My Year in Christmas Reads

Now most normal people save their Christmas themed mystery novels until December, or November at very earliest. Not me it seems. Looking back at this year from about March I have been inadvertently reading mystery novels set at Christmas. Sometimes this was because it was the next book in the series by an author I really love, whilst at other times it was a book I was reading for the Tuesday Night Bloggers or for a reading challenge and at other times quite frankly I didn’t realise the book was set at Christmas until I read it. Last December I gave a Top 10 list of Christmas Mysteries, so this year I decided to recap on this year’s Christmas reads, before picking my favourite.

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What all us book lovers wished we were getting for Christmas…

March

Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggin

Dancing with DeathThis is the final Lady Lupin mystery and it takes place over Christmas and New Year, centring on a party of friends, a gathering which of course brings old grievances and wounds to the surface. I loved this book for its comic narrative style and humour, though in comparison to the first Lady Lupin novel, Lupin has matured over the quartet of books. The characters are also engaging to follow and I was interested by the comments made about post-war Britain after WW2.

The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson

The White Priory Murders 2

The centres around another Christmas party, full of characters who are at odds with each other and this animosity seems to come to a head when one of the characters is found murdered in the pavilion, a murder due to various factors is seemingly impossible to commit. I enjoyed this read much less as there were issues with pacing, underdeveloped characters and an over packed plot, along with a solution which felt a bit too convenient.

May

An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare

An English Murder 3

By now you can probably guess what the setup of this novel is, e.g. a country house Christmas party at Warbeck Hall, full of characters who don’t get on. Though an added element with this read is that the Hall becomes snow bound, with non-functioning telephones, a situation which increases the tension of the situation when someone dies. Thankfully there is a policeman as part of the party. This was an enjoyable read and I liked the imbedded social and class critique, as well the way the book examines the state of the nation and how things might be changing. This is definitely an updated country house murder mystery reflecting the times it was published in.

June

The Scent of Almonds and Other Stories (2015) by Camilla Lackberg

The Scent of Almonds and Other Stories

This is the most recently published Christmas mystery I have read this year, but it too employs golden age detective fiction tropes and certainly borrows a little from Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), though the group of characters are one family rather than a group of strangers. Lackberg’s characterisation skills are great and I enjoyed the build up of tension, as well as the final solution, although I think the ending was a little too abrupt.

August

Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield

Again we have the snow bound country house and the inhabitants who rub each other up the wrong way, but as a post war novel times have changed and the country house in question is in fact a hotel. A dead body soon appears, though the mysterious happenings are only just beginning. Although there were a couple of slow places in the narrative, this is definitely an action packed story and I think Sarsfield captured the group psychology really well and the final solution is satisfying though I think it could have been a bit more overtly clued.

September

The Crime at Noah’s Ark (1931) by Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah's Ark

This time the ill-assorted group of characters are marooned at a remote countryside inn and it is not long before masked figures appear, property is stolen or sabotaged and people turn up dead. Characters with their own secrets to hide make the discovery of the truth all that much harder for the professional and amateur sleuths. This story definitely gives its’ readers a complex mystery to grapple with and the final solution does hold some unexpected surprises.

October

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015), ed. Martin Edwards

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This is the only short story collection to feature in this list and there was a good mixture of familiar and new authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Ralph Plummer, H. C. Bailey and J Jefferson Farjeon. Though my favourite stories were by Edgar Wallace (‘Stuffing’), Marjorie Bowen (‘Cambrics’), Ethel Lina White (‘Waxworks’) and Nicholas Blake (‘A Problem in White’). As well as a variety of authors there is also a wide range of settings and plots and it is an enjoyable book to dip into for a story or two at a time.

The Wrong Murder (1940) by Craig Rice

The Wrong Murder

This novel features Rice’s serial characters’ Jake Justus and Helene Brand, who have finally been able to tie the knot. Though their honeymoon plans are put on ice when it seems someone who boasted to them of being able to commit the perfect murder, has done just that. The murder takes place in the midst of a crowd of Christmas shoppers. This was a brilliant read and I felt that there was a strong puzzle at the centre of the story, even if the amateur sleuths were flying by the seat of their pants.

November

Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholls Morgan

another-little-christmas-murder

This final entry to the list takes us back to the familiar milieu of the snowbound country home where family members are intermixed with strangers who have been drawn to Wintry Wold by the inclement weather. Though this is far from your conventional country home murder and not everyone is as they seem. This was an entertaining and action packed mystery which still surprises the reader even as the solution is being unfolded. The central female character, Dylis, also appealed to me due to her independent nature, though readers won’t be surprised there is a little romance along the way for her in this story.

So which was my favourite Christmas read of the year?

For me there were two main contenders, Rice and Coggin, but in the end I plumed for Coggin’s book as Lady Lupin is an addictive and hugely entertaining character, who is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. The solution to Coggin’s novel was also very satisfying and unexpected and I think the quartet of Lady Lupin novels should be more well-known and read. Due to the way Lady Lupin develops as a character I think it better to read the books in order, starting with Who Killed the Curate? (1944). Thankfully though this book is also a Christmas mystery, so you’ve got no excuses for not trying Coggin’s delightful amateur sleuth this December.

 

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Taken at the Flood (1948) by Agatha Christie

This was a slightly unusual re-read for me, in that in picking up this book again I couldn’t remember anything about it – bit like reading a genuinely new Christie novel. My book specific amnesia came to my attention earlier this year when my fellow blogger, Brad at ahsweetmystery blog reviewed it, though it took until now for me to finally get around to reading it, with another recent post by Brad giving me the final nudge I needed.

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Taken at the Flood (1948) begins with a brief prologue set in 1944 London where we and Poirot are privy to a club bore’s latest anecdote. A very rich man named Gordon Cloade has been killed in an air raid, having recently come back from America, bringing with him a much younger wife and her brother. His death has major recuperations for those close to him. For his wife this means lots of money, whilst for his relatives it means the snatching away of a security blanket, as his new marriage invalidated Cloade’s old will and he hadn’t had the chance to make a new one. This particular club bore also knows something of Cloade’s widow, Rosaline and her past. She had been married to one of his friends, Robert Underhay, in South Africa. Their marriage had not been successful and they agreed to separate. Rosaline wanted a divorce but Robert was not so keen, being a catholic. He told his friend he might fake his own death to give Rosaline her freedom and he himself would take on a new identity, Enoch Arden. When Rosaline made it back to England news of Robert’s death arrives. Did he carry out his plan or is his death genuine?

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The narrative then skips ahead to 1946 and Cloade’s relations are struggling financially, some more desperately than others. Sponging on Rosaline is becoming quite a habit, especially when Rosaline’s brother is not around, but what if there was a way of proving that Robert Underhay was alive? A new arrival seems to suggest there might be. There is also a love triangle in the middle of all of this involving Lynn Marchmont, a newly demobbed wren, her long standing fiancé Rowley Cloade and David Hunter, Rosaline’s brother and what you might call an interloper into this group, who seems to be offering the danger and excitement Lynn is hankering after. Of course death soon appears on the scene, yet as Poirot frequently says in this case everything is not ‘the right shape.’

Overall Thoughts

Well this book specific amnesia did not last long, only a few chapters, and what interested me was what sparked these very dormant memories off. It was the appearance of David Hunter in the story which did this for me and musing on this character I felt he was an anti-hero and an anti-hero with a very pivotal position in the story, which in itself made this story a less than usual Christie. He is an adventurer who like a leopard can’t change his spots, yet in terms of the crimes committed in this book it is unclear until the end how much and if he is involved in them. Furthermore, it is interesting as an anti-hero, he is one which can be unmanned and undone by his own feelings towards Lynn and there is some Darcy/Elizabeth Bennet verbal sparring between them. In some ways he is of more importance than his sister in the book, despite how key she is in terms of the money Cloade leaves. This is highlighted in the book’s title, which comes from one of Brutus’ speeches in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he is extoling the necessity of opportunism and taking risks, a philosophy David also seems to advocate and follow. However, despite this link something which gave me temporary amnesia over this novel was that in my mind I hadn’t linked the plot I knew with this title name.

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Something else I took from this re-read was what Christie might be saying about post-war Britain. Firstly such a Britain seems to be or rather is perceived by the characters as being ‘topsy-turvy,’ (a feeling which also comes across in the mystery element of the book and its’ solution). For example there have been shifts in gender roles as with Lynn and Rowley it was Lynn who left home and went abroad to serve in the war, whilst Rowley stayed at home as a farmer. There have also been social changes which have affected certain employment sectors such as domestic service and it has also changed who has the money. This latter change is seen in the rise of Rosaline Cloade and David Hunter who in contrast to the “socially respectable” and “genteel” other Cloades, are seen as coming from a lower and inferior class. For instance when Rowley sees Rosaline he thinks that she is ‘as a mannequin might display dresses that did not belong to her, but to the firm who employed her.’ Yet it Rosaline and David who hold the purse strings, whilst the other Cloades are struggling to make ends meet and/or are facing financial ruin and David revels in this change of positions, enjoying how he can hurt the Cloades, almost putting him in the place of the family tyrant. This latter role may seem incongruous with David as a person but it is in keeping with the upside down nature of the book.

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Another aspect of post-war Britain which this book brings up is the disillusionment of peace. Lynn herself says that the war has left ‘ill will. Ill feeling’ and she is definitely a character who has to come to terms with what reality is, in comparison to what she imagined life would be like after the war. I think there is also a sense of insularity, as various characters in contrast to the “Blitz Spirit” are more interested in looking after number one and making sure they get what they think they deserve (a need amplified by the fact that war induced hardships were still continuing such as rationing, plus increased taxation). I felt this came across in how some characters treated foreigners such as Poirot, as there is a resentment of his presence, with a feeling that he should have gone home – “after all wasn’t that why they fought in the first place?” This is something Poirot muses on himself and we are told that ‘he had already learnt that every single individual had a different version of the theme ‘What did we fight the war for?’ For some this answers leads to some racism, whilst for others the answer is one of wanting things to be like how they were before the war.

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Change is definitely something which Christie aligns with post-war Britain, which Rowley exemplifies when he says that ‘the war’s broken up everything and shifted people round.’ Yet this theme isn’t left in this simple state. For instance there are characters such as David who are trying to force this displacement such as when he tries to convince Lynn to leave her home, saying that ‘you’ve got roots here, roots that hold you down. I’ve got to pull you up by the roots.’ In contrast though there is Poirot who stands alone in thinking that despite all of these outward changes, human nature and humans do not change, a point he proves very effectively with Lynn.

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Although David hogs the spotlight in some respects I was quite engaged by Lynn and her love/hate relationship with her mother and her more independent thinking makes her a character you can warm to and identify with. Her romantic tangles are also interesting as she works her way through what is real and what she imagines to be so. I think the only thing which troubles me with her romantic adventures is their ending, an ending which seems to advocate male violence as firstly a proof of devotion and secondly as an attractive quality? I wouldn’t have felt this was something Christie would want to promote, so I am unsure as to its purpose in this book. Is it a symptom of new post-war world? Any thought do let me know. It isn’t just me who was perturbed by this as the Puzzle Doctor on his blog had a similar issue.

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However, for me a female character which surprised me and I felt was underused in the book was Frances who is married Jeremy Cloade. When you first me her and her husband they seem like the typical or rather stereotypical British married couple, who keep a stiff upper lip when their son dies in the war and who are uber-respectable. Frances herself initially comes across as a village busy body who becomes ‘more efficient, more energetic than ever’ after her son dies. Yet even this initial portrayal hints not all is as it seems, as this increased activity is coming from a place of grief and loss. Moreover, we get to find out about her more unconventional childhood and background, revealing that she is not your conventional genteel country solicitor’s wife. What I liked about this couple is that when Jeremy has to reveal how bad their finances are, their genuine and deep love for each other comes through, they aren’t dry and cold as you might expect them to be. So in some ways they an unlikely couple in a Christie novel to be classed as romantic, yet just as in Death on the Nile (1937), this love can lead to ill-conceived and dangerous things.

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A couple of other things which stood out for me in story were firstly the different nature of the solution revealing scene. Normally Poirot gathers all the suspects and involved characters together, a gathering which is usually quite big. Yet in this one there are only three other people besides Poirot and not one of them is a policeman. I’m still musing over what this difference might denote, as I am not entirely convinced it is symptom of the post-war Britain, as later Christie novels return to the large gatherings of the pre-war mysteries. The other thing which grabbed my attention was the club bore ironically, Major Porter, as he rather reminded me of Major Palgrave from A Caribbean Mystery (1964), who equally enjoys telling people long winded anecdotes. However, I think Porter has a more unsettling and active role in this book than Palgrave’s more passive and prosaic one in A Caribbean Mystery.

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A cover which could easily inspire a post on the way covers misrepresent plots…

So suffice to say there is definitely a high amount of ill easiness in this story and post-war opportunism is certainly given a sinister edge. Yet the question I ended up asking myself at the end of the book is whether the large topsy-turvy nature of things makes for a satisfying story? The solution to this story was a good one, with some enjoyable twists and retrospectively you can see the duplicity of some of Christie’s dialogue. Nevertheless there is a but to this sentiment, which is that despite the solution being a clever one, it still had a feeling of being whipped out of a hat. Perhaps the problem with this book is not the build-up towards the deaths, nor the solution itself, but is with Poirot’s investigation. For me something just didn’t feel quite right there.

Rating: 3.75/5

See also:

Classic MysteriesFrom the Vault – “Taken at the Flood”

Mysteries in ParadiseReview: Taken at the Flood

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Book of the Month: November 2016

I’ve had quite a variety of reads this month, though quite a few have been average reads for one reason or another. This of course did make it easier to pick my book of the month which goes to…

Henry Wade’s Mist on the Saltings (1933)

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The main feature of this book, which pushed it ahead of the other reads this month was its characterisation and how Wade develops characters as the story progresses, with reader sympathies shifting and evolving a lot. Although Wade uses familiar plot lines his rendition of them is highly enjoyable, grabbing your attention with a love triangle that has a decidedly sinister end. Mystery novels which focus on character development, culminating in a murder half way through the novel can sometimes have problems with pace, but Wade’s novel is certainly not one of them. Out of the three Wade novels I have read (The Verdict of Us All (1926) and Lonely Magdalen (1940)) this is definitely my favourite with Wade’s wide range of writing skills being displayed effectively.

However there were a few close (ish) runner ups, which I have decided this month to put into a “What to Read Next” flowchart (also proving that I am not so computer illiterate as I thought I was):

reading-flow-chart2

 

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The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr

Today is John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday and JJ at The Invisible Event, who has a passing interest (and by that we read fanatical devotion) in Carr, decided to commemorate the occasion by exhorting fellow bloggers to contribute posts about the man and his work, which he is going to gather up into a summing-up post later today, as well as contributing his own pearls of wisdom. Not being quite so keen on Carr as JJ is (but then who is?), it has been a while since I last read any of his work, though if I had to pick my favourite three reads off the top of my head I would go for The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942) and The Judas Window (1938).

The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) begins in New York when Bill Dawson, who is definitely worse for wear and on his uppers, is given the chance of a life time by Larry Hurst. Larry has signed certain documentation which mean that if he wants to be his rich uncle’s heir he has to move back to England straight away and visit his uncle once a week for the next 6 months. The deal is further sweetened by $10,000 in cash. So what’s the catch? Well it seems that Larry’s uncle, Gaylord Hurst, was a figure of terror in his youth, continually frightening him and messing with him psychologically, to the extent that Larry ran away to sea at 16 and hasn’t been back to England in 18 years. Suffice to say the money sounds great but the thought of having to face his uncle is more than he can bear. But his fiancée, Joy Tennent, who you could say is a “practical” person, ultimately pressures him into agreeing. Yet when Larry happens to see Bill a plan formulates in his mind (which Joy is less than pleased about) and he approaches Bill with the following proposal: Bill is to impersonate Larry for the 6 months in exchange for the $10,000. Again so what’s the catch? Larry thinks there is a definite chance his uncle wants to kill him. Envisaging the things he could do with the money, Bill agrees.

The Nine Wrong Answers

Although our suspicions are aroused by a lot of this, the events in the main seem quite straight forward. Yet this is Carr so the plot from this point onwards reshapes the known facts in a consistent fashion, like a kaleidoscope, with many a good twist and surprise, such as Larry being poisoned shortly after organising the subterfuge with Bill, who decides to continue with the plan in order to avenge Larry. There is also Bill’s fortuitous meeting with his old flame, Marjorie Blair and there is the duplicitous Joy Tennent and her mysterious role in events to unravel. When the characters arrives in England the twists and surprises are only just beginning, which I’ll leave unmentioned. Events take a cat and mouse nature, though being Carr, the challenge is to figure out who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. It remains to be seen whether Bill will win and gain the upper hand or whether he will fall prey to the very trap he was trying to avoid…

Overall Thoughts

I didn’t have as much time for reading last week, but the couple of books I read were a bit thin in terms of their puzzle aspect. This is certainly not a criticism which can be levelled at this book and a reader needs to keep their wits about them when reading it. From the beginning there is an immediate sense of uneasiness and lack of trustfulness in what the characters are saying. Added to this Carr, a bit like Gaylord in the book, plays with the readers’ minds with his nine footnotes, which outline a surmise the reader might have just thought based on the narrative, to then indicate that it is wrong. Now this might just seem like Carr being unusually fair and helpful, but be warned! They are far sneakier than you realise. In the main I have never really warmed to either Dr Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr’s two main serial sleuths, so it is to this book’s advantage that neither appear in it. Consequently because none of these two large personalities are in the book, Carr’s characterisation skills can come to the fore and have a freer hand, creating a complex and engaging set of characters. This complexity comes through in the psychological battles Bill faces with different characters and it is this character complexity, that at times causes some ambiguity and uncertainty on the part of the reader, which also further obfuscates the story’s central mystery.

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Carr is certainly a master of suspense and an expert in throwing a plethora of twists and changes at the reader, without losing control of his plot. I think one thing which I was a little disappointed in when reading this book is that two locations, the BBC studios and the Sherlock Holmes rooms in Baker Street, which the blurb mentions in the book aren’t really used to a great extent. Consequently despite the interest and intrigue they generate, especially the last location, I don’t think they really added much to the plot and felt a bit unnecessary and underused. The solution is a satisfying and clever one and I was pleased that I got one bit right. However, I felt that the delivery of the solution is a bit too fast, considering the complexity of it and it might have been better if it had been given at a slower pace to the reader. This issue combined with the issue over the two locations I mentioned above, meant the ending for me was a bit underwhelming and didn’t match the rest of the book’s suspense and excitement. Nevertheless this was an enjoyable and refreshing read, which I definitely needed.

Rating: 4.25/5

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: Writing the 1930s

the-tuesday-night-bloggers-history-and-mysteryTo conclude the Tuesday Night’s bloggers’ final week looking at history and mystery I decided to borrow an idea Moira at the blog Clothes in Books came up with. This idea was to compare a story written contemporary to a given time with a story written much later, but set in the same period. Sufficiently intrigued by the idea I decided to give it a go choosing The Sunken Sailor (2004), a Malice Domestic round robin novel, contributed to by 14 authors and is described as being set in the 1930s. Only three authors from the contributors’ list were familiar: Anne Perry who writes the introduction, Edward Marston and Simon Brett. Not quite having the time to read a full length country house mystery novel from the 1930s I decided to look at some of Agatha Christie’s Mr Quin country house short stories, which were collectively published then, as well as briefly touching on some other mystery novels of the 1930s.

The Sunken Sailor – The Plot

The events of the book take place during a weekend house party at Castle Crawsbey, owned by the Dowager Duchess of Faughstrayne. There is an odd assortment of guests The Sunken Sailorranging from familiar faces such as the family solicitor Roderick Benfleet and Sir Gerald Hawksmoor, who is still battling with the consequences of his WW1 experiences, to comparative strangers such as the American Admiral Cornelius Brandon and his son, Whitchell, the Russian refugee Countess Katerina Boronskaya and Mr Da Silva. However, the oddness does not just rest with the guests, as the Dowager herself is a little unusual and it is said that you must never mention her husband who died in mysterious circumstances 5 years ago, nor her son, the current Duke, who is somewhere in South America. Death strikes in the middle of the first night of the party, with the Admiral being found in the famous fountain tied underneath a maritime themed statue. The mystery setup is very intriguing with a number of suspicious circumstances, including a clumsy servant, an unidentifiable whistler of sea shanties, as well as the fact that the admiral died of poisoning not drowning. Suspicion easily attaches to many of the guests and family members, especially once a damning list and photographs are uncovered in the Admiral’s room. Constable Nettle and DCI Reggie Arbuthnot are the police investigators, whilst Hawksmoor is our amateur sleuth.

An intermission in the expected programme entitled: A Rant

Now the plot you have just read will seem quite normal and familiar, though you expect there to be some surprises along the way. Now sometimes novels are disappointing when there is insufficient surprise, such as Deadly Beloved (1952) by John Stephen Strange. The opposite is the case here, as my resulting disappointment and confused irritation came from the fact that every conceivable twist and surprise is thrown into this novel. Being a comedic novel you can expect the writers to play around with conventions, yet the writers here have done this to the extent that they have failed to remember that a book also needs to be an enjoyable read. Trying to cope with a country house murder mystery which morphs into a Le Carre novel on speed does not come under this remit. There were a number of interesting threads and surprises which I liked, yet because these were merely few of the many surprises and twist going on, they were not exploited effectively and the plot sunk under the weight of it all. There were far too many conspiracies and false identities, with a plethora of characters being undercover for different purposes, as well mind altering drugs, detective traumas, bigamy and goodness knows what else. So in the end the story just became a farce and not an enjoyable one at that. I enjoy pastiches and parodies of crime fiction, but this one felt overstocked, too artificial and ridiculous, to the extent the book began to make little sense. I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole and hit my head when I got to the bottom when reading this book and I don’t blame one of the characters going near mad at the end as I was about to join them!

*breathes* And now back to our scheduled programme…

The Sunken Sailor vs. 1930s Mystery Novels

Before beginning this section I think it pertinent to say that at this point I was wondering whether a parody/pastiche of a 1930s country house mystery novel was the best sort of book to use in such a comparison as this. However in a penny in for a pound I decided to give it a go anyways…

Image result for the mysterious mr quinOne of the first things I noticed when comparing The Sunken Sailor to country house mysteries of the 1930s was how they differed in their treatment of the past. I felt in The Sunken Sailor, characters such as the Dowager especially, live and act as though they are in the past, which is reinforced by the declining nature of the castle most of the book takes place in. This treatment of the past to me was more in keeping with post WW2 mystery novels, such as After the Funeral (1953) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), where characters are nostalgic and consider the possibilities yet ultimately realise the futilities of trying to recreate and maintain the past. In contrast in country house mysteries from the 1930s such as Christie’s ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ ‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’ and ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ characters note the differences between the current generation and then their own, yet accepting this difference as normal. There is no sense of things becoming stationery which is more felt in The Sunken Sailor, in which its’ characters don’t look forward.

Class is an issue which comes up in both The Sunken Sailor and the 1930s mysteries I looked at. In the case of The Sunken Sailor, due to being a parody this came across as a very Downton Abbey like feel, which can be seen in Hawksmoor’s first response on finding a dead body:

‘Sir Gerald did what any gentleman would do in such a situation. He returned to the Library and rang for the butler.’

Hawksmoor in the beginning of the novel in particular also judges and assesses the other guests based on their clothes and whether they suggested a lack of refinement, such as in the case of Whichell or whether they suggested a lower social class, such as with the family solicitor. I don’t think these moments made Hawksmoor always that likeable, which I felt contrasted with Christie’s Mr Satterthwaite in the Mr Quin stories, who is also a figure who assesses the characters’ on the readers’ behalf, yet does it in a less unkind way. Moreover, the surmises of his assessments are less forced upon the reader. One thing which causes quite a furore in The Sunken Sailor, is Lady Amelia’s romantic interests in the local constable, as characters such as Hawksmoor think the constable beneath her station. I couldn’t really think of any similar passages from 1930s books I have read, though it did make me think of Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister who marries Inspector Parker.

One parallel I did find though between The Sunken Sailor and mysteries from the 1930s Cards on the Table 6was the inclusion of racial prejudices, in particular making judgemental remarks on how a non-British person acts or dresses. In The Sunken Sailor, Hawksmoor mentally disparages Da Silva for ‘the flashiness of his dress [, which…] instantly … marked him out as a foreigner… [and] another betrayal – as if any were needed – of Mr Da Silva’s origins and lack breeding was the fact that he used his hands when he spoke.’ This type of comments reminded me of novels such as Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936), where similar comments are made about Mr Shaitana.

Golden age detective fiction is traditionally viewed as occurring between the two world wars, so therefore it is not surprising that such novels often include characters who have been negatively affected by WW1. Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series comes to mind here. So on the face of it there is a parallel between these mysteries and The Sunken Sailor, as within the first few pages of the book we are made aware of Hawksmoor’s physical and emotional injuries from the war. Yet something which I felt was off key was a comment the Dowager makes to Hawksmoor later on in the book:

‘…sit down. You make one think of cadavers – stiff as a board and grim-faced into the bargain. I suppose you’ll claim it’s due to the dicky leg, hip or whatever it is you brought home from the war – but really, Gerry, the war has been over for years… and still you persist in looking like something the mortuary forgot. It’s no wonder Amelia refuses to marry you. There’s never the least suggestion of blood in your veins.’

It could just be me being hyper-sensitive but part of me did wonder whether a book from the 1930s would have disparaged a war veteran in so blunt a manner. If anyone can remember such an instance (which will probably come from a book I have read and forgotten about) let me know.

A difference I was more sure about was how writers in The Sunken Sailor were more overt about sexuality, having a transvestism thread in the book, which I don’t think writers of the 1930s would have included or at least not so demonstrably. This also ties into the difference I felt there was between the type of secrets the characters’ had, as looking at ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ ‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’ and ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ there seems to be a greater recourse to having single or married characters in love with a married person. This may well be due to writers from 1930s being more restricted in how scandalous their characters’ secrets were and how explicit they could be in describing them.

One thing I have often noted in modern fiction set in the past is that writers tend to have more overt setting descriptions, perhaps due to thinking that the readers need these to recreate the past more effectively. In contrast I think mysteries set contemporary to publication don’t use setting descriptions in the same way and in ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ I think mentions of furniture are used less to set the scene and more to say something about An English Murder 2the owners of such furniture and their marriage. Thinking about the setting of The Sunken Sailor more specifically, I was interested by how the castle is in decline and is rather run down or suffering from ‘genteel neglect.’ This interested me not necessarily because it is a familiar setting, but because I felt it was a setting which fitted less with the 1930s and more with post WW2 mysteries (though I could be wrong of course). Examples of post WW2 mysteries using run down country homes as their setting are easy to come up with such as Joanna Canaan’s Murder Included (1950), Cyril Hare’s An English Murder and Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield. Consequently I felt the country home in decline was less of a preoccupation with 1930s mysteries.

Now in my little rant I did mention the excessive amount of conventions which are twisted and played out around with in The Sunken Sailor and how there were too many, which Case for Three Detectivesundermined each other. This got me to thinking about 1930s mysteries which also played around with conventions such as Leo Bruce’s Case of Three Detectives (1936). What made this a successful parody/pastiche was that it centralised its’ twists and surprises into one area – the detectives. The remainder of the book or the reality within which the mystery is place remains stable. This is what I felt did not happen in The Sunken Sailor, as the multitude of twists completely dismantled the story’s foundations. One of the biggest reasons for this occurring was due to the spy/conspiracy section of surprises. Again this led to me thinking of another 1930s country home mystery, Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934). This is not Marsh’s finest novel, coming across as a rather ridiculous, especially with its Russian political angle, yet its’ ridiculousness is nowhere near the same league as The Sunken Sailor’s and again I think this is because there is a solid reality beneath the ridiculousness and artifice (such as the playing of the game Murder!), which prevents the plot from spiralling out of control.

When reading the first part of The Sunken Sailor, something I soon noticed was the oddness of the guests invited to the castle, many of whom for which there is no explanation of why they have come. I felt this differed from the 1930s mysteries I had read, such as ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay, because in these works the guests may be up to no good or may there under false pretences, but at the same time there is a logic behind why they have been invited.

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Finally in reviewing the country house mysteries from the 1930s I had read, I noticed that they had more to say about the social issue of gender roles and the role of women in particular, something which did not come across in The Sunken Sailor (though given that it is a parody this is probably not that surprising). Examples of such works from the 1930s which quickly sprang to mind were The Noose (1930) by Philip Macdonald, Winifred Peck’s The Warrielaw Jewel (1933) and Ianthe Jerrold’s Dead Man’s Quarry (1930) and Let Him Lie (1940).

Let Him Lie

In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ Mr Quin says that ‘the contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion.’ In terms of solving a crime, detective fiction has definitely vindicated this notion, as there is many a sleuth who has solved a cold case, such as Hercule Poirot in Five Little Pigs (1942). Yet in terms of a modern writer recreating a past time I am less certain or at least I think it takes a lot more work than sometimes supposed. Whilst when writing about contemporary times it is easy to create the setting naturally and to express current opinions and attitudes, without forcing unnecessary detail in and it is easy to pick up on the zeitgeist of the moment. But then again it could be said that writers include too little detail when writing contemporarily as they assume that their readers know such information already, meaning a later reader may miss something. However, I think at the end of the day it depends on the individual book in question as people can no doubt find examples to prove either side of the argument. Not the most profound of thoughts I know, but that’s the best I can do, having climbed back up the rabbit hole.

So looking back at this I’m not sure I actually achieved any of my intended aims for this post and my ideas could be hopelessly wrong, but hopefully this post has given some entertainment. As for me I am now off to lie in a dark room

The Sunken Sailor Rating: 2/5

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Deadly Beloved (1952) by John Stephen Strange

Strange is a writer I am sure I came across at this year’s Bodies from the Library conference, on the back of which I bought this book. Strange was the penname for Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett and Deadly Beloved (1952) is part of her Barney Gantt series of books, of whom Ganett is a newspaper reporter/article writer. Strange had a long writing career with her first novel, The Man Who Killed Fortescue being published in 1929 and 22 books later her final novel The House on 9th Street was published in 1976. The book I am reviewing was her 17th book to be published.

Deadly Beloved

This story takes place in New York and predominantly within East Fifty Eight Street and in one particular apartment block, which is owned by Louisa, who married late in life to dentist, Dr Charles Harrington. The apartment block has all the usual suspects, the newly arrived young couple, Barney and Muriel Gantt, who both contribute to newspaper publications; Katharine Schultz, Harrington’s nurse-secretary, Tom Jones an architect, Letty Gaitskill and her miniature pooch Inch and Ham Benson, an unemployed actor. Via the newspapers the reader learns of a recently discovered body, found in a cellar, that of a red haired woman. The previous occupants of the building were Mr and Mrs George Seymour, the latter of whom had red hair and neither can now be traced. It wouldn’t surprise readers to hear that the Seymour marriage was a quick one (having met each other in the Bronx zoo) and that the wife was older than the husband and also brought the money to the marriage. If you are beginning to think of certain true crime stories, involving multiple marriages and baths then you are definitely getting warm. Similar to Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero (1944), one of the key prioritises of this narrative is the leading up to the central murder, which occurs over one fateful fourth of July weekend and even Captain Hastings could figure out who did this one. Although not marketed as such, this story is an inverted mystery, as there is no difficulty in predicting what is going to happen and instead the focus is on how those close around the criminal can all so easily miss the suspicious tell-tale signs and more importantly miss their sinister significance. It is also a story of how a killer is caught as well and what initial seemingly inconsequential acts lead to this happening.

Strange has an enjoyable writing style and I liked the brief moments of understated humour, such as in the opening page when we are told of how other streets nearby have their own stories of brutal crime to tell: ‘…within a few blocks stands the apartment building where Mrs Titterton was brutally strangled by an upholster…’ They say in comedy it is key words which make a joke funny and this comes through here as the incongruity of the word ‘upholster,’ makes the crimes mentioned more lighted hearted and faintly ridiculous. Another moment of humour is when the narrator talks of Muriel’s agony aunt work and how she unfortunately has letter writers coming in to visit her and in one case a husband going as far as saying that ‘unless she could think of a better solution he really thought he had better shoot’ his wife ‘and get it over with.’ It is a shame therefore that these moments of humour are not more pervasive in the text.

Another missed opportunity I think is with Barney and Muriel Gantt, as they are set up as a natural choice for amateur sleuth team, with Barney already having some experience in that area with his newspaper work. Yet this does not really materialise which again adds to the lack of excitement and surprise this book has. Strange does add in a love triangle with three of the other tenants, which although predictable was well written, having a Shakespearean comedy feel to it. Predictability is this story’s biggest problem, which is a shame as this book shows that Strange has a lot of skill as a writer, especially in regards to having an engaging prose style, as well as having a strong ability to create well-drawn characters, with some brief moments touching on victim psychology. Consequently I think I would like to try her work again but perhaps start with a title earlier in her career. If anyone has any recommendations for which book to try next with this author do let me know.

Rating: 3.75/5

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A Client is Cancelled (1951) by Frances and Richard Lockridge

I snapped up this particular find for 99p in a local charity shop, so I was quite pleased with myself, especially when I realised that the authors were the same ones who wrote the Mr and Mrs North series. This particular series has Lt. Heimrich as its’ serial sleuth, who actually appeared in some of the North novels before getting his own separate series. A Client is Cancelled (1951) is the fourth book in this 22 book series and it seems to have garnered some good contemporary reviews. Frances Iles for the Sunday Times said that the author ‘treat a conventional plot so lightly as to make it seem quite fresh.’ Whilst the Daily Mail wrote that it was ‘a first class mystery, hallmarked with the Lockridge stamp of wit and wisdom’ and the Glasgow Evening Times said that the Lockridges had ‘not produced a better thriller… a fast moving yarn, amusing in dialect and refreshing in the absence of slang.’ They go on to say that this book ‘makes exciting reading…’ With such commendations my expectations were certainly raised.

A Client is Cancelled

The story is set in a scorching late American summer, which certainly seems to have a great effect on the clothing choices of our central protagonists, Pooh and Oh-Oh. Yes you read that correctly, these are the nicknames for a married couple called Winifred and Orson Otis and it is the latter who narrates the story, which begins with a get together at the more glamorous home of Faye and George Townsend. Also there are Pooh’s uncle Paul, her cousin Pauline, Dwight Craig, an employee of George’s advertising agency, neighbour Francis Eldredge and Ann Dean, Faye’s decorator consultant who also just happens to be Craig’s ex-wife. To Oh-oh (yes I am using the really annoying and sickly sweet nickname) the party is mostly boring and seen through a drunken haze (I’m impressed by how much alcohol these people can consume), but underneath polite banalities are a number of tensions. These tensions seem to abrupt when Pooh and Oh-oh decide to use the Townsend’s pool late at night (and no they don’t feel awkward about not having brought their swim suits) and end up finding Paul at the bottom of the pool, shot in the back. Pooh and Oh-oh definitely top the suspect list quickly, as not only do they receive $50,000 from Paul’s will, but Oh-oh’s gun has conveniently gone missing and his shirt is found with blood stains on. Their predicament becomes even more fraught when they come across another body, which has recently been shot the next day. However, to be fair there are a number of motives for murder flying around, from revenge and illicit love to the desire to gain money and the fear of losing it. Thankfully Captain Heimrich is on the case…

Overall Thoughts

So I think one thing I have learnt is to not trust newspaper reviews. This is not an awful novel or a really bad read, but it is hardly ‘fresh,’ or a ‘first class mystery’ and it is certainly not a thriller. Equally yes the nicknames Pooh and Oh-Oh (Oh-Oh especially) are a bit too cloying, which could equally be said of Pooh’s character, coming across as quite ditzy – especially when she says Oh-Oh. Then again it is hard to say Oh-Oh with an appearance of great intelligence. Pooh and Oh-oh are not protagonists you can warm to or identify with, due to the sickly sweet atmosphere which pervades them though their more unconventional lifestyle and their drinking habits reminded me a little of Craig Rice’s Jake Justus and Helene Brand. The narrative style has some highpoints taking on a humorous tone when discussing Pooh and Oh-Oh’s difficult car, named It:

‘Pooh and I try within reason, to be polite, particularly to inanimate objects. So… we were polite to It. It is rude to assume, in advance of proof, malicious recalcitrance in anything, so It was given the benefit of whatever doubt existed.’

But in the main the style although flowing well is not anything out of the ordinary. Captain Heimrich, again is quite an average sleuth – not irritating but not very dynamic either, in fact you could say he is so relaxed he’s almost horizontal. Though he did remind me of TV sleuth Columbo, especially in his style of speech, his unflappability and his unprepossessing demeanour:

‘I suppose because Captain Heimrich was not all a dramatic man – not, at any rate, in any obvious sense. He was merely a pervasive man. He merely sat there, looked around, and seemed to expect one of us to open a conversation. When nobody did, he closed his eyes, briefly, opened them again and said that this was a lot of trouble for everyone, naturally.’

The characterisation comes to life at the end of the book when the killer is revealed, but not much is made of it, which is only natural I guess, considering how little we get under the skin of the characters. Perhaps there was a hidden criticism in Iles’ review after all, as light is definitely the word for this book.

But I think the main reason why this remains an average read is that there is a lack of direction once the police investigation goes underway and there is a lack of dramatic events after the second body is found. The Otis’ vaguely do some amateur sleuthing but not much and although suspicious details are found about everyone, there is nothing to suggest one person is more guilty than the other. It is not surprising that Captain Heimrich has to use a psychological trick to get the killer to confess, during a meeting where all the suspects are gathered and Heimrich recycles all the information we already know about everyone. So on balance this is a light and easy read but nothing remarkable or dazzling. It is not a book I would recommend to readers new to the Lockridges. There is a lack of tension, though the pace is good and for the seasoned crime fiction reader the narrative arc becomes a bit predictable. So this book review could be shortened down to one word really – ‘meh.’

Rating: 3.5/5

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: War Mysteries

the-tuesday-night-bloggers-history-and-mysteryA couple of weeks ago I did a post for Remembrance Sunday which looked at First World War set mystery novels and a lot of interesting ideas and recommendations were brought up – so thanks for that! For the Tuesday Night Bloggers this week I am returning to the theme of war, as this is arguably one of the biggest factors which shapes history. War as a setting can be useful to writers as it provides plenty of opportunities for action and pathos. It also ties in well with espionage or spy novels as a war gives a spy a plausible context to be working in. Furthermore, due to the damage war causes, novels which involve a war can often be retrospective, looking back on unexplained mysteries or traumas. Social history can also be found in such novels, revealing details of what it is like to live during a war either on the battlefields or on the home front. So a bit like last week I thought I would share some of my favourite mystery novels within which war (including the lead up to, duration and the aftermath) is involved.

  1. Drink to Yesterday (1940) and A Toast to Tomorrow (1940) by Manning Coles

Image result for drink to yesterday manning colesFirstly if you are going to read these novels, read them in this order, unlike me who read them the other way round. Can’t say anymore without giving spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me. The first novel is set during WW1, whilst the latter one is set in the run up to WW2. Manning Coles was actually the penname for two people called Adelaide Frances Oke Manning and Cyril Henry Coles, the latter of whom actually worked in British Image result for a toast to tomorrow manning colesIntelligence. Normally espionage or spy stories are not really my thing, yet Manning Coles gives us much more than a conventional spy plot. The story feels fresh and not hampered with tropes, which is probably down to the choice of narrative perspective Coles uses and the characters they decide to focus. For readers who love character driven books, then these two would be ideal and it is this characterisation which makes the ending of Drink to Yesterday so wonderfully sad and poignant.

 

2. Death Has Deep Roots (1951) by Michael Gilbert

Death has Deep Roots

This is a mystery which looks back to WW2 retrospectively and there are many characters who are struggling to move on, especially the protagonist Victoria, who is desperate to found out what happened to the man she loved. Moreover, it is when she tries to meet somebody from her WW2 past that events lead to her being falsely arrested for murder. War experience in this novel is focused on those who were in France either as British soldiers or as French inhabitants and the difficulties that arose. This is very well told courtroom drama, with a great deal of humour.

3. Six Iron Spiders (1942) by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Six Iron Spiders

Again this is another WW2 themed novel, but this one is set on the American home front and this is definitely a novel which is rich in social history. Moreover, it is not just a case of depicting certain details. Taylor also has these details filtered through the protagonist Asey Mayo, who has come home on leave and is surprised by the changes war has wrought on his home town. With a strong prose style and on the whole enjoyable characterisation, this would be a good place for readers new to Taylor to start.

4. Blue Murder (1942) by Harriet Rutland

Blue Murder

The home front is once more the setting, but in this case Rutland sets her novel on British soil. Out of the three mystery novels she wrote this is her best in my opinion, closely focusing on one family and their lodger, Arnold Smith, who makes for a good fly on the wall to this dysfunctional family. This is also Rutland’s darkest novel, (giving it a decidedly Frances Iles flavour), which comes across in the character psychology, the narrative’s humour and the book’s powerful ending, which certainly left me gasping. Again a great deal of social history can be gleamed from this book as Rutland touches on the role of woman in the war, as well as British and German attitudes towards Jewish people.

5. N or M? (1941) by Agatha Christie

n-or-m

Whilst I loved the Coles novels for their human intrigue and emotional impact, I think my reasons for enjoying this spy novel is because of its humour and the fact it has one of my favourite sleuthing pairs in it: Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Though a lighter hearted spy novel, the war context does make the boarding house setting more sinister, as the Beresfords try to uncover who the fifth columnists are.

6. Johnny Under Ground (1967) by Patricia Moyes

Image result for johnny underground patricia moyes

Like Gilbert’s novel this is a book which looks back to WW2 retrospectively and the present action of the book revolves around suspicious circumstances which took place during the war at an Airbase. This is probably my favourite Moyes read to date. Not only is there a strong central mystery to be solved, but I likes how Tibbett’s wife is more involved in the case, making it a more personal investigation for him.

7. The Message of the Mute Dog (1942) by Charlotte Murray Russell

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Back to the American home front, Russell’s humorous amateur sleuth, Jane Amanda Edwards, has to tackle murder and Nazi spies when a local defense plant is attacked by an arsonist. Though my memories are a little dim on this one, I do remember enjoying it. The setting and the mystery felt quite fresh and original. Although dubbed as a ‘cosy mystery,’ I think the action of the plot and the active nature of Edwards prevents this becoming twee or quaint.

8. The Turkish Gambit (1998) by Boris Akunin

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In the ten novels which have been translated from Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series, this surprisingly is the only one which really involves a war. I found this surprising when writing this post as the Fandorin novels traverse a number of decades (1870s to early 20th century), decades which were quite filled with violence and war. Unlike the other novels in this list, this book is set in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). Akunin’s uses historical events well, fitting them into the narrative of his story, a narrative which is subtitled as an espionage mystery. War and espionage mysteries seem to go hand in hand really, looking back at my list, which seems logical given the active nature of war. Nevertheless Fandorin does not lose his analytical side and when he reveals what has been going on at the end, his solution is rational and supported by clues.

9. The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) by Margery Allingham

A much better read

I’ve never been a big fan of Allingham’s work, but this is probably my favourite one which like Gilbert and Moyes’ novels, looks back to World War Two. Meg, the female protagonist, believes herself to be a war widow and has subsequently got engaged. Yet mysterious messages sent to her seem to be suggesting that her first husband is still alive and it is from this point the novel’s action unfolds. I think this novel highlights one of the reasons why writers might want to look back to a war in their mystery fiction, as war leads to many unresolved mysteries such as loved ones being missing in action or bodies not always being correctly identified due to the state they are in. This leaves the people left alive in a difficult position, as it can be hard to move on with your life if you don’t know whether someone close to you is dead or not. So not only does war setting lend itself to creating a plausible setup for a mystery novel, but it can also add emotional depth and poignancy.

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Murder on Trial (1954) by Michael Underwood

Michael Underwood was a new author to me and Underwood is the penname for John Michael Evelyn (1916-1992). Underwood was called to the Bar in 1939 and after WW2 he worked in the Department of Public Prosecution. He wrote 48 crime novels, which were influenced by his work and it is not surprising that this book begins and ends with a courtroom. Murder on Trial (1954) is the first novel in Underwood’s Simon Manton series, a series which would end in the 1960s after 12 more novels. Underwood had four more series characters, but only one of these characters, lawyer, Rosa Epton would go on to have a reasonably long series (16 books in total), whilst the others had comparatively smaller runs ranging from 2 to 5 novels. During the 1960s and until the 80s, he also wrote 8 non-series novels.

As I mentioned before this book commences with a trial, a murder trial in fact, with

William Edgar Tarrant, a thief well-known to the police for charming money from duplicitous women, standing accused of shooting a policeman. However, before we get to this point the book gives us a window into the lives of some of the other participants in the courtroom, beginning with the foreman of the jury Mr Pinty. There is also a colourfully apparelled female juror, Miss Fenwick-Blunt, along with the court police inspector, a love struck short hand writer, Jake Hartman and the object of his love in the public seating, Maisie Jenks, accompanied by her father. You may wonder why Underwood goes to all this bother, but this is far from being padding. Not only does it provide insightful snapshots of who these people are but especially in the case of Mr Pinty, he is a character who becomes intrinsic to what follows.

Within a matter of pages, privy to Tarrant’s thoughts we know he is innocent of the crime he is accused of and that there was another person there that fateful night, who in fact shot the policeman. Concerned that he will hang for this crime he makes an ominous announcement before the first day of the trial ends. He says when he goes into the witness box tomorrow he will have to make certain disclosures and with these words he effectively signs his own death warrant. As he makes his way to the witness box the next day a bullet to the heart silences him forever. In such a small space you would expect this to be an easy case to solve, especially with some many witnesses. Yet the relevant witnesses seem to have seen nothing. In some cases this may be genuine, as just before Tarrant was shot, Maisie screams before fainting, an action which draws everyone’s attention. Yet in other cases it definitely seems like some are withholding information and are acting incredibly suspiciously, such as Maisie’s ill-timed screaming. Also why did Pinty run out of the juror’s box straight after the shooting? DCI Simon Manton who was present in the court due to being involved in the Tarrant case, is put in charge of the investigation. Pinty’s disappearance makes him the obvious suspect, yet as the story unfolds and more suspicious and dramatic events follow, Manton is right in thinking there is more to this case than meets the eye. Since the narrative moves between the different characters in differing amounts, the reader is sometimes privy to information quicker than Manton, but it takes until Manton’s delivery of the solution to tie all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Overall Thoughts

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Map included at the start of the book

On the whole Underwood’s novel is well paced and his writing style grabs your attention and flows effectively, often delivering dramatic information in an unceremonious fashion at the end of chapters for maximum effect. I also think Underwood has a knack for giving concise and informative characterisation, as you get to understand the characters very quickly and he often gives this information in indirect ways. For instance we soon get to grips with Mr and Mrs Pinty when Underwood describes in a gently humorous way their married life together in the opening page or two. For example when Mr Pinty is informed he will become a juror he puffs himself up and become rather idealistic – a stance which his wife makes ridiculous when she thinks that ‘a summons from the Archangel Gabriel himself could not have given him more to fuss about.’ Yet we soon get her measure when we find out what newspaper items she is interested in reading about. I also liked how characters are not always what they seem, especially Miss Fenwick-Blunt, a character you would expect to be used comically, being what her landlady calls a ‘typical… garrulous spinster,’ yet in fact has a much less conventional role in the story. It is said that her landlady would ‘have been surprised if she had known just how many secrets Miss Fenwick-Blunt kept to herself and just how untypical she was.’

The only snag for me was the ending. Not the solution which I will come to in a moment, but how the solution is delivered. In the final pages Manton proceeds to have two events murder-on-trialwhere he gathers all the suspects together and then like Poirot goes around saying why so and so might have done it. Firstly this choice of solution delivery didn’t fit on to the end of the story well. It was entertaining to read of course, but it is too golden age a trope to be used in this story. I think a better ending could have been achieved without recourse to artificial gatherings of characters, as the artifice in this case stood out too much. Moreover, two “solution delivering” events seemed excessive and unnecessary, as the first one didn’t really add much to what the reader already knew. It is because of this issue that I had to dock my final rating for the book which is a shame, because the solution is a enjoyable one. Soon after the murder of Tarrant I did suspect the killer, but because of the plethora of avenues of investigation, I kind of forget about them until Manton revealed them at the end – where I unsurprisingly went “I knew it was them!” However, I don’t think Underwood makes the killer obvious, the clues to their guilt are well placed, I think I just got lucky in picking up on one small incidence. It is an enjoyable solution in that the reader doesn’t feel cheated by it. Moreover, the reader can feel happy in working out some parts of the solution for themselves, but not all of it to the extent that they wonder why Manton hasn’t solved it yet. There is definitely a point for reading until the end of the book. So all in all I’d definitely recommend this book and I’ll be looking out for more of his earlier work.

I’m ending my review unusually with a question – Does anyone know of any other mystery novels which feature a murder inside a courtroom? I feel like this is something I have come across before but I can’t recall any titles.

Rating: 4.25/5

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Murder, Chop Chop (1942) by James Norman

It could be said that James Norman (1912-1983) had an action packed life to say the least, having been a journalist, member of the 1932 US Olympics Polo team, a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, a sculptor in Paris, an army combat correspondent in WW2 and even a Hollywood script writer in the 1950s, until the communist activities of his youth were unearthed and he was blacklisted. One wonders what sort of project such a man would do in his dotage, though I’d be surprised if anyone would have guessed he would have worked on a dog gourmet cook book. (N.B. Not a recipe book using dogs as a food, but a book of celebrities and their pet dogs, with some recipes for dogs (I’m assuming) interspersed.)

murder-chop-chop

Murder, Chop Chop (1942) is the first of the trilogy of novels featuring Captain Gimiendo Hernandez Quinto, who runs a guerrilla training school for the Nationalist Chinese government. This story was also serialised in Adventure’s December 1941 and January 1942 Issues, renamed as Viva China! in a condensed format. The other two novels in the trilogy are An Inch of Time (1945) and The Nightwalkers (1947). Over the next few decades he would write 6 more novels for adults, though not for this series. He also wrote plays, including one for TV and radio. He also wrote seven works for children, as well writing tourist guides for Mexico and even a Handbook to the Christian Liturgy (1944).

This story is set in 1938 in China in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War and opens with a train going towards Lingtung, which introduces to us a number of the main characters such as John Tate, a once studier of Chinese Calligraphy, but due to the war has been required to take on translation work for the Chinese Press Bureau. Though it seems he has been given a slightly different task of watching one of the other train passengers, a task he has to do from the roof as there are no more seats inside – a situation which is far from comfortable for him what with the train crashing into a cow at one point (leading to him breaking his arm) and at another point being targeted by Japanese cannons. The passenger he has to watch is a journalist named Mildred Woodford, who is suspected of being a spy for the Japanese. However his task is also shared with others, such as a Eurasian woman named Mountain of Virtue who is to take Woodford to meet the commander of Lingtung, Quinto. Quinto is keen to keep Woodford away from Abe Harrow, an American who has light fingers and who seems to be working against the Chinese. Abe Harrow is very unpopular for this reason and for many others, with characters such as Clive Firth desiring him to be arrested and shot. It shouldn’t therefore be much of a surprise when not many pages later, Harrow is brought down from the mountain he climbed that morning dead. It seems he fell over a sheer cliff. Was this accidental or was he pushed?

Image result for murder chop chop james norman

Keen to minimise the damage Woodford could do with this event, many characters are used to stall and distract her. Meanwhile he and others begin to investigate Harrow’s death which brings up a number of suspicious circumstances when his and others rooms are searched. Searching two places in particular reveals evidence which suggests a much wider criminal conspiracy is going on. The suspect list is still quite wide though as it seems quite a few people were up on the mountain that morning, including an unknown person in a yellow trench coat. A second death and the disappearance of a pair of famous false teeth add further confusion and complexity to the investigation. Due to the setting of the mystery the plot is very action packed with characters fleeing apprehension, air raid attacks and even kidnaps, which is fine by Quinto who is a man who prefers action.

Overall Thoughts

Quinto is a larger than life character, who fits his role well, though I don’t think I would like to meet him in real life. He has quite a mysterious past, with his family originating in Mexico. Quinto certainly thinks well of himself and he sees the deaths that happen as an affront to his own authority. For me the important character and the one I was most interested in reading about was Mountain of Virtue. At this point in detective fiction Chinese women hadn’t featured as major characters, certainly not ones who did any sleuthing. Murder Chop Chop from this aspect is therefore quite important, being I think the first appearance of a Chinese female sleuth. Though to be fair she is more of an assistant in this book. Readers would have to wait another year until the work of Juanita Sheridan to have a Chinese woman as the primary detective. Sheridan in 1943 wrote a detective novel featuring Chinese Angie Tudor called What Dark Secret, but it was in 1949 that Sheridan’s most famous sleuth, Lily Wu came into print for the first time in The Chinese Chop.

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The Rue Morgue Press edition also includes the maps found in the original editions.

Mountain of Virtue is in some ways a very positive depiction of a woman, as she is independent, capable and uncovers a lot of important information for the investigation. However, looking back over the book it does feel a bit like she is also a male fantasy figure, with her looks and their effects on others being focused on a lot. Unlike Lily Wu who refrains from seduction techniques to find out information, Mountain of Virtue resorts to this a lot. One top tip for all ladies reading this from the book is that if you pose like Chinese beauty Princess Hsishih you’ll be irresistible to the opposite sex. Hsishih’s iconic look is showing that she has a toothache with attractive brows knitted together in suffering. If anyone tries this out let do let us know if it works… So she has ridiculously good looks, she is a good fighter and also has a strong element of mystery about her (with the chief of the North Army Secret Police, referring to her as ‘a blind spot in [his] files,’) – all components which make turn her into a male fantasy in the book. However, considering Quinto’s attitudes towards other women, you begin to admire Mountain Of Virtue for the way she outsmarts him and others. The only times Quinto is disconcerted is when his thoughts are distracted by her.

Nevertheless looking at the characters overall in the book I think Norman depicts an interesting and varied collection of people living in or around the guerrilla training school. There are many non-Chinese people living there, having come to China for a plethora of reasons. I don’t know if Norman ever went to China but he seems to portray its people and culture in a faithful and vivid way, not resorting to stereotypes. A number of social differences crop up in the book which interested me, such as when the Chinese characters are quite shocked when Mountain of Virtue says she cleaned a man’s shoes. It is interesting to see how Chinese and non-Chinese people interact in the book. However, any differences in interaction are not down to race, but due to individual animosities or affections. One moment in particular describes Lieutenant Chi’s love of all things American, having stayed there for a time:

‘He introduced Y. M. C. A. exercises in the Fourth Route Army. So great was his admiration for Occidental habits that he scrubbed his teeth ruthlessly four times a day, wore golf togs when not in uniform and sported fancy mechanical pencils for which he had no lead. The tables in his room sagged under the weight of numerous alarm clocks, for he admired the Western mania of exactitude…’

Aside from the amusing images this passage conjurors up, it is also interesting to see how Norman typifies Western culture from a non-Western point of view.

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Sino-Japanese war makes for an interesting background/setting to the novel

From the blurb and the general feel of the book I was expecting an adventure/thriller and in some ways this is definitely delivered. Yet Norman also seeks to provide a detective puzzle plot. For instance there are a number of intriguing clues in the case such as the three watches Harrow wore, which all stopped at the same time, showing different times. Quinto may say that:

‘I hate this business of questioning people in the manner of an English detective. We’ve had enough of that for a few days. Now that we have action, we’ll come quickly to a solution of our problems.’

Yet he does do a fair bit of detective work, discussing out loud with colleagues important questions which need to be answered to solve the case and Tate in some respects is a Watson like figure at points. Quinto’s solution which he reveals unusually through a play is also based on logical deductions. Having said that I don’t think the reader is likely to solve the case fully, as although based on evidence and deductions, there is so much action in the book that you don’t really have a moment to think. The solution itself is very good and is also very unexpected, overturning certain detective fiction tropes. I think Norman gets away with this blending of thriller and puzzle-clue forms, though there could have been a bit less action, so the reader could concentrate on the case more easily and sometimes the action did feel like it was dragging the story out a bit. However, it was an unusual and engaging read on the whole and if you like a perplexing mystery and want to read something different, you should check this one out. Due to the Rue Morgue Press who reprinted this book a while back there are a few reasonably priced copies out there.

Rating: 4/5

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