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murder underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

underground steps

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santa klaus murder

With thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

These British Library crime classics are ever so slightly addictive, The Santa Klaus Murder; a cosy 1930’s mystery is of course  perfect for the season, I do love a Christmas book or two at this time of year.

Although I really enjoyed the escapist aspect to this novel, I don’t really think it’s a particularly good example of the type. Certainly it is engaging and very readable, but there is a lot to the mystery that I found predictable, although I was happy enough to keep going to find out if I had guessed correctly.

The first few chapters are told by members of the household, accounts they are (later in the novel) asked to write about the events leading up to the crime. These first few chapters are a little slow, and for me the novel only really got going when Col. Halstock, the chief constable takes over the narration.

“Certainly the most difficult and painful situation I have ever found myself involved in! My old friend, Sir Osmond Melbury, found shot in his study on Christmas Day.”

The action takes place at Flaxmere a country house where the extended family of Sir Osmond Melbury his secretary, servants and a couple of other guests gather for Christmas. Sir Osmond controls his family with steely determination. Already he has had a say in who his elder daughters married– and intends to control the prospects of his youngest daughter Jennifer. Jennifer’s suitors are both invited for the season – Sir Osmond hoping to cruelly play one off against the other – so that his choice will be victorious.

Hilda Wynford, Sir Osbert’s eldest, widowed daughter and her daughter Carol are picked up at the station by old Ashmore a former chauffer of the family, and an old favourite with many members of the family. It seems poor Ashmore has not been particularly well treated by his old employer – although the old man’s fond loyalty is ever constant. This is the first indication the reader gets of Sir Osmond’s character, so of course – the justice that is meted out to such people in old fashioned mysteries being what it is – we know immediately who the victim will be. It is quickly very clear that practically every one at Flaxmere would benefit in one way or another by sir Osmond not being around any longer.

As Sir Osmond’s daughters, their husbands’, children, Aunt Mildred and Jennifer’s potential suitors; Philip Cheriton and Oliver Witcombe arrive, Sir Osmond is working himself up over his Christmas plans. With the help of his faithful secretary Grace Portisham, Sir Osmond has been planning a Santa Klaus treat for his family on Christmas day – and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the costume he has ordered.

christmastree.jpgWhen Christmas day arrives, everyone is a little anxious about how the day will turn out, and whether Sir Osmond’s plans will work out satisfactorily. After dinner, everything seems to be going extremely well indeed, Bingham, the current chauffer has put up the Christmas tree, Oliver Witcombe who has been deputised to play the Santa Klaus has carried out his duties if not with enthusiasm at least without a hitch. As the children play in the hall, and Christmas crackers start to be pulled, Sir Osmond having returned to his study is discovered shot dead, a revolver lying on the desk in front of him.

So on Christmas day afternoon Colonel Halstock Chief Constable of Haulmshire is called to Flaxmere to begin the investigation into the murder. Over the next few days suspicion is to fall on several of the members of the household. Aiding Col. Halstock is Inspector Rousdon and Kenneth Stour, an actor who Sir Osmond’s daughter Edith had once been in love with. Now Edith is married to Sir David Evershot whose unpredictable behaviour has led to rumours of insanity. Kenneth; in offering his help to the Col immediately puts himself under some suspicion.

“I didn’t feel inclined for a friendly chat with anyone. I’d just been making mental notes of half a dozen points I wanted to inquite into. I suppose I growled at him. I told him I was up to my eyes in a difficult business.
‘I rather thought it might be difficult,’ he remarked. ‘Look here, Sir, I really want to speak to you. I might possibly be able to help.”

The police are quick to consult Mr Crewkerne Sir Osmond’s solicitor – and discover that Sir Osmond had been planning on changing his will. Col Halstock must then consider – who might have known about the plans and wanted to stop them being put into action or who may have misunderstood and believed Sir Osmond’s plans to already have been written into the will? In true country house murder fashion, the timeline of events is eventually sketched out almost to the minute, and so naturally who was where and doing what when is crucial.

All in all The Santa Klaus Murder is good escapist, cosy reading for the season, but for me doesn’t rank alongside the golden age greats of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers who for me remain hard to beat.

 

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