Authors New To Me in 2017

As the end of the year draws ever nearer, it is that time that many bloggers look back over their year’s reading and reviews, trying to decide on their favourite books or in my case simply trying to remind myself what I have actually read. During this process I decided to see how many new authors I had tried this year, with new pertaining to authors I have known about but never tried before, as well as authors I found out about this year and also tried. The final total did surprise me slightly as I managed to fit in 58 new authors this year (not including Anthony Gilbert’s second penname, Anne Meredith), which is around a third of my total mystery reads this year. Whilst this post will be itemising these authors and reads, under various categories, I will also be pointing out my top favourites from each group, which are definitely worth tracking down, (so look out for titles in bold).

American Authors New To Me

This is my biggest group covering quite a wide range of mystery writing styles from as early as 1915 to 1960. This is also a group which has a number of winners of my much coveted accolade: Book of the Month.

Will Levinrew – Death Points a Finger (1933)

Henry Slesar – Enter Murderers (1960)

Kathleen Moore Knight – The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946)

Henry Ware Eliot Jr. – The Rumble Murders (1932)

Tyline Perry – The Owner Lies Dead (1930)

Helen Reilly – The Canvas Dagger (1956)

Arthur B Reeve – The Adventuress (1917)

Elizabeth Daly – Death and Letters (1950)

George Harmon Coxe – The Camera Clue (1937)

John M. O’Connor – Anonymous Footsteps (1932)

Alexander Williams – Murder in the WPA (1937)

Ione Montgomery – The Golden Dress (1940)

Marion Mainwaring – Murder in Pastiche (1955)

Doris Miles Disney – Family Skeleton (1949)

Carolyn Wells – The White Alley (1915)

Clayton Rawson – Death from a Top Hat (1938)

Theodore Roscoe – I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936)

D. B. Olsen – Cats Don’t Need Coffins (1946)

Domestic Suspense

This is a genre I have dipped into a lot in the past 2-3 months and I have really enjoyed doing this, (as you can see from how many I put in bold), and I hopefully plan to continue my forays into domestic suspense fiction in next year’s reading.

Patricia Carlon – The Running Woman (1966)

Celia Fremlin – The Hours Before Dawn (1958)

Hilda Lawrence – Blood Upon the Snow (1944)

Anthony Gilbert – The Spinster’s Secret (1946)

 

Around the World (One way or another)

In terms of reading mysteries in translation I have not done too bad this year (for me), as aside from authors I regularly read in translation such as Boris Akunin and Hans Olav Lahlum, I have managed 5 new novelists this year and have one more in my TBR pile. If I can count the short stories included in the British Library Collection: Foreign Bodies (2017) this number gets into double figures.

Andrea Camilleri – The Patience of the Spider (2004)

Anne Holt – 1222 (2007)

Leo Perutz – Master of the Day of Judgement (1921)

Leonies Swann – Three Bags Full (2005) [Although this one does have pacing issues it is such a wonderfully bizarre book it still worth borrowing from library.]

Sebastian Japrisot – The Sleeping-Car Murders (1962)

Yet this group is subtitled one way or another, so this group also includes books written in English but set in a different countries.

Jennifer Rowe – Grim Pickings (1987)

Vaseem Khan – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (2015)

A. E. W. Mason – The House of the Arrow (1924)

There is also the special inclusion of Yolanda Foldes’ Mind Your Own Murder (1948), which although is set in England was written by a Hungarian writer. Regardless it is a brilliant book which all readers should keep their eyes peeled for.

 

Books To Avoid (to varying degrees)

There is always a risk when trying a new author that you won’t enjoy their work and this has been the case for a percentage of my new author friends this year. Pacing, poor writing style and other irks have all contributed to these novels being included in this list. However where it is more a case of personal taste I have elaborated a little more specifically, as understandably there will be people who love the books which are included on this short list.

A. E. Fielding – The Eames-Erskine Case (1925)

Victor L Whitechurch – Crime at Diana’s Pool (1926)

Rachel Rhys – A Dangerous Crossing (2017)

Bruce Hamilton – Too Much of Water (1958)

James Corbett – Death by Appointment (1945)

J. W. Vandercook – Murder in Trinidad (1934) (This one perhaps more disappointed in how it didn’t meet my expectations, as I was hoping for unusualness and novelty, given the book location, but instead got your standard island thriller mystery).

Robert Player – The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945) (This is definitely a marmite book, as I know a number of people who enjoy this one)

George Sims – The End of the Web (1976) (This was a book with a number of intriguing aspects but given my weaker enthusiasm for 60s/70s thriller like mysteries, it wasn’t one which captured my imagination).

James Hilton – Was It Murder? (1931)

 

Looking Back to the Golden Age

Although my reads tend to be older rather than newer ones, I do occasionally foray into stories written by current writers, though as this list title suggests, even these stories are looking back to an earlier time.

Guy Fraser Sampson – Miss Christie Regrets (2017)

James McEwan – The Case of the Mahjong Dragon and Other Russell Holmes Stories (2015)

Authors To Try (But Not This Book)

I decided to include this group as I know how myopic a viewpoint you can get from judging a writer based on only one of their books. Imagine what someone would think of Agatha Christie if they had only read Postern of Fate or Passenger to Frankfurt. So with these authors listed below I have felt they have certain strong writing qualities which have not been best shown in the books I have read.

Anthony Rolls – Scarweather (1934). (If you want to give him a go I would recommend Family Matters (1933) instead)

Christopher Bush – The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944) (An author I am planning on re-trying soon with the new releases by the Dean Street Press).

Conrad Allen – Murder on the Minnesota (2002)

Clara Benson – The Murder at Sissingham Hall (2014)

Alice Campbell – Spider Web (1938)

Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon – A Bullet in the Ballet (1937) (The second in the series, Casino For Sale (1938), is much stronger).

Lord Dunsany – Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories (1952) (I included this title in this list as I felt the stories collected here were a mixture of  good ones and not so good ones).

Mignon G. Eberhart – The Patient in Room 18 (1929)

 

Journalists/ Magazine Contributors Turned Novelists

Perhaps a bit of a tangent sort of group, but hey! It was getting hard to group the stragglers at the end. Though unlike those who are picked last for sports teams, quite a number of these books are star players.

Andrew Garve – No Tears for Hilda (1950)

Hugh Conway – Dark Days (1885) and Andrew Lang – Much Darker Days

R. A. V. Morris – The Lyttleton Case (1922)

Louis Tracy – The Park Lane Mystery (1924)

R. C. Ashby – Death on Tiptoe (1931)

 

Writing Duos

Authors who decide to create a mystery together have interested for me a long time, as I often wonder how the writing process works and what the results may be. Only a couple this year (fittingly) but interesting ones nevertheless.

Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson – Enter Sir John (1928)

Romilly and Katherine John – Death by Request (1933)

 

So there we are. Fingers crossed next year’s reads will bring me as many good authors and books, as this year did. Feel free to share with me your own author discoveries this year. After all I’ll be needing some ideas for my 2018 reads. Hopefully this post might have given you some ideas as to what you might want to read next year too.

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A Sneaky Impossible Crime in Carolyn Wells’ The White Alley (1915)

When it comes to finding out the best and worst locked room and impossible crime mysteries, two of the bloggers which come to mind are JJ at The Invisible Event and Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time. Their obsessions with such stories has led them high and low and into books by familiar and unfamiliar authors. I imagine it is quite a challenge to find such a mystery that they have not read. And purely by accident I wonder if I have done just that… [and yes I am prepared for the eventuality where they both reply to this post with a rebuttal of such an assertion. However I have my fingers and toes crossed that this might not be the case.] The mechanics of the crimes, in the mystery novels that I read, are not the upper most things I look for in a great story, so my interest in locked rooms and impossible crimes is far more sporadic and casual. Yet what I liked about this one is the sheer understated nature of it, to the extent that you soon begin to forget about it, until it returns with a vengeance in the final fifth of the novel. However I am getting ahead of myself…

The book opens with a house party hosted by the middle aged and rich Justin Arnold. The party is in honour of his much younger fiancée Dorothy Duncan, who is a self-acknowledged flirt. Very soon into the novel you begin to wonder how these two could have ever formed a relationship, she is energetic and lacking in propriety, whilst Arnold is restrained and cold to the extreme. Yet it soon seems like each person in the relationship plans to change the other in order to get the partner they want. Arnold is determined ‘to make her over,’ into the perfect lady, whilst Dorothy is firm in her resolve to make him realise that he cannot boss her about. Of course this is all doomed to failure and their interactions become interestingly problematic as Arnold’s jealousy boils over. Though in fairness to him she does push things to the limits. It doesn’t help that two of her ardent and maddeningly passionate admirers, Campbell Crosby (Arnold’s cousin) and Ernest Chaplin (Arnold’s secretary) are part of the house party and are keen to draw Dorothy away from her intended partner. Furthermore it seems like Dorothy may reciprocate Chaplin’s feelings. None of this appeals to Arnold and a showdown is inevitable. Yet the following morning Arnold has disappeared, not to be found in the gardens or house. This becomes more inexplicable due to Arnold’s love of security. His house has an extensive burglar alarm system controlling all windows and doors. This has not been turned off during the night. All the doors and windows are fastened on the inside and the night watchman (whose has rigorous time checked rounds) did not see Arnold whilst on duty either. The grounds are surrounded by high walls topped with broken glass and the exiting gate is impregnable. So what has happened to Arnold?

Overall Thoughts

Wells is an author I have known about for a while but have only read for the first time now. I knew she was a mystery fiction critic and like Sayers contributed to the body of work the golden age offered on defining the genre. It was therefore interesting to read this story with that in mind, especially given how its publication shows it to be a form runner of the interwar mystery novel. Within it there are a number of familiar components to the vintage mystery fan: the country house setting, the final revealing of the solution in the library, the flirty bright young thing with her eye on the money and a good time, the less than pleasant patriarch and the potential romantic leads, which may or may not be good guys after all. Yet I think because they are used in an earlier novel, the way Wells writes about them has a certain freshness. They don’t feel worn or over used. There are even moments when the cast of characters feel quite modern. Wells draws her characters well, showing the intensity or conflicted nature of their feelings and her depiction of the romance/marriage plot is powerful rather than perfunctory. Dorothy is an interesting central protagonist as we’re not wholly able to see all her thoughts and there is definitely a point where we are shown we cannot entirely trust her.

Something which is perhaps unusual with the novel is its structure, as firstly there is no central detective, two or three are involved, including one over eager amateur. Some readers may feel the book is lacking due to there being no key detective, but I am not one of them. Furthermore, the preliminary answer as to where and what has happened to Arnold takes a while to unfold, 160 pages in, in fact, of a 254 paged book and this is perhaps the area which may upset locked room/impossible crime fans, as clearly the percentage of pages left for solving the crime is smaller than the build-up and discovery. Since I dislike long winded theorising this was probably less of a problem for me. I wouldn’t say the book is entirely fair play in terms of the mechanics of the impossibility, it is more told than shown, but I think this may be because Wells’ priorities were a little different from say those of John Dickson Carr, Rupert Penny or Norman Berrow. Perhaps because this is an earlier mystery, the culprit is a little easier to spot, but this was maybe more of hunch than a certainty for me.

Based on this read I think Wells is an author which I need to return to again soon, as she seems to be working at an interesting and fertile point in the genre and it would be good to get a better sense of her writing style and approach to mysteries. So all recommendations welcome as to further titles to seek. On an incidental note the title for this book may seem like a prosaic one, but in fact is tied into a much more specific contemporary culture reference, which completely passed me by. All I will say is, is that is does not refer to a literal alley way.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Tombstone

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The Black Iris (1953) by Conyth Little

When buying this book, on my latest trip to Barter Books, I thought Conyth Little was a new author to me. But while I was reading it I did get the feeling that its style reminded me of someone else had read before, in particular Constance and Gwenyth Little. Given the identical surnames it therefore didn’t hugely surprise me when I further googled the book and found that this indeed with written by the Littles. The fact that Conyth amalgamates the names of Constance and Gwenyth only dawned on me much later.

This story is truly deserving of the epitaph of: Book where you honestly don’t know what is going to happen next, such is the zaniness and unusualness of the plot. It all begins with Richard Balron and his mother having their usual dinner badinage, both comically being rather annoyed with one another: Richard disliking his mother’s tendency to borrow his car, whilst his mother wishes he would leave home and get married, (leaving the nice convertible of course). As to who he should marry it comes down to two women: Madge and Ada Terry. It is the latter which Richard’s mother is so keen on, as like Richard she is a potential legatee in Aunt Ivy and Aunt Violet’s wills. The two sisters do not get on, though it is only late one night that Richard finds out how much they hate each other. It seems that they cannot agree on how their joint inherited wealth should be passed on, one favouring Richard, the other favouring Ada. So therefore their solution is Russian roulette, which they have been doing once month for a year. Understandably alarmed Richard tries to think of a temporary way to ensure a ceasefire, eventually deciding to cook up a fake engagement with Ada to cause a truce. Of course events get out of control, with characters going beyond what they thought they were going to do and into the midst of all of this enters murder, amongst many more sinister goings on. There is a lot more I could say about the plot, given how event filled it is, but I think it’s best to let you find out what all these unusual goings on are for yourselves.

Overall Thoughts

I really do think this novel shows the Littles working at their best. The comedy perfection of Richard Balron and his mother is hard to beat and not something which crops up a whole lot in vintage mystery fiction. There are of course mother/son pairings which show the latter very much under the thumb of the former, but there are not many examples of the two halves comically battling it out like these two do. The mother’s sass really is a joy to read. In fact I would say such a pairing is much more visible in vintage comedy films than mystery fiction from the time – though happy to be proved wrong of course. Elsewhere in the book the comedy and irony, which run throughout is delightful to read and the zany nature of the fictional world we read about is balanced and doesn’t over reach itself. The style and tone of the overall book also gave me a slight reminder of the film, Arsenic and Old Lace and like a few reads I have had this year, this book is definitely deserving of being adapted, as the central characters are ones which I think would be captivating on the big or little screen. The pace and level of maintained surprise is strong throughout and my only criticism of the book is the ending, which although has fitting irony, is too abrupt for my liking. However this issue shouldn’t deter anyone from tracking down this book and giving it a go. Suitable for fans or newbies to the Little oeuvre. Prices vary and the most copies seem to be available on Abe books. So Go! Go! Go! What are you waiting for?

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Mask

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Riddle of a Lady (1956) by Anthony Gilbert

Today’s read sees a return to Anthony Gilbert, an author I have reviewed a few times already this year. The story opens with a mini history of a legal firm named Greatorex Brothers. The firm’s heads, Charles and Richard, disapprove of their half-brother Henry, feeling he is not serious or knowledgeable enough for the profession. Thankfully they think they’ve solved the problem by shoving him into a separate branch of the firm and for the next twenty or so years things go smoothly. Initially we might feel sympathy for Henry, thinking he has been unfairly judged by his half-brothers. Yet an alternative viewpoint coming from Henry’s nephew Avery, swings our sympathies into reverse, finding that Henry to be a self-centred and lazy man, whose success rests on those around him doing all the work while he exudes bewitching charm. Henry has high hopes of marrying a much younger woman called Beverley Carr. Yet he has one problem, namely a woman named Stella. She has been his mistress for 5 years, though for a while he has kept things going out of politeness. He optimistically thinks she will be happy about ending things. Unsurprisingly she is not. Words are said and even a gun is waved around in a threatening fashion. ‘There they were then, two creatures caught in a trap, and surely, surely one of them must die.’ But which one? More widespread infidelity muddies the waters when a case of murder finally emerges and Arthur Crook is called into sort things out.

Overall Thoughts

One of the things which quite intrigued was that although the author was female, her portrayal of infidelity is far more patriarchal. The suffering wives in the story are doormats who justify not calling out their husband’s bad behaviour or are not seen at all. Those who do suggest a sterner view of such behaviour are shown to be nagging and negatively single women. Whilst other female characters are far more ready to sling mud at the woman in the case than the men. The sexual double standard is definitely here in full swing.

Characterisation is one of Gilbert’s strengths and I enjoyed how she played with your sympathies, especially with Henry. Unlike in Death Takes a Wife (1959), Arthur Crook, one of Gilbert’s serial sleuths, has an important and significant role to play in the story. He is an entertaining presence and I did crack a smile when one of the characters says that Crook ‘looked like an orang-utan in a chocolate suiting.’ Crook seems to have a bold approach to fashion and a larger than life personality. Having read three Crook mysteries now, I have noticed that before Crook actually enters the story Gilbert includes sentences which almost have Crook taking on a Greek chorus like role towards the events preceding his arrival into the plot and this is a feature which I think works really well. On the surface this seems a simplistic mystery but of course Gilbert had me completely fooled when it came to identifying the culprit. So overall an interesting and entertaining story.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt (Silver Card): Damsel in Distress

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Crime Out of Mind (1956) by Delano Ames

This will probably be my final Ames review of the year and alas I am still on the hunt for a reasonably priced copy of She Wouldn’t Say Who (1957). Now that would be one heck of a charity shop find!

Like many other novels in the series, Dagobert and Jane Brown are off on their travels again, this time in the Austrian Tyrol, for something more like a working holiday. Dagobert’s aunt Prudence has sent the pair to catch up with her botanist son, Peregrine, whose cryptic postcard references are suggesting a romantic interest in a local Austrian woman named Tilly. These references cause further alarm when he says the woman’s uncle, Baron Dietrich von Jenbach has been taking an interest in Peregrine’s family owned diamond mine in South Africa. Gold digger, with roving eye alert indeed! Yet Prudence’s worries are quickly terminated in the story as the Browns learn on arrival that Tilly has died…

‘She giggled helplessly, clutching at the veranda balustrade to keep her balance. Her eyes streamed with tears of laughter […] She thought she would die laughing. Apparently she did.’

But was her fall into the river just an accident? Or was it something more sinister? The Browns certainly have an interesting cast of suspects, including a very confused American hiker named Lee Smith and a greatly disturbed Hungarian, who is determined to convince everyone he is British. There is also a highly strung singer and reclusive composer thrown into the mix. The Brown’s interest in the case is initially lukewarm, but when it looks like Peregrine is going to be arrested, their investigation cranks up a notch, though of course there is no knowing how Dagobert will conclude this case, except that whatever he does, will be highly unorthodox. Though always for the best of reasons.

Overall Thoughts

Ames as always knows how to open his story in an entertaining fashion as we read the postcard Peregrine sends home and then how others react to it. Not being much of a lady killer his mother of course thinks initially that Tilly is related to his botany interests: ‘His letters had been full of Trollius and Trifolium and (Prudence suddenly recalled Tilly). Indeed he had written of her with such warmth and frequency that Prudence, a hasty reader, had not unnaturally assumed that she was some species of rock plant.’ And of course there is Ames’ characteristic narrative bombshell at the end of the first chapter, which I shall not spoil for you, but it certainly opens the mystery out further. Equally Ames maintains an offhand and understated manner when discussing the central death, though I think he is more sensitive as to how he handles the death and violence which happened in WW2 to the characters in the book. One of his central characters is a German officer who was imprisoned in Siberia as the war concluded and how Ames depicts this character is highly interesting, as it is not until the end that you really know how to interpret him. But then Ames is deft at capturing an individual’s voice. Aunt Prudence is a good example of this. We never meet her in the flesh and she only really features twice in the book, yet from these two instances we know exactly what sort of a person she is; a woman whose idea of news constitutes the housekeeper threatening to quit unless a TV is put in the kitchen. You can tell she is nonchalant towards and not really keeping up with the vast social changes taking place around her.

Another theme which has worked its way through the Brown novels is the way Jane, the narrator, self-consciously comments on mystery writing and in this book I particularly enjoyed her brief parodying of the HIBK genre: ‘I began to think of a deep, warm bath and the fragrance of a piping hot Wiener Schnitzel to follow. Had I, as we say, had I but known then what I was so shortly to discover. I mean that Peregrine had completely forgotten to reserve a room for us.’ The bathos here worked really effectively and equally I thought the word play revolving around malapropisms was done well. Some of Ames’ titles have seemed a bit random, but I think this time his choice of title is very fitting and works well with how the plot ultimately pans out.

So another entertaining segment in the Brown series. There is the odd copy of this book online, though prices vary widely.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Green hat

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The Death Box (1946) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan

Source: Review Copy (Sphere, Little Brown Book Group).

Morgan is an author I first came across last year when I reviewed her festive mystery, Another Little Christmas Murder (1947), which was reprinted by Sphere. This year, today’s read is Sphere’s latest Morgan reprint, though it seems a pity so little is known about the author. All that is known about her are the four books she wrote in the 1940s and who originally published them, Macdonald & Co. In fact the author bio section ends with a request for those who know any further about Morgan to contact the Little Brown Book Group. The two remaining novels that have not been reprinted are Murder in Devil’s Hollow (1944) and Talking of Murder (1945). Whether these will be reprinted or not I don’t know.

If you read the Morgan reprint from last year you might have certain expectations for her work, but the opening of this story shows that Morgan is not an author to have her work typecast or categorised. The book begins with Joe Trayne, West End club owner, minding his own business on a street corner when he is approached by a mysterious woman. If you want a quiet life then as a rule of thumb you should ignore or avoid such people; bound to bring chaos and trouble, especially if you just so happen to be in a mystery novel. This proves to be the case when Trayne gets roped into following said mysterious woman back to her apartment where she says there is a dead man. But of course she soon disappears, leaving Trayne with a dead body in a box on his hands, metaphorically speaking. Trayne makes his own departure fairly soon afterwards, but later that night with a new club employee, he returns to the scene only to find the body and box gone and what’s more a rather perplexed woman wondering why there are two men in her apartment. She spins them a story but Trayne is far from convinced and a chance encounter enables him to re-meet the first mysterious woman. From here on in Trayne keeps pulling at the thread of this mystery, unravelling a reclusive lady pianist, a dead artist whose work is now in vogue and of course a reoccurring box, which always turns up with a fresh corpse in it. All of this leads to a thriller showdown and much head thumping ensues…

Overall Thoughts

As I said earlier, readers of Another Little Christmas Murder, may be surprised by today’s book, as it really is a completely different sort of mystery. For starters there is the obvious difference in settings: West End vs. rural England, Summer vs. Winter, but I would also say that Morgan creates a radically different sort of protagonist to follow. Dylis Hughes may be independent like Joe, but other than that they’re fairly worlds apart. Joe is a man of means, but he is no Lord Peter Wimsey. He is not wholly law abiding, being quite happy to not involve the police until the very end of the book and is fairly good at house breaking. In many ways, given current trends in crime fiction and TV drama, Joe is a protagonist with a modern feel. He would not feel out of place if he was lifted into a modern day mystery. He is popular with women, but has no permanent partner. He is aloof and fairly nocturnal. He also has a painful past, but thankfully Morgan only mentions this in passing and does not bore us with endless paragraphs on it. There is perhaps a slight hardboiled feel to Joe in that like all hardboiled private eyes he has the ability to suffer a great deal of injury, yet still keep bouncing back. However I think this element is kept in check. The women in this story are perhaps more on the periphery in some ways, but I think Morgan still uses them quite interestingly, making it hard to decide whether they are on the side of good or bad until the end. This read might have felt more noticeably different for me, as my last few reads have been ones emphasising female characters and domestic suspense. This is not a clue puzzle type of mystery, more of a thriller in the way events unfold. Yet this is not is a criticism though, as the nature of the story suits this mode well and Morgan is good at holding your attention.

Rating: 4/5

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Death of a Doll (1947) by Hilda Lawrence

I have been having quite the Hilda Lawrence-fest this year and have read considerable amount of her output. Though in fairness that isn’t too hard a job to do as she only wrote 4 novels and 2 novellas. Death of a Doll is her final and fourth novel and is the third outing for her serial characters: PI Mark East and two eager amateur sleuths and spinsters, Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty. Having such contrastive sleuths, coming from different mystery subgenres, makes the first half or so of this story an intriguing read. Equally again the first half of the book excellently showcases Lawrence’s talents in creating a high pitch of tension and suspense within a claustrophobic atmosphere. It may be set at Christmas time, but things are far from merry. Lawrence has a strong knack for choosing really good settings for her book and this time she selects a young women’s hostel called Hope House in New York.

The victim is one of its inhabitants who has seemingly jumped to her death 7 storeys up. Very little known about her and it is more convenient to make aspersions upon her character than get to the truth. Lawrence leads the reader up to this point though showing the arrival of a victim and how her enthusiasm for joining the hostel quickly turns to dread and terror, as she realises an awful person from her past, who has threatened to kill her, is not only another inhabitant at the hostel, but has also recognised her in return. Despite her best efforts to escape, (though I felt she could have tried a bit harder), the reader knows her days are numbered and her end is truly terrifying, made even more sinister by an unfortunately themed fancy dress party at the hostel. It is a scene which will stick with the reader for a while.

Overall Thoughts

Some chance acquaintances give Beulah, Bessy and Mark an opening into the case, which has soon been dismissed as a suicide, though it takes a while for their detecting skills to warm up and start uncovering important information about what really happened. And this unfortunately is where the book begins to become unstuck as the remaining 60% of the book is poorly paced, with information and investigative tasks being overly repeated. This would have been a better story if it had been shortened as it would have maintained the tension much better. The ending was good, but it took too long to get there and there is one bit of it which didn’t quite ring true for me. To be honest I think this is a story with too many sleuths and in hindsight should have been either a solely Mark East case or one where the investigative work load is more carefully shared between the three sleuths. The imbalanced approach Lawrence adopts leaves Beulah and Bessy looking like comic spare parts.

However focusing on the first half of the story yields a number of positives. Identity is an important theme in this story, often fleeting in the vast array of characters, hard to pin down, lost in the eternal drabness: ‘They had names like Betty and Peggy and Janie. They meant nothing, they looked exactly alike.’ It is quite telling that Lawrence themes the fancy dress party so all the attendees are in identical dress.

In the opening of the book the hostel sounds more like a grim boarding school in the way the assistant administrator, Angeline Small sees the residents: ‘she wanted to know that all of her seventy girls were safe and sound in their seventy good, though narrow, cots, sleeping correctly and dreamlessly because they were properly nourished and had no ugly little troubles that they hadn’t confessed.’ There is a really feeling of a lack of privacy and individuality, yet surprisingly the story’s victim initially sees this place as a beacon of hope and refuge.

I first came across Beulah and Bessy in Lawrence’s first novel, Blood Upon the Snow (1944) and I think in this story we get to witness their bickering and childlike relationship with each other. Beulah is continually admonishing and correcting Bessy and they are contrastingly described: ‘Bessy resembled an ageing Cupid and Beulah a rejuvenated hawk.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about how they got invited to New York to stay with Roberta:

 ‘Bessy […] wrote Roberta according to her own formula and gave the letter to Beulah to mail. Beulah tore it up because it was six pages long, with a double row of kisses under the signature and a written injunction to the postman on the back of the envelope. ‘Postman, postman, do your duty, take this to a New York beauty.’

Beulah is also anxious about how Roberta’s uppity British servants will perceive and wants to make a good impression. It is said that she ‘practiced facial expression and posture. She also drilled Bessy in what she told her was a genteel carriage, but Bessy’s pink and white fat was uncooperative. They stopped speaking for two days, and Beulah concentrated on herself.’ It is little tell-tale sentences like these which give Lawrence’s characters such realism as I really can imagine Beulah and Bessy acting as Lawrence describes them.

So yeah, unfortunately this is a story which starts well with a lot of promise but does not live up to expectations in the second half, though other readers might enjoy it more.

Rating: 3.75/5

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Book of the Month: November 2017

It is the penultimate monthly round up and whilst I didn’t clock in as many reads as fellow blogger, Mysteries Ahoy! (18 books!!), I did manage 15; a number of which I got for my birthday.

This post will now be interrupted with a brief advertisement:

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The post will now resume its normal business…

Unlike some of my earlier monthly roundups, which had a lot of average or poor reads, November’s reads were mostly strong ones such as Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn (1958) and Foreign Bodies (2017), ed. by Martin Edwards. In fact I had three 5/5 reads, which regular readers of the blog will know is not a common occurrence. Whilst I could make these three books fight it out for prime position, in the end I decided to share the Book of the Month title among them. But which three are they?

First up is Boris Akunin’s All the World’s a Stage (2017), a book I had been dying to read for ages and my anticipation was not disappointed in this theatrically set mystery, where a killer is loose among a troupe of actors.

My second 5/5 read was Henry Slesar’s Enter Murderers (1960), which also has a theatre connection. This story is not a conventional mystery novel and more of an inverted mystery with a series of stings in its tail. Not to be missed.

My final choice was also my final read of the month and is the wonderfully comical and madcap Four Day’s Wonder (1933) by A. A. Milne. Fans of P. G. Wodehouse will definitely want to take a look at this.

Since the beginning of this year I have been participating in Bev Hankins’ Follow the Clues reading challenge, more details of which can be found here. Continuing on from my chain last month my chain is now 156 books long, something I didn’t think I was going to be able to do. Hopefully I can keep it going until the end of the year. Below are this month’s links in the chain:

 

 

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To be a Mystery? Or to not be a Mystery? That is the question in A. A. Milne’s Four Days Wonder (1933)

When I first got into vintage mystery fiction seriously, during my university days, I soon came across Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922), which I remember enjoying a lot. However I also read that this was his only detective novel and if you read his page on the gadetection website that is indeed what you will be told, along with a mention of a couple of short stories published in a collection in 1950. He also wrote an inverted thriller play entitled, The Fourth Wall (1928).

So this certainly makes today’s read an interesting one…

Dire cover but none of the original covers are that appealing.

What is Four Days Wonder? If you read the blurb on the dust jacket you are told: ‘It is easy to describe what this book is not; it is not a detective story although there is a body in it; nor is it a humorous book, although there is a laugh on every page; nor a romance, although there is a hero and heroine. But to describe what it is, is more difficult. Perhaps the only thing to say is that it is by A. A. Milne, and therefore entirely delightful.’ Yet when I asked in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group, those who had read it said they remembered it as a mystery novel. On a side note a short time after I posted this query Milne’s more obscure novels, including this one appeared in e-book formats with jazzy covers. Not saying these two events are linked but an interesting coincidence nevertheless. So before I give the big reveal on what genre this book is, let’s look at the plot…

The story opens with the following lines:

‘When, on a fine June morning not so long ago, Jenny Windell let herself in with her latch-key at Auburn Lodge, and, humming dreamily to herself, drifted upstairs to the drawing-room, she was surprised to see the body of her Aunt Jane lying on a rug by the open door. It had been known for years, of course, that Aunt Jane would come to a bad end.’

Aunt Jane is an actress and of the flapper persuasion and not someone Jenny has seen for 8 years, having been taken care of by her other aunt, Caroline, when she became an orphan. However Caroline died some months before and Jenny, now 18, only returned to Auburn Lodge, (which is now rented out), out of sentimental reasons. She wasn’t expecting to see Aunt Jane and not in such a way either. As far as she can tell Jane’s death is an accidental one, having slipped on the shiny floor with her high heel shoes, hitting her head on a brass doorstop. Too bad Jenny has absentmindedly clean and replaced this item on the piano. Too bad for Jenny that the people renting the house have returned. What will she do? In true P. G. Wodehouse fashion she makes her escape through the window, leaving her bloodstained and monogrammed handkerchief at the crime scene and nice footprint outside the window. Convinced that the police will soon be on to her, she makes her plans to go on the run, enlisting the help of an old school friend. From here on in of course the story expands into a full on madcap adventure with Jenny and her friend getting further into difficulties and complications, inadvertently roping in a number of other unsuspecting people, all the while trying to keep one step ahead of the police. Though given the bumbling nature of the lead policeman, one feels Jenny won’t have too much to worry about…

Overall Thoughts

So the answer you’ve all been waiting for… Four Days Wonder is a mystery novel, but not a conventional detective novel as such, although the police’s progress in the case is documented, including the inquest and post mortem results. This story is certainly a comic crime novel, in the vein of Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927) and I would also say it is a variation on the inverted mystery, with a fugitive focus. Some could call it a thriller but it didn’t come across that way for me. In terms of its tone and style it reminds of the comic crime films of the 40s and 50s, such as The Green Man (1956) and this is another title I would add to my ever growing list of books to be adapted.

More visually appealing but not hugely indicative of the plot.

If you enjoy irreverent send ups of the mystery genre then this is a must read and in my opinion Milne does this very well. For instance at the start of the story Milne pokes fun at the way characters come across bodies in a detective stories:

‘Jenny was a well-read girl, and knew that people were continually drifting upstairs and finding bodies in the drawing-room. Only last night Michael Alloway, a barrister by profession, had found the body of a well-dressed woman on his hearth-rug, with a note by its side which said ‘A K 17 L P K 29 Friday.’

Milnes gives a similar treatment to the clues invariably found by bodies as well, though Jenny is out of luck with her own corpse:

‘So feeling a little excited again, she looked about the floor to see if there were any messages in cipher from the heads of any of the Greatest Criminal Organisations in Europe.’

The way Jenny and others react on first seeing the body of Aunt Jane, (whose name must surely be an ironic reference to Christie’s character…), are also deliberately done in a cardboard, P. G. Wodehouse, am-dram fashion for comic effect. This is not a book where the reader should take anything too seriously. Danger and violence when it presents itself, such as when Jenny encounters a tramp or has to ward off another character’s amorous advances, is quickly undermined and made to look farcical, such as when the tramp ends up standing on a thistle. With a great deal of caution I would say this book has a mild association with the fun atmosphere of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels, though I wouldn’t say that those who dislike the Beresfords should give this tale a miss. Jenny is an unusual heroine. She is an imaginative and adventurous spirit and seems to have developed a tendency to talk to/think thoughts to, her dead father (the Hussar). Though I wouldn’t say this aspect of the plot dominates in anyway, more just part of the colourful background.  The early chapters have a faint Modernist air to them in the way they flit from different narrative viewpoints, but settle into a more conventional manner as the story progresses. For those who enjoy reading vintage mysteries for their little bits of social and cultural details this is a story for you, whether it is hearing a tramp call a pair of tweezers, ‘tweezies’ or Jenny’s shock at Nancy owning a pair of pyjamas, there is lots to pick up.

Overall this is a very well-written and entertaining ridiculous story, which I enjoyed for its language and style as well as its plot, which in itself is well-paced, taking place over four days. Jenny’s time on the run is wonderfully captured with a number of comic scenes such as those when she is being sold and/or using the Watson Combination Watch Dog and Water Pistol, (I’ll say no more), and aside comments such as the fugitive life lesson that ‘you cannot undress behind a haystack.’ Given my enjoyment of this book it is probably a good idea that it has been made into an e-book, though for those of you who prefer physical books, there are some available online that won’t break the bank. Or you could make non-subtle hints to your significant other that a copy of such a book would make an ideal present… tis the season after all.

Rating: 5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Red Head

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Duet of Death (1949) by Hilda Lawrence

This is my second encounter with Hilda Lawrence, though today’s read is a collection of two novellas by her: Composition for Four Hands and The House.

Composition for Four Hands

Lawrence, like Celia Fremlin, knows how to setup her stories in the most respectable, but also most chilling of places. The protagonist of this is Nora, who is a paralysed invalid and who is cared for by her husband as well as various servants and a nurse called Miss Sills. Whilst her physical needs are more than cared for, you can tell she is lacking genuine understanding from those around her, as they often talk about her when in front of her forgetting she can still hear. Direct conversation with her aside from being one sided is also rather patronising, frequently being called ‘baby’. With such a setup there are a number of immediate questions, primarily of which is, how did Nora end up this way? Whilst this question is slowly and creepily answered, other questions take centre stage: Why is she so frightened? Why does she think her life is in danger? And of course how is she going to save herself if she cannot move or speak? Who around her can she really trust? Past events mix with the present, as the novella reaches a nail biting climax.

I really enjoyed this story, as I think Lawrence achieved her setting and setup very well. In weaker hands it could have ended up rather trite, but Lawrence captures claustrophobic/trapped nature of being paralysed and she puts real effort into showing what Nora’s concerns and wishes are and how they often contrasted with what those around her need. The ending is a little rushed, but other than that this story is a first rate chilling story.

The House

In contrast to Lawrence’s first novella, I found this second one to be a poorer fare. It is written in the first person and is narrated by Isobel Ford, who has recently lost her father in unfortunate and mysterious circumstances. All of which lead Isobel to brood over her childhood, (where she was sent to boarding in school in Canada), and more recent times when she has come to stay with her parents. The antics of the family dog are also keeping the household in a state of tension and anxiety – but is there something behind them? After a lot of slow meandering prose the final section of the story has Isobel and some allies figuring out the truth. The truth once it is discovered is interesting and intriguing, yet I think what lets the story down is the how it works up to its crescendo. A slow pace definitely killed the impact this tale could have. I also found it quite hard to engage with the central character.

Yet despite this being a case of 1 out of 2, I would say that the book is worth getting for the first story alone. Just don’t read it late at night…

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Glove

See also:

Blood Upon the Snow (1944)

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