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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

quick curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan_Melville_(writer)

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murderofalady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anthonywynne

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cof

I know I am not the only reader/blogger for who Golden Age crime (click the link for posts tagged Golden Age Crime)  serves as a blissful escape, comfort reads, the books we reach for at times of tiredness, stress or illness. So, what on earth is it about murder? I know other readers feel just the same about modern crime fiction, though for me it is only the vintage crime novels that appeal – I rarely read modern crime. Agatha Christie was y first experience of Golden Age – and although Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaoi Marsh might be better writers it is to Dame Agatha I return most often and who I collect. cof

I read these stories throughout the year of course, but really is there anything better than to turn the lights down, draw the curtain against the dark and settle down in your favourite chair as the wind and rain hammer against the windows? Watching the bodies pile up, as Scotland yard detectives are served tea and crumpets in front of a proper fire, is certainly a wonderful escape from the modern world and all its craziness.

More than that, everything works out just perfectly – murderers are apprehended (I shudder at the capital punishment doled out occasionally) adult children who have been oppressed by overbearing ageing parents, are reborn, and sometimes the handsome detective finds romance. The only thing about these vintage stories some of us struggle with are the attitudes and language used for non-English characters. I have learned to not let it worry me too much – it serves to remind us how we have moved on, and to understand the society of the period.

I think we all know very well what to expect from our Golden age fiction, and that is probably what brings us back to it time and again. It is a world we understand. In the world of Golden Age fiction, sinister butlers shuffle towards libraries bearing trays of drinks, long lost children appear out of nowhere, as do degenerate brothers, and wicked mothers. Trains hurtle across Europe, carrying with them countesses and Lady’s Maids. Country house gatherings are interrupted by unexpected death, poison books are consulted and weapons searched for. Local police are aided by Scotland yard, gentlemen detectives and amateur sleuths. Victims so often turn out to have been almost deserving of their fate, cruel, miserly or criminal themselves – they are dispensed with creatively but without the gratuity favoured by some modern crime writers. So, in a way, even the Golden age novels we have never read before are as familiar to us when we pick them up, as the comforting stories of our childhood. Agatha Christie, was in fact one of the first adult writers I began to read when I was about eleven. I feel therefore as if I have known Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple almost my whole life – as I am perfectly happy to re-read them. Other writers I have not read as much, I love Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Night – I have read it twice and will definitely read it again – and have adored other Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels – but there are many I haven’t read, and I have only ever read a handful of Margery Allingham. Ngaio Marsh is another favourite – I love the relationship between Chief Inspector Alleyn and Inspector Fox – one particular favourite Opening Night – set in a theatre. Surfeit of Lampreys is also excellent.

Golden Age crime seems to have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity in the last few years, and I am constantly discovering new writers. Of course, the superb British Library Crime Classics imprint have brought out a mountain of tempting titles by authors who in their day were hugely popular but who fell out of print. I am currently reading one of them – Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne – a Scottish locked room mystery set in a castle. There are just so many – I can never work out which ones I should get. I feel pretty confident that I shall never run out of comfort reads. Thanks to the BL I have discovered writers like John Bude, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. Jefferson Farjeon. I also discovered Ethel Lina White not too long ago – her books available on kindle – I found Fear Stalks the Village to be an excellent read. Winifred Peck – never really known as a crime writer – wrote a few mystery novels – and they are now re-issued by Dean Street Press. Arrest the Bishop was a good read, so I definitely want to read more.

So, if you know of any of any more obscure titles which I simply must read – let me know. I am aware that many readers are real crime aficionados, and so would welcome recommendations – though I do have some waiting to be read.

The pictured books are some of the Golden Age books in the house – some I have already read, some form part of my tbr piles.

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I always come back to Agatha Christie – it’s a world I understand, everything makes sense because it all gets tidied up so neatly. I saw this novel mentioned somewhere else recently, and I realised I couldn’t remember if I had ever read it. I own a nice first edition, with tatty dustjacket but once the fragile wrapper had been removed I was happy to read it carefully.

First published in 1963, it does feature an ageing Poirot, although he rightly gets to do the best bit (the reveal) – Poirot features much less than in earlier mysteries. Although to be fair – he is getting on a bit by 1963 – so that seems fair enough.

“To every problem, there is a most simple solution.”

It seems like a perfectly ordinary day at The Cavendish secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in Crowdean; Edna has broken the heel off her shoe, and Sheila Webb is a little late back from lunch. Upon her return Sheila is called into Miss Martindale’s office – a request has been telephoned in, for Sheila to go to Wilbraham Crescent, number 19 and if there is no one in to let herself in and wait. Slightly puzzled at the request – for she can’t remember having worked for this client before – Sheila follows the instructions exactly. Sheila finds herself in the sitting room of number 19 Wilbraham Crescent, she is not alone, behind the sofa is the body of a man. Moments later, Miss Pebmarsh arrives home, a blind, braille teacher – who later claims to have never called The Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Aside from the presence of a dead body, the other notable addition to the room are four clocks – set to thirteen minutes past four.

As any self-respecting secretary would, Sheila rushes screaming from the house – straight into the arms of one Colin Lamb, a marine biologist come intelligence officer. We later learn that Colin is an old friend of Poirot’s (there is a suggestion that his father was one of the police Inspectors to benefit from the Belgian’s brilliance.) Colin was following a lead in one of his own cases, looking for a spy in hiding – when he happens upon an altogether different puzzle.

The police are soon on the scene, Detective Inspector Hardcastle in charge of what looks like a fiendishly difficult case. Hardcastle is a friend of Colin’s too – and quite happy to have him tag along as he interviews the neighbours – and attempts to identify the dead man. There are naturally, many questions. Did anyone see or hear anything? How did the body get into the house? What do the clocks mean? Why was Sheila asked for by name?

Colin quickly starts to feel very protective towards Sheila – who he feels Hardcastle is looking at suspiciously. The two are drawn to one another – and Hardcastle isn’t sure that he approves.

“I looked at her. Sheila was my girl–the girl I wanted–and wanted for keeps. But it wasn’t any use having illusions about her. Sheila was a liar and probably always would be a liar. It was her way of fighting for survival–the quick easy glib denial. It was a child’s weapon–and she’d probably never got out of using it. If I wanted Sheila, I must accept her as she was–be at hand to prop up the weak places. We’ve all got our weak places. Mine were different from Sheila’s, but they were there.”

Colin decides to pay a visit to his old friend Hercule Poirot. He remembers how Poirot once claimed that he could solve a crime, merely by sitting in his chair and giving the matter serious thought. Colin gives the details of the case to the old detective, hoping at the very least to relieve some of boredom he knows Poirot often feels. Poirot is happy to give the case his consideration, although he hasn’t been entirely idle – he has been making a detailed study of famous works of crime fiction. Having Poirot’s take on The Levenworth Case, The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Sherlock Holmes is great fun for those who like their vintage crime.

Another bookish joy I wanted to share with you is this description of a tiny cluttered bookshop.

“Inside, it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down. The distance between bookshelves was so narrow that you could only get along with great difficulty. There were piles of books perched on every shelf or table. On a stool in a corner, hemmed in by books, was an old man in a pork pie hat with a large flat face like a stuffed fish. He had the air of one who has given up an unequal struggle.”

Back in Crowdean and the inquest of the dead man is opened and adjourned, within hours of the inquest however, there is another violent death – leading to more questions. Inevitably, Hardcastle’s case and Colin’s hunt for a spy look like they may be connected, and eventually someone comes forward to identify the dead man.

I really don’t want to say any more about this story – which I think is really well plotted mystery, firmly rooted in the 1960s. The solution is clever, and one can sense Poirot’s old eyes twinkling as he reveals all – a minor point: the ending is perhaps a tiny bit rushed – overall though, of course I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Agathachristie2

 

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12.30 from croydon

I wonder how many British Library Crime Classics there are? There appears to be millions and I am constantly worried I will miss some especially brilliant ones – as I have so many unread books already. So, I may have only read a handful of these books so far (several more tbr of course) – but this one is probably my favourite to date. I had read one Freeman Wills Crofts mystery before – The Hogs Back Mystery – which is really good, but in my opinion The 12.30 from Croydon  is far superior.

Now don’t judge me – but I am a bit of a closet Columbo fan. I don’t watch them so often these days – mainly because I have seen them all more than once, but I still love that rumpled little detective. The thing with Columbo is that the viewer always knows who the murderer is – they are often a little too sure they have committed the perfect crime. Along comes Peter Falk in his creased raincoat and pieces it all together bit by bit – he is always courteous and happily lets the criminal think him a fool. With Columbo the reader is always sure the murderer will get his/her just desserts – with this novel, however the reader can’t be quite so certain. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you either. From about the second chapter – we know who the murderer is – but there are plenty of things we don’t know. The main thing being whether they get away with it or not.

It’s never all that easy to review mystery novels – but this one is particularly difficult. Freeman Wills Crofts however is a consummate storyteller – and this novel is so compelling it is impossible not to fly through it.

“How strange it was, Charles ruminated that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!”

As the novel opens, a retired, wealthy manufacturer Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley and Peter’s young daughter Rose are on their way to catch the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Peter’s wife Elsie has been involved in an accident in Paris – and although not too badly hurt her family are naturally anxious to be at her side. Young Rose’s worry about her mother is over-ridden by her excitement at flying for the first time. It is also her grandfather’s first time flying – having been given permission to fly by his doctor – Andrew Crowther is travelling with his manservant Weatherup. The family enjoy a simple in-flight meal – and then prepare to land. When the plane comes to a standstill Andrew Crowther is found to be dead in his seat.

So far, so conventional, an opening reminiscent of other Golden Age mysteries – gets the story off to an excellent start. Then, in a flashback starting a few weeks before the death of Andrew Crowther, the viewpoint switches to that of his eventual murderer. Crofts allows us into the mind of a murderer, from the conception of the idea through the battle with conscience, the ingenious preparation for the murder of Andrew Crowther, the covering of the tracks and of course the eventual crime itself. Money is of course at the root of everything – isn’t it always. The financial crisis has hit some people hard, and Andrew Crowther was scathing about business failures – declaring them, the result of laziness. Charles Swinburn is now the owner of the manufacturing business his uncle built up, now Andrew Crowther is reluctant to help, sneering at his nephew for taking his eye off the ball – completely misunderstanding the reality of the financial crisis. Charles is about to go bankrupt – although he has managed to disguise from most people just how bad the situation is – and to top it all he has fallen hopelessly in love with a society beauty who will not be interested in a poor man.

“Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who were doing great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Then comes the terrible fear of detection – so sure that they’ve thought of everything, that nothing can betray them – and yet what if… Murder isn’t easy to live with. There is an inquest to sit through, a will to be read, equanimity to be preserved. There are several unexpected shocks along the way – and naturally, policemen asking questions. Another murder proves necessary, the grizzly business carried out and dealt with – and suspicion seems to be falling on someone else entirely – could the wrong man be about to pay for Andrew Crowther’s murder?

Unlike most Golden Age mysteries, the policemen are not at the centre of the story – in fact they operate rather more off stage. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is eventually brought in, when dissatisfaction with the inquest is expressed – and he quietly, and unobtrusively goes about his business.

It is the psychology of the criminal which is so well done here I thought – the self-delusion as well as self-justification, paranoia and simple connivance which drives the narrative and makes it so readable.

freemanwillscrofts

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arrest the bishop

I have been fortunate enough to receive a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press for review. A couple of those I still have unread, but Arrest the Bishop? is the first I have gone off and bought for myself having read a persuasive review of it.

I first became familiar with Winifred Peck through Persephone books and her 1942 novel House-Bound – which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I can’t say I had thought any more about this writer – who wrote twenty-six books, more than twenty of them novels. I wonder now, where all those other titles went to – and why they dropped out of print? Her other mystery novel The Warrielaw Jewel is also re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I am keen to read it too, and I also have another of her novels Bewildering Cares on my kindle to look forward to.

In his introduction to this new Furrowed Middlebrow edition, crime fiction expert Martin Edwards acknowledges how her two mystery novels show real accomplishment, but she was overshadowed by her talented family – namely her brother Ronald Knox a leading light of the ‘Golden Age of Murder.’ Peck’s two mystery novels were published a decade apart and don’t share a detective or form part of a series, and so has been discounted as a mystery writer since. A writer who began publishing before the First World War, Winifred Peck came from a fascinating family; who included  writers, a bishop, and the editor of Punch among them. Winifred (later Lady) Peck was also the aunt of author Penelope Fitzgerald.

Arrest the Bishop? – first published in 1949 is set in 1920 – the unlikely scene of a murder a bishop’s palace. Winifred Peck; the daughter of a bishop – no doubt had great fun playing around with this idea. Set around Christmas it is another book to add to the list of Christmas books we all like to compile in December – however the season is very much a backdrop – and there is nothing remotely Christmassy about this particular story.

Dr Broome; Bishop of Evelake and his family are preparing for an important house party just before Christmas, an ordination weekend for a small group of young men starting out on their clerical careers. The Bishop and his wife and their youngest daughter Sue are expecting a large party. Chancellor Chailly, Canon Wye, and the young clerics themselves of course as well as two other young parsons already known to the family; Robert Boarder (known as Bobs) – who works as the Bishop’s secretary – as he recovers from injuries obtained in the Great War, and Dick Marlin, who was in military intelligence during the war.

Snow is falling heavily (of course it is, it only ever snows at Christmas in books) the palace is enormous and there is a shortage of coal. Servants have also been difficult to get, Moira who has worked faithfully for the family for many years is laid up in bed, waiting transfer to the hospital for an urgent cancer operation. Mrs Broome has therefore been recently obliged to employ Soames as butler, who listens at doors, and is generally sly and inefficient.

As the house party start to gather in time for the ordination celebrations there are two more unexpected guests. Judith is the first – the Bishops elder daughter – she is a frivolous beauty – who blithely lives a life at odds with that of a bishop’s palace. She has separated from her husband, and desperate for a divorce is already involved with another man. Judith has recently telephoned her mother hinting at great trouble – trouble she thinks nothing of bringing to her father’s door when he least needs it. The Bishop is a former school headmaster, where he was seen as rather weak, lacking discipline and authority, and as Bishop he rather fears a scandal. Soon after Judith’s arrival – another far less welcome gate crasher arrives. The Rev Ulder, a local parish priest, a man universally loathed. There have been previous stories of drunkenness and embezzlement, but now the rotten priest is adding blackmail to his portfolio of wrong doings. Ulder has a knowledge of certain things various members of the house party would rather keep quiet, and he is determined to use this knowledge to his advantage. Ulder arrives the worse for drink, and having issued his threats collapses in front of the Bishop and his guests.

“He caught the back of a chair, staggered and groaned. There was a heavy crash and fall, and the parson lay motionless and livid, while lilies from a vase fell, like a wreath, across his chest.”

Put to bed in the Bishop’s palace, a doctor is called, who leaves six morphia tablets with Mrs Broome with strict instructions of administration. He further stipulates that Ulder should be given no strong drink, and left as quietly as possible, until an ambulance can come and collect him and Moira (the faithful servant) and take them to hospital. Despite these instructions several people tiptoe into Ulder’s room, to check on him. The following morning – Ulder is dead – of morphia poisoning, one of his bags is missing – and there is a whole host of suspects – many of them clergy, one of them a bishop.

“‘To give light to them which sit in darkness’ were the words which echoed oddly in Dick’s mind as he entered the shadowy study. It was an absurd and topsy-turvy idea for a humble candidate for the priesthood to entertain of his fathers in God, but under the low hand lamp by the dismal fire the Bishop, more like a death mask of St. Joseph than ever, the saturnine stillness of Canon Wye and the obvious perturbation in Chancellor Chailly’s rubicund face, suggested a huddled party of alarmed pilgrims in the Valley of the Shadow of disgrace. If only Dick were a Greatheart instead of his very everyday self!
“We have sent for you, Dick because we feel the need of advice, and you have been in our dealings with Ulder from the first.”

Chief Constable Mack decides to investigate this particular crime himself – a man deeply suspicious of the clergy he is determined there will not be any kind of church cover up here. Rev. Dick Marlin, church deacon, finds himself assisting Mack in the investigation.

This is a really good mystery, lots of suspects, twists and turns and I loved the setting of a bishop’s palace in the 1920s.

winfred peck

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I recently talked about how I enjoy getting to grips with some Christmas reads at this time of year, and An English Murder was the first of my planned reads. A commenter on that previous post reminded me about this book, which had been on my mental wish list for ages. I think I had meant to buy a copy last year but either couldn’t find a copy or didn’t get around to buying it. So, this year I snapped up this Faber Finds edition. It was exactly what I was in the mood for last weekend, getting my Christmas themed reading off to a flying start – I raced through it.

Cyril Hare was the Pseudonym for English judge and crime writer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. The only other Cyril Hare novel I have read is Tragedy at Law, which I can’t remember a thing about – but which has apparently never been out of print. Of that novel P D James wrote that it ‘is generally acknowledged to be the best detective story set in that fascinating world’.

Warbeck Hall in the fictional county of Markshire is the setting for this well plotted Christmas mystery. The snow is falling thickly as the guests begin to gather at Warbeck Hall, soon the house will be cut off completely from the outside world.

“At ten minutes to eight Briggs carried a tray bearing a decanter of sherry and glasses into the drawing-room. At eight o’clock precisely he sounded the great Chinese gong in the hall. It was an entirely unnecessary piece of ritual, for he had already seen for himself that all five guests were present; but as a piece of ritual he enjoyed it. The deep brazen notes pulsated through the great half-empty house, penetrating into the dilapidated spare rooms where no guest had been since the First World War, rousing echoes in servants’ quarters where no servant was ever likely to be seen again.”

Lord Warbeck is the ailing proprietor, spending most of his time in his bedroom now, where he is attended to by his faithful butler; Briggs. Lord Warbeck has chosen a small group of special people for what he firmly believes will be his last Christmas. There is his son Robert; leader of a small fascist organisation called The League of Liberty and Justice, Sir Julius; Lord Warbeck’s cousin – who as an M.P and chancellor of the exchequer for the new socialist government is of an entirely different political persuasion. Mrs Carstairs, a family friend and the wife of another rising politician, whose husband is away over Christmas. Lady Camilla, the niece of the late Lady Warbeck’s first husband. Lastly, Dr Bottwink, an academic from Heidelberg conducting some exhaustive research in the Warbeck archives, who has also been invited to stay.

The house is run with far fewer staff in this post-war world, where houses like Warbeck Hall can no longer exist as they once did. Joining Briggs who must now run things single handed is his daughter Susan, who has her own reason for spending Christmas at Warbeck Hall. Sir Julius’s close protection officer – Rogers is also installed below stairs. So, the scene is set as the guests settle in to afternoon tea on Christmas Eve and the snow piles up outside.

At midnight on Christmas Eve a sudden death occurs, a death by poisoning, a murder, which must have been committed by one of the people in the house – which is now completely cut off, even the phone lines have been brought down by the extreme conditions. It falls therefore, to Rogers; Sir Julius’s close protection officer to begin investigations, until he is able to hand the case over to his better qualified colleagues.

For those who – like me – find themselves wincing at the racial slurs and dreadfully outdated language that seem to creep into many of the Golden Age mysteries that we still enjoy reading – this novel will make a refreshing change. The fascist character is not portrayed well – he is viewed by the others gathered as someone who has lost his way, his organisation as a joke. The ‘foreigner’ in their midst serves to remind the reader of the terrible toll fascism has already taken, he is accepted by everyone (except Robert) on his own merits, a man of intelligence and great sense. Bottwink (a Hercule Poirot type – minus patent leather shoes) ably assists and advises the reluctant detective in his duties. The British class system and the changing times in post-war Britain are also highlighted.

“Absolute stillness surrounded the rambling old house. Not a breath of wind rose to stir the dense fog which had settled over the snowbound countryside. Not a sound penetrated through the freezing air. Peering from the high window of Lord Warbeck’s bedroom, Camilla Prendergast looked out into a world featureless, colourless and, to all appearances boundless. It was difficult to believe that beyond that blank expanse the business of living still went on; that in crowded sea-lanes about the coast, ships crept cautiously through the murk, or swung at anchor calling dismally to one another with their raucous sirens; that all over England, defying frost and snow men and women were gathered together to keep Christmas in a spirit of love and happiness.”

Christmas itself takes rather a back seat in this mystery, it is simply the means to bring everyone together, and give us a whacking great snow storm. I really didn’t mind that. I don’t want to say any more about the mystery, expect to say it is a fabulous Golden Age style mystery which is hard to put down.

There is something about murder at Christmas that old fashioned mystery lovers like, and this is brilliantly plotted, intelligent whodunit. A snowbound country house at Christmas is the perfect setting for it.

cyril-hare

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