Posts Tagged ‘Golden Age Crime’

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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A friend popped in to see me a couple of weeks ago, returned a book I had loaned her and then produced this one – which she thought I would like. It just happened I finished a book a couple of hours before she had arrived and hadn’t decided what to read next. Miss Pym Disposes looked exactly what I was in the mood for – and I have meant to give Josephine Tey a try for years – so it did seem like the perfect moment and in fact it was.

As I mentioned in a recent post: The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye – I like rather a lot from my mysteries. While I appreciate a fiendishly clever plot and a totally unexpected denouement, I really like to become fully invested in the characters – as I would in any other kind of novel. I like a good sense of place, some description to sit alongside the mystery. I do not like lots of gory details, and I don’t expect a body in the first chapter necessarily – I like an author to trust in their reader’s sense of anticipation. Miss Pym Disposes ticked almost all my mystery novel boxes – the thing I really appreciated is that in this novel Josephine Tey takes her time. For two thirds of the novel, Tey gives us a novel about a woman visiting a girls physical training college – she introduces us to members of the staff and student body with acuity – involving us the reader in the life of this community. Of course, we know or at least sense that something will occur – and so there is a delicious sense of anticipation – and when ‘the moment’ comes we care about it so much more.

I very much liked Jospehine Tey’s style in this novel – I have heard some people say the quality of her novels varies – but I enjoyed her observations and little asides such as this.

“There was no doubt that being a little on the plump side kept the lines away; if you had to have a face like a scone it was at least comforting that it was a smooth scone.”

Lucy Pym is a woman in her thirties – she took to read psychology books and having read a lot of them wrote a fierce rebuttal which turned into a book and became a huge bestseller. She uses her understanding of psychology to understand the people she meets – though whether it’s real psychology or just plain good sense I don’t know. She is invited by an old friend from school days – who is now the headmistress of a physical training college for young women – to give a lecture.

Initially it is to be a brief visit – and as the novel opens Miss Pym is being rudely awoken by the 5.30 am bell that rouses the students from their beds in the summer months. It is the beginning of the last week or so of the academic year – and the young women of the senior year are preparing for their final exams. Having been put up in the student wing of the school rather than the staff wing, Miss Pym is soon drawn into the noisy, chaos that is life among these young women. They chatter and rush about at all hours – full of the impending exams and physical demonstrations, and who will or will not be appointed to posts in other institutions as they go forward into the world.

“It was Lucy’s private opinion that injustice was harder to bear than almost any other inflicted ill. She could remember yet the surprised hurt, the helpless rage, the despair that used to consume her when she was young and the victim of an injustice. It was the helpless rage that was worst; it consumed one like a slow fire. There was no outlet, because there was nothing one could do about it. A very destructive emotion indeed.”

Lucy is a big hit with these young women, and they urge her to stay – so that she can attend their tea party on the lawn and the end of year demonstration at the end of the following week. Her accommodation has no bedside reading light, she is woken by bells far too early and the healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is certainly not to her liking, but Lucy Pym likes very much the young women she has been thrown together with.

“In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kowtowed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said good-bye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms.”

Despite her initial wish to get straight back to London, Lucy is charmed by these vibrant young women as well as interested in them and with nothing pressing her immediate return home she does decide to stay. Lucy is aware of the rising tensions within this group of students, petty rivalries and jealousies that exist within any such group. Over the coming days Lucy gets to know the seniors really quite well – she is roped in as an exam invigilator and begins to make some observations about one of the students in particular.

Eventually, just as the reader knew it would – something happens – apparently an accident – and a young woman is taken to hospital where she later dies. Miss Pym is not convinced at all that this was really an accident. In the time she has spent at the college Lucy has made some discoveries that she thinks are relevant to what happened – what though should she do with this evidence?

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

I have been lucky enough to be sent a few of Dean Street Press’s Golden Age mysteries and there they sit on my kindle where I’m afraid I forget all about them. I have been sent three or four Brian Flynn novels – a name that was completely new to me. So, the other week, when I was in that strange reading mood, where I didn’t really know what I wanted to read I decided to give one a go. The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries – I’m never sure how crucial it is to read these mystery series in order – but I don’t think my experience was affected by not having read numbers one and two.

Brian Flynn was an impressively prolific writer – turning out about fifty novels – most of which were in the Anthony Bathurst series. I enjoyed this mystery – though not as much as many later Golden Age mysteries – the writing style put me off a little – it is really quite mannered – with not much in the way of description or depth of character. I like a lot from my mysteries – perhaps my mood affected my reading experience – so I am sure I will give Flynn another go. There were though several things I did like about this novel – the main one being the cleverness of the denouement which was a fabulous surprise and I really hadn’t seen coming at all – that is always satisfying. Flynn is also good with dialogue – there are some interesting exchanges between characters – and the story moves along at a good pace.

The novel opens at the hunt ball in Westhampton. Sheila Delaney dances with a mystery man who insists on being known only as Mr X. By the end of the evening he has disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

“‘Anonymity is such a terribly strong position in which to entrench one’s self. To you I am Sheila Delaney – to me you are – an unknown quantity.’

He smiled appreciatively. ‘Yet one usually concludes by finding the value of X – shall we say.’

‘If one is successful,’ she replied, ‘you have to be successful, you know, to discover the true value.’”

Major Carruthers accompanied Sheila to the ball – he’s an old family friend. After the ball they drive home together – this was the last time Sheila was to see Major Carruthers – a month later he is killed in a car accident.

A few months later Anthony Bathurst is consulted by the Crown Prince of Clorania, he is being blackmailed over a secret romance that has now ended. The Crown Prince asks Bathurst to look into the matter – as confidentially as possible.

At the same time Chief Inspector Bannister is having an overdue holiday on the coast at Seabourne. He is nearing retirement and enjoys a fine reputation as one of the big six investigators at Scotland Yard. So, when the local constabulary find themselves with a peculiar case on their hands they waste no time in calling on the experience of Chief Inspector Bannister – although irritated to have his holiday disturbed Bannister agrees to help. A woman has been found dead in a dentist’s chair – murdered in the few minutes he was out of the room – apparently injected with cyanide. While the young woman was being murdered the dentist was locked in another room, his banging on the door alerting his housekeeper to his plight. It is the start of a perplexing case – one full of misdirection, twists and turns. I liked the fact that Flynn clearly understands how desperation works in some people – how they can be pushed to their limits.

“‘…You people who never want for a few pounds don’t realize what it is to be in debt year after year and to see little chance of ever getting out. To be forced to borrow for anything special because you have no margin. Self-denial and going without most of the things that make life worth living may mean the saving of a few shillings, month by month, but no more than that.”

Anthony Bathurst finds himself in Seabourne – his case and Bannister’s beginning to look as if they have some connection. Bathurst assists Bannister in his investigations – a case which sees them travel from Seabourne to Westhampton – and discover the existence of a fabulous jewel called the Peacock’s Eye.

After a complex and involving mystery which is really very clever – the ending is a wonderfully satisfying surprise. I shall say no more. Flynn is clearly a consummate storyteller and weaver of intriguing mysteries. There is a lot for the vintage armchair detective to enjoy with this one – but I wasn’t completely sold on it. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read this one, and earlier this week I found myself reading Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey – my first by her – I shall talk about the book properly in a future post, however that was much more to my taste. There was so much more to it than just the mystery – and that’s the kind of thing I really like I think.

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The British Library Crime classics are always good escapism, perfect weekend reads or for when times are difficult or especially tiring. The Murder of My Aunt was particularly enjoyable for me because of its rather mischievous, comic tone. Richard Hull was clearly an author who enjoyed playing with the whodunnit genre a little. I read Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull a couple of years ago and found his different approach to storytelling quite refreshing and certainly compelling.

“What are games for, except to release one’s complexes by a little flavouring of spite?”

Like Excellent Intentions, this Golden Age mystery is told rather differently. Here we have less of a whodunnit and more of a will he do it and how. The tone throughout the novel is wickedly playful and rather arch, the narrator while fairly unlikeable is written in such a way as to make the reader want to know what comes next. Then, right at the end Hull hits us with a quite brilliant little denouement – which I had sort of started to see coming but is so well done I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  

The story is narrated by Edward, a rather idle, effete young man who has lived most of his life with his spinster aunt. He relies on her for all his money – money which wouldn’t be available to him if he were to move away. The problem is that Edward hates his aunt and he hates the Welsh village of Llwll where they live – he hates the countryside. His aunt, knowing full well her nephew’s weaknesses and love of ease, enjoys nothing more than to make him do things he dislikes – for example walking the mile to the village when he would rather drive. She goes to long and rather exhaustive lengths to achieve this – and the two are continually locked in a battle of wills. Aunt Mildred is a woman of fairly sharp intelligence, and Edward has to work hard to keep up with her. All of this takes rather more effort than Edward is used to taking with anything. He much prefers to sit inside, undisturbed with his little lap dog and a French novel. Those novels just one of the things that convinces Aunt Mildred of Edward’s dissolute temperament.

Following the incident of Edward’s efforts to avoid walking to the village and his aunts rather clever attempts to make him, Edward becomes obsessed with the idea of getting rid of his aunt. He is her only living relative – her money would enable him to go away – live a different kind of life – enjoy a bit more freedom. However, aware he will be an obvious suspect Edward starts to think about possible accidents.

“For some time past now that particular spot on the road just outside Brynmawr has fascinated me. The front gate of the house is some thirty or forty yards from the front door, before which is an open space of asphalt, useful but hardly ornamental. I think my aunt is aware of its lack of beauty for, on the left-hand side of this space as you come out, is a border containing bulbs in spring, various flowers in the summer, and dahlias in the autumn on which my aunt lavishes even more than her usual considerable care, for she is devoted to her garden and even occasionally forces me into assistance in this pursuit, so tiring for the body and the intellect. Still I must admit the success of her efforts as to flowers and vegetables. Fruit eludes her as a rule, since the sun so seldom shines in this desolate spot.”

He begins to toy with some ideas – only Edward finds his knowledge of certain things to be seriously lacking – and he finds he is obliged to undertake a little research. He has to ask questions, consult encyclopaedias and go on shopping trips away from the village. He tries not to leave any evidence behind him – but Aunt Mildred is no fool. Edward has to step up his efforts, in order to get around his aunt’s natural suspicions.

“I am now quite sure I am right. My aunt is an extremely deceitful woman. She must, I suppose, for years past have been in the habit of concealing her feelings towards me. At any rate, it is quite certain that she suspects very much more than she says of what has been happening.”

Cleverly, Hull makes Aunt Mildred every bit as unlikable as Edward. She is petty and unkind, clearly frustrated by years of lazy ingratitude from her nephew she now enjoys making him uncomfortable and thwarting him at every turn. I can imagine many readers will want to see an end to Aunt Mildred too. Will Edward achieve his objective? And will he get away with it? These are the questions that keep the reader flying through this entertaining Golden Age mystery.

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Patricia Wentworth was a hugely prolific writer of Golden age mysteries – for some reason I had never read her before. Probably best known for her Miss Silver mysteries she also wrote many standalone novels and Silence in Court is one of them. Dean Street Press have re-issued a number of her standalone novels, and I picked up several for my kindle when they were being offered up very cheaply or even free. I actually read this right at the end of April but haven’t had chance to review it till now – it was a really good quick read, perfect for a lazy weekend.

Set in London, during the Second World War; the novel opens as Carey Silence steps into the dock. She stands accuses of the murder of Honoria Maquisten, whose home Carey had been welcomed into just two weeks before the murder. Carey is numb with the shock of her situation, feeling unlike herself she stands shakily to hear the indictment.

“She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life. There was a moment when the grip she had on herself wavered giddily ….”

The narrative then takes us back to the time when Carey Silence first met Honoria Maquisten. Having been working as a secretary to an MP, Carey was hospitalised when a bomb exploded near to the train they were travelling on. Still recovering from her ordeal, Carey was contacted by Honoria Maquisten when she saw her name in the paper – Honoria had been the cousin and greatest friend of Carey’s grandmother. Another distant cousin, American Jeff Stewart, who has been fluttering rather dotingly around Carey accompanies her to the door of the Maquisten house – insisting that she promise to see him soon.

Carey is given a fond welcome by Honoria – who sees something of her dear cousin Julia in Carey, and quickly Carey becomes the new favourite. Carey’s arrival has a somewhat mixed reaction from the other members of the household – because she is by no means the only one who has been taken up by Honoria. Three other relatives live in the house, three cousins, Honoria’s niece Nora – whose husband is away in the East, nephew Dennis invalided out of the war, and another niece Honor who volunteers packing parcels for POWs. Robert, another nephew visits regularly but doesn’t live in the house. A maid who has served Honoria faithfully for many years and a professional nurse who cares for Honoria in her fragile health complete the household.

Here Wentworth provides us with some really well-drawn characters, Carey herself is immediately engaging and Honoria a wonderfully vivid creation, with a safe full of fabulous jewels and a constant preoccupation with her will. The reader can never be certain who it is that we need to be suspicious of – and the dynamic of this household and its inhabitants is well portrayed. Told in relatively short chapters, that make the narrative feel perfectly paced – I found myself flying through the book.

Honoria likes to keep a firm hand on her affairs and is well known for altering her will at a moments notice, telling everyone about it and generally making a bit of a drama about the document. Not long after her arrival, Honoria announces that Carey will be added into the will – though she doesn’t reveal to what extent.

Carey has settled into the house well, she has begun to get on well with some members of the household, when a hand delivered letter arrives one day and upsets everything. Carey, Nora, Dennis and Honor are all out when the letter arrives. The contents of the letter put Honoria into a terrible rage – and she demands that whichever of her relatives return first they be sent straight to her. This falls to Carey. Carey can do nothing to soothe the old lady, and is directed to phone Honoria’s solicitor, who it happens is away for a day or two. Honoria demands that his clerk should come to the house instead the following day. Insisting that she has been deceived she tells everyone that one of the beneficiaries will be cut out of her will completely – though she never reveals who that is.

That night, a sleeping draught is prepared for the old lady who is still upset – it is prepared by the nurse as usual and left on the shelf in the bathroom. As it happens Carey is asked to fetch it. When Honoria is found dead the following morning, the house is in uproar. The police are called in and an awful lot of emphasis put on who was where when, and who could or could not have tampered with the medicine glass. Carey is almost immediately put under suspicion, and the evidence of one member of the household sees her placed under arrest.

“She had come to an inner strength that held her up. When things were so bad that they couldn’t be any worse, something came to you—some courage, some control.”

The second half of the book is more in the realms of a courtroom drama, and here Patricia Wentworth pitches the tension just right. Jeff Stewart has arrived back after some time away, and convinced that Carey is innocent, is desperate that her consul prove it. Jeff ensures that Carey is represented by the best – he lets Carey know how he feels about her, that he believes in her. Imprisoned and alone; Carey is still reeling from having been welcomed into a family and then accused of murder all within such a short period of time.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the court room scenes – the tension as the reader awaits a crucial piece of evidence to come along and settle to matter, certainly makes it hard to put down at this point. We hear the evidence from the point of view of several of the characters, and eventually everything falls into place.

My first foray into the world of Patricia Wentworth was certainly an enjoyable one. I have several more of these re-issued standalone novels on my kindle – I am sure I will read another before too long.

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I don’t know about everyone else, but I am finding just getting down to writing book reviews harder than usual. Suddenly, those things I do all the time seem to require a superhuman effort. I had originally planned to write this review on Thursday and post it Friday, or at least write it on Friday and post it later on Friday, clearly that didn’t happen. 

Postscript to Poison was a fairly quick diverting read on my kindle – a golden age mystery by a new to me woman writer. I can’t remember where I first heard about Dorothy Bowers, but I suspect it was either on another blog or on a booky FB group. It would seem that she didn’t publish many novels having died relatively early following a battle with TB. She left behind five mystery novels, of which Postscript to Poison was the first. It is always nice to discover a new author and I have a two more of Dorothy Bowers’ books on my kindle for another day.

Cornelia Lackland is nasty old tartar – she controls her household and everyone in it with something of an iron fist. Now getting on in years, she was once the toast of fashionable London, before becoming the second wife of the immensely wealthy John Lackland. Her husband dead, she has dominion over everything, including her two step-granddaughters who live with her in the small town of Minsterbridge. The granddaughters: Carol and Jenny are cousins not sisters, and they have been enjoying just a little more breathing space while their grandmother has been in bed recovering from an illness. Dr Tom Faithful has been in regular attendance and has become quite friendly with Jenny and Carol who he looks upon with some pity. The house is staffed with a butler a couple of maids and a cook, though one maid has recently been given notice for listening at doors and after twenty-six years of service the butler has also been given notice. The final resident of the house is Emily Bullen, Cornelia’s companion, who is a cowed, put upon figure who professes great devotion to her employer.

On his most recent visit to Mrs Lackland, Dr Faithful finds her much recovered and doing so well he tells her she can get up the following day, for a much anticipated meeting with her solicitor. The doctor leaves the house with plans for a much needed holiday uppermost in his mind. However, a poison pen letter – clearly accusing him of making the old lady ill deliberately awaits him at home and he decides to notify the police.

That night Mrs Lackland takes a turn for the worse – Dr Faithful is called in during the middle of the night, but the old lady dies suddenly – and it seems inexplicably.

“The hardly audible shallow breathings that had succeeded the dreadful sounds of the last couple of hours had ceased now. Dr. Faithful stood up straight and looking down at the bedewed face of the dead woman wiped his own brow with a large handkerchief which he alternately dangled and gripped in his hand. Between the warmth of the room and the strain of this night’s business he had to bring it into frequent use.”

With the old lady’s intention of changing her will known to everyone in the house – and Dr Faithful’s refusal to issue a death certificate in the circumstances, suspicion inevitably falls on Jenny and Carol. Neither of the young women have been able to live their own life, and Jenny’s burgeoning relationship with a handsome Polish actor – of whom her grandmother greatly disapproved – was threatened too.

Inspector Littlejohn of the local police gets the investigation underway; an inquest is called for – and he is, it seems, quite happy for the big guns to be called in. Chief Inspector Pardoe of Scotland Yard and his sergeant Salt are brought in and the questioning of everyone involved begins in earnest. The Chief Inspector isn’t convinced everyone is being entirely honest with him, with at least one of the maids keeping something to herself.

“‘I haven’t disturbed her,” said Salt. “Vale found her. She’s been strangled, I reckon.” He and Vale stood a little apart while Pardoe knelt carefully beside the dead girl and taking her by the shoulders turned her gently on her back. The front of her dress was quite dry. The cause of death was patent. Great livid marks showed dully on the sides of her throat, bruises that stood for the pressure of human fingers.”

As the investigation hots up, there is another death – a young woman found in woods on the edge of a neighbouring village, and Pardoe and Salt start to close in on the culprit.

This was a good engaging mystery, particularly as it was Bowers first it really bodes well for the rest. Some nice twists and turns in the plot keep the reader wondering, although whodunnit is probably not impossible to guess – Bowers doesn’t make it too obvious. So I’m glad I discovered this golden age writer, and I shall be reading more by Dorothy Bowers soon.

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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