The Nine Dark Hours (1941) by Lenore Glen Offord

Source: Review Copy (Felony and Mayhem)
An Offord a year seems to be a habit of mine and once again it is not one which disappoints. This pacey read set in San Francisco, focuses on hardware filing clerk, (Agnes) Cameron Ferris, which is in keeping with how Offord tends to have working women as her female leads. She is keen for adventure but sorely lacking it. The best she has is the interest of the head of her department Roger Tripp, who invariably tells her the entire plots of films he has seen and who also admires her for her solidity, wholesomeness and dependability – chuffed she is not. Yet she wonders if it is time to settle for and with someone. Tripp manages to persuade her to go on a holiday, (to a place his mother frequently goes to) and of course this holiday is fairly dire, with her guest room springing a massive leak one stormy night.

However adventure and danger are going to be entering Cameron’s life very shortly after this point, as she returns a day early, (luggage-less and down to her last 67 cents), from her wet holiday and finds a startled stranger, (Barney) in her apartment. Once she manages to assert herself on the point that this is her apartment and not his, (not as easy as you imagine – think of Ethel Lina White’s atmosphere of conspiracy in The Wheel Spins (1936)), she is confronted with a highly unusual explanation of Barney’s high handed conduct – an ominous tale of child kidnap and labour production sabotage – but can Cameron really trust all that she is being told? Events unfold at a rapid speed as the novel reaches its cinematic climax…

Overall Thoughts
Offord packs in a healthy amount of action into this 184 paged story, and the tension remains high throughout due to the number of hours over which the events take place and also the fact that a lot of action is contained within Cameron’s apartment and apartment block. I think the uncertainty Cameron has over Barney is well done, as the pendulum does swing convincingly from either extreme. The love/hate relationship also allows for mild dose of comedy, (which prevents the grittiness and darkness of child kidnapping angle not overwhelm the plot), and I think my favourite line from Barney has to be: ‘If I knew you better Miss Ferris, I would show you my biceps.’ Don’t think I will be recommending anyone try that chat up line in a bar… Whilst my favourite spot of witticism by Cameron has to be her response to being called ‘wholesome-looking’ by an old lady on the bus: ‘I turned inwardly livid; but you cannot paste old ladies in the snoot.’
Although Cameron does fall into the category of a woman in jeopardy, I don’t think she is a true HIBK character. She has a lot more spunk and wry self-awareness – especially when it comes to romantic entanglements. I also think this plot felt less artificial than some HIBK novels that I have read. There is in a way a feeling of modernity with this book, the plot would not seem too out of place today. Additionally I think Offord is sometimes humorously undermining the conventions of a woman in jeopardy/HIBK genres. There are some examples I can’t really mention without giving away spoilers, but at the very beginning of the book there is a delightful passage where Cameron uses hyperbole to poke fun at the way certain texts attempt to inappropriately inject romance into every and all situations:

‘Sometimes the advertisements try to make us believe that there’s high romance in all types of business, could one but see below the surface. “Think,” they might say of a concern such as ours, “think of this carload of widgets, resting in Caya’s warehouse. Picture the far-flung territory over which they will eventually be scattered. The farmer on the lonely Dakota plains waits eagerly for the new widget without which his tractor will not run. The shipyards, springing up like magic from Maine to California, could not be built without widgets…”’

So all in all a great read, which keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end and the tightness of the plot would make it a good choice for a film.

Rating: 4.5/5
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Read by a fellow challenger
See also:
Skeleton Key (1943)
My True Love Lies (1947)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Last October I launched a venture called Coffee and Crime – a vintage book box subscription service. If you have managed to miss all of the posts I have mentioned it in, (which is no mean feat), you can find more info via this link.

But I should stop wittering and get to the most important part, the Golden Tickets!!

As of this month, I will be launching a quarterly prize draw within my subscription business. In each quarter I will be awarding one lucky customer with a Golden Ticket, which entitles them to another box completely free!

Entering is very simple, as everyone who places a one month order automatically receives an entry and for those who place longer orders they will receive additional entries (2 entries for a 3 month order, 3 entries for a 6 month order and 4 entries for a 12 month order).

This could be you!!

An additional entry will also be added if you refer a friend, who then goes on to place an order themselves.

Winners will be notified by email and announced on my twitter account @ArmchairSleuth.

So what are you waiting for? And with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, what expresses long held affection better than box of murder, felonies and detective work? (Don’t answer that question!).

Any questions just drop me a message.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Case of the April Fools (1933) by Christopher Bush

This is book 9 in the Ludovic Travers series and was given to me by my Secret Santa this Christmas. I had a rocky start with Bush when I first tried his work with The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), but thankfully things really improved with Dancing Death (1931), which is a Christmas country house mystery. Today’s read is another holiday mystery of sorts, with important events occurring in and around April Fool’s Day, as the title denotes.

Ludovic Travers, director of a publicity and consulting firm, has to negotiate a contract with stage producer Courtney Allard and Charles Crewe, who are wanting a lease on a theatre. Crewe has been getting death threats, but is not treating them seriously. Travers is invited down to Allard’s country abode to complete further discussions, but scraps of conversation he hears, make him worried he would be the butt of an April Fool’s joke when he goes down there. Yet instead a day into his visit he is confronted with a seemingly impossible double murder.

I would definitely say this is a howdunnit mystery as the mechanics, timings and chain of events involved in these crimes are quite complex. Travers and Chief Inspector Norris, (who work well as a sleuthing team), are quite fair in revealing what they know/revealing their sources of inspiration, so readers will be able to follow them as they progress through their case. There is a lot to intrigue and perplex readers in these crimes, including bizarre clues at the crime scene, (in a bedroom), such as a Dutch hoe. One slight niggle is that a very crucial piece of information is only found out at the very end of the book, a piece of information which gives the sleuths their final breakthrough and yet the only thing stopping them from getting this information sooner is one very recalcitrant suspect. I don’t know, perhaps this aspect of mystery writing affects people in different ways, but I think I prefer evidence to be more readily available, yet of course given in such a way that you smack your forehead at the end of the story, when you realise what you’ve missed.

The suspects in this story are mostly from a theatrical and American background, though there is also Allard’s sister, Sue, an absent chauffeur and the crime reporter for the Evening Record. The crimes occur very soon into the story so the reader does not get a chance to know the suspects until after the crime has been committed and Bush has quite a lot of fun with expected and unexpected false identities – which of course all help to keep you guessing about who is or are the guilty party. I particularly enjoyed the way the crimes are sprung upon us as well, as the suspense is keyed up to a high level, yet nothing happens, making you think everything is safe for the time being, only for death to strike suddenly and sharply, leaving two dead.

Favourite line of the book you ask? Definitely has to be when Travers is described as someone ‘who knew as little about women as ducks do about dumplings.’

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Timing of the Crime is Crucial

Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has also reviewed this book here.

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Ben on the Job (1952) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

It has been over two years since I have tried a Ben the Tramp mystery by Farjeon, though I have tried other Farjeon novels in between. Ben is an unusual protagonist, contrasting with the pre-WW2 trend for aristocratic sleuths. He is not a criminal, though he does have an ambivalent attitude towards the law, which is probably due to his peripheral position in society. Yet it is this vulnerable position which enables Ben to come across a number of criminal and bizarre events. Through no inclination of his own he ends up in the middle of such pickles and therefore feels compelled to go on to solve or resolve them after a fashion, based upon his own moral/ethical code.

In this story it is actually through his attempts to evade fate’s predilection for landing him in bother, that Ben ends up in his latest spot of difficulty, when he bumps into a man during a foggy day in London. One thing leads to another and he has a policeman after him and he is only able to avoid him by running into a derelict building’s basement. Yet what he finds in there is not for the faint-hearted, as he lands straight into the middle of a crime scene, a man shot through the chest. Ben is closely followed by an enigmatic man, he nicknames Bushy Brows, and through much verbal fencing, the corpse’s identity, address and loved one are identified. Bushy Brows is keen for Ben to keep in contact and gives him a letter of introduction to his own lodgings and Ben is keen to get to the bottom of what is really going on, so agrees to go there. From here on in Ben has to keep his wits about him as piece by piece he figures out what has really happened, though the conclusion of the case takes him and the reader by surprise.

Overall Thoughts

Ben is quite likeable in a number of ways and the narrative voice contains an underlying humour when talking about him; a sort of cynical commentary on his life. For instance at one point it is said that:

‘he partially filled a neglected void with two substantial sandwiches. They were so substantial that you couldn’t taste what was inside them. Thinking it might be a good idea to find out, Ben opened one to see, but as he found nothing he supposed he had opened it in the wrong place.’

Whilst in another instance you can see his fallibility, in his slightly muddled thinking:

‘A door that is ajar may always be useful to pop into, but you have to remember that before you pop into it, something may pop out if it. There was that time, for instance, when a Chinaman had popped out. And then there was that time when four constables had popped out. And then there was that time when a headless chicken had popped out. Or had that one been a dream?’

Of course it is also quite easy to feel sorry for him and like many a wearied amateur sleuth, murder and chaos seem to follow him around: ‘Ben was an expert on corpses. They just wouldn’t let him alone.’ Though I think my favourite part is when Ben muses on the various places he has to sleep in or on:

‘Ben could sleep anywhere. The acquirement had been developed through a lifetime of necessity […] Once on a very dark night he had slept quite comfortably on a dead cow. True, he did not know at the time that it was a cow, or dead, the alarming discovery being made on waking, but in the darkness the mound had made a comfortable pillow for the head, and what you don’t know doesn’t trouble you.’

I think the only thing which may irritate some readers is Ben’s cockney accent/dialect, as it makes for very hard reading at times and did mean I had to read that much slower to understand what he is saying. I appreciate his form of speech fits in with his character, but his inability to pronounce certain words and his tendency to add h’s left right and centre, did get a bit tiring.

Yet the book is not all about Ben and Farjeon presents us with an array of characters, some more nuanced than others, as he varies the narrative point of view. One of his most memorable character descriptions, for me, is when he says that ‘Mrs Kenton […] looked as though she had […] come off second-best in an encounter with the parrot.’ Furthermore, Farjeon’s flair for description also appears in his setting of scenes, though I think he does enjoy using out of the ordinary similes:

‘The door of No. 46 had once been red, but had now faded to a pale and indeterminate hue, like the lips of an ill, disillusioned girl who no longer had the energy or interest to use a lipstick.’

I don’t know if this book will be everyone’s cup of tea, but in the main I would say it is an entertaining story and the finale surprises were well-conceived.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Shooting

See also:

The House Opposite (1931)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Neck and Neck (1951) by Leo Bruce

In today’s read, the narrator, Lionel Townsend, who chronicles the cases Sergeant Beef solves, is in for a more personal case, as his brother Vincent rings to tell him of their Aunt Aurora’s sudden death. It soon transpires that she was killed with poison and it is not long before the police begin to look suspiciously at those who stood to gain the most by Aurora’s will; namely Lionel and his brother – though a more distant cousin had expected to inherit as well, but had been recently cut out. Of course Lionel wonders how much he can trust his brother and Aurora’s companion, Edith Payne, though it is actually Lionel who struggles to have the most verifiable alibi. It is in this vulnerable position that Lionel decides he needs the help of his friend Sergeant Beef, now an ex-police officer, who has set up as a private detective. Beef promises to help, though also wishes to continue investigating another case in the Cotswolds, of the death an unpleasant publisher which is initially assumed to be suicide but is soon shown to be otherwise.

Overall Thoughts

This is the penultimate Beef mystery, yet it is interesting to see that Bruce is still able to include elements of the unexpected. Firstly Townsend, the narrator, deviates from his derogatory attitude towards Beef and for once is actually nice about him:

‘I could no longer blind myself to the fact that Beef was a genius. I had known him first as a heavy-footed country policeman whose ginger moustache seemed nourished by the beer into which it was all too frequently dipped. Like others I had refused to take him seriously as a detective, his methods seemed outwardly slap-dash […] But his hardy common sense, so blunt and English, so boorish as I sometimes thought, had prevailed too often to leave any doubt about his really profound cleverness.’

Then again his vulnerable position of the police may well have something to do with all of this. Though the reader wonders how much they can trust Townsend, not necessarily because of his being nice, but because he admits to the reader, that like all the other suspects, he had a ‘little secret.’

It was also a first for Beef to have two cases to solve in one story, which overall worked very well. The humour is a little more low key in this book, but I wouldn’t say that is detrimental to the reader enjoyment.

The solution will more than likely hit you about 40 pages from the end, as it did me. It is a perfectly good solution and it fits well with the storyline, but I think seasoned mystery readers will feel a little disappointed. It’s the sort of solution which only fully appeals on the reader’s first experience of it. However, to Bruce’s credit he does present the reader with an additional surprise, playing on reader expectations.

I realise I have sounded a bit lukewarm on this book. It won’t knock your socks off, but the writing style, the characterisation and the pacing are all enjoyable and allow this to remain an entertaining tale nevertheless. Looking at my ratings for the other Beef mysteries I have read (see below), this is my third favourite, which considering that my fourth favourite has a rating of 4 out of 5, is not all that bad.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): At least two deaths with different means

See also:

The Case for Three Detectives (1936)

Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)

Cold Blood (1952)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Murder on the Tropic (1936) by Todd Downing

Last week I reviewed Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013), so it only seemed fitting to take another look at Downing’s own detective stories.

In this adventure Hugh Rennert, US Customs agent, is presented with an unusual request. Edward Solier on inviting him to his office, offers him a chance to make some money to recoup the amount he lost on his citrus crops, (with Solier having sold him the land), which were badly blighted. To recoup the money Rennert has to go to a hacienda, named the Flores in Mexico, which Solier part owns with two others. They need to buy back all the shares they sold on the venture, due to financial difficulties, but one share holder, a botanist called Bertha Fahn, refuses to sell her shares and has taken up residence at the property. Rennert’s task is to convince her to sell and he also has the additional assignment of figuring out who is pouring away vast amounts of the property’s bottled water supply, (the springs having dried up). Rennert agrees, but he senses there is something much more troublesome going on at Flores, with one of Solier’s partners already dead (from sunstroke apparently), and another suffering some kind of illness. Is someone trying to oust the inhabitants from the property? After all a family member of the previous owners is currently residing there due to his plane being damaged and there is also the company architect, who might have an axe to grind. This is a fast paced novel, in that the action takes place over two days, but with most of the book focusing on the first. The body count mounts rapidly, with victims suffering from yellow hallucinations. To add to Rennart’s difficulties, the tail end of a hurricane approaching their area cuts him off from outside help even further.

Overall Thoughts

As I said this story takes place within a rapidly short time frame, which I think worked well with the nature of the plot, given that its’ strengths and emphasis are on setting, characters and a dramatic atmosphere: ‘There’s a tension here, an undercurrent of repressed emotions that rather worries me. It’s like sitting on top of a volcano.’ It is interesting to see how Downing uses the unbearably hot weather and the Mexican culture to create this effective unnerving atmosphere. Living in the North of England, murderous and violent action prompted by overly hot weather, is understandably an unfathomable concept to me, but it works well in this book. I think puzzle focused readers may be a bit disappointed by this novel though, as in some respects it is more thriller-ish in its focus. However having said that Downing does leave some significant clues as to the perpetrator, which of course I didn’t hugely pick up on until the end. It is an enjoyable tale but I think it important to set out what this book does and does not set out to deliver.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a Weather Event

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Case of the Four Friends (1956) by J. C. Masterman

This was quite an unexpected story in a number of ways for me. Firstly we have the author ‘banish[ing]’ his introduction to the end of book, describing it as more like a ‘post-mortem’ or ‘postscript’ than as a ‘foreword.’ Then we have the story itself. If you flick through the first few pages you will, like me, more naturally assume this is going to be an academic set mystery, as we have four friends (some dons, others guests), whiling away an evening in a senior common room, at an Oxford college, with a game of bridge. One of the guests is Dr Ernest Brendel, a lawyer and criminologist, who solved a murder, the last time he came to visit the college. Is another going to take place? Well no actually. Instead the first chapter has the other three bridge players, a Lieutenant General and two dons named Prendergast and Gresham, asking Brendel to critique their bridge playing, believing that he used his investigative skills to help him win all the rubbers. A critique does ensue, but the main point to come out of it is the potential link between crime solving and bridge playing and in fact Brendel actually says he has used the Blackwood convention (a bridge move), to identify culprits. Of course his friends want an example, from a case he has used it in and that is what the remainder of the story proceeds to do, with Brendel and his friends interrupting the narrative from time to time to discuss the action, as it were and make their guesses as to who the guilty party will be.

Reading that last paragraph back, this story may seem rather dull and tame and perhaps only of interest to rabid bridge fans. However, such assumptions are completely unfounded as Masterman presents us with one heck of a tantalising and intriguing case. Brendel relates the story of the case of the four friends, though friends in this question is rather a loose term, as within the quartet of characters, each person is both a potential victim and a potential murderer. As Brendel’s story unfolds we see how events have conspired against these four individuals, past indiscretions becoming fodder for blackmail, a blackmailer fearing discovery, a young man about town also fearing that his embezzlement of company funds will be found out and of course that old favourite romantic jealousy and rivalry. With all of these motives and tensions in place the four head off for their annual New Year holiday and through various circumstances Brendel uncovers enough going on to fear that the end of the Hotel Magnifico’s fancy dress ball will culminate in death. Whilst in retrospect he has much more knowledge at his finger tips to give the reader, at that particular time and moment, Brendel only has enough to do minimal ‘pre-crime construction’ and ‘pre-detection,’ i.e. begin detecting before the crime has been committed. But will he be able to stop the murder that he fears will take place? In fact does he even know for certain who is going to be the victim, as well as who is going to be the killer?

Overall Thoughts

I hope I have done this story justice, as the plot and its story within a story structure is so wonderfully executed and I found it intriguing to have the crime or the prevention of, as the story’s finale, turning upside down what we usually expect from a detective story. Christie did play around with this idea in one of her own novels, but I think Masterman’s take on it, is by the far more ironic and darkly comical. The ending is delightfully unexpected and entertaining and perhaps could be described as being in the Francis Iles vein. Masterman takes suspense to a whole new level by leaving you in the dark as to who even the victim will be or whether there will even be more than one. Masterman also reveals his strengths as a writer, in the way he goes about delivering the story within a story, (which reminded me of Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (1932)), as although his book has a very good concept at its centre, it could have gone badly wrong if mishandled. In his introduction he wonders how a reader could find his tale interesting, given that they are hearing a case second hand, but as for this particular reader, I certainly did find it so. He avoids repetition of material and Brendel has a good narrator’s style.

Still not sure I’ve done this story justice, but just trust me that it is a very good one. Whether it is all about the solving of the puzzle of whether it is all about the characters, I think readers with either preference won’t be disappointed. Furthermore, I think this is definitely a text which pushes the genre boundaries to their very edges, but without compromising on the story entertainment.

Rating: 5/5

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


A brief foray on the internet has shown that two fellow bloggers have also reviewed this book, Moira at Clothes in Books and Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time. Bizarrely, (from my point of view), they don’t seem to have enjoyed it as much as I did. Is there something wrong with me? Were we reading the same book? Perhaps this is the final surprise of the book.

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) by John Dickson Carr

Today’s read is in preparation for JJ and Ben’s forthcoming discussion on this book, later this month. The only Carr novel I managed to read last year was Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956), which was not that great of a read, so I was hoping I would fare better with this one.

The plot commences with a love triangle of sorts. Hugh Rowland, a solicitor, is madly in love with Brenda White, but she is already engaged to another man, Frank Dorrance. Hugh is not so convinced Brenda loves her fiancé and is more committed to the relationship due to social and financial pressures. In particular Frank’s uncle left a will which only leaves his substantial wealth to his nephew and Brenda if they get married and will only stay with them as long as they remain so. Though before anyone begins feeling sorry for Frank, who sees Brenda and Hugh kissing, the narrative soon reveals the spoilt and unpleasant man Frank is and it is therefore no surprise to the reader that after an afternoon of tennis, followed by a storm, Frank is found dead on the tennis court – strangled. Brenda puts herself in jeopardy when she finds his body and walks across the sandy court, as you see there are only two sets of footprints, hers and Frank’s. She swears to Hugh she didn’t do the deed, but who did? And more perplexingly how? As the tennis court and its surroundings are designed in such a way to make it seem impossible anyone could have murdered Frank, other than Brenda. Of course Brenda and Hugh’s lies, as well as the actions of another unknown party muddy the investigative waters for Superintendent Hadley and Gideon Fell.

Overall Thoughts

With Carr there is often an expectation of his mysteries having very intricate murder methods and there is also often an expectation of his stories having a decidedly gothic hue and atmosphere: It Walks By Night (1930) and The Burning Court (1937) are but two examples of this expectation being vindicated. However, what struck me about this book was not that it didn’t have an intricate murder method, indeed this is a technically very fiendish murder to pull off indeed, but that the story itself seemed to focus much more narrative space on its suspects and their relationships with one another, as well as the lies they are prepared to give. The beginning of the story has oppressively hot weather and this becomes a form of pathetic fallacy, as a symbol for the increasingly and unbearably tense emotions going on underneath respectable surfaces. Yet for all that, this intensity of personality, (which I think is embodied into the themed chapter headings), I wouldn’t say it came across as particularly gothic. Having said all this, these are not criticisms of the story, but just something I noticed. In some ways this is perhaps not your typical Carr and interestingly Gideon Fell, who does appear in this story, takes much more of a behind the scenes sort of role. On the one hand this prevented any over theorising, as in some books he can go on a bit, but on the other hand I think I felt more in the dark regarding how the murder was achieved until Fell reveals all at the end. The culprit I did manage to identify but that was more due to reader instinct than specific proofs.

So to the characters who stole the limelight for themselves. I think Brenda and Hugh make for unusual protagonists and in the latter case arguably quite a morally ambiguous one, as Hugh does admit later on in the book that he and his father fabricated evidence to get a guilty client free of their murder charge. Initially when you first meet Brenda around Frank, it is easy to see them as a variation of a descendent of another fictional ill-matched couple, Daisy and Tom Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with their relationship being held together by money and social standing. But then we get to see another side to her, (Frank really is a sinister take on the bright young thing). Brenda is a complex heroine, an orphan, who is worldly and not naïve, but equally not all that experienced. After the murder, other characters, such as Kitty, begin to disparage her and present her as an oddity, saying she ‘doesn’t seem to like the things most normal girls like […] positively hates small-talk and all things social […] and she reads too much, she reads and reads and reads; it’s not natural.’ This desire for reading is not hugely apparent elsewhere in the text, but I guess the murder was probably taking up more of Brenda’s time and attention, (after all what book would you want to read whilst being a part of a murder investigation?) As I mentioned earlier, Dr Fell, has a more minor presence in the novel, but I think he still has some entertaining moments. A personal favourite is when he assesses his skills and talents as a sleuth, demarcating those areas which he is not so good at: ‘If I were to attempt shadowing anybody, the shadowee would find himself about as inconspicuous as though he were to walk down Piccadilly pursued by the Albert Memorial.’ Furthermore, there were also other moments of unexpected comedy in this book, which I equally enjoyed a lot, such as when Hugh’s father sends his assistants to experimentally find out whether or not it is possible to walk across a tennis court net when it is tied up.

So on the whole I think I rather enjoyed this one. Tension and drama, even without the gothic hues, were well maintained, as I particularly liked the countdown to Frank’s death, which appeared in parenthesis within the text. The pace was good on the whole and Carr presents the reader with some interesting characters to grapple with. The culprit is perhaps an easy one to intuit, but the murder method is definitely a puzzling one. Good read to start the year with and I am looking forward to hearing JJ and Ben’s thoughts on it.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Strangulation

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 34 Comments

Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013) by Curtis Evans

Today’s review is a continuation of my plans to focus this month on some of the non-fiction books sitting on my TBR pile.

One of the first things to interest me in this book, (on the very first page no less), was how Evans describes the lack of discussion, critical or otherwise on a multitude of mystery writers during the interwar years. I wouldn’t say that things have completely reversed since that point in 2013, but I think things have changed a certain amount in the last four years, though in some respects there is still a long way to go before well-established stereotypes about interwar mystery fiction are finally uprooted. However I digress.

Evans’ book looks at the reviews Todd Downing wrote in the 1930s for the Daily Oklahoman, with the book’s title being taken from the column he had for a number of years: Clues and Corpses. His most prolific reviewing period was between 1932 and 1934, where he would review 2-3 books a time. Reviews either side of these dates are less frequent, though interestingly his reviews were usually longer than other contemporary reviewers, such as Judge Lynch, writing between 150-350 words a review. However before the reader arrives at these reviews, (and Evans commentary on them), the reader has the additional delight of an in depth and substantially researched introduction by Evans, which explores his life, work and reviews, noting the various influences which affected him, such as the books he read, Mexican culture and his 1/8th Native American heritage. Evans also reveals the parallels which can be made between Downing and his fictional sleuth, Hugh Rennert. In regards to his own writing career, Evans is adept at recommending the best titles to read first, as well as charting the various aspects of Downing’s fiction as his writing career progressed.

Looking at Downing’s reviews in a general sense, one of the key things I took away from the book was the richness and diversity of the mystery fiction being produced in the 1930s, which disturbs and disrupts the confining ideas people can have about this writing period, (i.e. the UK did cosy/genteel mystery fiction, whilst the US was the producer of purely hardboiled works). An advantage of having Downing’s reviews all in one place is that you can observe how his reading tastes evolved and changed and how his opinion on specific writers transformed, though in the main he preferred mysteries with a decided shudder/horror factor and anything written by Rufus King, who he loved. Evans in his introduction also provides some illuminating review statistics, revealing that there was definite dominance of male writers over their female counterparts, as 77% of his 286 reviews were written by men and Evans feels that this counteracts the accepted theory of classic detective fiction being dominating by women (in terms of number of writers). However interestingly in 1934 Downing wrote, in a Dorothy L Sayers review, that: ‘when and if detective fiction establishes its right to the dignity of critical studies, some bespectacled student will find material for a thesis in the subject of femininity in the genre.’ He also goes on to say that the ‘readers of mystery yarns are predominately masculine,’ but that female writers most consistently delivered ‘some of the best work in the field.’ Is this the reason for their longevity? In addition, like Sayers, in her own reviews and critical work, Downing considers the evolution of characterisation in mystery fiction, remarking on the increased importance this writing aspect was having on the genre. However in contrast to Sayers, it seems that even over time, Downing was still much more conservative towards the love interest in detective fiction.

The authors Downing most reviewed in his column were Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Eden Phillpotts, H. C. Bailey, John Dickson Carr, Carolyn Wells, (despite not hugely liking her work), Herbert Adams, John Street, Patricia Wentworth, (who grew on him as a writer, though becoming almost like a guilty pleasure for him,) Anthony Wynne, Mignon Eberhart, Harry Stephen Keeler, Rufus King, Milton Propper and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others. As an additional task, when reading this book, I decided to keep score of how many of the books Downing reviewed, that I had read. Perhaps shockingly, or perhaps not, this final score was only 32.5 (or 34.5 if I can count each Sayers novel in the Omnibus he reviewed). Either way it seems quite a low figure, given how many books I read from the 1930s. This is partially because he reviews some authors a lot, which I have not tried and partially because I have tried various authors he has but not that specific book. Though to console myself slightly, I do have two of his review books in my TBR pile, The Deadly Dowager by Edwin Greenwood and The Case of the April Fools by Christopher Bush. However on the bright side this book does go to show how many new authors there are waiting for me in 1930s mystery fiction, especially new writers of psychological crime fiction, which is usually associated more with the 40s and 50s, but was actually being published a lot, in the 30s.

Downing on French Mystery Fiction

Although most of the mystery novels Downing reviewed were by UK or US authors, he did also look at new translations of French writers, though sadly he did not hugely enjoy them in the main to the extent that in one review he writes: ‘We wish that some Francophile would come to the defense of the French mystery story and aid us in our benightment. So many French fans can’t be wrong.’ It was pleasing to see Xavier Lechard and his blog, At the Villa Rose, mentioned in the footnotes. Perhaps Xavier could have convinced Downing that not all French mystery fiction was bad?

Odd Authors

One of the advantages of these reviews being accompanied by a commentary is that you are able to glean extra and unusual nuggets of information about the writers being reviewed, such as finding out that one writer was also an editor of collections of drinking songs, whilst another allegedly disappeared in Norway during the 1940 German invasion, whilst another was more famous for running a hand loom weaving correspondence course. There is also the author who wins the prize for the weirdest title – Willoughby Sharpe’s The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, though sadly this never made it into print. I feel there should also be a special mention of Walter S. Masterman, who in Death Turns a Traitor, forgets to explain one of the murders which occurs at the start of his book. Oops!

Recommendations to My Fellow Bloggers

One of the things I have loved most about starting a blog was finding other bloggers who shared my passion for vintage fiction and over time, through diligent perusal of their blog posts, it has been possible to identify some niche preferences my fellow bloggers have and therefore decided to keep my eyes peeled for any books I could recommend for them from Downings’ reviews.

First up for all my fellow bloggers who love impossible or locked room mysteries, (in particular JJ (The Invisible Event), Dan (The Reader is Warned) and Ben (The Green Capsule), Downing would definitely recommend the work of Anthony Abbot. For instance in Abbot’s About the Murder of Geraldine Foster, Downing summarises that, ‘the pigeons have died from drinking the blood of the dead girl, but the medical examiner has said that she has been dead only two days, while the pigeons have been dead ten.’ Baffling and icky at the same time! Equally in Murder at the Library by Charles J Dutton, a librarian is strangled within calling distance of 50 other library users.

For our vintage fashion expert, Moira (Clothes in Books), there is Carolyn Wells’ The Umbrella Murder. Whilst Downing does not wholly rate Wells as a writer, he does note that she is big on describing swimwear in this novel.

Aidan, at Mysteries Galore Blog, is a new blogger who joined the scene last autumn, is planning on reading lots of inverted mysteries this year, so to stop him running out of titles to pick from, Downing would probably recommend J H Wallis’ The Servant of Death.

Last but not least there is Bev Hankins, writer of the blog My Reader’s Block and Brad Friedman of ahsweetmysteries blog. Bev is a big fan of academic mysteries, whilst Brad is keen on ones with a theatrical milieu. Yet surprisingly there is somewhat of a lack of both of these subgenres in Downing’s reviews. However two which did crop up are Murder at Cambridge by Q Patrick, though I feel Bev is sure to have read this one already and Death in the Theatre J R Wilmot.

Opinions on the Big Names

When reading a work such as this it is always interesting to see what the reviewer has to say about the big names from this writing era, mainly because you’re more likely to have read some of their work and be able to assess the reviewer’s opinions.

The Puzzle Doctor (In Search of the Classic Mystery) is a big fan of both John Street and Brian Flynn. Whilst Flynn is not reviewed in this collection, Downing does review Street, though perhaps not as favourably as the Puzzle Doctor would like…

‘The murder of old Mr Coningsworth is an ingenious one, but the author has not shown equal ingenuity in concealing the identity of the murderer. If the reader cannot identify him before he has read half the book he had better quit reading detective stories.’ (Dr Priestley Investigates)

‘No excitement in the tale save that deriving from interest in the solution of the problem. The last, however, is neat, logical and within the grasp of any alert reader.’ (Death in the Tunnel)

Of course writers such as Christie are reviewed and Downing says of her work that ‘the reader of mystery stories has learned that he has about nine chances out of ten of obtaining a good yarn when he buys a book with Agatha Christie’s name on the cover.’ Moreover in a review of Death in the Clouds, Downing writes that you are ‘pitting your wits against the cleverest baffler in the field of detective fiction’ and that ‘Miss Christie is going in for the X-ray fashion of peeking into character’s minds.’ Additionally he seems to have liked The Murder on the Orient Express so much, that it very likely inspired his own train bound mystery, Vultures in the Sky. Fear not, Carr fans, as Downing writes in one review that he is ‘among [Carr’s] most vociferous fans’ and he also pleasing describes The Blind Barber, as a ‘comedy of terrors’ and that he is soon planning to re-read it. Finally a comment which will surely divide the GAD fiction community, Downing writes of Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that it is ‘the most engrossing and gruesome baffler of Miss Sayer’s career.’

Amusing Put Downs

There is something about a negative review, which gives it the potential to be that much funnier than a positive review and Downing does not disappoint us, though I feel Dorothy L Sayers will always hold the prize for being the bluntest. Here are a few of my favourites…

‘Jimmy set a trap for the murderer and was as surprised at the result, although not as disappointed, as the reader will be […] We prefer our sleuths without wives and maiden aunts, however.’ (The Murder Trap by Armstrong Livingston)

‘As if a love sick inspector were not bad enough, there is a police superintendent who quotes classic poets […] The author assures us that the characters in his book are entirely fictitious. It is a relief to know that so many tiresome people do not really exist.’ (The Round Table Murders by Peter Baron)

The Lonely House by Arthur Gask ‘is said to be threatening Edgar Wallace’s popularity in England, where his stories are creating a “sensation”. I never did have a very high opinion of the English.’

On reviewing the 741 paged The Matilda Hunter Murder Harry by Stephen Keeler, Downing writes that it is ‘too long, too complicated, too scientific, for anyone but a Robinson Crusoe.’

‘Dick cogitates and opines: ‘The reason for such an inhumane crime is indistinguishably bound up with its perpetrator.’ Just what we suspected all along.’ (The Birthday Murder by Kathleen Sproul)

The bell ringing terminology in Sayers’ The Nine Taylors ‘left us feeling as if we had tried to master a correspondence lesson in calculus.’

Mean Davis gets the prize for over the top prose with examples including: ‘sudden gusts of terror, like darting sharks beneath a summer sea,’ ‘his voice tiptoed into her intensity’ and ‘her eyes glowed like ripe olives.’

Dorothy Bennett wrote a detective story, called How Strange a Thing, in the form of a poem. Suffice to say it was not a success…

Points to that make you think

Like Sayers’ reviews, Downing often included comments that encompassed the mystery genre more generally, which at times gave me pause for the thought. For instance in a review of Found Drowned by Eden Phillpotts, Downing writes that ‘I am always more interested in the murderer than in the detective, perhaps because most of the murderers one meets in books are so much less tiresome than most detectives…’ Whilst in a review of a story collection edited by Kenneth Macgowan he writes that:

‘There are two kinds of people in the world – those who read detective stories and those who don’t. the latter have had all the innings so far, as evidence[d] by the sheepish and apologetic air which the reader of detective fiction […] assumes when he is caught coming out of a bookstore with a lurid-covered tale of murder under his arm. Things are looking brighter for those of us belonging to that happy first class […] in time we may be able to return some of the sneers that have been cast at us. For detective fiction […] is beginning to assume the dignity of such accepted hobbies as bridge and philately.’

I don’t agree with all of Downing’s comments on mystery fiction though, as for example I don’t find Miss Marple ‘naïve’ in The Tuesday Club Murders and I think some will find contention with his belief that ‘a mystery writer’s business is to keep the mystery reader’s mind away from, not on, serious matters.’ Equally I think reading tastes have definitely changed in regards to H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune. Downing writes in one review that ‘the thought occurs that Reggie Fortune is probably the only sleuth active today who meets with the approval of every mystery fan of our acquaintance.’ Yet today I would say Fortune is struggling to find much of an audience at all.

The Appendices

If that wasn’t enough Evans also treats us to an interview Kenneth C. Kaufmann did with Todd Downing in 1934, in which he cites his 6 favourite mysteries: Murder by Latitude or any other mystery by Rufus King, The Greene Murder Case or The Bishop Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Silver Scale Mystery by Anthony Wynne and From This Dark Stairway by Mignon Eberhart. There is also Downing’s review of Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), as well as his 1943 essay, ‘Murder is a rather serious business’ and articles on Downing’s own mystery fiction.

Overall Thoughts

Unsurprisingly this is a book I highly recommend and thankfully its’ price is not out of range for the average vintage mystery fan, nor is it inaccessible in its writing style. It was also lovely to see in the commentary footnotes, mentions of other fellow bloggers, such as TomCat (Beneath the Stains of Time), for his review on Virgil Markham’s Red Warning and John Norris (Pretty Sinister), for his posts on R C Ashby and August Derleth. In terms of comparing my reading tastes with Downing’s I think we would have got on well with a mutual love of psychological and suspense mystery fiction, though I think I might appreciate the humour of writers such as Richard Hull more. Equally I was much more positive on Francis Beeding’s The Norwich Victims, though Downing’s lukewarm response might be due to the dustjacket of the original edition including spoilers. I am also intrigued by a thriller which has an Orpington (presumably a chicken) that apparently ‘change[s] its identity in the grave.’ It is only a pity that Downing didn’t think it a very good book.

I am going to be taking a break from my nonfiction books on crime fiction and head back into the world of fiction for a while, with my next read hopefully happening in time before JJ and his confederates discuss it.

Rating: 4.5/5

See also by Evans:

The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015)

See also by Todd Downing:

Murder on Tour (1933)

The Cat Screams (1934)

Vultures in the Sky (1935)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , | 33 Comments

Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (2017) by Victoria Stewart

Source: Review Copy (Cambridge University Press)

As part of a general aim for this month, namely to get around to reading the various literary criticism I have on crime fiction, I decided to finish off reading this book today.

Stewart in her introduction sets out her intentions:

‘My focus in this study is on what, if anything, interwar detective fiction might have been trying to escape from and whether this escape was or could ever be successful. I will bring to light some of the varied non-fictional accounts of crime from this period, and also examine novels that refuse to comply with the ‘rules’ of detective fiction but which are centrally concerned with crime and criminality, often reworking in fictional form cases that would have been familiar to contemporary readers.’

‘My contention throughout this book is that it behoves us to examine these contemporaneous narratives about, and ways of understanding, crime because detective fiction was not hermetically sealed from a broader, pervasive field of representation of criminality.’

Whilst I am not sure she manages to cover all of these aims, the intention which came across most strongly for me was her exploration of how authors were influenced by and used true crimes past and present in their work and how in turn newspaper trial reports and perspectives on real life cases were coloured by the mystery novels people were reading at that time. Furthermore, Stewart states her focus on female authors of the time, in particular Marie Belloc Lowndes, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers and Daphne Du Maurier and a key theme she draws upon with some of these writers is looking at how ‘the ways in which relations between men and women are addressed (or avoided) in’ their crime/mystery narratives. In addition Stuart also considers the non-fiction that mystery writers sometimes wrote on sensational cases or trials, (the Notable Trials series is looked at a lot), and in doing, she also examines the similarities between true crime and mystery fiction and the fine line authors were treading in their fictional work ‘between critiquing and indulging sensationalism, producing stories that question the representational strategies of both fictional and non-fictional crime writing.’

Aside from introducing the reader to her aims and the historical/literary context she is writing about, she also goes on to look at how perceptions and accounts of trials evolved in fiction and newspapers and it was interesting to read about the various legal changes which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th century when it came to trials, such as when they finally allowed the defendant to speak and be questioned, as in earlier times the accused was prohibited from speaking. As trials became longer and more prominent so did their fictionalisations, though Stewart does note that:

‘detective novels tend not to recount the trial of the individual whom the investigator identifies as the guilty party because the watertightness of the investigation itself acts as a substitute for the depiction of the judicial process. An account of the trial would reiterate the findings of the investigation that has formed the body of the narrative. Thus the detective figure is a substitute for both the police and the legal system.’

Though of course is Stewart is aware that exceptions did exist and I am sure we can all think of quite a variety of examples from the works of Carr, Sayers, Allingham, Frances Iles and Philip Macdonald etc.

The rest of the book is divided into four chapters plus a final coda. In each chapter the reader is introduced to a variety of real life cases, such as the Charles Bravo, Madeline Smith and Harriet Staunton cases in the first chapter. The work of Marie Belloc Lowndes crops up a lot in this chapter, which seeks to look at how interwar writers were responding to and selectively choosing criminal cases from the previous century, in particular how they were critiquing social attitudes and the role of women as perpetrators and victims of violent crime, with the former sometimes being seen as victims of unfair social circumstances. I think the wideness of the scope of this chapter let it down a bit, at times, as the narrative jumps around in topic, so it takes an effort to find the links between them all. Moreover, a range of lesser known works by Lowndes are discussed in a general fashion, which helps to place them in their literary context, but I think detailed discussion was lacking. I would have preferred more detail on specific points as I felt like I was getting close to something interesting, only to be hurried on.

The next chapter in the book focuses on the fictional and true crime writing of F Tennyson Jesse, an author I have only encountered in Double Death: An Exercise in Detection (1939). A key trial looked at in this chapter is the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters trial of 1922, where critics such as Lucy Bland, say that Edith ‘was on trial not just for murder but arguably also for her modernity, her consumption of mass culture – her seeking of sensation – and above all for her sexual agency,’ as well as being judged on the novels she read, (as these were discussed during her trial). I enjoyed reading about Jesse’s non-fiction work on notable trials and how this was affected by her creative writing leanings: ‘There is then, a tension between her desire to explain crime as a measurable social phenomenon and the creation of the narrative of an individual’s life and crime from the various fragments of available material.’ Jesse was also known for having popularised the term, “murderee” and Stewart goes on to look at how Jesse explored the psychology and behaviour of the victims she wrote about, with Jesse’s opinions even going as far as suggesting that some people are born to be killed, in the way their actions put their lives in jeopardy and stir up the violent nature in others. Jesse according to this chapter seems to have more compassion for female killers than female victims and Stuart uses an apt example in the short story, ‘Lot’s Wife.’

The third chapter turns to Dorothy L. Sayers, the theme of undiscovered or perfect crimes and how these types of crimes have to be managed in fictional formats, in terms of narrator, characterisation and order and focus of plot events. Difficulties such as how to punish a criminal character who has been humanised and whether a fatality which occurs via suggestion can be classed as murder are also mentioned. Two texts which are discussed in detail are Sayers’ contributions to Six Against the Yard (1936) and The Anatomy of Murder (1936), in the latter of which Sayers discusses the Wallace case – both of which were well written about. I also particularly enjoyed reading about a short story written by Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ (1889). Another interesting point which is raised in the chapter is how newspapers at the time had an array of crime texts: trials reports, mystery story serialisations, as well as essays on past trials and how this array merged in the minds of the readers, making fictional and real life criminal cases hard to separate at times in terms of how you respond to them.

The final chapter commences with looking at the 1924 Patrick Mahlon murder case, as a gateway into discussing how ‘issues of masculinity, sexuality and violence [were] coming into focus in highly troubling ways and [how they therefore] became a frequent point of reference for literary authors.’ Lowndes, Elizabeth Bowen and Daphne Du Maurier are the three key writers focused on in chapter and how they ‘raise the question of how criminality and supposed criminality can expose a crisis in masculinity, a crisis which is both a cause and a symptom of criminal behaviour, and is closely imbricated with the domestic.’ Whilst finding this a very interesting and engaging chapter I am not entirely sure Stewart achieved the aims she sets out at the start of the chapter, as I felt that the two dominant themes of the chapter were how writers such as Lowndes were using cases like the Mahlon one in their work to explore sexual double standards for women and how writers such as Bowndes were looking creating a subgenre of mysteries which could be entitled: ‘Who have I married?’ – tales where a newly married woman begins to have grave suspicions about the man they have wedded. I can see how these themes do kind of tie into the idea of ‘dangerous men,’ (a key term from the chapter’s title), but on the whole I don’t feel this idea was explicitly linked to the texts explored sufficiently.

The final coda looks ahead to the 40s and 50s and how the relationship between fictional and real life murder cases were evolving. On an entirely random note Stewart’s brief discussion of John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) at the start of the chapter enabled me to have a light bulb moment about Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problems (1927), as it suddenly dawned on me how the similarities in plot events between the two arguably make the later novel a comic re-writing and an almost spoof of the former. Apologies for the tangent – but it was a point which interested me. Back to the book under review. One of this book’s biggest strengths is its inclusion of and discussion of obscure writers and titles. Anyone else not heard of Jessie Rickard and Elizabeth Jenkins? Equally whilst I have read some of Lowndes stories, this book has inspired me to return to her work. It is easy to tell that Stewart has put a lot and time of effort into researching her subject, as the additional footnotes have a wealth of interesting and important information, meaning that you don’t need too much prior knowledge before reading the book. Stewart’s choice of topic is a good one, as I was kept engaged throughout, despite my odd niggles about whether stated aims were achieved or not. I think this book also shows how much the British Library Crime Classics series has contributed to academic works, as I have seen quite a few academic publications turning to less critiqued authors, presumably aided by these reprints. So this is definitely a book I think golden age detective fiction fans will get a lot out of. The only difficulty perhaps is not a lack of available copies but the price of them.

Rating: 4.5/5

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , | 21 Comments