehine Tey’s style in this novel – I have heard some people say the quality of her novels varies – but I enjoyed her observations and little asides such as this.

“There was no doubt that being a little on the plump side kept the lines away; if you had to have a face like a scone it was at least comforting that it was a smooth scone.”

Lucy Pym is a woman in her thirties – she took to read psychology books and having read a lot of them wrote a fierce rebuttal which turned into a book and became a huge bestseller. She uses her understanding of psychology to understand the people she meets – though whether it’s real psychology or just plain good sense I don’t know. She is invited by an old friend from school days – who is now the headmistress of a physical training college for young women – to give a lecture.

Initially it is to be a brief visit – and as the novel opens Miss Pym is being rudely awoken by the 5.30 am bell that rouses the students from their beds in the summer months. It is the beginning of the last week or so of the academic year – and the young women of the senior year are preparing for their final exams. Having been put up in the student wing of the school rather than the staff wing, Miss Pym is soon drawn into the noisy, chaos that is life among these young women. They chatter and rush about at all hours – full of the impending exams and physical demonstrations, and who will or will not be appointed to posts in other institutions as they go forward into the world.

“It was Lucy’s private opinion that injustice was harder to bear than almost any other inflicted ill. She could remember yet the surprised hurt, the helpless rage, the despair that used to consume her when she was young and the victim of an injustice. It was the helpless rage that was worst; it consumed one like a slow fire. There was no outlet, because there was nothing one could do about it. A very destructive emotion indeed.”

Lucy is a big hit with these young women, and they urge her to stay – so that she can attend their tea party on the lawn and the end of year demonstration at the end of the following week. Her accommodation has no bedside reading light, she is woken by bells far too early and the healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is certainly not to her liking, but Lucy Pym likes very much the young women she has been thrown together with.

“In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kowtowed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said good-bye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms.”

Despite her initial wish to get straight back to London, Lucy is charmed by these vibrant young women as well as interested in them and with nothing pressing her immediate return home she does decide to stay. Lucy is aware of the rising tensions within this group of students, petty rivalries and jealousies that exist within any such group. Over the coming days Lucy gets to know the seniors really quite well – she is roped in as an exam invigilator and begins to make some observations about one of the students in particular.

Eventually, just as the reader knew it would – something happens – apparently an accident – and a young woman is taken to hospital where she later dies. Miss Pym is not convinced at all that this was really an accident. In the time she has spent at the college Lucy has made some discoveries that she thinks are relevant to what happened – what though should she do with this evidence?

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

I have been lucky enough to be sent a few of Dean Street Press’s Golden Age mysteries and there they sit on my kindle where I’m afraid I forget all about them. I have been sent three or four Brian Flynn novels – a name that was completely new to me. So, the other week, when I was in that strange reading mood, where I didn’t really know what I wanted to read I decided to give one a go. The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries – I’m never sure how crucial it is to read these mystery series in order – but I don’t think my experience was affected by not having read numbers one and two.

Brian Flynn was an impressively prolific writer – turning out about fifty novels – most of which were in the Anthony Bathurst series. I enjoyed this mystery – though not as much as many later Golden Age mysteries – the writing style put me off a little – it is really quite mannered – with not much in the way of description or depth of character. I like a lot from my mysteries – perhaps my mood affected my reading experience – so I am sure I will give Flynn another go. There were though several things I did like about this novel – the main one being the cleverness of the denouement which was a fabulous surprise and I really hadn’t seen coming at all – that is always satisfying. Flynn is also good with dialogue – there are some interesting exchanges between characters – and the story moves along at a good pace.

The novel opens at the hunt ball in Westhampton. Sheila Delaney dances with a mystery man who insists on being known only as Mr X. By the end of the evening he has disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

“‘Anonymity is such a terribly strong position in which to entrench one’s self. To you I am Sheila Delaney – to me you are – an unknown quantity.’

He smiled appreciatively. ‘Yet one usually concludes by finding the value of X – shall we say.’

‘If one is successful,’ she replied, ‘you have to be successful, you know, to discover the true value.’”

Major Carruthers accompanied Sheila to the ball – he’s an old family friend. After the ball they drive home together – this was the last time Sheila was to see Major Carruthers – a month later he is killed in a car accident.

A few months later Anthony Bathurst is consulted by the Crown Prince of Clorania, he is being blackmailed over a secret romance that has now ended. The Crown Prince asks Bathurst to look into the matter – as confidentially as possible.

At the same time Chief Inspector Bannister is having an overdue holiday on the coast at Seabourne. He is nearing retirement and enjoys a fine reputation as one of the big six investigators at Scotland Yard. So, when the local constabulary find themselves with a peculiar case on their hands they waste no time in calling on the experience of Chief Inspector Bannister – although irritated to have his holiday disturbed Bannister agrees to help. A woman has been found dead in a dentist’s chair – murdered in the few minutes he was out of the room – apparently injected with cyanide. While the young woman was being murdered the dentist was locked in another room, his banging on the door alerting his housekeeper to his plight. It is the start of a perplexing case – one full of misdirection, twists and turns. I liked the fact that Flynn clearly understands how desperation works in some people – how they can be pushed to their limits.

“‘…You people who never want for a few pounds don’t realize what it is to be in debt year after year and to see little chance of ever getting out. To be forced to borrow for anything special because you have no margin. Self-denial and going without most of the things that make life worth living may mean the saving of a few shillings, month by month, but no more than that.”

Anthony Bathurst finds himself in Seabourne – his case and Bannister’s beginning to look as if they have some connection. Bathurst assists Bannister in his investigations – a case which sees them travel from Seabourne to Westhampton – and discover the existence of a fabulous jewel called the Peacock’s Eye.

After a complex and involving mystery which is really very clever – the ending is a wonderfully satisfying surprise. I shall say no more. Flynn is clearly a consummate storyteller and weaver of intriguing mysteries. There is a lot for the vintage armchair detective to enjoy with this one – but I wasn’t completely sold on it. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read this one, and earlier this week I found myself reading Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey – my first by her – I shall talk about the book properly in a future post, however that was much more to my taste. There was so much more to it than just the mystery – and that’s the kind of thing I really like I think.

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The British Library Crime classics are always good escapism, perfect weekend reads or for when times are difficult or especially tiring. The Murder of My Aunt was particularly enjoyable for me because of its rather mischievous, comic tone. Richard Hull was clearly an author who enjoyed playing with the whodunnit genre a little. I read Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull a couple of years ago and found his different approach to storytelling quite refreshing and certainly compelling.

“What are games for, except to release one’s complexes by a little flavouring of spite?”

Like Excellent Intentions, this Golden Age mystery is told rather differently. Here we have less of a whodunnit and more of a will he do it and how. The tone throughout the novel is wickedly playful and rather arch, the narrator while fairly unlikeable is written in such a way as to make the reader want to know what comes next. Then, right at the end Hull hits us with a quite brilliant little denouement – which I had sort of started to see coming but is so well done I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  

The story is narrated by Edward, a rather idle, effete young man who has lived most of his life with his spinster aunt. He relies on her for all his money – money which wouldn’t be available to him if he were to move away. The problem is that Edward hates his aunt and he hates the Welsh village of Llwll where they live – he hates the countryside. His aunt, knowing full well her nephew’s weaknesses and love of ease, enjoys nothing more than to make him do things he dislikes – for example walking the mile to the village when he would rather drive. She goes to long and rather exhaustive lengths to achieve this – and the two are continually locked in a battle of wills. Aunt Mildred is a woman of fairly sharp intelligence, and Edward has to work hard to keep up with her. All of this takes rather more effort than Edward is used to taking with anything. He much prefers to sit inside, undisturbed with his little lap dog and a French novel. Those novels just one of the things that convinces Aunt Mildred of Edward’s dissolute temperament.

Following the incident of Edward’s efforts to avoid walking to the village and his aunts rather clever attempts to make him, Edward becomes obsessed with the idea of getting rid of his aunt. He is her only living relative – her money would enable him to go away – live a different kind of life – enjoy a bit more freedom. However, aware he will be an obvious suspect Edward starts to think about possible accidents.

“For some time past now that particular spot on the road just outside Brynmawr has fascinated me. The front gate of the house is some thirty or forty yards from the front door, before which is an open space of asphalt, useful but hardly ornamental. I think my aunt is aware of its lack of beauty for, on the left-hand side of this space as you come out, is a border containing bulbs in spring, various flowers in the summer, and dahlias in the autumn on which my aunt lavishes even more than her usual considerable care, for she is devoted to her garden and even occasionally forces me into assistance in this pursuit, so tiring for the body and the intellect. Still I must admit the success of her efforts as to flowers and vegetables. Fruit eludes her as a rule, since the sun so seldom shines in this desolate spot.”

He begins to toy with some ideas – only Edward finds his knowledge of certain things to be seriously lacking – and he finds he is obliged to undertake a little research. He has to ask questions, consult encyclopaedias and go on shopping trips away from the village. He tries not to leave any evidence behind him – but Aunt Mildred is no fool. Edward has to step up his efforts, in order to get around his aunt’s natural suspicions.

“I am now quite sure I am right. My aunt is an extremely deceitful woman. She must, I suppose, for years past have been in the habit of concealing her feelings towards me. At any rate, it is quite certain that she suspects very much more than she says of what has been happening.”

Cleverly, Hull makes Aunt Mildred every bit as unlikable as Edward. She is petty and unkind, clearly frustrated by years of lazy ingratitude from her nephew she now enjoys making him uncomfortable and thwarting him at every turn. I can imagine many readers will want to see an end to Aunt Mildred too. Will Edward achieve his objective? And will he get away with it? These are the questions that keep the reader flying through this entertaining Golden Age mystery.

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