Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

This was a lovely satisfyingly thick book, and while I got this as a review copy if I had bought it I would have considered it very good value for money. Two very compelling full length mystery novels for the price of one, both novels running to around 220 pages. I was definitely in the mood for a bit of murder and mayhem, so I read both mysteries back to back. I knew I was in the hands of a really good mystery writer; I have read John Bude before – he is a favourite among readers of BLCC readers, a good writer who creates fully involving mystery stories.

Death in White Pyjamas is set in a country house among theatrical people- all great golden age ingredients. Theatre owner and millionaire Sam Richardson is a kindly, enthusiastic theatre owner, he made his money in business and is now enjoying himself indulging a new passion. His theatre is the Beaumont and the company are about to start preparing for a new production – if they can decide on a play. Young playwright Rudolph Millar has a play he is hoping that Sam will want to put it on at the Beaumont, his aunt Clara is part of the company and they and the rest of the company are invited to Sam’s house in the country. Basil is the producer, slightly sinister and something of a lady killer in the past, he now finds himself falling for Angela, the beautiful young actress, who has also caught young Rudolph’s eye. Willy Farnham is the ageing character actor, Deirdre is one of Basil’s great discoveries, she’s cynical, icy cold and always very sure of herself.  

Almost in the grounds of Sam’s large country home is a small cottage that Basil has bought as his own country escape, when the rest of the company meet at Sam’s house Basil is able to stay in his own home. Basil is drawing closer to the wide eyed innocent that is Angela, Rudolph and Deirdre watching on with some jealousy, Willy is in need of some cash and quickly, and there is some disagreement about which play should be chosen. In charge of Sam’s house is Mrs Dreed, a minor character yet John Bude writes all his characters so well that even she is given proper attention.

“Mrs Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving.”

One night someone is killed, found in the grounds near the lake, wearing white pyjamas. Soon, Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane arrive to investigate the murder. However, first they have to sort out exactly who was where at the time of the victim’s death. Admittedly, it isn’t hard to guess whodunnit – but the other whys and hows are less easily unravelled. All in all, a really engaging well-paced mystery with well written characters.

Death Knows no Calendar is just as well written, and also set in a country house, though the action moves away from the house and the nearby village later in the novel. Mr and Mrs Arundel are holding a little party to open the bar that John Arundel has created in the grounds of their home. It is Lydia Arundel who has all the money, her husband a former actor who never really made it – she is an artist, who inspires very strong feelings in others. The Rev Peter Swain, local rector is haunted by the memory of a moment they shared some years earlier, and farmer Stanley Hawkinge has been mooning over her for years too. However, at the party Stanley meets Honoria; the niece of Lady Dingle (the subject of Lydia’s latest portrait) and is instantly smitten. Their burgeoning romance is overshadowed by the presence of Lydia Arundel, and the rector is overheard praying in his garden about the sins of the flesh in such a way that quite upsets the local postmistress who is walking nearby.

When Lydia is found shot dead in her studio which was locked from the inside – it is judged to be an apparent suicide. Detective fiction enthusiast Major Tom Boddy is not convinced – and with the help of his manservant (and former bat man) Syd Gammon sets out to investigate. The two old soldiers seem to enjoy looking back to their glory days of action – and still converse with one another in a kind of stilted military style (which does become a little ridiculous). Boddy soon discovers he has four realistic suspects, one of whom has completely disappeared and yet the whole thing seems impossible, and Major Boddy is afraid that someone is about to get away with murder.

“A few rooks were wheeling lazily over the elms in the churchyard and an old man came out of the lych-gate with a scythe over his shoulder. As the air cooled, the scents of the countryside grew more heady, wafting in through the open window of the car. The harsh and littered streets of Ilford seemed a long way off, like the dusty memory of an old nightmare.”

Major Boddy’s investigations take him right away from the village, on the trail of someone who isn’t all they appear to be. I found this hugely engaging and very compelling. Like Death in White pyjamas I could guess the who easily enough, but the whys and wherefores are much harder to unravel, and it is here where the cleverness in this mystery really lies. Major Boddy and Syd Gammon are a really very entertaining duo – Bude injects some humour into his portrait of these old soldiers, who turn out to be very good investigators.

These two mysteries make a great pairing and kudos to the British Library for bringing them back.

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I was fortunate to have two Ellen Wilkinson novels come into my life around the same time. Both of them were part of bookish secret Santa parcels, the first; The Division Bell Mystery was Ellen Wilkinson’s only published mystery novel. A few days after receiving this book I was delighted to unwrap Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, a VMC edition I hope to read fairly soon, one of the books in my Librarything Virago secret Santa which Liz chose for me. Clash, published a few years before this one, depicts the General Strike from the point of view of a woman trade unionist. I am looking forward to it.

Ellen Wilkinson was a Labour MP, first elected in 1924, she became a key figure in the Jarrow March and supported the general strike. During the war she served as a junior minister in Churchill’s coalition government, later as her health was failing was appointed as Education Minister by Clement Atlee in Labour’s post war government.

Wilkinson was perfectly placed therefore to write a mystery novel with a political element to it, the fact she manages to slide a little satire into the story which she sets in the House of Commons makes it all the more enjoyable.

“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”

Up and coming young politician Robert West is parliamentary private secretary to the Home Secretary. On the day his old friend Donald Shaw arrives at the House of Commons for dinner, the Home Secretary is meeting American financier Georges Oissel in a private dining room. Before the nine o’clock division bell rings calling members to vote – Robert and the Home secretary are two among many members who hurry off to do their duty, and it is at that very moment that Georges Oissel is shot and killed in a room empty of anyone other than himself. Robert and his old friend are just outside the door of the room where the dead man is discovered, and with Oissel’s gun lying on the floor, at first everyone assumes the millionaire must have taken his own life.

However, Oissel’s glamorous grand-daughter insists her grandfather would never have taken his own life. Soon, the police are led to believe that perhaps Mr Oissel was in fact the victim of murder after all. At the time the murder was committed the victim’s house was in the process of being burgled and a manservant on loan from the Home Secretary killed at the scene apparently in defence of Oissel’s private papers. Poor West is rather dazzled by Oissel’s granddaughter Annette’s elegance and her insistence that her grandfather must have been murdered. It is soon apparent that we are in the midst of an ingenious locked room mystery.

Bit by bit, Robert West is drawn deeper into the mystery, aiding the sensibly humane Inspector Blackitt in his investigations. Sir George Gleeson the head of the civil service, deeply concerned with the potential diplomatic consequences oversees the progress of the case. Placed as he is, in the House of Commons, Robert is quite able to sneak about making enquires, asking questions and calling in favours. One of his friends is Grace Richards; a member of parliament from the opposition benches (I couldn’t help but see this as a self portrait for Wilkinson herself) whose help Robert enlists.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?”

 Here we see (slightly tongue in cheek, I felt) the depressing attitudes of the time. Grace is a brilliant character and I would have enjoyed seeing more of her in this novel. Lady Bell-Clinton is another brilliantly drawn creation – (a Lady Astor perhaps?) and adds perfectly to the atmosphere of the House of Commons at this time, which was of course largely inhabited by the political male.

“Lady Bell-Clinton took an impish joy in inducing the most extraordinary people to mix together, but the party that Robert West found on this occasion was one of her super-respectable kind. It included a Cabinet Minister with a wife who must surely have been to her christening in a robe of black crêpe de Chine and old lace; a couple of City men whose wives were not in evidence;  a champion lady golfer; and Lord Dalbeattie, a member of the synthetic aristocracy whose peerage had been made for him only six months previously.”

Enquiries reveal a missing notebook containing notes written in code, figures lurking in dark corridors at the house late at night and papers hidden in the Home Secretary’s office. West takes Lord Dalbeattie into his confidence, and in him finds a man willing to get things done, even if feathers are a little ruffled.

The ending when it comes is fiendishly clever (albeit a tiny bit improbable) though the final unravelling felt just a little bit rushed. Nevertheless, The Division Bell Mystery is very readable and particularly fascinating for its setting and those thinly disguised political portraits.

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I decided I wanted to read at least one Christmas themed book this year – and a Christmas themed mystery is always a good choice. I found The Night of Fear by Moray Dalton re-issued by Dean Street Press to be a very compelling read, really enjoyable – I was rather disappointed when I finished it so quickly, I was so deeply engrossed. As is so often the case with these Christmas murder mystery stories, Christmas is merely a backdrop to the proceedings and a device to have lots of people all together in one place – but when you have an entertaining well plotted mystery that really doesn’t matter.

“Together they looked down at the inert sprawling figure of a man fantastically dressed in red-and-white-striped pyjama trousers, with a red sash belt and a white silk shirt open at the neck.”

Scotland Yard detective Hugh Collier is visiting his friend Sergeant Lane when news comes in of a sudden death in a large country house a couple of days before Christmas.

Collier accompanies Sergeant Lane to the house where they find a Christmas house party in some disarray. A game of hide a seek in the dark had been in progress – the guests sporting fancy dress, when one guest; Edgar Stallard had been found dead in an upstairs gallery. The victim was discovered by Hugh Darrow, a man blinded during the First World War, whose Pierrot costume became smeared with the dead man’s blood. His story is that he discovered the victim in a window embrasure next to the one he himself was hiding in.

The house belongs to George Tunbridge, here he lives with his wife, a former actress who seems rather to loll around the place at the point of collapse. The house party of about twelve other people include his pompous, blustering cousin Sir Eustace and his absurdly young fiancé, her socially ambitious grandmother, an American friend of both George and Hugh’s, some young people from the vicarage and a brother and sister who appear to live off their richer friends.

“Overhead the sky shone a clear pale blue through the network of bare boughs. On the left the ground sloped gradually down to the lake. Would some of the house party be skating there again today? After all, why not? They must pass the time somehow until the inquest was opened. He stopped when he had nearly reached the gates and looked back at the house. From that distance it was beautiful, shining like a pearl in the pale wintry sunshine against the russet and umber background of the leafless woods. Since last night a house with a secret. If walls could speak, what would they have to tell?”

Sergeant Lane calls in his superior officers, Collier, having no official status on the case is allowed to tag along for a day or two, but is soon sent back to London with a flea in his ear by his own superior at the yard with an axe to grind. The hapless Sergeant Lane made the mistake of accepting hospitality at the scene of the crime, with dire consequences to his own health – and so, as Lane is taken off to hospital and Collier sent back to London, the unimaginative Chief Inspector Purley takes over.

It is soon apparent that Darrow has kept to himself several things he really should have revealed to the police, his silence greatly upsets his friend Mrs Clare, the American widow for whom he clearly has long held romantic feelings. When the police uncover an apparent motive as well, things start to look very bleak indeed for Hugh Darrow. Mrs Clare is still sure he is innocent, and although unable to help officially Collier arranges for a private detective Hermann Glide to investigate the case.

“The fact is I rather want this room to remain as it is, untouched. I’d like to lock the door and leave the key with the policeman we shall find waiting for us in the hall. We must not linger. The last pieces of the puzzle will be falling into their places, click, click, click—” At such moments the little man ceased to appear insignificant. The brown eyes blazed, the supple fingers twitched. The others obeyed him instinctively. Something was going to happen. They knew not what.”

Really not wanting to include spoilers I am going to say nothing more about the pot of this one, suffice to say it is an excellent quick read, and has whet my appetite for more by this author. While Moray Dalton might not quite be Agatha Christie, she writes so well, her characterisation is good, her mysteries well plotted and very compelling. This is now the second Moray Dalton mystery I have read, and I will definitely be reading more, and Dean Street have thankfully re-issued several more.

Just ending this review, with a quick note to say, I am a little bit behind at the moment. Many of you, will know I have been struggling with an horrendous attack of sciatica – it’s been about four weeks now. The pain, and the struggle to cope with the most mundane everyday things, has been exhausting and means I am even struggling to get the blog posts done I had hoped to do. There will definitely be some hangover from the old year to the new year, and I still have my yearly and monthly round up posts to do. I will do what I can, some posts might be shorter than usual – bear with me while I get myself back into gear. I shall probably also be posting things at odd times too, normal service will be resumed at some point – I do really want to catch up.

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With thanks to the publishers for this review copy.

Laid up still and in pain, this pleasingly chunky collection of short stories by a host of Golden Age Crime writers was just what I needed. I have always loved the sea, I love the sea more than I love boats, though I am quite partial to those little trips they do around the bay at the seaside in summer. All the stories in Deep Waters, concern water of some kind – not always the sea, and many of them concern boats or ships, though we have rivers, canals, garden lakes and a swimming pool too and I was delighted to have a story set in a lighthouse. Edited by Martin Edwards this is a fantastic collection, so completely engrossing, I fairly gulped these stories down.

The collection of sixteen stories opens with The Adventure of the Gloria Scott by Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes relates one of the stories from his past to Watson. Holmes recalls his old friend; Victor Trevor from his student days, and his father, and a man from the past who turns up and upsets everything – and a letter which seems to bring about Trevor senior’s death.

One of my favourite stories was The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austen Freeman,it’s a satisfying length too at something like forty pages. Set in a lighthouse – which I found especially pleasing, there s a fantastic tension throughout the story which makes it very compelling. It concerns two old enemies, a terrible secret from the past, and a seemingly perfect murder. In part two we discover how Freeman’s medical detective Thorndyke is able to solve the mystery using meticulous detective work and forensic science.

“It was shortly after passing the buoy that the gaunt shape of a screw-pile lighthouse began to loom up ahead, its dull-eyed paint turned to vermillion by the early afternoon sun. As we drew nearer, the name Girdler, painted in huge, white letters, became visible, and two men could be seen in the gallery around the lantern, inspecting us through a telescope.”

(The Echo of a Mutiny)

The Gift of the Emperor by E W Hornung, is another compelling adventure. Hornung’s famous gentleman thief Raffles is on the trail of a pearl of great price. He and accomplice Bunny end up on board ship, sailing toward the Mediterranean. However, Raffles’ old enemy is on their tail.  

In The Turning of the Tide by C S Forsterwe see everything from the perspective of the potential murderer. Middle aged solicitor Slade has thought of everything, particularly the difficulty of disposing of a body. He feels he has no alternative than to kill the man who knows about his misappropriation of client’s money, if his colleague lives, he will be ruined. There is a marvellously chilling twist in the conclusion of this story.

“Slade thought of other defaulting solicitors he had heard of, even one or two with whom he had come into contact professionally. He remembered his brother-solicitors’ remarks about them, pitying or contemptuous. He thought of having to beg his bread in the streets on his release from prison, of cold and misery and starvation. The shudder which shook him was succeeded by a hot wave of resentment. Never, never would he endure it.”

(The Turning of the Tide)

The Pool of Secrets by Gwyn Evansconcerns a lake in the grounds of a country house. The house has recently passed to the Canadian nephew of Sir Charles; the former owner. Sir Charles’s cousin had reason to be very upset when this new heir was discovered, and the goings on up at the hall has been the subject of local and press speculation. One story that won’t go away is that of the ‘Silver Bride’ that said to haunt the lake at the hall. As Quentin Drex; former secret service man buys a drink in the village pub, a local man stumbles in, telling a terrible tale of the silver bride, who he says has claimed the life of his dog. Drex determines to find out the truth behind the story of the silver bride – and it is rather surprising.

In other stories we find criminals planning their ingenious escapes from their floating crime scenes, victims succumbing to dastardly plans and murderers being caught out by very clever men (I wish they weren’t always men – but oh well). There is poison in a glass of cognac, the ingenious theft of gold bullion, the hard to explain death of a man on his river boat, among other things, plenty of the usual Golden Age ingredients that readers so enjoy. All in all, this was a marvellous anthology of watery stories, each of which is prefaced with a page of biographical information about their authors.

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My second read for the 1930 club was an Agatha Christie that I am fairly sure I had never read before. A tip for those of you new to finding books for these club weeks – there is always an Agatha Christie for which ever year is chosen – and sometimes two. There were in fact two Christie’s published in 1930, the other one is Murder at the Vicarage, an old favourite that I have read a couple of times.

The Mysterious Mr Quin is a collection of stories, though it is presented almost like a novel in twelve chapters – each chapter is a different story in which Mr Quin will turn up eventually. It’s a thoroughly engaging and entertaining collection, in which the reader must suspend disbelief as coincidences abound. Christie really does flex her storytelling muscles nicely with these stories, taking us from English country houses to the South of France and Corsica. While many stories feature the unravelling of mysteries of the past, other stories concern matters in the present, several pieces having a supernatural quality.

There is something rather supernatural about our eponymous Mr Quin, Mr Harley Quin that is. He appears and disappears at will – and about whom there always seems to be an odd kaleidoscope of coloured light. To his friend Mr Satterthwaite; it would seem as if Mr Quin is always a harbinger of either death or love.

The collection opens with The Coming of Mr Quin, in which Mr Satterthwaite meets the enigmatic Mr Quin for the first time. It is New Year’s Eve, and Mr Satterthwaite is part of a country house party. As midnight approaches, he senses that there is drama in the air, perhaps even danger. There was a tragedy in the house several years before, and the occasion gives rise to talk about the man who had once owned the house and who was known to several of the people gathered there. Unexpectedly there is a knock at the door – and a stranger enters the fray. Mr Quin (his car broken down outside) is welcomed in and is drawn into the discussion about the tragedy – and what really did happen. Mr Quin doesn’t so much investigate the past – as help those who were there, to understand what happened – seeing things with a new perspective.

“The longer the time that has elapsed, the more things fall into proportion. One sees them in their true relationship to one another.”

This becomes a familiar storytelling device throughout this collection. Mr Quinn encourages Mr Satterthwaite and others to examine what they already know to unravel the truth of past mysteries. Mr Satterthwaite is an elderly man with an interest in people, he is fascinated by Mr Quin and with what his presence seems to draw out. In each story we see Mr Satterthwaite wondering about someone or something, and up pops Mr Quin, apparently out of nowhere – and when he appears Mr Satterthwaite knows his instinct about whatever has been bothering him is correct.

In subsequent stories, Mr Satterthwaite meets Mr Quin in all sort of places.  A country inn, with a storm is blowing up, has the landlord and his daughter reminiscing about a strange disappearance locally. He appears at society house parties where Mr Satterthwaite is present. Always there is something in the atmosphere, something between the other people present – or a story from the past that everyone is concerned with. A young wife is found dead with another man. A young man is convicted of a murder that Mr Satterthwaite can’t help but wonder about – and up pops Mr Quin to help him figure it out.

In Monte Carlo he meets a countess at the roulette table – someone Mr Satterthwaite senses is desperate. In another story Mr Satterthwaite meets a man planning to throw himself into the sea. As Mr Satterthwaite becomes drawn into the poor man’s life, he is not surprised to see Mr Quin is also present. In all these stories either death or love – and sometimes both play a part. After a night at the opera in Covent Garden, Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Quin come to the aid of a young woman over whom two men are scuffling. Later, it is Mr Satterthwaite’s quick thinking that is to save her.

Throughout these stories, Agatha Christie dispenses plenty of her own peculiar brand of wisdom.

“You say your life is your own. But can you dare to ignore the chance that you are taking part in a gigantic drama under the orders of a divine Producer? Your cue may not come till the end of the play–it may be totally unimportant, a mere walking-on part, but upon it may hang the issues of the play if you do not give the cue to another player. The whole edifice may crumple. You as you, may not matter to anyone in the world, but you as a person in a particular place may matter unimaginably.”

Mr Satterthwaite is another wonderful Christie character, in the tradition of Poirot and Marple. He is, we are told a rather elf like figure – something of a snob, he enjoys the company of the wealthy and titled, friendships he is quite proud of – but has little patience for the new breed of young person. He has a very discerning palate and spends part of each year in the South of France.  Despite the title, Mr Quin is not the main character, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is the main focus, the driving force behind the tales of tragedy, romance, and death.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin is a wonderfully entertaining collection, plenty of spine tingling content – I particularly love that device of delving into the past.

This was a fabulous read for the 1930 club, we can always rely on Dame Agatha to deliver a great weekend read.

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With thanks to the publishers for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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