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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

thirteen guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

j jefferson farjeon

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cof

I’ve read Agatha Christie on and off since I was about eleven – but it was more recently that I discovered a particular fondness for Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Agatha Christie unfortunately only wrote four full length novels and a collection of short stories about Tommy and Tuppence – which is a crying shame. With Poirot’s ridiculous fastidiousness, ‘little grey cells’ boastful confidence, and Miss Marple’s old lady nosiness (all of which I still love) there is something about Tommy and Tuppence that is a breath of fresh air.

It appears I have read the Tommy and Tuppence novels in completely the wrong order – but I don’t suppose that matters. A few months ago, I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs which takes place a few years after this one, an excellent mystery – and I have had the final novel Postern of Fate for years but have never read it. Admittedly I have seen some poor reviews of that last novel – so perhaps I shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to read it.

N or M? takes place in the spring of 1940, Tommy and Tuppence who original readers first encountered as bright young things, trying to shake off the horrors of the First World War, are now middle aged in the early months of another war. They have been married for a long time, have two grown up children, and have, in the past undertaken work of a secretive nature for ‘Mr Carter’ the former chief of Intelligence. The pair have been feeling very much out of things for a while, yet know they still have a lot to offer, are desperate to do something to help the war effort.

So, when a Mr Grant ‘a friend’ of Lord Easthampton (the real name of Mr Carter) Tommy and Tuppence know immediately that it is no social call. Sensing that their visitor would rather speak to Tommy alone, Tuppence makes her excuses.

“ ‘…All we know about them is that these two are Hitler’s most highly trusted agents and that in a code message we managed to decipher towards the beginning of the war there occurred this phrase – suggest N or M for England. Full powers –’ ”

Mr Grant wastes no time in taking Tommy into his confidence, a conspiracy of fifth columnists, activities which threaten Britain’s European campaign. Grant asks Tommy to undertake a secret, covert operation, he needs someone whose face is unknown. The only thing the intelligence service know are the code names N and M; the final words of a murdered man and the name of a boarding house on the south coast. Grant asks Tommy to keep his mission a secret even from Tuppence and invents a dull desk job for him in Scotland to explain away his absence. Tommy bids a fond farewell to his understanding wife, and to add colour to the lie, takes a train to Scotland, before turning around and heading back South to the boarding house Sans Souci in the seaside town of Leahampton. ww2 poster

When Tommy finally arrives at San Souci – as Mr Meadowes he is absolutely stunned to find Tuppence already installed, in the guise of a Mrs Blenkensop. Tuppence having of course listened in to the conversation between Tommy and Mr Grant – was not about to miss out on a bit of excitement, and the chance to prove herself still useful. They have a challenging task, routing out traitors and conspirators, a seaside boarding house not an obvious hunting ground. Tommy and Tuppence must appear to everyone as strangers – and they manage to play their part very well, meeting up on the beach to swap notes. At their first meeting after Tommy’s arrival, Tuppence is unrepentant at her deception.

“ ‘…I wished to teach you a lesson. You and your Mr Grant.’
‘He’s not exactly my Mr Grant and I should say you have taught him a lesson.’
‘Mr Carter wouldn’t have treated me so shabbily,’ said Tuppemce. ‘I don’t think the Intelligence is anything like it was in our day.’
Tommy said gravely; ‘It will attain its former brilliance now we’re back in it. But why Blenkensop?’
‘Why not?’
‘It seems an odd name to choose.’
‘It was the first one I thought of and it’s handy for underclothes’
‘What do you mean Tuppence?’
‘B, you idiot. B for Beresford, B for Blenkensop. Embroidered on my cami-knickers. Patricia Blenkensop. Prudence Beresford. Why did you choose Meadowes? It’s a silly name.’ ”

The boarding house is filled with an odd assortment of people. There is Mrs Peranna, her daughter Sheila, a Major, Mrs Sprot a devoted young mother and her charming little child Betty, a large Irish woman Miss O’Rourke, a German refugee von Deinem, an elderly lady called Miss Minton, a married couple, the Cayleys an invalid and his fussy, chattering wife. Tommy and Tuppence soon have their suspicions, and within a day or two of their arrival another foreign woman has been seen loitering outside the boarding house.

Tommy and Tuppence find themselves playing a dangerous game in a bid to unmask the traitors. Neither of them is safe, each of them seeming about to land themselves in hot water, I had my heart in my mouth. However, Tommy and Tuppence are possessed of incredibly cool heads. Christie is quite brilliant here, at recreating the sense of wartime paranoia, where nobody’s identity can be take at face value and foreigners are all treated with a degree of suspicion. Twists, turns and misdirection keep the reader guessing, and there are several surprises before the case is solved.

N or M? is an excellent Christie novel, more wartime espionage than the usual murder mystery we associate her with, it’s a brilliant little page turner, featuring an adorable couple.

Agathachristie3

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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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