Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Deadly Dowager (1934) by Edwin Greenwood

This was a new author to me when I came across this book earlier this year. I think fellow writer and friend of Greenwood, Arthur Machem, sums up the book well when he wrote that it ‘is compounded on the true and ancient recipe, it mixes mirth and murder with immense spirit and success.’ This was Greenwood’s first novel and he would go on to write five more, before his untimely death in 1939. During his lifetime he worked in many roles, director, actor and even as a screen writer for Hitchcock. I sometimes wonder why books have their name changed for US publication, but I think this is definitely one of those exceptions where the name change is quite an improvement, as originally in the UK this book was published under the bizarre name, Skin and Bone. Fortunately this forgotten book was reprinted by Valancourt Books a couple of years ago, making it much easier to track down than Greenwood’s other books. At the time of its reprinting this book was reviewed by Michael Dirda for the Washington Post, which you can read here. (After reading my post first of course!)

Today’s read is an inverted mystery. In a nutshell, the dowager, Lady Arabella de Birkett, has big plans to restore the family funds, which have been significantly depleted in the last couple of centuries. She plans to do this by insuring her family members, who have to agree to the pay-out going to her grandson, Henry. Arabella hopes that this will provide sufficient money for Henry to be set up properly as a peer of the realm, whether he wants to be or not. In the main most agree and after some brow beating, the elderly brother in law, Alfred, is pushed into making a new will leaving his existing policy to Henry. Of course even the newest of mystery fans will be suspicious of this plan and when Alfred dies soon afterwards, this suspicion is quickly substantiated. With a great deal of creative flair further family members die, leaving the remaining family relations decidedly unnerved. Will she be stopped? How can she be stopped? In and amongst this Henry is also battling for the right to marry the woman he loves, over Arabella’s chosen marital candidate. Whilst this book has a fair dose of dark humour in book, it also has a very high chill factor.

Overall Thoughts

Looking back over the book I would say that the book is more macabre and spine chilling action than out and out comedy, like the work of Alice Tilton for instance, though the ending is wonderfully ironic. It has been a while since I have read a mystery where the acts of murder are so bloodless or non-graphic, yet are so chilling and shiver-inducing at the same time, reminding me a little of Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942) in terms of atmosphere. The first death is particularly memorable in this respect. So yeah Arabella takes villainy to a whole new level. Her relations by blood and marriage, are by no means all wonderful or even nice people, but her despotism towards them and her companion become worse and worse as the book progresses, making someone like Shakespeare’s Iago look mild and half-hearted when it comes to murder and getting your own way.

In some ways the tension of the book rests between those who hark for earlier times and values, with those who do not, with some characters such as dowager being a mixture of both, depending on what she wants. This family presents 1930s society as a transitional one. Even some of the younger characters do not fit in well with the more modern attitudes towards relationships, though perhaps them not keeping up with them is not such a bad thing, in comparison to characters who definitely are “modern,” such as the lascivious Lily, who ‘even at Deauville […] had attained a certain notoriety by the complete shamelessness of her beach pyjamas.’ Henry and Dora, can be a little nauseating at times, but thankfully the narrative switches around to different characters so you don’t have too much of this to put up with in one go. The writing style whether macabre or humorous is a delight and one character description that still sticks in my head is for the quite senile Reverend Alfred, who is said to potter around most of the time; ‘pottered from the church to the rectory and pottered about the village, whose inhabitants grew to look upon him rather as they looked upon any other act of God.’ I can imagine him being quite a colourful local minister to have!

There are quite a few copies of the reprint available online at varying prices, though good luck trying to track down any of Greenwood’s other books cheaply or at all: Miracle in the Drawing Room (1935), Pins and Needles, A Melodrama (1935), French Farce, A Tale of Gallic Lunacy, Murder and Mirth (1937), Old Goat (1937), Dark Understudy, A Modern Crime Story (1940), the latter of course published posthumously. There was a reasonably priced copy of French Farce, but yeah it’s not there anymore! Sorry folks! But I do recommend you get The Deadly Dowager.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Matriarch of the family

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The Left Leg (1940) by Alice Tilton

I was very excited when I saw this book on Bev Hankins prize list of books, in a Dell Mapback edition no less! Having won her Follow the Clues Challenge last year, I had a great deal of fun choosing my book prizes and this was one of them. I loved my last Tilton read, so was excited to sample this one, as some Tilton novels are easy to get a hold of, whilst other are a bit more elusive. If you love your mysteries, zany, madcap and hilarious then this is definitely a series to try. Equally if you love Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen, I think you’ll also enjoy Leonidas Witherall, who is the protagonist of the Tilton books.

Before I begin to talk about the plot proper, a little background on Witherall. In this particular book he has independent means and is also the writer of a popular radio series. However in earlier books, (I think), he has acted as a professor at Meredith Academy, which comes up in this book and others, as he often relies on the help of ex-pupils when he gets into scrapes. He hasn’t always been well off as at some point in the series he loses a lot of his money on the stock market and takes up work as book shop cleaner, where of course someone gets bumped off.

Anyways to today’s read. It begins with Leonidas Witherall getting off, red faced, from a bus, after an unfortunate encounter with a ‘predatory blond.’ This earlier than planned departure from the bus means he is stuck in a town named Carnavon, though his mind is soon focusing on the awful realisation that the blond, who is wearing a scarlet coat and wimple, is racing after him. Fortunately for him he dives into a hardware store owned by an ex-Meredith Academy pupil, Lincoln Potter. Yet while Potter goes to get his car, things get even odder and even worse for Witherall. First of all a man in a green satin suit, hat and carrying a harp enters the shop and takes an envelope from the till. Secondly Potter returns to the shop, telling him that the police are looking for a man with Witherall’s description for annoying a lady on the bus and stealing her purse. Things get more awkward when Witherall finds the purse on his person and when Potter accuses him of having stolen the envelope. Witherall as a consequence ends up on the run from more than one party. He manages to make it to his old friend, Marcus Meredith’s house, only to find Marcus dead and his name labelled shoe rubbers by the body. Suffice to say Witherall managed to leave these shoe coverings when he escaped from the bus, so how did they end up here? Witherall also learns something new about his old friend, he wore a prosthetic leg, or rather he used to as that has disappeared. But why? Fearing wrongful arrest, Witherall and some others band together to figure out what is going on and you can take it as read that all the unusual characters, events and moments of mistaken identity all merge into one succinct and believable final narrative.

Overall Thoughts

When discussing the plot lines he writes for his Lieutenant Haseltine radio series and novels, Witherall mentions ‘the viscid, fluctuating tentacles of the octopus of fate’ and I think it fair to say that the same principles operate in Witherall’s life. In fact he says at the end of the book that he will use what has just happened to him as the next Haseltine serial. Yet despite Tilton unleashing a large number of bizarre events at the reader in the story’s setup, which soon begin to spiral outside of Witherall’s control, Tilton herself never loses control of her plot and her writing style is a joy to experience. Hard to pick lots of favourite lines, as there are so many, but one I managed to remember to make a note of was: ‘Perhaps, instead of leaping into this ghastly blaze, he would have been wiser to have remained quietly in the frying pan of the Scarlet Wimpernel. He was even beginning to look back on the Wimpernel and the bus trip as the Good Old Days.’ It goes without saying that this book is tremendous fun, ranging from Potter nicknaming the ‘predatory blond’ as the Scarlet Wimpernel, to Witherall getting roped into running a charity auction and selling one of the organiser’s hats. With such an unusual chain of events, it is a pleasure to see Tilton not just make sense of them, but to also turn things upside down, as events and characters are not what you think they are. It can be said sometimes, that comic crime novels, can be a bit slapdash with their characters, but I think Tilton avoids this, making her characters engaging and believable. Aside from Witherall, another favourite of mine is Mrs Beaton, a master of organisation and running events. Yet she is far from dowdy and dull, as on meeting her Witherall says he heard from someone that she was ‘the one who crossed Tibet on a bicycle, and kidnapped a gang of Chinese bandits.’ I think the only thing which prevented me from awarding a full 5/5 rating to this book was the ending. The solution as to what has been going on is perfectly rational and all works out, but the way Witherall brings about the arrest of the real culprit just didn’t work for me; it went too far into the absurd. Perhaps it was one trick too many. However I wouldn’t let this put anyone off from trying this book or the Witherall series as a whole, as Tilton is a wonderfully entertaining writer, who keeps your attention firmly engaged in trying to figure things out.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): An author you’ve read before and loved them

See also: The Iron Clew (1947)

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What’s inside CADs Issue 77?

It’s always a good day when the next issue of CADs lands on my doorstep and this issue is no different, it’s hard to know where to start first, as there are so many intriguing sounding articles:

  • Fans of John Street (who is best known under his pen names Miles Burton and John Rhode), will be pleased that in this issue there are two pieces on this author: ‘Open Verdict: The Life and Work of John Street Streets Ahead’ by Tony Medawar and ‘A Note on the Detective Fiction of John Rhode and Miles Burton’ by Philip L. Scowcroft.
  • Geoff Bradley has also written a piece on Leslie Despard, a GAD author I have definitely not heard of. Have you? It is even more intriguing how Bradley came across the author, as he appeared in Basil Hogarth’s Writing Thrillers for Profit (1936).
  • Earlier this year Harper Collins reprinted The Mystery of the Mud Flats (1913) by Maurice Moss, so an article by the man who wrote the introduction for this reprint, on Moss’ work, is certainly well timed.
  • However it is not all about obscure authors as Lyn McConchie has written a piece on Sherlock Holmes and there are also articles on Leo Bruce (by Jamie Sturgeon), Anna Katharine Green (McConchie) and S. S. Van Dine (B. A. Pike).
  • If you’re in the mood for something a bit different Nick Kimber has written a piece on the Japanese crime writing of Masako Togawa and there is also a piece by Liz Gilbey on Private Eyes.

For this issue I muse on the crossovers between Modernist Literature and Golden Age detective fiction. Be interested to see what readers make of this. Hopefully I don’t just give them a headache!

If this has whetted your appetite and you want to secure yourself a copy then email the editor, Geoff Bradley at Geoffcads@aol.com

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Coming Soon: 100 Greatest Literary Detectives

I just saw online today the cover and the release date for: 100 Greatest Literary Detectives ed. by Eric Sandberg. This is especially exciting news as I was lucky enough to be able to contribute to this work, writing a piece on Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu.
This is the blurb on Amazon:

Crime fiction is one of the most popular literary genres today, and has been so for more than a century. At the heart of almost all forms of mysteries, from the Golden Age puzzler to the contemporary police procedural, from hardboiled to the Japanese timetable mystery, is the investigator. He–or, increasingly, she–can be a private eye, a police officer, or a general busybody. The detective is, in fact, the key element in crime fiction; while criminals and their crimes come and go, with a few notable exceptions, the primary interest in crime novels is focused on investigators, those fascinating characters who exist at the intersection of so many different literary and social roles. 100 Greatest Literary Detectives offers a selection of the most influential, most important, and most intriguing fictional sleuths–amateur or professional–from around the world. From Sherlock Holmes to Jules Maigret, the detectives profiled here will give readers a broader picture of the many faces of these essential characters in one of fiction’s most popular genres. Each entry summarizes the distinctive features of a notable investigator and their approach to crime, provides a brief outline of major features of their fictional careers, and makes a case for their greatness based on factors such as literary-historical importance, novelty, uniqueness, aesthetic quality, or cultural resonance. The characters profiled here include Lew Archer, Father Brown, Brother Cadfael, Adam Dalgliesh, Stephanie Delacour, Mike Hammer, Miss Jane Marple, Kinsey Millhone, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, Kay Scarpetta, Sam Spade, Phillip Trent, V. I. Warshawski, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Nero Wolfe. Whether seasoned fans or new to the genre, readers will find some of their favorite detectives here, learn more about their literary and cultural significance, and will expand their reading world into uncharted territory as they discover great detectives old and new, local and international. 100 Greatest Literary Detectives offers a fascinating look into some of the most intriguing fictional characters of all time.

I am anticipating this to be an interesting and thought provoking read. I only know about a few of the detectives, (modern and vintage), who made the cut, so I am excited to see who else made the list. I am also looking forward to seeing how these 100 are justified their positions, as I imagine people have different criteria for this aspect.

Hopefully more will be appearing on the blog about the book nearer the time. Copies are available for pre-order now from Amazon and at the moment seems like it will be released on the 15th April in the UK at least. Not sure about America.

So the big question is who do you think should be on the list? (Not that I am expecting to give me a Top 100 list or anything, though if you have the time or need an excuse to procrastinate do feel free to do so!)

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Poirot and Me (2013) by David Suchet

This is another book that I borrowed off my sister quite a long time ago (whoops!) In what may seem like a scandalous confession, my first impressions of Christie and Poirot came from the series which Suchet starred in. It was only a number of years later that I ever read any of the books, so the Suchet adaptations have always had a special importance for me. The series took place over 25 years and it is amazing that Suchet was able to film all the Poirot short stories and novels, barring one very short story, The ‘Lemesurier Inheritance’. So once you’ve got over the shock of my revelation do feel to carry on and read the rest of review. Hopefully you had your smelling salts to hand.

The opening of the book begins with Suchet’s recollections of filming the final Poirot novel, Curtain and the difficulties this imposed on him. Not only was it understandably emotionally difficult, but he also had to lose two stone in weight! This episode was one me and my family watched together and it was quite an emotional one to watch. Yet it is interesting that Suchet talks more about avoiding sentimentality, excessive melodrama and sugariness in the final death scenes. The book then takes on a chronological approach to recounting the earlier series and episodes, whilst also incorporating information on the other work Suchet did in between series. It quite surprised me how varied these roles were and how often they were for villainous personalities Early on in the book Suchet explains his love of being a character actor and I think it can be seen in the roles he has taken on. It also explains why he is so good at acting across a range of character types, as a few years ago I saw him when he played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and after the initial thoughts of “Wow! Poirot looks different today,” I really got into the character Suchet was playing.

Moving back to his time as Poirot though, I found it interesting to see how Suchet describes his response to the role and how he went about representing the character, a job he undertook with a great deal of seriousness. In particular it is said that Suchet wanted to avoid Poirot looking like a comical buffoon or a figure of fun, an anxiety he may have had, coming to the role from the previous adaptations first before the books themselves. Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp are also played more straight and Suchet writes that Hastings was ‘never allowed to look like a complete fool,’ as he is representative of the audience and that ‘one of Hastings’ functions is to elucidate what is going on in Poirot’s mind.’

For the remainder of my review I decided to offer some interesting titbits which I came across in the book…

Some things I didn’t know about David…

  • He was quite a sporty youth, being very good at rugby and tennis (having played in the Wimbledon Junior finals when he was 14).
  • He starred in the film Harry and the Hendersons and even played Inspector Japp in the Peter Ustinov version of Thirteen at Dinner (1985). Suchet recalls that Ustinov ‘liked the part [of Poirot] because he could bring out what he saw as the comedy in the role, but he knew that he could never play the Poirot that Agatha Christie had actually written,’ due to his too large a personality and person. Though he did also say that Suchet could play Poirot well.
  • Before beginning to play Poirot he wrote out a 5 page dossier of characteristics about his habits and character – 93 items in total and throughout the book his research into Poirot and Christie’s work does shine through. Some pieces of information I already knew, but there were lots of others bits which I had forgotten or not known at all. For instance I never knew that Sad Cypress and The Hollow were two Poirot novels that Christie thought were ruined by having Poirot in them. I also found out that Poirot orders his books by size (definite head shaking and tutting moment).
  • At one stage he bought Ronnie Barker’s house, who incidentally had appeared as Poirot in Christie play Black Coffee.

Some of the stars who have featured in the Poirot series…

There were quite a lot of other names featured in this book, but I did find it interesting that two of the Dr Who’s incarnations, Peter Capaldi and Christopher Eccleston both starred in some of the Poirot episodes.

Starring in The Wasps Nest

Some things I didn’t know about the ITV Poirot series…

  • That Suchet’s original moustache for the earlier series was based on a description in Murder on the Orient Express. It’s design was changed later when Chorion and Arts and Entertainment Network took over the producing of the series. I kid you not there were actual moustache consultation meetings!
  • In order to get Poirot’s walk right, Suchet walked around with penny between his bottom cheeks.
  • A dinner Suchet had with the royal family on his 44th birthday led to the mango eating scene in ‘The Royal Ruby.’
  • Ever keen to get the details right, Suchet could be quite hard on himself, always regretting that in episode, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he did not brush his hair before opening a window to talk to Captain Hastings.
  • Suchet has had quite a lot of fan mail unsurprisingly, though I think one of the oddest and sad, (not as in lame), examples is when ‘a young woman in her twenties wrote to ask[s him] if [he] would come and meet her in a park one day, dressed as Poirot, so that she could know what it would be like to be treated like a lady.’
  • £5 million was spent on the first 10 episodes, though of course by the time the series were coming a close in the 2010s, each episode was costing into the millions each.
  • From the second series he was keen to make Poirot less stiff and more human and when it comes to the Chorion and Arts and Entertainment Network takeover, the subsequent series were keen to delve into Poirot’s psyche more deeply, revealing his loneliness more and his Catholicism.
  • The Blue Train Mystery was one of Suchet’s favourite episodes to star in.
  • One day on the London Underground a nun loudly told Suchet that his Poirot series were a forbidden secret pleasure for her and her fellow nuns at their convent.
  • Suchet’s driver and children have been extras in the series.
  • As a rule the episodes tend to be situated in the 1930s regardless of their original publication date. Suchet details the reasons why they desired this consistency, but personally I don’t think they really hold true. I think audiences can cope with episodes progressively moving into a later time period and I think moving books such as The Third Girl, a 60s novel, back into the 30s, takes something away from it.

So all in all I think this was a good read. With this type of book it is always intriguing to see what areas are focused on and what areas are skipped or glossed over. One such example of the latter is the ‘number of liberties’ which writers took with the adaptations of The Big Four and The Labour of Hercules; which in my opinion are two of the weakest adaptations out of all the series. One final thing I found interesting was a comment Suchet’s son in law said which is that ‘what makes Poirot so appealing, enduring and timeless as a man is that he possesses one of the finest and clearest moral compasses of any fictional character.’ Do you agree? Unsurprisingly having read the book I do feel like I need to do a Poirot marathon of some kind, as not watched any for quite some time. Do let me know which are your favourite and least favourite episodes from the series as well. My memories are a bit woolly so it would be good to have some pointers before returning to watching them.

Rating: 4/5

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The Missing Bronte (1983) by Robert Barnard

This is a book which I borrowed from my sister, quite a while ago, but have at last finally got around to reading it. I’ve known of Barnard for some time, but I’ve never tried any of his work before now. This one is set in Yorkshire in the main when a car breakdown leads to Super Intendent Perry Trethowan and his wife, Jan, meeting a retired school teacher, Edith Wing, in the local pub. This may seem everyday but Wing has a big secret. She has inherited books and papers from a distant cousin and has come across what might potentially be an unpublished or early version of a Bronte novel. Perry and Jan are quite struck by the news and busily begin to research up on the Brontes when they finally get back home in London. However it is not long before Perry is called back to Yorkshire, as Edith has been badly attacked in her own home, with doctors fearing she might not regain consciousness. Of course the manuscript has gone. Perry has a number of leads to follow up; contacts Edith might have made in order to have the manuscript verified and unsurprisingly Perry finds that this potential treasure has brought the worst out in people – £ and $ no doubt looming in their minds. The cast of suspects range from Edith’s hugely unpleasant and fraudulent reverend cousin to an academic, a fanatical librarian and two Norwegians thugs.

Overall Thoughts

1980s crime fiction is not really my usual stomping ground when it comes to reading. In fact I have only ever reviewed 6 novels on my blog from that decade and suffice to say many of them were not all that great. However I think there is much to enjoy in today’s read, especially with the social history it includes for the time and the characterisation skills it deploys. The book opens with character descriptions such as this of poor Aunt Sybilla: she ‘had taken to wearing monstrous turbans in the Edith Sitwell style – except that where Dame Edith carried hers off, Sybilla in hers looked as if she had been extinguished by some enormous candle-snuffer.’ There are also Perry’s comments on the stereotype that rural inhabitants are slow to accept outsiders. He writes that ‘the landlord, was a foreigner himself, coming from close to the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, so he was broad-minded enough to welcome a pair who, coming from London, could almost be classed as Undesirable Immigrants.’ Though in fairness the pub inhabitants are more welcoming than Perry envisages.

Race relations is a sporadic theme of the book, but I think Barnard includes it in a balanced way. Negative racial attitudes are included but they are countered by Perry’s own views, which are more akin to the modern day non-racist reader. Both he and no doubt such a reader will take a strong dislike to Edith’s awful cousin and Perry writes that he would quite happily charge him with a charge more serious than breaching the race relations act, when he makes unpleasant comments about Edith’s black gardener. Though I don’t think you can say this book is entirely dated as one of Perry’s aunts supports a national front splinter group, which wants to keep England Anglo-Saxon. Given the current times I don’t think it can said this is of the past. Though one thing which is possibly the same but is of a more comical nature is found in a comment Perry makes about mechanics, in that they are the same as  ‘plumbers and electricians – [in that they] are part of the modern aristocracy, people one insults at one’s peril.’ There is also some very enjoyable satire on academics and academia and it was nice to see the university I went to, Newcastle, mentioned as well. In the book, for example, one academic from Milltown’s university has gone gaga trying to write a book on Carlyle, yet is still kept on as the head of the English department.

Barnard is also good in how he handles the theme of the Brontes and their work, avoiding an information overload for the reader, instead deftly interweaving comments on Bronte studies/biographies at the time, which fans of the Brontes will appreciate. Returning back to the issue of characterisation, one of my favourite characters was Jan, Perry’s wife, as I like the no nonsense, yet humorous relationship these two have. Jan is eager to be kept informed on how the case is going, despite Perry not wanting her to get too involved as according to him she ‘is much too prone to take on a Girl Friday role in my cases, quite unasked.’ Yet she plays a deliciously ironic role in the end events, which was pleasing. I also laughed out loud with the following line from Jan who avoids the overly sentimental and sympathetic role when Perry becomes injures: ‘Hmmmm. No woman who’s had a baby is going to be very impressed by that.’

As I have already intimated I am not usually fan of 80s crime fiction but in the main I enjoyed Barnard’s writing style, with its well-pitched humour on various topics and Perry is not above joking about himself, such as when he laments not being able to adopt disguises like Holmes: ‘But the decisive count against it was the fact that at six feet five and seventeen stone I’m a hell of a difficult object to disguise.’ I think the point at which I started to lose some interest and become turned off the book slightly is in the final quarter which becomes a much more overt 80s police mystery, in its use of violence, which does not marry up neatly with the more literary opening of the book. However if you are fan of more modern crime fiction than I tend to be, I don’t think you’ll have any issues with this and on the whole it is a good book, so still worth a read as it avoids being overly bleak, it has interesting characters, an intriguing Bronte angle and Perry is an engaging narrator to follow around. It’s also an easy book to get a hold of, which makes a change for the blog as well!

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Outside of comfort zone

Past Offences and Desperate Reader have also reviewed this title, so do take a look at their thoughts on it.

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Friday’s Forgotten Book: Third Party Risk (1953) by Nicolas Bentley

You could say that today’s author is one who was definitely overshadowed by his father, E. C. Bentley, who is more famously known for having written Trent’s Last Case (1913), a book which once again shows me running against the tide of popular opinion, finding that I didn’t hugely enjoy it. But back to Nicolas, who went on to have a writing, editing and illustrating career of his own. I don’t think mystery fiction was the mainstay of this career though, as he seems to have only written three thriller/mystery novels: The Tongue Tied Canary (1948), which involves a man on the hunt of Nazi survivors, The Floating Dutchman (1950), which later became a film and involved murder on the Thames and jewel thefts. The final one is today’s read. I think the about the author segment in my Penguin edition of the book tries too hard to make Nicolas a figure of wit and social satire, such as saying he was ‘fond of sport, if not asked to participate […] Pastimes include working, lolling, browsing for junk,’ as well as being ‘a non-smoking, anti- anti-vivisectionist.’ It also says that he ‘has read only five thrillers in thirty years.’ Personally I think he should have read a few more …. He might have learnt how to write one…

Well let’s be fair this book is not all bad. In fact it starts rather well, with Philip Geiger, author and screen writer, telling us about his holiday to the village of Sissac near Marseille. When being rescued from nearly drowning, he meets another hotel guest, Tony Roscoe, a famous photographer. To help Roscoe out, who has to prematurely leave back for England, Philip promises to take his car back to London and also collect an envelope from the hotel safe. Simple right? Yet things soon begin to spiral out of control, beginning with Philip’s kidnap by a mysterious businessman. He is soon released, it being a case of mistaken identity, but Philip’s curiosity gets the better of him and he decides to figure out why this man is after Roscoe so badly. He gets answers of a kind when he goes to Roscoe’s London home, finding a less than alive Roscoe in the bath. Of course in acting the way he has, Philip has placed himself in a very incriminating position with police and has also become an unintentional third party to a quarrel between two groups. More pickles ensue unsurprisingly and the reader is left wondering whether he will get out of them alive.

Overall Thoughts

So let’s start with the positives. This story is a first person narrative and unlike some of the books I’ve read this year this narrator tells us from get go who he is and his place in the tale he is about to tell, which was no bad thing. His introduction to himself, mirrored the tone and style of Bentley’s own which was quite interesting and there is also a telling phrase on the first page of what is going to take place in the story: ‘Yet in retrospect it still has some excitement for me, and I hope for you, as well as some moments of thundering imbecility.’ Whilst I think the excitement tailed off fairly quickly for me, I can definitely agree with Philip on his numerous acts of ‘thundering imbecility.’ Initially though I quite liked him, seeing him as an everyman sort of figure, an unlikely protagonist or hero. This is shown in how much he contrasts with Roscoe. Roscoe on the one hand was an adept and fast swimmer, whilst Philip has ‘a low-geared but dependable breast stroke.’ Roscoe finds the food so good at the hotel that he eats ‘like a pig,’ whilst Philip wishes he could: ‘Well, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I get indigestion.’ All of this makes Philip more of a relatable character.

However, once Philip has found Roscoe’s body, the book takes somewhat of a dive, with the final third being especially dull and boring. The early comedic asides in the beginning are lost and the reader is instead subjected to a long series of seemingly never ending escapades, with Philip usually coming off the worst. This all thankfully comes to a finish, but the ending of the book concludes with somewhat of a whimper and my attention had already packed and gone home long before this point. So I think on balance this might be a forgotten book which does not need to reprinted anytime soon!

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Photographer

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The Black Rustle (1943) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Whilst this book has the familiar trope of containing a weekend party at a country abode, comprised of relatives and family friends, the Littles still provide their own wonderfully bizarre twists. Of course there is lots of tension and bitterness between the different relations, which are only kept simmering barely underneath the surface by Bruce Collyer’s threat to ban them from coming back to the house if they descend into full on rowing. But is this the wisest solution? Randell says it all when he says that ‘the place is all right – it’s the people who mess it up. When a bunch of relatives insist on hobnobbing every weekend it’s apt to be dangerous.’ This seems to be the case as only two days in and our narrator, Marina Hays makes an unpleasant discovery in the swimming pool late one night. Our victim is a highly unexpected one and their death is achieved in an astonishing and swift manner, though I think it is the second death in the book which stays with me, which is unexpectedly chilling. As family friend, Hays has a more outside point of view, though she soon gets stuck into snooping and sleuthing, the dots all finally joining up once she has had a few too many drinks. Missing DIY tools, Sonny’s planned surprise, unexpected engagements, disappearing ornaments, an Edgar Allan Poe clue and the rumour of a ghost all enter into the mix.

Overall Thoughts

I am aware that Mercury editions of mysteries are in the main abridged and shortened versions, yet when looking in the inside cover of my copy it said it had not been cut. I am assuming that cut is being used synonymously with the word abridged, yet given the copy is only 120 odd pages long, (with two columns of text per page), I still think it must have been shortened. Why am I boring you with all of this? Well I think my final rating has been affected by this factor. All the usual positives of a Littles book are here, but I think the abridgement has marred their usual brightness – especially the ending where the trap to catch the killer is a bit ham fisted. The ending is also a little bewildering, taking until chapter two for me to figure out the name of the narrator and also how everyone is related to one another.

However let’s move on to the positives, as I think if you can find a non-Mercury copy of this book, you’ll probably have a stronger read. There is a great deal of social comedy to be had. First of all there is the unusual romance thread running through the book between Marina and Bruce, where the overt joking around their supposed courting, leaves the characters and readers alike unsure whether it is serious or all baloney. Bruce is no atypical romantic lead – a DIY fiend whose first wife left him due to his obsessive hobby. It is not surprising that Marina says that ‘I’m darned if I’m going to compete with a porch.’ It also probably doesn’t help that he can never get her name right.

The second strand of the social comedy in this book can be found in the bickering relations, especially in the character of Aunt Delia, who is an ace at provoking and ruling others. She is hilarious to listen to, though I imagine very hard to live with. One of my favourite lines from her is: ‘As for marrying, I’ve done it once, but I like variety. I’ve decided, this time, to take up bridge, instead – because you can’t do both successfully.’ She also rebuts Gert’s nauseating notion that a woman ‘ought to forget her own interests and do like her husband wants,’ with the reply that any such woman would drive a man insane and that ‘she ought to keep [her thoughts] locked in a closet when they’re as moth-eaten as all that.’ Like this comment, I think the motivation behind the murders is quite modern, especially in its details, and it is not one I have come across before, though I think it ties in with the chilling/non-cosy undertones this comic crime novel has. A final favourite comic line from this book, comes when Gert has slapped a policeman. Understandably the man asks his superior if he should have to put up with this sort of behaviour, to which his boss replies: ‘not necessarily, Next time you’d better duck.’ Sound advice!

So yes this has been a slightly odd review, as I think the rating would have been higher if I had had the full version, so my own sound advice is to try that one.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Colour in Title

You can read JJ’s thoughts this book here.

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Beat Not the Bones (1952) by Charlotte Jay

This was Xavier’s Lechard second recommendation to me earlier this year, you can read about his first recommendation here. Although this title comes from Shakespeare’s Love Labour’s Lost, this book is set in Marapai in New Guinea and was written by an Australian author. This was her second novel and it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1954. Like yesterday’s read, Jay does not have a conventional approach to mystery/suspense writing.

The book begins by highlighting the tensions in Marapai, between native people and Western interlopers, who often aim to tame the place. Yet this aim is shown as a foolhardy one from the get go. The personified town has a dual nature, it is ‘light-hearted, yet ‘savage;’ ‘feckless and gay,’ yet ‘sinister’ and I would go so far as to say that it is the locality and the climate itself which is perhaps the unspoken of killer in the story, as through the narrative reveals a catalogue of victims, western inhabitants who have not been able to acclimatise and cope with the radically different environment, invariably mentally and physically deteriorating into alcoholism, loose living, madness and crime.

With this introduction we then move onto Alfred Jobe, an unsavoury character who goes to see the Department of Surveys, the director, Trevor Nyall in particular. His story is, is that he has found some gold outside of the existing Territory, in a village called Eola. He claims that the inhabitants gave it to him willing and that therefore it is of little interest to him. However, David Warwick, the head of the Department for Cultural Developments disagrees, believing that it is valuable to them and that they need to be protected from Western exploitation. Jobe is less than thrilled by this and swears revenge on David, who he thinks has it in for him, given his past criminal record against natives.

The narrative then jumps ahead to the arrival of David’s much younger wife, Stella. Yet hers is not to be happy welcome in New Guinea. Her father has died suddenly and so has her husband, as on returning from his own trip to Eola, it seems that David committed suicide and it is suggested this is because of his big debts. Stella though has her reasons for believing this is not the case and that her husband’s death was murder. Stella makes herself even less popular by her determined plan to find out the truth, as those around her are prepared to let sleeping dogs lie, for a variety of reasons. She is particularly at loggerheads with Trevor’s brother, Anthony – yet as they say hate can be very close to love… The story culminates in Stella’s own trip to Eola, a trip which she has every reason to fear she will not come back from, yet in fact the biggest thing she and the reader should be scared of, is what she will find when she gets there… In the end no one can be seen as guiltless, not even those who want to uncover the truth.

Overall Thoughts

Given the setting it is not unexpected that cultural and racial relations is an intrinsic part of the book. In his review of this book, Anthony Boucher wrote that, ‘her subtle picture of the interaction of an ‘advanced’ and a primitive race is exquisitely detailed.’ The word advanced is quote marked appropriately, as I think Jay’s depiction of the Western presence in New Guinea is far from glowing and its’ supposed superiority is certainly questioned. Understandably therefore racism terminology is present in the book, but I would not say it remains unchallenged. I was interested in how the Western characters saw their role in New Guinea. Some such as Nyall had a more patronising perception of the native population: ‘We’re here to guide and guard, not to understand. Only children can understand children, and we aren’t children any longer.’ He also goes onto say that ‘We must not only teach them from scratch our western ideas of law and religion, we must drag them, as it were, in a few years, over aeons of time.’ Yet intriguingly he is ready to admit that there is ‘so much that we have done has been wrong.’ There is definitely an awareness in this book that the Western powers have taken a wrong approach towards the island’s inhabitants. There is also an awareness that one of the key problems is that this sort of job position attracts the greedy and the corrupt, who are only interested in how much money they can make from it.

It is no wonder that one character, whose idealism has been stamped out of him due to guilt over an error which cost many lives, has become abnormally, possibly even pathetically passive in life. Whilst his idea that those native to New Guinea do not need to be “reformed” and should be allowed to live their lives how they want to, is not a bad one, his passivity is so endemic in his thinking that he is unable to act against criminal behaviour. This character could have easily been made into a stereotypical romantic heroic male lead for Stella, but it is interesting that Jay pulls away from this decision, perhaps showing Stella to be the stronger character in some ways.

However, despite Stella becoming a stronger and stronger character in the book as the plot unfolds, I weirdly did not find she had much impact on me, which was strange, for me anyways. She comes into the book with a great deal of naivety and it takes a while for her to unpack and dismantle the black and white responses she has towards other people. But again the turmoil and the gravity of all of this did not come leaping off the page at me. Perhaps in some ways this might due to the unusual emotional vibes she gives off. Her search for truth into David’s death is not borne out of love and grief, but is more of a cold and chilling fanaticism and near the end of the book Stella herself sees it all as a form of ‘rebellion’. I want to say there was something inhuman about her, but I am not sure this is the right word. I may have to remain puzzled by Stella.

Thankfully the remaining characters were not puzzling in this way, though they were in the main vividly crafted and therefore engaging and compelling in their own ways. There is a decidedly chilling and very fitting ending to the book, Imperialism suffice to say does not come up smelling of roses, and the strange sort of justice achieved was also appropriate in my opinion.

Purists may find not enjoy the more adventure themed angle of the story, but for those who are always keen to experience some new and different in their reading, I’d definitely recommend this one, as there is a lot to interest readers, from its setting to its increasingly chilling atmosphere.

I’ll leave you with a final word on this book from Boucher:

‘As to the beautifully deft plot I can best quote Charlotte Armstrong’s comments “She pulls off something that so often fails – works you up to the revelation of a horrible secret, and the secret turns out to be the horrible surprise you hoped it would be.’

[Little baffled by this, as a) I did not envisage that ending and b) even if I had I don’t think I would have hoped for it. Maybe it’s just me.]

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Won an award

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A Dram of Poison (1956) by Charlotte Armstrong

This book was recommended to me a few weeks ago by Xavier Lechard, a keen contributor to the Facebook GAD group and also the writer of the blog At the Villa Rose and for once I actually remembered the recommendation long enough to buy myself a copy. This book received the accolade of Xavier’s best 2000 read (alongside my next read on the blog). Oh and it also won the Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 1957 as well. Both equally coveted positions of course!

No idea what the cover artist was basing their final design on – certainly wasn’t the plot!

The story starts with Kenneth Gibson accidently meeting Paul Townsend, a chemical engineer with his own plant and laboratory. The conversation soon shifts to an innocent discussion of what poisons Paul has in his lab, including one with no taste or smell and kills rapidly. The plot then shifts to Kenneth going to the funeral of an old colleague and meeting his daughter, Rosemary. The years taking care of her very unwell father have left Rosemary a wreck and her finances are in a deplorable state. Based on the potted history we receive of Kenneth we can see how he is going to respond to Rosemary’s crisis and possibly even some of the reasons why – human motivations is a key facet of this book. Suffice to say, despite their age difference, they marry – though not for overtly romantic reasons. Kenneth is keen to stress their suitability as companions and how it will solve Rosemary’s financial crisis. Paul pops up again at this point in the book, renting out a cottage next door to his home for the newly married couple to move into. Oh and did I mention that Paul is a rich, handsome, young widower?

Based on this much of the plot you might think you have a fair idea of what is going to happen to next. I was one such confident reader. All I have to say is that I was decidedly and categorically wrong!

Overall Thoughts

So yes this is definitely a plot which immediately gets your mind going, trying to predict what is going to happen and when it might occur. Of course there does come a point where these predictions are revealed to be hopelessly incorrect and from there on in, via many unexpected turns on the way, things tend to get turned on their head. I have to say that the final consequences of the plot setup are not what I had expected, though this did not detract from my enjoyment of them. The second half of the book does bear some similarities to the style of Alice Tilton’s work, though this is not a comedy in the same vein, as it is very much more of a tragicomedy for most of the book, with the occasional pockets of dark humour.

The 1950s are often cited as a decade where psychological crime novels came into their own, (though of course there are earlier examples) and Armstrong’s book can be seen as part of this subgenre. Yet, despite the narrative’s interest in character psychology and human motivation, I think it is also a book which seeks to comically undermine the psychological crime novel – a move which becomes very much apparent in the final third of the book.

On the whole I thought this a very good read, with the characterisation unsurprisingly being a major strength of it, and it is a definite must for those who like unexpected crime novels, as this is one is fairly unconventional crime, with the real mystery becoming what is actually going to happen and how are things going to pan out.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Means of Murder in Title

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