The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017) by Christopher Fowler

Source: Review Copy (Riverrun)

From the very first page you can tell Christopher Fowler is an author who loves books. In this book Fowler looks at 99 authors, many of which are crime writers, who he considers have been forgotten. Sci-fi, non-fiction writers, short story anthologists and playwrights are also included, giving this book a very varied content, though often Fowler makes connections from chapter to chapter.

A question Fowler answers in this opening pages is ‘How did I gauge whether a popular author had become forgotten?’ His answer is: ‘First I read them, and if their books proved difficult to obtain I considered including them. Then I tested their names on a focus group of about twenty book lovers, including agents, publishers, friends and relatives. If I drew blank looks (and some of these blank looks shocked me until I realised it was partly an age thing) I tried to uncover the reasons for their disappearance.’ Looking at the rest of the book based on Fowler’s own pre-set criteria I would say he has mixed success, as I don’t think this criteria is always strictly adhered to, with some authors in his list being relatively easy to obtain and others not being quite so obscure as I envisaged. After all the first author being discussed is Margery Allingham, which he justifies by saying that ‘very few readers seem to have got to grips with her novels.’ Equally I don’t think at times Fowler explores or discusses sufficiently the reasons why some authors have become obscure. However I think this book becomes a better read if you don’t keep that criteria in your head and just enjoy the book for what it actually is: a collection of intriguing snapshots and vignettes of a variety of authors; introducing readers to ones they have not heard of before and providing interesting titbits of information for those they know already.

Given the crime fiction focus of this blog, my review will be predominately focusing on the mystery fiction author entries. Here are a few things I learnt:

  • Whilst working on The Avengers TV series, Brian Clemens confirmed Fowler’s feeling that the plots they were working on were ‘Allingham-style Golden Age plots transposed to the medium of television.’
  • 30 years before Daphne Du Maurier wrote her story The Birds, Frank Baker wrote his own, with the same title. The plots of both have quite a large number of similarities, though Baker’s work has a more fantasy leaning.
  • ‘The crime writer Ngaio Marsh was so influenced by Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, that she used it as a template for a novel, Death and the Dancing Footman.’
  • Leslie Charteris was one of the earliest members of Mensa.
  • Patrick Derris gave up his successful writing career and kept it a secret whilst he worked as a butler for the CEO of Macdonald’s.
  • The writer of The Bridge Over the River Kwai also wrote the novel which was the basis for the film Planet of the Apes.
  • Never really considered how odd a life Pamela Branch led until I read this: ‘she was born on her parents’ tea estate in Ceylon, went to RADA, married, learned Urdu, trekked the Himalayas, trained racehorses and moved to a twelfth-century Greek monastery. As one does.’ Equally she and her husband ‘drove about town in an old taxi while she used to mail out blood-smeared postcards and boxes of poisoned chocolates from her characters.’
  • Thomas Burke, author of the short story ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole,’ which claimed the title of ‘best mystery tale of all time’ 1949, also fabricated elements of his personal history in order to perpetuate and contribute towards Yellow Peril literature.
  • August Derleth created a Sherlock Holmes pastiche called Solor Pons, yet his sleuth existed in a world where Holmes existed as a separate character.
  • One of the murder methods used in the work of Arthur Upfield was then later used by someone he knew in real life.
  • There is a London pub named after Edgar Wallace, an author who could write up to 18 novels a year and consume between 30-40 cups of tea and 80-100 cigarettes a day.

One thing I will definitely say about this book is that Fowler voices a number of provocative or possibly controversial opinions about books, authors and particular genres. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I feel that these opinions will challenge readers to form their own ideas. The opinions which perhaps provoked the strongest reaction in me were those concerning Golden Age detective fiction authors. For instance you get the impression from this book that he is no ardent fan of Christie, whose work is compared unfavourably with the likes of Edmund Crispin and Gladys Mitchell. Her works are labelled as ‘neatly structured but skeletal,’ as well as ‘aggressively anti-intellectual and crueller for it; hers was a world where confirmed bachelors committed suicide out of shame.’ Gladys Mitchell’s novels are seen as more interesting, whilst Christie is deemed ‘safer’. Not the world’s biggest Mitchell fan, so couldn’t help but smile when Fowler writes that ‘by surprising too much she sometimes disappointed – therein lies the clue to her canonical absence.’ At this point I did feel like saying that perhaps the plots in books frequently make no sense and are often written in a very dense fashion were also a contributory factor. Oh and he certainly doesn’t seem to have anything nice to say about Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, the work of Elizabeth Daly, nor Midsummer Murders. But I think I can live with that.

One vintage mystery writer Fowler does like is Edmund Crispin, though I think in his discussion of why he is not so well known, (which is debatable in itself), he ends up contradicting himself. He writes that:

‘Why isn’t he better known? He’s certainly a lot more enjoyable than the Golden Age’s stuffier aristo detectives. Perhaps the problem, though; some prefer their whodunits to be dry, logical, serious and straightforward, like crossword puzzles.’

However he then goes on to say that for Crispin’s Fen ‘crimes are simply puzzles to be solved.’ Yet that kind of undermines his notion that people don’t like Crispin’s mysteries because they are not ‘like crossword puzzles.’ The above quote does also reveal Fowler’s tendency at times to make rather broad and sweeping statements. This is one of the downsides of the chapters being so short (2-4 pages), though of course this size limit does have its upsides as well.

For those of you wondering what Fowler makes of John Dickson Carr, you’ll be glad to know that he mentions the legions of online fans of the author. He suggests that the reason he became obscure was that ‘sometimes authors simply fall out of favour with the public because they relentlessly pursue a single theme.’ In Carr’s case this would be locked room/impossible crimes. I don’t think this idea would be too wildly disagreed with but I am interested to see what ardent Carr fans make of the following comments:

‘For Carr the plot isn’t just the thing, it’s everything, and most of the characters are ambulatory board-game figures being shunted according to the author’s master plan.’

‘Sadly we live in a time where there is no patience for barmy British sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders, and Dickson Carr wasn’t remotely interested in offering his readers realism or relevance.’

Unsurprisingly I came across a number of authors I hadn’t heard of before, but now want to try, such as E. M. Delafield, the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong and Australian suspense writer, Patricia Carlon – though I wonder if her books might be too scary for me (I’m bit of a wimp in that respect). Her heroines include an elderly stroke victim who is being plotted against and a girl whose nanny secures her in a kitchen, only for the nanny to get murdered. The killer of course soon realises he is not alone… Carlon’s entry is a good example of how Fowler provides insightful biographical details, commenting on the loneliness of the stories having roots in Carlon’s own deafness.

For all us mystery fans other crime writing authors included are: Kril Bonfiglioli, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Baroness Orczy, Caryl Brahms, Frances and Richard Lockridge, Craig Rice, Stuart Palmer, Kelley Roos, R. Austin Freeman, Robert Van Gulik, Georgette Heyer, Ronald Knox, Cornell Woolrich, James Redding Ware, Margaret Millar and Cameron McCabe, whose novel The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, is described as a ‘extremely confident, wildly messy meta-novel.’ That is putting it mildly to say the least.

One treat this book offers readers is that interspersed between the author focused chapters there are themed essays such as books connected by all being adapted by Disney, forgotten queens of suspense, forgotten nonsense writers, authors who wrote too little or too much and forgotten rivals of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Miss Marple. These themed chapters worked well in the book and I also enjoyed the personal quality of the writing throughout. In particular the more I read the book, the more I felt the literary tastes and opinions espoused were building up a picture of the author himself and at times it was rather telling in what he chose to defend, criticise or praise. Furthermore it was great to read about how one of the forgotten authors found Fowler after he sent a call out for information on them, due to so little being known about them. It was also sweet to read about how when he was tracking down a copy of a childhood book, he ended up buying the exact copy he owned when he was a child.

This book has quite considerable breadth in the writers and genres it covers and it is a great book to read from cover to cover or to dip into. I think it will cause a lot of readers to go away and found out more about certain authors. Some depth is lost but that is to be expected given the immense size of the task. The mixture of opinions I agreed and disagreed with also made this an intriguing and interesting read, causing me to think about the content much more deeply than I might have done otherwise. Thought provoking book indeed!

Rating: 4/5

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The Spinster’s Secret (1946) by Anthony Gilbert

Anthony Gilbert is an author I’ve known of for a while, but never been able to track down for a reasonable price. Things this year though have changed, as firstly I came across this book, which is another reprint in the Pandora Women Crime Writers series and is the 15th book in Gilbert’s Arthur Crook series. Secondly the British Library have also reprinted Gilbert’s Portrait of Murderer, (published under the penname Anne Meredith), which I shall be reviewing soon.

Today’s read has a delightful opening sentence, which hints at how the book will unfold:

‘Before you set out to commit a murder,’ said Arthur Crook – who was like certain Cabinet Ministers in that he rejoiced in sweeping statements – ‘there’s one important point to bear in mind, something like a lion in your way. And even a lion-tamer, can’t be sure of circumnavigating this one: that is, there’s no fool proof method of murder. You can be as clever as Old Nick, as careful as a Foreign Minister, foresee every mistake to which criminals are liable and guard against ‘em all; but even so, you may be tripped up, through no fault of your own, by means of The Invisible Witness. The invisible witness is the person you couldn’t account for, and therefore can’t protect yourself against.’

Janet Martin, is one of these invisible witnesses. She is lonely, old and spends a lot of time watching outside her bedsit window. Yet of course from Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) we know that ‘there is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’ Janet does not have any nice relations, frequently being bullied, criticised and neglected by her niece Doreen who sometimes visits. The social circumstances of Janet’s life are revealed and are intrinsic to the mystery plot. Janet is drawn to watching one little girl named Pamela and her nurse Theresa Lawrence from her window. Eventually she gets into conversation with them and invites them around for tea. She in turn is invited to a birthday celebration at their home. Pamela is an orphan who the invalided Mr Scott has taken in after the war. He has an unpleasant and difficult sister, who is always nagging him to leave his money to her and her son. Nevertheless Mr Scott intends to disinherit them and leave his money to Pamela and in fact Janet witnesses his will at the birthday party.

Illness and her unkindly niece force Janet into residential care. Given what she knows of Pamela’s life you can imagine her consternation when she sees Pamela at a nearby orphanage for the destitute. What has happened? Has Mr Scott died? If so why is she there? And why is there under a different name? Although everyone assumes Janet is a senile old woman, she persists in trying to find out the truth, roping in Pamela’s old nanny, before of course enlisting the help of Arthur Crook. The crime itself may be easy to unravel but what happens next is certainly not. This is a tale full of powerful twists and surprises, with the reader’s sense of unease increasing page by page wondering how things will work out, in a story which makes no promises for a fairy tale ending.

Overall Thoughts

This is a brilliant unconventional mystery novel, defying the clearer labelling of a whodunit or howdunit. Normally if I can figure out the crime element my attention wavers, wondering how the pages will be filled. But this is not the case with this novel which hooks you from the very start and doesn’t let you go until the end. Janet is a very well thought out and well created character. You immediately engage with her and feel a great deal of sympathy for her and her situation. In fact I would say this is a key example of crime fiction exploring attitudes towards the elderly and their care. The book, at points, makes you wonder whether much has changed since. When Janet arrives at the residential home the reader soon becomes aware of how more vulnerable she is and how such a setting becomes more like a prison: ‘But even now her sense of liberty was gone. People could put restraints upon her. She must be careful, because she no longer belonged to herself.’ The plot at times almost reminds me of a film called The Cabbage Wars (2002), though of course this tale is much darker. Having said that I think this book would make for a great TV or film adaptation.

In many respects I would say Gilbert’s book is a modernised version of plot tropes commonly found in Sensation or Victorian fiction, especially with characters such as Janet, Theresa and Pamela. More importantly perhaps is that these elements work really well. This is not your typical clue based mystery, yet even so Gilbert sneaks in a number of clever and subtle clues which make you want to revisit the earlier narrative to see what you missed. Janet and Arthur are a very entertaining, yet incongruous pairing, which work well on the page and I liked how Janet is not the stereotypical invincible old lady sleuth and she can be considered a rewriting of Christie’s Miss Marple.

Unsurprisingly I strongly recommend this book as a must read. Gilbert writes like Roald Dahl in the sense that she provides you with the unexpected. You think you know what’s going on but then the plot veers off another way. From plot to setting to atmosphere and character I think this book has it all really and is one which I think will emotionally stay with me for quite some time.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Painting

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Voyage into Violence (or in this case boredom) (1956) by Richard and Frances Lockridge

This is my second foray into the world of Jerry and Pamela North this year and this time they are on a cruise holiday to the West Indies. The book begins with an opening which given its focus on clothes, would appeal very much to my fellow blogger and clothes expert Moira (writer of the suitably named Clothes in Books blog):

‘Pamela North stepped out into the passageway and encountered a man wearing a sword. The sword was long, and its hilt was gold-encrusted. The man wore, also, a red tunic, belted and criss-crossed with white webbing, and blue trousers, stripped with the red of the tunic. He wore a peaked white cap, banded in red. This was not at all what Pamela North had expected to see; she had rather hoped to see Jerry.’

It soon turns out that on the cruise is an organisation called the Ancient and Respectable Rifleman, who are off for their annual encampment. Of course their ceremonial sword soon disappears, reappearing in grizzly circumstances: namely the death of a private investigator. Handily, for the ship’s Captain at any rate, the Norths are taking their holiday with their friends, Bill and Dorian Weigand, the former of which is a New York homicide detective. This is a case which relies a lot on uncovering the pasts of various fellow passengers including a drunken and overbearing mother and her less than golden daughter. Missing jewellery also comes into the picture. Equally like the Major in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery (1964), the investigator, before being killed, is seen to pause mid conversation on seeing one leave the room. Does this connect to their untimely death or is it a red herring?

Overall Thoughts

In short, this read was not as good as the one I read last time: The Judge is Reversed (1960). Pam is somewhat more tiresome and her IQ seems to have dropped a few points. She is mostly there as an appendage of Jerry and the only real role she has in the book is wearing rather minimal swim wear (which Lockridge is at pains to repeat over and over, just in case we might have forgotten) and buying a crocodile handbag. Though in fairness Jerry does even less. This is definitely a case where the Norths are not pulling their weight. Then again Bill, being a policeman, has an advantage over them and the readers, receiving lots of background information on the witnesses via the ship’s radio. Not all of this is revealed to the reader and the general lack of overt clues means the solution is somewhat of a surprise and not necessarily in a good way. Given the difficulties being on a boat has on a police investigation some more clues would have been nice. However, the ship milieu is well-created and there is some good character work. Ship passenger mentality is also captured vividly. So in the main I think this book starts off very well but then gets very bogged down in the middle, my attention flagged a lot, and as a consequence the ending was a bit dissatisfying. Don’t think I would recommend this book unless you’re a Lockridge completest.

Rating: 3.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Full Skeleton

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Coffee and Crime: The Launch of my Vintage Mystery Book Box Subscription

Today is a very exciting day for me, as it sees the launch of my new venture: Coffee and Crime. Whilst there is nothing wrong with feeding our addiction, sorry, hobby, for vintage mysteries through bookshop and online purchases, there is always something extra special about receiving surprise books in the post.

As the post title suggests my new business is a subscription service and you can order it in 1 month, 3 month, 6 month and 12 month packages. Each month customers will receive two mystery vintage mysteries, (examples of which can be seen in the photos), a sachet of great coffee to indulge in as you read your latest books, some additional mystery/book/reading related goodies and a newsletter highlighting personal favourite reads, news of upcoming releases and even a mystery themed puzzle. To whet your appetite below are some pictures of what could be landing on your doormat…

 


To place an order or to find out more information here is the link to my shop on Etsy:

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/549572580/coffee-and-crime-vintage-mystery-book?ref=shop_home_feat_1

This is an ideal gift (birthday/Christmas etc.) for all mystery lovers, as well as a much deserved and earned treat for yourself. At the moment I am able to ship to the UK and USA, but if you are from another country and would like to place an order send me a message on the Etsy site and I will get back to you.

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Too Much Of Water (1958) by Bruce Hamilton

Like R. C. Ashby, Bruce Hamilton is another author I have only come across for the first time this year and despite being written in the 1950s, this novel would not have been out of place a couple of decades earlier. The mystery takes place on a boat which is sailing to various parts of the West Indies. Although told in the third person, this story is predominately seen from the viewpoint of Edgar Cantrell, a music conductor who is having a recuperative holiday after an operation. Amongst the other passengers there are a number of familiar types including the ship siren, Yvonne Easthope and colossal ship bore, Mr Rottentosser (yes you did read that surname correctly). A few days into the trip a passenger goes overboard and this is followed up by a series of drownings. A long way into the novel when events suggest that these happenings are not accidents but murders, some detective work finally begins to take place and of course Edgar takes on the amateur sleuthing role, working in earnest when events hit close to home.

Overall Thoughts

As I think the end of my last paragraph implies this was not the world’s greatest read. The opening chapter starts well, almost in the mould of classic crimes writers such as Christie, in that it provides a panorama of the other boat passengers. There is also a delightful comic turn of phrase in these early pages, such as here:

‘For his ease, he had packed six virgin Trollopes, one of them, Can You Forgive Her?, containing no fewer than 1034 liberal pages. With this lately discovered resource, which had made the post-operational stage in hospital almost blissful, and the succeeding three weeks (with Eileen doing most of his packing and all of his running around before collapsing to the seasonal flu three days ago) a delicious relaxed hovering between Victorian ideal domesticity and the neo-Elizabethan actuality […]’

Yet unfortunately things go downhill from there. The pacing is quite atrocious at times and there is an unnecessarily long build up to the first crime and then somewhat of a reluctance on the narrative’s part to do any sort of investigating. Clues are somewhat thin on the ground and the final solution is somewhat tenuously reached. There is a pleasing surprise at the end but this doesn’t really mitigate the rest. The characterisation perhaps is more influential in this respect, shoring up a less than satisfying plot, as ship hostilities and rivalries are well created. As I mentioned above, this novel in terms of its structure and style is from an earlier writing period and it would not have been hugely out of place if it had been published in the 1930s. The only aspect which would have seemed anachronistic is the book’s handling of isms, in particular those concerning race and sexuality. I’m not saying this book is vastly forward thinking, though in some places it is, but I do think it has a much more confrontational and upfront nature to the discussion and inclusion of these issues, that was perhaps less prevalent in earlier mysteries.

It’s not much of a recommendation, but I have read a lot worse and there were some enjoyable scenes. However, given the wide range of vintage mystery authors available to readers I wouldn’t rush out to get a copy of this one any time soon.

Rating: 3.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Boat

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Still Waters (1949) by E. C. R. Lorac


Lorac was one of the many new authors, (to me), I tried in the first year of my blog, but who I have not returned to since. This is not because I disliked her work, but that it is not all that easy to get a hold of cheaply. Today’s story is one of a few which Lorac wrote set in Lunesdale.

The novel begins with Caroline Bourne buying a working farm and coppice near to her cousin Kate Hoggett and her husband Giles. Whilst she plans to hire out the farming side of her property, her attention is focused on the coppice in which there is a derelict cottage she wants to restore. The cottage is also nearby to a quarry pool. Yet within her idyllic change of scene peculiar events begin to occur. Her friend an architect is assaulted one night by the quarry. The police dismiss the incident but her friend was sure that his assailant had been carrying something heavy. Equally despite having bought her property at auction, unsuccessful bidders linger, with various ploys to get her to leave and sell up. There is also a case of an abandoned wife in the local area when her husband disappears after a quarrel about another man. With the various things that happen amateur sleuth Giles begins to get a hunch, which he sets out to investigate. Into this Chief Inspector Macdonald appears, who is a friend of the Hoggetts, and it seems he has come into the area to track down fugitive. Of course Giles gets more than he bargains for when it enters the realms of amateur detective work and the ending of the story closes with a dramatic police stake out.

Overall Thoughts

This is not your conventional mystery novel. It is not a whodunit or a howdunit or even a why-dunit. There is no straight forward murder investigation to follow and it is more a case of characters unearthing pieces of information, to figure out what criminal activity is going on. In that sense it is perhaps more akin to Christie’s Nemesis. However, I think Lorac keeps her readers guessing quite a lot as to what is going on and there are numerous surprises along the way. Given the nature of the plot this is a naturally slower paced novel in the main, but I think Lorac’s depiction of characters and setting make it an enjoyable journey. Kate in particular was my favourite character and not just because I share my name with her. Lorac was familiar with the area she set her story in, which comes across in the topographical details mentioned and in terms of social/historical setting she presents an interesting picture of an insular rural community and post war living. There are also strains of gentle comedy in the work, which are well done and they come across in particular with the character Inspector Bord, who comes into the story with a disliking of amateur detectives. I think this is a plot which might not appeal to all readers, but for me personally I found it a gently entertaining novel, which gave me something a bit different than the usual dead body in the library/country house/ship/school etc.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Flashlight

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Coming soon to the blog…

I thought it would be nice to share with you, dear blog readers, some of the books I will be hopefully reviewing in the next few weeks. In particular I wanted to share with you some books I received from a new publishing venture – Madsheep.

I reviewed this one on the blog last year. You can read my review here. East’s novel is a comically bizarre tale which certainly gives you a more unusual mystery from the golden age of detection writing period. Having a beautiful cover like this one never hurts either.

Louis Tracy (1863-1928) is a new vintage mystery writer for me, as I had not heard of him until Madsheep brought him to my attention. So I’m really looking forward to giving these two a try soon. Madsheep have also reprinted 6 other Tracy novels so I recommend visiting their site.

One final book I hope to be reviewing soon (though not from Madsheep) is Boris Akunin’s All the World’s a Stage, the 11th book in the Fandorin series, which has finally been translated into English. So lots to look forward to!!!

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They Came to Baghdad (1951) by Agatha Christie

Thrillers were never Christie’s strongest writing suit but I think this is one of her better ones. It begins well with a good opening, slowing revealing character and place. The external appearance of these are soon shown not to be trusted – buildings, people who seem ordinary, run down and commonplace are not what they seem. Yet it is easy to forget this as you read the story and in particular I like how some of the characters are not shown immediately to be either “good” or “bad,” the ambiguity of which giving the story an extra layer of mystery. Various characters are introduced to us in the first 60 or so pages. Behind the scenes with the secret service we see plans are afoot to ensure the safety of two important personages arriving in Baghdad. However this is easier said than done. There is a leakage of information within the organisation, which means one of their operatives, Henry Carmichael is in a lot of danger. He has proof of some farfetched, yet lethal plot and is bringing back irrefutable proof of it. But will he manage to make it back? Outside the world of espionage we have Victoria Jones, our protagonist, whose desire for adventure and her lackadaisical attitude towards work, means she soon loses her current employment. Yet a chance meeting with handsome stranger and an opportune new job opportunity mean that she too will be heading towards Baghdad. Violence and more soon erupt on to the stage, as the various characters converge in this city and of course Victoria ends up right in the middle of it all. Not that she can help it. After all a man does die in her hotel room, leaving an ominous and cryptic final message…

Overall Thoughts

Christie’s thrillers often can receive a raw deal. This is not unjustified *cough* Passenger to Frankfurt *cough*, but I think with this story there are a number of things to enjoy about it. Firstly there is Victoria, who is a gripping character. She is not a prim and proper heroine, but has a much more modern feel to her, coming across as bold and audacious. If she wants something, she goes for it and she is not above using lies and subterfuge to do so. I’ve always thought she would make for an interesting serial character.

Given the location it is not surprising that there is an archaeological element to the plot, which given Christie’s background, is predictably well done. In a way I think this thread of the narrative gives the story a more personal touch. You can imagine her smiling when she wrote, ‘archaeologists, she said, made splendid husbands […]’ and I feel like she would have had a lot of fun when she created the bumbling absent minded archaeologist in the tale.

Of course what often lets Christie down in her thrillers is her attempts to include political/monomaniac conspiracies invariably involving capitalism and Communism, with plans to gain world power and allow the rise of the superman figure (a theme which is explored more fully, though not more effectively in Destination Unknown). This element doesn’t really work in Christie’s thrillers and often undermines her clever character cluing. There are moments of the latter in this book, which I think are rather good and sneaky, yet because of the clichéd and stereotypical thriller environment they do not get their moment to shine. The final quarter in particular of the book is rather rushed, meaning not as much attention can be given to the various twists, which is a pity. Nevertheless though the characters are well-crafted and it was still quite a lot of fun. I’m glad I gave it a re-read.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Moon

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Death on Tiptoe (1931) by R. C. Ashby

Ruby Constance Ashby (1899-1966), is an author I recently discovered, having come across the name and this particular story in passing. Thankfully I was lucky enough to secure a reasonably priced copy, because as with many obscure authors her work is not cheap to buy, in the main, though not going for completely ridiculous prices either. A quick survey of the gadetection page on Ashby shows that she wrote detective, romance and children’s novels. Of her work only 8 make up the first of these genres. According to John at Pretty Sinister Books, today’s title under review, (her 4th mystery novel), ‘is in imitation of Agatha Christie’ and John also notes how Ashby’s mysteries ‘followed the style of the fair play detective novels of her British counterparts but often included supernatural and bizarre elements that most often were rationalised in the denouement.’ Having now the read the book I can see where John is coming from in his first assertion. There are echoes of Christie’s type of cluing and misdirection, her manner of setting up mysteries and I would say they both are good at providing meaningful characterisation without requiring pages and pages of description. When it comes to John’s second assertion though, I don’t think today’s read is an example of such a book, as it is distinctly lacking in the supernatural department (not that that bothers me so much).

Death on Tiptoe (1931), is at a Welsh castle named Cleys. It has recently been bought by Sir Harry Stacey and his wife, Undine. On bumping into Lionel West, (who is forbidden to work by his doctor – though we never find out why), Harry suggests he joins their current party at the castle. Also staying there, amongst others, is Harry’s brother Major Edward, Cecil Sabelle (relation of the last owner of the castle), an artist called Basil Crown, who is loved by both vicar’s daughter Pandora Hyde and Yorkshire heiress Rene Fullerton. You can guess which one he goes for. As Lewis and Harry drive to the castle the reader is privy to the various undercurrents within the party. Romantic jealousy and rivalry and unearthed past secrets seethe just beneath the surface and all of these unpleasant threads lead back to Undine. So no reader is surprised when events take a sinister turn for the worst during a night time game of hide and seek…

Overall thoughts

I hope I’m not doing Ashby an injustice when I say that she is a more creative and surprising writer in the Georgette Heyer mould. The milieus they use are the same, along with the build up to the crime and the lack of personal life to the police figures. Yet for all that I find Ashby less predictable than Heyer. Murder during moments of entertainment is quite a niche milieu, with the examples springing to mind being Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly (1956) and Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934). Yet what I enjoyed in this book was the hide and seek scene showed a real flair for inventiveness, providing a high chill factor, and the events following the murder do not tread an entirely expected path. I think some of Ashby’s attempts at misdirection are a little clumsy or perhaps just a tad too blatant, but having said that I did not guess the killer. As I wrote earlier John says that Ashby ‘followed the style of the fair play detective novels of her British counterparts,’ but I would have to say that there is one definite instance of Ashby withholding an important piece of evidence. The ending was not horrific or dull or too long winded, but I did feel the puzzle element needed to be strengthened/tightened up in this final section, as the revealing of the killer was a bit thrillish.

The characterisation as I implied above was strong though and I liked how Lewis West echoed Robert Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) – though I think Ashby gives this role an inventive twist. Ashby succinctly reveals to the reader the types of people the suspects are and the difficulties they are facing. By and large the pace was also well maintained. I don’t think this is top drawer Ashby, but it was still a very enjoyable tale and it has definitely given me the motivation to try her work again, if it happens to come my way.

Rating: 4.25/5 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Castle

Ashby’s Mystery Bibliography:

  • The Moorland Man (1926)
  • The Tale of Rowan Christie (1927)
  • Beauty Bewitched (1928)
  • Death on Tiptoe (1931)
  • Plot Against A Widow (1932)
  • He Arrived at Dusk (1933)
  • One Way Traffic (1933)
  • Out Went the Taper (1934)

 

 

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The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen

It has been a long time since I have read anything by Queen. In fact it has nearly been 2 years! I guess he has never been a favourite author and there have been so many other books and authors to try, that they have somewhat slipped off my radar. The reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for Queen have varied; finding their earlier novels somewhat dull and dry, whilst some of the later efforts exhibit a highly troublingly and creepy Ellery Queen.

Today’s read though is from the first Queen writing period (so we’re save on creepy Queen front). It’s very classic in its puzzle focus, with a character list, two maps, a challenge to the reader and even an interlude where one chapter only has one column of writing to along for reader note taking in the margins. There is also the foreword by a Watson type character, who frames the story as a case memoir.

The novel opens with Queen Junior and Senior discussing the importance of the first 5 minutes after a crime has been discovered. They bemoan how the detective always seems to be brought into the situation much later. Yet this will not be the case for Ellery Queen’s next investigation, as he is 20ft away when it is discovered in an operating theatre that hospital founder, Abby Doorne, has been murdered. This was an unplanned operation, as she had only fallen into a diabetic coma on some stairs, (thereby rupturing her gall bladder,) that very morning. Yet the crime itself seems very well executed and it is not long before both Queens fear that this is no ordinary case, especially when it may involve a frame up for one of the doctors. The suspects themselves are equally very reticent, much to the chagrin of Inspector Queen.

Overall Thoughts

The first 2/3s of the novel were fairly enjoyable in my opinion. The story opens in a very strong way and I liked how it was very dialogic in style, (which helped to mitigate the minimal characterisation), and another positive was that Ellery held back from long winded theorising. The shortness of the chapters also worked well for me, as the pace in these sections was good, as other Queen novels have dragged on a lot! An additional murder also helped the pacing of this book and it was introduced at an effective point. Queen too comes across quite well, limiting annoying mannerisms and objectionable attitudes. There were even moments of humour (which felt like a first for my Queen reading experiences).

However, one issue with Queen taking a backseat role in this case is that when he finally unleashes all of his theorising it comes across as rather unachievable to the reader, even if a formal challenge to the reader is issued. The clues are technically there, but whether anyone can generate the correct inferences is another matter entirely, (and of course I will now be overwhelmed with comments saying how easy this case was to solve). The final third of the book did drag and unfortunately the authors are not adept at writing theorising or explaining of solutions in an entertaining style. That final 23 paged chapter was a chore. Though it has made me consider how hard it is to write theorising in an entertaining way.

So despite that short catalogue of negatives this was actually a better Queen experience than many of the others I have had. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend anyone spend a fortune on getting a copy of this, there are thankfully a few reasonably priced copies for under £5 online. Queen in my opinion is a bit like marmite in the way these mysteries can divide the mystery fan community. There are those who rate these books very highly. Noah at Noah’s Archives for instance says ‘this book gets an automatic pass into your library simply because, well, it’s an Ellery Queen novel.’ Whilst there are others, probably including myself at this point, which think the stories are somewhat overrated. Of course the only way to decide is to try for yourselves…

Rating: 3.75/5 (My highest Queen novel rating on the blog yet!) Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Item): Doctor

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel has also reviewed this book here.

See also:

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’ (1948)

The Origin of Evil (1951)

Did Ellery Queen Ever Escape the Golden Age of Detection?

Typing Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen and the Secret to Writing a Bestseller Title

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