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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

With thanks to the British Library for providing a copy of the book

The British library have now published a number of E C R Lorac mysteries, and though I haven’t read them all, it’s clear she has become a very popular writer among lovers of Golden age mysteries. She was a prolific and popular author during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and also wrote under the name Carol Carmac. These Names Make Clues was first published in 1937, when Lorac was already establishing herself as a mystery writer. However, Martin Edwards in his introduction explains how this novel came to almost be completley forgotten. It is surprising given how popular Lorac has been, and what a good example of golden age fiction this is.

Like so many of the best detective novels of this period, These Names Make Clues is set between the wars, April 1936 to be precise, and gathers a large number of people altogether in one place – at least to start with. The novel opens with Chief Inspector Macdonald at home, looking forward to settling down with a new book. He decides to open his post first though, and one of his letters is from Graham Coombe inviting him to a treasure hunt party. The treasure hunt is to have clues that are of literary, historical, or political nature, and those invited to play, Coombe explains, detectives of a literary, psychological, or practical bent. Would Macdonald consent to pit himself – and his skills – against Coombe’s invited guests of thriller writers and others? Initially, Macdonald is really not keen. He discusses the party and his possible attendance with his friend, the journalist Peter Vernon – but on the toss of a coin decides to go along after all.

The set up is all very Christie-esque, Macdonald arrives at Caroline House – the London residence of Graham Coombe and his sister – and is given a literary pseudonym, each of his fellow guests is similarly disguised. Various parts of the house have been given over to the treasure hunters in which to hunt for clues and make their investigations. The treasure hunt gets underway, and Macdonald likes to think he might know who one or two of his fellow hunters may be. Here the reader really needs to have their wits about them, because most of the people we meet at Caroline House during the treasure hunt have two names, the pseudonym given to them at the party, and their own name – confused? me? absolutely.

The fun stops rather abruptly when the lights all go out and ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room. ‘Samuel Pepys’ is revealed to be well-known detective writer Andrew Gardien.

“There was a desk by the window, on which stood the telephone. A large arm-chair stood in the middle of the small floor space, and against the wall facing the window was a fine mahogany bureau, whose heavy front was pulled out, though the flap was not let down. Pulling aside the chair a little, Macdonald said ‘I’m afraid he is here. Very much here.’”

Macdonald is on hand to look into the strange circumstances right away, and what initially appeared to have been natural causes is quickly suspected to be anything but. There’s quite a bit of who’s who to be sorted out, not to mention who was where, and who saw who in those places when the lights went out – all of which sets things up rather nicely for a very puzzling mystery.

Macdonald and his CID colleagues get to work, but the very next day, Gardien’s agent is also found dead, in very bizarre circumstances, but who died first, and was one responsible for the other?

Macdonald’s friend journalist Peter Vernon is drawn into the mystery when he gets talking to one of the treasure hunters at the inquest. Soon, he is chasing all over the countryside in a borrowed sports car, in the hope of landing himself a scoop into the bargain.

“The long straight stretch of road ahead was ideal for a chase. The M.G was new, and in tip-top order, and Vernon began to enjoy himself. He was soon near enough to read the registration number ahead and to realise that his luck was in.”

This is an enjoyable mystery, perfect for these autumnal evenings and lazy weekends, a little short on atmosphere perhaps, but plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing.

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Murder by the Book – murder for bibliophiles; if there was ever going to be a perfect book for bookish fans of golden age crime then this must surly be it. The British Library are very good at bringing out these anthologies of stories from time to time, ably edited by Martin Edwards who always provides some useful background information to the stories and their writers. There have been some lovely, themed collections already – not that I have managed to read them all as yet – including stories featuring water, sporting stories, stories featuring mysterious creatures and Christmas stories. This time and perhaps most appealingly of all – we have stories featuring book collectors, libraries, ghost-writers, and authors. Again, we have a veritable who’s who of golden age writers collected here – including Nicholas Blake, A. A Milne, Julian Symons, Gladys Mitchell, and Ngaio Marsh – sixteen stories in all arranged chronologically by the date they were first published.  

Of course, I can’t possibly write about all sixteen stories – we’d be here all day – but in an attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection I have picked out a few to highlight. I have a feeling lots of other bloggers will be reviewing this one over the coming months.

The collection opens with an intriguing little tale – A lesson in Crime, written by GDH and M Cole a husband and wife writing duo (always interested in how that works). It is a very sharp little tale – in which a best selling crime novelist is given a particularly nasty little lesson in the crimes he writes about while travelling by train.

While most of the stories are set firmly in England, a couple are set further afield. One of my favourite stories was Malice Domestic by Philip Macdonald. It has a fabulous twist – and like the best stories of this type builds slowly. Carl Borden and his wife live in El Morro Beach. Carl is a writer, married to Annette for nine years, apparently happily, though a few of their closest friends have been dimly aware that perhaps all may not be quite so ideal as it looks. So, when Carl begins to suffer terrible stomach pains and extreme sickness after only eating at home, his friend doctor Wingate is very concerned and determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Another excellent story – this time set in India is Book of Honour by John Creasey. An Englishman working in India develops a long and deep friendship with an Indian man he first meets when he is absolutely destitute. Baburao works hard to become a successful bookseller – but a terrible resentment and enmity develops between this gentle man and his eldest son.

A Man and his Mother-in-law by Roy Vickers is a brilliant story -long enough to fully immerse the reader. When a man marries a sweet, docile ‘obedient’ little wife he comes to enjoy his easy predictable life. However, he really doesn’t much like the relationship between his wife and the woman who raised her after her parents died. It’s another of those stories where we know whodunnit straight away – the interest lies elsewhere and it’s a thoroughly compelling story.

“In a letter written on the eve of execution, Arthur Penfold seems to share the judge’s astonishment that a man of his calibre should turn to murder to extricate himself from a domestic difficulty. A student of criminology could have told Penfold – if not the learned judge himself – that murder eventuates, not from immediate circumstance, but from an antecedent state of mind.”

In A Question of Character, by Victor Canning, a man decides to murder his wife primarily because of his own vanity.

Geoffrey Gilroy is a mystery writer, and so is his wife Martha. The problem is that Martha’s success has now greatly outstripped his – relegating him to being merely Martha Gilroy’s husband. Geoffrey, who already has a mistress he would much rather be with anyway – has quite frankly had enough.

“…he just saw red, gulped down his martini and got out of the room as fast as he could. We walked all the way back to Sloane Street with his mind in a murderous fog. Martha Gilroy’s husband. The best selling novelist. He’d married Martha ten years before, when she had been a private secretary to an industrial consultant. Not a good secretary either.”

What Victor Canning does so well here is to let us get into the mind of this potential murderer – his thought processes and planning are laid before us. We know exactly what he plans to do, when he proposes to do it and see him begin to make the necessary preparations. Where the tension lies in this story – is in whether his plan will come of – and will he be caught. Canning’s character is a fairly methodical man – he has thought out every bit of his plan – he puts his plan into action chillingly, without a moments hesitation. I must say it is a very compelling story, superbly paced with gradually increasing tension, which I finished with my heart in my mouth.

As a reader of mainly women’s fiction, I would have liked to see more women writers represented in this collection. Still there are a few good stories by women too – a couple were new names to me including Murder in Advance by Marjorie Bremner. Dacre and his good friend Dr Allerton seek to solve the murder of a playwright Lewis Maynard. They come to the conclusion that the answer lies in the play he was planning on writing. I was also glad to see Ngaio Marsh in the collection, a writer who’s novels I have enjoyed immensely in the past. Chapter and Verse – comes at the end of the collection – and sees Alleyn’s wife Troy contacted by a man who knew her husband in New Zealand. The man describes himself as a bookman – and is doing some research into the names that appear in an old family bible he has in his possession. When he arrives to show Troy, she ends up getting drawn into an unexpected murder.

This is a brilliant collection of stories – some very inventive crimes and an absolute must for all you crime loving book obsessives out there. I predict that this one will do well at Christmas – if the c word is allowed in early September.

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With thanks to the British Library for the advance copy.

So, here I am on a Sunday afternoon writing my Monday morning blog post – a week since I even tried to write anything for the blog. I haven’t been well at all – I won’t bore you with the details, but I think I am on the mend, though not as well as I would like to be yet. I may even need to go back to the doctor again. So, last week I was really bad at getting through all the blogs I usually read – please bear with me – I am trying to catch up. I also need to catch up with my own reviewing – though there isn’t as much as there might be, as I have been reading very slowly during May so will have read fewer by the end of the month than usual. Ok, so on with the book.

Due To A Death is a book I read at the end of April – and it suddenly seems such a long time since I read it. A novel which again proves that the variety of mysteries put out by The British Library is actually quite wide – not all country house murders by a long shot. Mary Kelly, the author of Due To A Death, won the Gold Dagger award for her previous novel The Spoilt Kill also published by the British Library. Later she was nominated again for this one, a novel quite unlike many vintage mysteries reissued in the last few years. There is a lot more depth to this one, the mystery is really only a small part of the whole, the psychology of the characters, the daily tensions, secrets and the raw beauty of the landscape combine to raise this just a little bit above the ordinary mystery novel.

“Quarter past five. Thirty minutes since I’d run away. Fifteen miles of twisting lanes, five of Roman road. A last mile of eighty-five with the police closing up behind, impatient, menacing.”

The novel opens ambiguously, and immediately the reader is captivated. A young woman sits in the passenger seat of a car speeding along a road between the marshes. The young woman is Agnes, she has just made some kind of horrifying discovery – though we don’t know what. She is covered in cuts her stockings are ruined. She is being driven by an unnamed man who until recently was a stranger – we later discover he is Hedley Nicholson, the hero of that well received earlier novel. There are sounds of police car sirens close by, yet it isn’t Agnes and her companion who are being chased. They arrive in Gunfleet – the tiny village on the estuary where Agnes lives with her husband Tom, and where Nicholson has been staying for several weeks. Mary Kelly’s descriptions of Gunfleet, the estuary and the surrounding marshes are just perfect, it is a place swamped in claustrophobia, where everyone knows everyone else it has an air of early 1960s, post war decrepitude – and it certainly isn’t cosy at all. The moment they arrive back they find out that the body of a young girl has been found in the marsh – and panic is already starting to set in. Overwhelmed by all that has happened, and what she has arrived home to, Agnes takes herself off quietly to the church to contemplate all that has happened during the summer weeks that have brought her to this moment. The rest of the novel therefore is told in flashback, building up to where we started.

“I had to think, examine the summer, sift the past for fragments of memory, sharp, coloured, dimensional, like cubes of mosaic, which separately seemed insignificant; put together they took on meaning, formed a picture itself demanding to be explained, like a dream; or rather a nightmare so dreadful I couldn’t bear to explain it. That was weakness, evasion; it had to be faced.

They could be tied together after all, my own troubles and the girl on the marsh, one horror, worse than anything I’d ever known, the worse that could be. It was possible; I had to think whether it were true.

I had to go back to the beginning; though there is never a beginning, only a point when you wake up.”

The inhabitants of Gunfleet seem rather dysfunctional, Agnes’s husband Tom works for the university – his friends Tubby and Ian (who is in fact Tom’s step-brother) have some connection with the marsh and the work carried out in the area. Tubby is married to Carole they have a bunch of lively children and Ian, married to Helen has one son. Helen appears to have a particular dislike for Agnes – and is forever watching her with apparent disapproval. The three families are frequently together – evenings in the pub, picnics with the children – and yet Agnes is quite definitely the outsider – she carries her isolation into the midst of this group. Another outsider, Hedley Nicholson has his own reasons for coming to Gunfleet. He has latched himself onto this group, becoming already an almost accepted figure in the tiny community. He started to give Agnes driving lessons, as she bought a car that she cannot yet drive.

It seems Mary Kelly was pushing the boundaries of the mystery genre with this novel – and for me it is very successful. It is a very intelligent novel with rather a lot going on. The portrayal of a community is superbly done, a strong sense of place is always a big hit with me, but we have more than just a strong sense of place here – the sense of a community, flattened and forgotten and a million miles away from all that was happening in the British cities of the 1960s. That, and some astute character studies make this a novel that is much more than a mystery, in fact some crime fans might find this one a bit too light on the mystery side of things. For me though Due to A Death gave me lots of what I love, social history, a great sense of place, good characterisation, lots of secrets and plenty of suspense. I clearly need to read more by Mary Kelly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to the British library for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanny Mayes was not pleased.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Death on the Air – Ngaio Marsh)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons)

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

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

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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