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portrait of a murderer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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mde

I walked right into the little deceit that the publishers of this book have practised against those of us with a liking for Christmas murder mysteries. First published in 1947 as Another Little Murder – this novel was re-issued by Sphere in 2016 sporting a new title Another Little Christmas Murder. The setting is winter, – Yorkshire and there are piles and piles of snow (snow unlike any we actually get in England anymore) – but it isn’t quite Christmas yet (It seems as if it’s about two weeks or so away). The only references to Christmas is on a couple of occasions when characters suggest that if the snow doesn’t thaw soon, they’ll be stuck there till Christmas. I understand the deceit – but I think it is a little bit of a cynical marketing ploy – and that annoyed me a bit.

Happily, I enjoyed the novel, not the most ingenious mystery in the world – elements of it are more psychological thriller than whodunnit – but very readable. It’s a perfect winter read – with many of the ingredients we love in a Christmas mystery. A rambling, draughty house deep in the English countryside, cut off from any local amenities by deep snow. Gathered together, several mismatched strangers, a man dies, another appears to have gone missing. All good, Golden age style escapist stuff – and I absolutely gobbled it up.

When commercial traveller, Dylis Hughes finds herself snowbound on a lonely stretch of Yorkshire road, she gratefully accepts the help of a complete stranger. Passing motorist, Inigo Brown is on his way to visit his uncle, and so Dylis leaves her car where it is and with her sample case of remedies and potions – from the chemist firm in which she also has a share – accompanies Inigo to his Uncle’s house. Inigo’s uncle’s house is Wintry Wold, where he lives with a couple of peculiar male servants and his new much younger wife – who Inigo has never met.

On their arrival Inigo and Dylis find that his uncle is ill, confined to his room unable to see anyone but his valet or his darling wife Theresa. Theresa is really not much older than Inigo, a petite, girlish woman, who revels in her own fragility. Dylis and Inigo are not the only waifs from the snow – a large van is parked precariously outside the house, the van driver sheltering in the kitchen, his mate gone off on a mission to find help. Nestled by the fire in Theresa’s drawing room, is Mr Carpenter, a coarse, hard drinking friend of her husband’s.

“It seemed to Dylis, as she opened the front door, that a positive regiment of masculinity flowed past her into the entrance lounge. There was Inigo and the stranger who had called for assistance, Vauxhall and Ridley, Mr Carpenter, and two others new to the party.”

Soon other strangers arrive, snowbound and stranded like Dylis, seeking shelter at the first large, obviously inhabited house they happen upon. Three men, Howe a middle-aged health nut, his assistant, and a journalist travelling to the Lake district. Theresa grudgingly allows this assortment of people to stay at Wintry Wold, a house with an atmosphere every bit as chilly inside as out.

Quickly made uneasy and taking an almost instant dislike to Theresa, Dylis is suspicious that some of what Inigo’s new young aunt says doesn’t ring true. She would happily leave the house immediately, but is obliged to accept Theresa’s half-hearted hospitality. Parts of the house are shut up, and Dylis is immediately confused by the network of corridors and stairways in a house with no electricity – candles and lanterns light her way to bed. Her room is an ice box – and buried deep under a pile of blankets, Dylis is kept awake by footsteps passing back and forth outside her door.

“In the inky darkness that surrounded her she could see nothing, neither could she remember where she has put her torch. Cautiously she began to feel her way towards the mantlepiece, where stood the candlestick and matches. The door was rattling even more violently, almost as if someone were trying to get in. But that was a ridiculous idea, because if they wanted to get in they could do it without rattling. More likely they would enter and close the door quietly. Perhaps this mysterious shuffler had already done so, and was even now creeping across the room through the darkness.”

Going to investigate Dylis comes across Inigo’s uncle, Warner Brown who is nothing like as ill as Theresa has made him sound. Keen to speak to his nephew, Mr Brown urges Dylis to fetch Inigo, but it’s the middle of the night and Dylis has no idea which room in the vast, cold house he is in. She learns that Mr Brown had written to Inigo, asking him to visit, oddly, instructing him to bring a friend and not to tell Theresa he was coming.

The next morning, Warner Brown is found dead, apparently of natural causes, but Dylis is convinced that he wasn’t all that unwell, and at only about sixty – not that ancient either. Ledgrove; Mr Brown’s elderly valet has apparently gone off to fetch a local doctor to certify death – but hours pass without his return, and everyone begins to wonder whether he hasn’t succumbed to a terrible end out in the snow. Dylis is convinced that something about Mr Brown’s death is unnatural, and what about Ledgrove – has he really disappeared in the snow -or is he still somewhere in the house? In addition to a sudden death, someone has been messing about with her samples case, and a couple of remedies are missing. What, after all do any of them know about one another or any of the marooned travellers currently under the roof of Wintry Wold?

Dylis is a particularly likeable character, plucky, independent and intelligent. Theresa is the kind of woman other women dislike – and she and the other characters – a real mixed bag – are really very well drawn by the author.

Lorna Nicholl Morgan is a new name in vintage crime to me (I can’t seem to find an image of her) – I’m not even sure just how many books she wrote but I was able to buy another novel The Death Box (1946) for my kindle.

snow

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somebody at the door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

raymond postgate

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cof

My second pick for the 1968 club was Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of my Thumbs – the third of the four full length novels featuring Tommy and Tuppence. The couple also appear in a collection of short stories. Rather adorably Agatha Christie dedicated this late novel as follows;

“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and in other countries who write to me asking: ‘What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?’ My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!”

I completely love Tommy and Tuppence though I have largely neglected these novels, I am pretty sure I had read this one before, although I had forgotten almost all of it. I read The Secret Adversary – the first Tommy and Tuppence novel four years ago, (which is when I decided I loved T&T) and I have the final Tommy and Tuppence novel – and indeed the final ever Agatha Christie novel Postern of Fate tbr – I have had a first edition of it for years! and recently bought a copy of N or M? In The Secret Adversary Tommy and Tuppence are Bright Young things – the First World War had taken its toll on both of them. I can’t think why I have never got around to reading the other Tommy and Tuppence books so far – but I will and soon, and I so wish there were more of them. By the time of the events in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tommy and Tuppence have been married for a long time, they are the parents of two adult children, and grandparents, and of course have lived through another war. The world has changed around them, their hair is showing signs of grey, yet Tommy and Tuppence are still recognisable as the enthusiastic young detectives Agatha Christie first wrote about in 1922. As a couple the Beresfords are still every bit as adoring of one another as they ever were – one really can’t imagine one without the other. 

“I don’t particularly want to think of your funeral because I’d much prefer to die before you do. But I mean, if I were going to your funeral, at any rate it would be an orgy of grief. I should take a lot of handkerchiefs.”

Tommy’s Aunt Ada has been residing in the Sunny Ridge care home for elderly ladies for some time, and every now and then her nephew and his wife pay the dutiful visit that is required of them. Aunt Ada is not the easiest of old ladies, she has never much liked Tuppence. When Tommy decides it’s time for them to visit his aunt again, he manages to persuade Tuppence to accompany him. When the couple arrive at Sunny Ridge, Aunt Ada quickly dispenses with Tuppence who wanders off while Tommy talks to his aunt. There are old ladies shouting they are dying, others who have forgotten whether they have had their hot chocolate or not, but Miss Packard who is in charge, takes it all in her stride, laughing off all the little eccentricities of her clients. Tommy doesn’t think too much of his aunt’s mistrust of the staff, taking her whispered assertion that ‘they’ could be about to rob and murder her in her bed with a pinch of salt. While Tommy talks to Aunt Ada, Tuppence is shown into a pleasant little sitting room, where another elderly lady is already sitting close to an imposing fireplace nursing a glass of milk. Tuppence engages Mrs Lancaster in conversation, the two of them getting on quite famously. However, when Mrs Lancaster suddenly asks Tuppence –

‘Was it your poor child’

– It can’t help, but send a slight shiver down our spines. The question certainly un-nerves Tuppence – the words resonating in her memory days after having left Sunny Ridge behind. Three weeks later Aunt Ada has died, and Tommy and Tuppence are back at Sunny Ridge to clear out her things. Tuppence is eager to visit Mrs Lancaster who she met before – even more so when she learns that the very attractive painting that is hanging in Aunt Ada’s room was a recent gift from Mrs Lancaster. Tuppence is concerned that Mrs Lancaster might want the painting back, rather than it going to strangers – but Mrs Lancaster is no longer at Sunny Ridge, having been taken away by relatives to a London hotel, on the way north. Tuppence – as poor old Tommy well knows is not one to let things drop, and she is determined to track Mrs Lancaster down and ask her about the picture. The picture shows an attractive house by a canal which Tuppence is convinced she has seen before. The hotel where Mrs Lancaster and her relatives are supposed to have gone have never heard of Mrs Lancaster. Where is the old lady that Tuppence met at Sunny Ridge? Tuppence is determined to find out, so while Tommy is off at a secret conference with government/secret service types – Tuppence decides to set out on a railway journey to find the house in the painting, and find out what (if anything) has happened to Mrs Lancaster. At the back of her mind too – those strange words spoken by the old lady in the sitting room at Sunny Ridge.

As the cover to my lovely old book club edition of the novel suggests – By the Pricking of my thumbs is quite a creepy story. Tuppence gets herself into all kinds of trouble and when Tommy returns from his secret pow-wow he wonders where she has got to, and is soon on her tail.

I completely loved this Tommy and Tuppence mystery, aspects of the plot are really clever – and Christie shows her ability to write a darn good mystery with few clues to go – no body or smoking gun – just a (possible) missing woman, a few odd words spoken by a confused old lady a pretty painting and a nagging doubt. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I must read some more Tommy and Tuppence soon.

Agathachristie

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strong poison

(I am amused by this vintage cover of Strong Poison – who the people in that image are supposed to be I can’t imagine.)

I really haven’t read enough Dorothy L Sayers – and yet this was a re-read – I first read it about five years ago, but it has served to remind me how I really need to read more by Sayers who was a superb writer.

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”

It is in Strong Poison that we – and indeed Lord Peter – first meet Harriet Vane, a mystery writer she remains largely in the background in this novel, really only featuring in a couple of scenes. She was to become a very important figure in many later Sayers novels. Harriet is on trial for Murder; Lord Peter in the public gallery is convinced she is innocent. Thankfully Lord Peter’s employee Miss Climpson happens to be on the jury and although not prompted by Lord Peter – she too believes the prisoner innocent. An indomitable character; Miss Climpson sticks to her guns throughout the jury deliberations and ensures that a verdict cannot be reached. The judge – who is quite obviously seriously prejudiced against Harriet; labelled an immoral woman leading a bohemian lifestyle – orders a new trial.

“ ‘What did you think of the verdict?’
The clerk pursed up his lips.
‘I don’t mind saying I was surprised. It seemed to me a very clear case. But juries are very unreliable, especially nowadays, with women on them. We see a good deal of the fair sex in this profession,’ said the clerk, with a sly smile ‘and very few of them are remarkable for possessing the legal mind.’”

Lord Peter is relieved to have time to investigate to truth of the matter, though will it be enough time? There is really very little in the way of defensive evidence. The victim; Philip Boyes was Harriet Vanes former lover, murdered by arsenical poisoning – his last meal he shared with his cousin and the servants and they suffered no ill effects. A few hours later Boyes is taken ill shortly after drinking coffee with Harriet Vane in her flat. Over the previous few months Boyes had suffered from terrible attacks of gastritis, as evidenced by a friend who he holidayed in Wales with shortly before his death. Harriet certainly had motive – Boyes is shown to have been a thorough pig, and it doesn’t help that Harriet has been buying up arsenic as part of her research for her latest book. Peter knows there are three possibilities, he was murdered by Harriet Vane – we obviously know that is not the case, he committed suicide, or was murdered by someone else. Wimsey is convinced he was murdered – and it isn’t long before he settles on a culprit – but how was the thing done?

The plot is ingenious – true it is obvious whodunit. In a way the who is less important in this novel, it is the howdunit that keeps the reader guessing. Ably assisted by his butler, the utterly marvellous Bunter and Miss Climpson and the ladies of The Cattery – a typing bureau that is really a bureau of investigation funded by Wimsey, Lord Peter sets out to prove Harriet Vane innocent. The fact that he has immediately fallen in love with her and proposes to her upon first meeting her in prison adds a little flavour of romance, and perhaps unbelievability to the story.

My very small book chose to read Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers in October – perhaps not the first title one might think of for a feminist book group – but we actually found lots to talk about. We considered the obvious aspects of the novel – the prejudice of society (particularly men) against Harriet Vane, as she stands accused of murdering a man she has co-habited with. Sayers however is definitely telling us something about these societal attitudes in her depiction of several minor male characters. During our group discussion on Wednesday evening we also considered the imbalance of power between Lord Peter Wimsey – who sweeps in to save the day – while Harriet is seemingly almost defenceless at the mercy of a system that is highly prejudiced – in danger of being hanged for a crime she didn’t commit. Among other things we also considered the lot of poor, middle aged women like Miss Climpson, Miss Murchison and the ladies of the Cattery and whether their dependence upon Wimsey as the source of their employment, in fact negates their apparent independence. We also talked about class, Peter is an aristocrat after all – but several friendships and romances cross the social divide – highlighting perhaps the changing times in which Sayers was writing. We all utterly adored Miss Climpson, and I think we all pretty much loved Harriet too – and wished there had been more of her in the novel.

“Philip wasn’t the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn’t stand being made a fool of. I couldn’t stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage – and then it turned out that it was a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough. Well, it wasn’t. I didn’t like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize.”

I found this overall to be a thoroughly entertaining read, and for those readers new to Dorothy L Sayers it would make a pretty good one to start with, but I think I got more from it this time as a re-read than I did when I first read it. I also recommend it as a book group read – it is sometimes surprising which books make for the best discussions. The very small book club now boasts an awe-inspiring eight members! Two of those join remotely via the wonder that is Twitter– and there are now six of us who meet in person (admittedly two couldn’t make it on Wednesday). I love this group.

dorothy l sayers

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quick curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan_Melville_(writer)

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murderofalady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anthonywynne

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