Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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I had to take a short break from A Century of Books to read this, just what I needed – as ever I reach for vintage mysteries when I am over tired. These British Library Crime Classics always tick the box. John Bude is a familiar name to readers of British Library Crime Classics, they have published (I think I am right in saying) six of his mysteries, though I had only read two prior to this one. John Bude was the pseudonym for theatre producer and director Ernest Elmore and he was a very prolific writer.

The Cheltenham Square Murder comes with one of those handy little street plans so beloved of mystery writers from the Golden Age. How necessary this simple little drawing is I’m wasn’t sure – but I admit I did find myself referring to it to several times.

cofThe novel opens in a small, tranquil regency square in Cheltenham Spa, ten houses in a u shape around a communal grassy area of shrubs and trees. The inhabitants are generally middle aged – and quiet living. It is certainly not the kind of place, one would expect to encounter sudden and violent death.

However, all is not quite as it seems. Several residents have been locked in a dispute over the fate of an old elm tree, and bank manager Mr Fitzgerald appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Captain Cotton has been seen often in the company of Mr West’s wife, and set tongues wagging. Meanwhile the Misses Watt, are concerned with a secret they accidentally happened upon, while they nursed their neighbour Edward Buller in his delirium.

“There had come to his ears a strange, insidious sound – a faint zip, a long click, and a long drawn out sigh from Cotton. He swung round, puzzled, opened his mouth to speak and swayed there with his lips held slackly apart, staring. The glass dropped from his hand and was shattered on the parquet. He put down the decanter, shakily, took a couple of steps forward and again stopped dead.”

The square’s fraught rivalries are disrupted by the sudden, shocking death of one resident, shot in the head with an arrow through an open window. One of the other resident’s is a doctor and he is soon on the scene, but it appears that death was instantaneous. Suspects there are a plenty, especially as six of the square’s residents are members of the nearby Wellington Archery Club.

Fortunately for perhaps everyone but the murderer, celebrated crime writer Aldous Barnet has been staying with his sister at number 8, and Mr Barnet has invited his old friend Superintendent Meredith to stay while his sister is away. Meredith soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation alongside local policeman Inspector Long (whose ‘working class’ accent is just a bit overdone). They focus their attentions on the recently vacated house on the square – the skylights and a small landing window in a neighbouring house. The residents of the square are questioned thoroughly, with poor Inspector Long living in dread of his conversations with Miss Boon, a rather strident woman with a house full of dogs.

Secrets are there to be unearthed – and even a spot of blackmail to be revealed. Meredith and Long have their work cut out trying to figure out who did what and why. Just as they are starting to cast their collective suspicious eye on one particular person, there is another equally gruesome death on the square.

“One hand gripped the lapel of his velvet smoking-jacket. The other was closed over an unlighted cigar. His mouth was slightly agape. In three strides Meredith was across the room with the doctor close at his heels. Simultaneously their eyes met.”

Then Meredith hears about a bizarre incident on a farm, when a labourer found a ewe with an arrow buried in its head. Meredith can’t help but think that this must have something to do with his case.

No spoilers – I’m keeping this short. The Cheltenham Square Murder is an entertaining mystery with just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I eventually happen upon the culprit – but not very early on and only after changing my mind a couple of times.

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excellent intentions

So, July has been a bit of a slow reading month for me, more of that in my round up post on Wednesday. So last weekend, feeling very over tired I reached out for a little bit of vintage murder, ticking of 1938 in my A Century of Books in the process. I do love these British Library Crime Classics – admittedly they vary in quality, but they are perfect for lazy Sundays. I have several more on my radar as well as two or three tbr.

Excellent Intentions had particularly appealed to me because I had heard that it was structured a little differently to the usual Golden Age Crime novel. It is, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hull’s storytelling twist. It works well – however I guessed the truth very, very early on. When I say guessed, it was a guess formed by one line in the early pages (I can’t say more than that) – but as the novel progressed, I stuck firmly to my guess and it proved to be correct. None of that spoiled the novel for me, I found it highly entertaining.

Richard Hull writes with a good deal of wit – as well as huge amount of knowledge about all thing philately (more of that later) and the plot fairly skips along.

“‘May it please your lordship – members of the jury, on Friday, July 13th – a combination of unlucky days – Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate died in a railway carriage between Larkingfield and Great Barwick stations on the borders of Essex and Suffolk at approximately eleven fifty-seven in the morning. On Thursday August 9th the accused’ – with a melodramatic gesture which threatened to arouse anew Mr Justice Smith’s latent prejudice, counsel pointed to the dock and rolled out unctuously the full name of its occupant – ‘was arrested and charged with wilfully murdering him by administering poison to him, and it is on that charge that the accused now stands before you.”

The novel opens as a court case gets underway – someone is on trial for murder, only we don’t know who it is.

From here with the help of the excessively voluble prosecution barrister, various witnesses and the defence we see the events which led up to the trial. It is a particularly clever way of structuring a crime novel, the reader looking for clues as to who it is in the dock.

The victim was Henry Cargate, a typically loathsome golden age victim. A wealthy man who had not long moved into the big house in the village of Great Barwick. He had quickly become its least favourite resident, rude, obnoxious and favouring outsiders to workers from the village, he quickly puts the backs up of almost all the locals. On the day of his death, Cargate’s car won’t start and so he is forced to get a train from the tiny local railway station, Cargate is a man of easily roused temper, and this is enough to excite his irascibility. At the station he is seen, attempting to take snuff, as he waits huffily for the train. A porter causes him to drop his pinch of snuff onto the floor. The resulting fuss and bad temper made something of an impression on fellow traveller; Mr Hardy. Hardy’s curiosity roused, he watches Cargate, in the window reflection as the train leaves the station, taking another pinch of snuff – this time successfully. Only seconds later he is dead, and Mr Hardy is obliged to stop the train.

Enter, Doctor Gardiner whose suspicions are roused – despite everyone assuming natural causes. Thankfully Gardiner had thought to secure a sample of the snuff that had spilled from the tin onto the carriage floor for analysis. Gardiner had detected an odour in the railway carriage that he wasn’t entirely happy about. Inspector Fenby is called in to investigate further – and it is soon established that Cargate had been poisoned.

“It was a constant complaint of Inspector Fenby’s that he had to spend a great part of his time examining some subject which proved in the end to be irrelevant. He was always on the look-out for the danger and he tried hard to avoid entangling himself in such things. But you could never be sure. There were frequent traps. Certainly the actions of those concerned during the long central period of Thursday, July 12th were a good example of such a state of affairs.”

It appears there are four main suspects; the local vicar Mr Yockleton is one, he absolutely loathes the new squire, and his worship of money, whose only interest in the village church is what archaeological properties it might unearth. Cargate enjoys bating Mr Yockleton and they had a heated argument on the morning of Cargate’s death. Cargate is a very difficult man, and so the two members of his household staff Raikes the butler and Miss Knox Forster Cargate’s secretary must surely have motive too, they certainly had opportunity. As did everyone around the house that day, a bottle of cyanide had been purchased by Cargate for the destruction of a wasps nest by the gardener, the only local man Cargate employs. The bottle was in full view of everyone throughout the day.

excellent intentions2

Additionally, we meet Macpherson – a dealer in stamps. Cargate is a keen philatelist – but MacPherson has had reason to doubt his honesty but Cargate counteracts MacPherson’s accusations with accusations of his own when Macpherson travelled to Great Barwick to meet him. One of these two men is a cheat.

The amount of detail that Richard Hull goes into with regards to philately is quite astonishing – some may feel a little wearisome, I was completely bamboozled about various colours, marks and the amount of perforations a particular stamp had which made it valuable or utterly worthless. Whether Hull himself was a keen stamp collector or not I don’t know – perhaps he simply didn’t want his research to go to waste.

Excellent Intentions (the use of that title becomes clear) was a really great little mystery. I now have more Richard Hull books on my radar – I enjoyed the way Hull structured the story, and his ordinary, no nonsense Inspector Fenby is the kind of fictional policeman I like. A normal, reasonably intelligent man, doing his job well.

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murder underground

I am still very behind with my reviews; this book was my last read of April which I read during the readathon the weekend before last. Murder Underground was a good readathon pick, as it was a real old-fashioned page turner from the British Library.

“Dozens of Hampstead people must have passed the door of the Frampton private hotel – as the boarding house where Miss Euphemia Pongleton lived was grandly called – on a certain Friday morning in March 1934, without noticing anything unusual. When they read their evening papers they must have cursed themselves for being so unobservant, but doubtless many of them made up for it by copious inventiveness and told their friends how they had sensed tragedy in the air or noticed an anxious look in Miss Pongleton’s eyes.”

A Friday morning in 1934 seemed just as usual, people hurrying off to their daily toil, when a bundle of clothes on the stairs at Belsize tube station, turns out to be the body of Miss Euphemia Pongleton. A long-term resident at the nearby Frampton Hotel, her fellow boarders are not noticeably overwhelmed with grief, but they are all fascinated by the murder of a woman they knew – though generally disliked. It seems that Miss Pongleton was a very tiresome old woman, miserly, despite her apparent wealth, she would walk to Belsize tube to save a penny on the fare.

The police very quickly settle on Bob Thurlow, boyfriend of Nellie who works at the Frampton, who they believe had reason to kill her. Nellie is inconsolable, telling everyone at the hotel that her Bob wouldn’t do such a thing – reminding them how good Bob was to Miss Pongleton, taking her little dog Tuppy for walks for her. However, things don’t look too promising for Bob, who was on duty at the station at the time of Miss Pongleton’s death, and over whom Miss Pongleton was holding information that she had threatened to go to the police about.

The Frampton hotel houses an odd collection of residents; from the attractive, modern young women Cissie and Betty, to the novelist Mrs Daymer and the respectably serious Mr Slocomb who now occupies Miss Pongleton’s armchair, old Mr Blend and the much younger Mr Grange. Mrs Bliss is the woman who presides over the house and her residents, rather scandalised at the trouble that has been brought to her door.

“Mr Basil Pongleton’s departure from his lodgings in Tavistock Square, a little later on the same morning, was less sedate. He was obviously in a hurry; yet it was after ten o’clock when he passed almost directly beneath the Frampton, whizzed along through the tunnel in the direction of Golder’s Green. The underground train which he took from Warren Street at about 9.25 would have passed that spot nearly half an hour earlier, and his subterranean wanderings on that morning were to cause him a good deal of trouble.”

Miss Pongleton had two relatives living nearby, her nephew Basil, and niece Beryl (they are cousins not siblings), one of whom will come into her money. Beryl is already well off – and it is generally supposed that Basil will inherit – although Miss Pongleton frequently fell out with Basil and would threaten to disinherit him. Basil was in the vicinity of Belsize park on the fateful morning, and proceeds to make himself appear suspicious with his increasingly ridiculous antics and lies. The reader knows Basil is innocent – yet no character has ever done more to make themselves appear rather guilty. Basil and his absurdities are all rather hilarious, giving a nice little touch of humour to this vintage mystery. Both Basil and Beryl are frequent visitors at the hotel, and Basil has recently begun a little romance with Betty – who also gets drawn into to the hapless Basil’s muddles.

Bit by bit the residents of the Frampton hotel begin to expound their own theories about what happened to Miss Pongleton, and two of them set off to investigate an unexpected lead themselves.

Murder Underground is the second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery that I have read, the other was The Santa Klaus Murder which I thought was entertaining enough though a little weak. This was much better and thoroughly enjoyable. Another winner from the British Library’s crime classics.

underground steps

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For the first time ever, I have decided to join in with the #readathon which – I am reliably informed (Twitter) has something like 1500 people signed up to it. With varying start times depending on where in the world you are the UK readathon will be 1.00pm Saturday 28th April – 1.00 pm 29th April. (I believe that’s the official start time – but I am sure it is flexible, so people can do what works for them.)

I have watched the festivities from afar before and had it in the back of my mind to try it. It was Liz who gave me the nudge – she has decided to join in, and as I will be seeing her later today, we can do a few minutes of readathon together. Other friends will be present we might have to do social too. Actually, it is the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up today – so none of our booky friends will turn a hair at our getting our books out. A lovely bookish weekend beckons – in fact I am going to a literary festival event tomorrow (after readathon is finished luckily). Now I have decided to take part, I am quite excited.

Oh, and no I will not stay up all night! – I am frankly incapable of such madness – though I might manage to stay up an extra hour or so.

I know some readathoners post regular updates on their blogs – but I have decided to just come back and update this post. Due to an arrangement to meet friends for lunch and the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up, I won’t get properly started till at least 4 o’clock this afternoon UK time – but that still gives me 21 readathon hours to play with.


So, I have come up with a small readathon pile – small because – terrible admission coming up: I am a fairly slow reader. Yes, I read quite a lot – but in terms of pages read per hour (it depends on what I am reading Agatha Christie reads faster than Virginia Woolf let’s be honest) my stats wouldn’t be impressive. I have chosen Trick by Domenico Starnone my Asymptote book club read. Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, a literary novelist in her own right. I have meant to get to it for three weeks but kept getting waylaid by other things. I started it last night but was too tired to read very much, by the time 1.00 today comes I should think I will be fifty or sixty pages into it, and it isn’t a long book. Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay – a British Library Crime Classic, that will tick off 1934 in my A Century of Books. I am also hoping to read at least a few of the essays in the Writers as Readers collection from Virago – it is a gorgeous celebration of VMC – and I have been itching to read it. My Persephone biannually has been languishing unread by the bookcase, so I added that to the pile too.

So… happy reading everyone who is joining in with readathon this weekend and come back later to see how I get on.

bookcrossersUpdate 1 : I ended up reading a little more than I had anticipated this morning before the official UK start time of 1.00 o’clock (50 pages – which won’t count). So at 1.00 (just as I was meeting friends) I was ninety pages into Trick by Domenico Starnone.

The bookcrossers helped Liz and I celebrate the beginning of readathon we all got our books out, read for a few minutes, to the amusement of everyone in the cafe I’m sure, and posed for a photo. Liz and I were photographed collapsing into giggles behind our books. lizandme

I left the cafe and my lovely friends at 3.15 and caught the bus home (finally time to read properly) arrived home at 4.10 locked the door, ran upstairs to change into cosy clothes and then sat down to read. Tea was made, snacks taken out and at 5.45 I finished Trick such a lovely book. Total pages read during official readathon period 101.

Time to start book 2.

Update 2.  I started my second book – Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. I do get easily distracted – social media is a terrible draw. Anyway, several short breaks actually helped me to keep going. I had a break of about an hour to watch something on TV and then came back to my book. I haven’t finished the book yet – just under 70 pages to go and I am done in. It is 1.30 am here and I am about to go to bed, having read 205 pages of it.

So in total I have read 306 pages – the readathon doesn’t end till 1.00 pm here so I have set my alarm for 8.00 – I might even wake up earlier – when I will finish Murder Underground and perhaps get a couple of those VMC essays read.

Update 3 Suddenly it’s Sunday and the readathon officially ends in twenty-five minutes time – all that reading certainly makes the hours fly by. As I said I set my alarm for 8.00 am and dutifully rose when it rang, despite having not gone to sleep as quickly as I had hoped. I expect I had something like 5 and half hours and I certainly felt a bit the worse for it when I came down to make that first cup of tea. I read the final 69 pages of Murder Underground – a mystery I found very enjoyable – luckily it really is a hard one to put down.

writers as readers1So I moved on to my third book – it’s a book of forty essays – a little over 400 pages I knew I would only get a bit of it read. Writers as Readers is a wonderful celebration of VMC writers published for the fortieth anniversary of VMC. I read the introduction and six of the essays: Margaret Drabble on Jane Austen, Angela Carter on Charlotte Bronte, Beryl Bainbridge on Emily Bronte, Maggie O’Farrell on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Jane Howard on Elizabeth von Arnim and A.S Byatt on Willa Carter. Every one of them hugely readable.  That amounted tings learo 76 pages.

I’m off for a shower and to search for paracetemol – I have given myself a headache – as I have to go out in a couple of hours.

Total pages read: 451 – across three books.  (Oh and yes, I may well do this again – although I am frankly staggered and overawed by the stats produced by some readers. I said I was a slow reader though – oh well!)

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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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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.


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