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

This is an extra special read as this reprint was brought about by fellow blogger JJ, who worked with Bold Venture Press to get this book and Murder on the Way (1935), (also by Roscoe), reissued. Both JJ and Audrey Parente, (authorised biographer of Roscoe), have written introductions to this story. My interest in this book was also piqued due to it being a war based seemingly impossible crimes mystery. Impossibilities abound with an invisible assassin who is not revealed until the end. However this book is more than a whodunit and in fact spends much more narrative space detailing and recording the damage war wreaks on countries and the futility of such organised violence in general. JJ in his introduction notes an ‘anti-satirical’ style in Roscoe’s war, meaning the evils of war are confronted head on. Although this story takes place in Europe, several of the countries mentioned are renamed under pseudonyms – though these are quite thinly concealed. It seems quite obvious that Teutony is representative of Germany, whilst Esperance is France. It is only Helvania which I have not been able to connect to a specific European country. This is not surprising given the role Helvania will ultimately play in this story. Consequently this novel spoke into the times of its original publication and in some ways was quite far sighted, in the way Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was for the WW1. The story was originally serialised in Argosy magazine in 1935 under the name War Declared.

This book has a very busy plot, so no synopsis can really do it justice without becoming overly long. However the key event at the start of the book are the murders of Victor Gatreau, Esperance’s Foreign Minister and Baron Von Speer, Teutony’s Premier. They are found dead in a locked hotel room, which was guarded from the outside. The solution to the Teutonian police seems obvious. Gatreau shot at Speer and Speer managed to kill his assailant before dying himself. This event becomes a powder keg which is quickly lit and both Teutony and Esperance begin to prepare for war. These events are seen from the viewpoint of John Keats, an American newspaper reporter. He was in Teutony to report on this meeting, along with several other reporters from around the world and given that these reporters had a room next door to the meeting, attention is certainly given to them. On the whole the reporters band together superficially, yet underneath it is evident that there is a great deal of mistrust about whether one of them did the killings – the mutual destruction theory not holding much water for them. Keats in particular is unsure who he can trust. It doesn’t help that he seems to have a personal assailant on his tail, taking pot shots at him, amongst other things. Further events follow, leading to the reporters escaping out of the country by train. Yet the war catches up with them and then some and in a way the central mystery of the book becomes swallowed up by the machinations of war as the Teutony use lightening, almost blitzkreig tactics to overwhelm their opposition. The war brings out underlying divisions and calls on everyone to decide where their loyalty truly lies, which becomes an especially pressing issue for Paul Emmerich, a pressman for a Teutony newspaper, but who is soon enlisted into the army. The war also makes the task of solving the murders particularly trying, which is commented on in the book: ‘A city was perishing in his ears but his brain spun in a puzzle more maddening than the destruction of a metropolis. Jigsaw pieces collided, fouled, half joined, fell apart in his mind.’

Overall Thoughts

If Roscoe ever had to take his GCSE in English Language he would certainly get an A* for his descriptive writing. One example which particularly stood out for me was the following:

‘An astounding company of monsters followed in the wake of the Tank Corps. Anton Stehli was reminded of insects magnified gigantic by an opium dream. Huge iron measuring worms. Snorting steel grasshoppers. Nodding mechanical mantises that hissed and spat and dug and scraped at the mutilated landscape.’

However I feel like there can be too much of a good thing. In the opening chapter I enjoyed Roscoe’s descriptive style. It seemed to fit with what was going on. It felt neither overdone nor too pithy. I especially enjoyed this line: ‘The room had a way of creeping up behind him as he advanced to take a chair.’ However after this point the descriptive nature of Roscoe’s writing became almost dense, so despite all the action, the pace did feel rather slow at times. The not overdone details of the first chapter were overtaken by excessive details. But if you enjoy war fiction then this will probably not be as much of a problem for you, since the description predominately focuses on narrating the rise of a war and the mechanisms this involves, as well as looking at the suffering war inflicts. Roscoe’s tale tackles the issue of war in quite an in depth manner, looking at ranging opinions including pacifism and warmongering, as well as those who haver in the middle. Although for me I did feel like I was having to dig the mystery out of a war story, the latter dominating over the former. On the other hand though that might have been one of points Roscoe was trying to make, that war takes over everything once it starts, which is echoed in the line: ‘War exploding in the heart of the puzzle had blown the fragments a thousand ways.’ The solution once it is finally reached is ingenious, but my interest was fairly wavering at that end point and the overall showdown of the book didn’t really work for me. It was far too idealistic and jarred with the horrors of war previously mentioned. I think I perhaps don’t like war fiction enough to fully get into this story. So balance I wouldn’t say this is a bad book, as it achieves an awful lot, but that perhaps I am not the right reader for it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Newspaper

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

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Crime, Gentlemen, Please (1954) by Delano Ames

Ames is an author I have reviewed a lot this year, but sadly, (or it may come as a relief to you), this is the last Delano Ames novel I have in my TBR pile. This is the 8th book in the Jane and Dagobert series and was published under the title of A Coffin for Christopher in America, (guessing the pub related pun may not have translated so well). The next book in the series though alas is beyond my reach, as not only are available online copies rather pricy to say the least, they are very far and few between to boot.

The opening sentence announces the death of Christopher Piper, who is such an unlikeable fellow that when it seems like he has taken his own life with sleeping tablets, everyone feels it is his ‘first public-spirited action.’ However in the next sentence we are next told that a week after his funeral the police dig him up again. The majority of the story takes place within this week. This death comes to Jane’s attention as Piper was married to her old school friend, Elizabeth Stanley. Her marriage was not a happy one as soon after they got married during the war, Piper scarpered abroad to avoid enlistment. He briefly returned after the war, only to flee again from the country due to Elizabeth’s father finding out about Piper’s second family. It was only a year previous to the story beginning that Piper came back for good and weirdly enough Elizabeth takes him in. After all he is the father of her twins (Ann and Anna). Those of a more sceptical mind take note that he only returned once Elizabeth’s father had died and had left her a lot of money. The money of course does not last long.

Alongside finding out this information about Piper we see Jane and Dagobert moving into a new flat, which used to be tenanted by Charlie Crabb, a private detective, until he mysteriously disappeared; his disappearance coinciding with Piper’s death. As the pages unfold more and more links are made between Crabb and Piper, as well as with many other characters including a night club hostess and a newly released criminal amongst others. The suspect list is also varied including the weeping widow, who is certainly keeping something back. The twins are also a conundrum, being witnesses who are tell a mixture of lies, truths and inventions.

Overall Thoughts

As you expect in an Ames novel there is a note of surrealism and he probably wins the prize for weirdest night club in fiction. The twins and Sigismund, (Dgaobert’s cousin and Piper’s neighbour), also provide a comedic thread in the story and of course we can’t forget Jane’s wisecracks. However in the main this novel is far less comic than other stories in the series; you could almost say it is a sombre tale. Yet I would not say this is a bad thing, as in fact I think this being a less humorous novel and one which is set in London, rather than some exotic locale, has meant that there is little distraction from the central mystery, which is certainly more complex and developed than some of Ames’ previous ones. There are lots of threads to follow up and investigate how they all link together and Ames shows a skill in effectively delaying information, (but not in the sense of withholding clues).

I would also say that due to less comedy in the book, the characterisation is more in depth. Ames quickly has you loathing Piper, whilst almost wondering what sort of nit wit Elizabeth is for taking him back. Through the twins we additionally get an interesting take on the broken family unit, as their perceptions of what has gone on are intriguing to say the least. I would only say there is one bit in the narrative which is a bit awkward, (for the want of a better word). Dagobert, well known maverick character seems to think it is perfectly appropriate to push a girl’s head repeatedly under water to get an answer to a question. It’s not really the point that she has fallen in the river accidently beforehand. Yet weirdly this behaviour has a positive effect on the twins who are described as becoming ‘Dagobert’s slaves.’ Ames leaves the matter on the following note: ‘like their mother they responded to masculine ill-treatment.’ Aside from the moral/gender attitude issues, I didn’t really feel this behaviour fitted in with Dagobert’s character, whose approach to children in previous stories has not been depicted this way.

Tying in with the more pronounced and intricate mystery in this book, I would say the solution to this case is one of Ames’ best, as normally his solutions are never really out of the ordinary. But this one is rather clever in my opinion and I was certainly foxed. Though in keeping with Ames’ reputation as a humorous writer the ending has a nice comedic touch.

In fairness to you the reader though I should point out that there is one discrepancy in the narrative. I would like to say that I spotted it all by myself, but some kind previous reader did instead, making a nice note of it on the page, in pen, (so thoughtful of them). However if that note had not been there I don’t think I would have noticed the discrepancy and equally it isn’t all that intrinsic to the plot.

Overall I think this book was a return to the high standard Ames gives in his first few novels and the mystery element is particularly well done. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of this book then I certainly recommend you buy it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Clock or Time Piece

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Fantastic Trio of Short Stories by Roald Dahl in A Taste of the Unexpected (2005)

Although famous for his children’s stories, Dahl also wrote a number of crime/mystery short stories. I had read one of these prior to today, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ (1953), and I must say it is one which has stuck in my mind, for its cold bloodedness, all the more chilling for its lack of gory details. Today’s review is a collection of three of his other mystery stories.

‘Taste’ (1954)

Given the title it is no surprise that this story takes place at a dinner party, hosted by Mike, his wife and daughter. The other guests are the narrator, the narrator’s wife and the gourmet Richard Pratt. Usually a bet is held whereby Mike has Richard guess the breed and vintage of the claret they’re drinking. The prize is usually a case of the claret in question. But this the stake are radically changed, making this a dinner no one will forget in a hurry…

Although a short, short story Dahl is an expert at displaying potent personalities in minimal character description. There may not be a dead body in sight in this story but blooming heck is the tension screwed to its highest setting. Yet within all this tension Dahl also manages to create an undercurrent of social comedy. Simply wonderful!

‘The Way Up to Heaven’ (1960)

Our next story focuses Mrs Forster and her husband. She is a woman who suffers terribly with the anxiety of being late for things and missing them. He is a man who likes to play on this tendency and hurt her as much as possible through it. This is the setup we are confronted with when Mrs Forster needs to catch a plane, but its’ outcome as the title of this collection suggests is unexpected.

The horror factor in this story is maximised through what it leaves unsaid and it chilling to see what a person would do to prevent them being late. As with the first story this is another strong offering from Dahl and again he captures character personalities and relationships terrifying well.

‘The Landlady’ (1960)

In the final story of the collection Billy Weaver is sent by head office to Bath. He has to find his own accommodation and decides on a bed and breakfast. The old lady seems nice, but though rather dotty. However the increasing attitude of expectedness and her hints of him being just the right sort of guest makes the mystery fan reader very uneasy. This is an open ended story but Dahl leaves you with a certainty is what Weaver’s fate will be.

Normally open ended stories annoy me, but here Dahl uses it to perfection and the increasing sense of horror he creates in the reader, as they realise what is going to happen is expertly done. The spine chilling nature of this story is heightened by the genteel cast and setting.

So if you haven’t guessed already I absolutely loved this brilliant collection of stories and definitely want to read more by Dahl. He knows how to write a short mystery story well and certainly gives you the unexpected in each tale. The lack of gore but high spine tingling factor really impressed me and I think modern crime writers could learn a thing or two from him. This collection would be a great introduction for those new Dahl’s mystery fiction, but equally great for those more familiar.

Rating: 5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Jewellery of Any Sort

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The Judge is Reversed (1960) by Richard and Francis Lockridge

Richard and Francis Lockridge’s Pamela and Jerry North series is one I have somewhat neglected. A couple of years ago I read the 14th novel in the series, Murder in a Hurry (1950), but finding it rather average I have not returned to the series until today.

Today’s read combines two popular interests: cats and tennis, which converge in the murder of John Blanchard, who one Saturday judges at a cat show and acts as a linesman in a tennis match. In both activities he manages to make himself unpopular and to complete his train of unpopularity he has also found the time to write a letter to the Sunday Times, heavily criticising the chair of an anti-vivisection committee. All of which Pamela and Jerry find out in their usual casual manner and are not hugely surprised when they hear of his death the next day. There is a wide range of suspects including a potential gold digger, an impoverished old friend and an irate tennis player, to name but a few. The chapters alternate between the Norths and the work of the police, with the bulk of the investigating being achieved by the latter. Though of course there are chapters where the two investigating bodies join and there is a wonderfully funny scene where they are all involved in trying to catch a cat.

Overall Thoughts

Initially I was a bit concerned with the nature of the dialogue; Pamela and Jerry over breakfast have a tendency to talk in a very abbreviated and therefore very cryptic manner – perhaps regular readers of the series may find such conversation less confusing. Thankfully though this problem ceased after a couple of pages and everyone started making much more sense. There is a lot to like in this book. It’s a great read for when you’re feeling rather tired, (as I was), since it is a quick and easy read, with a steady pace throughout. Its choice of milieus engage reader interest and I like how they link to the potential murder weapon used. Using two milieus, (cats and tennis), means Lockridge have a fuller range of characters, which are well drawn. The Norths, although amateur sleuths, fit into the case plausibly enough and don’t overdo their role and I also enjoyed the understated humour they can bring to a scene. This is not a mystery which knocks your socks off, but considering it is the 24th in the series, I think it is an enjoyable enough mystery and I definitely think I enjoyed this mystery more than Murder in a Hurry. The ending was a little rushed and aided by info not readily available to the reader, but this book doesn’t commit this fault any more than many other mystery novels do.

All in all I think I will try and get back to this series again this year, so if you have any recommendations let me know!

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Cat

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Trial By Fury (1941) by Craig Rice

It has been some time since I last read one of Rice’s novels, so I was glad to get around to reading this one. Jake and Helene Justus are married, at long last, and are taking it easy in Jackson, Wisconsin. However, the trivial task of going to get a fishing license at the local courthouse soon disrupts the peaceful holiday they envisaged. Whilst taking a tour around the courthouse, ex-Senator Peveley is murdered. Despite the ridiculousness of it and the fact that the Justus’ have an alibi, the other inhabitants of the courthouse are quick to blame them for the fatality. It doesn’t help that Jake gets on the wrong side of the Sheriff and it is no surprise that Jake and Helene’s friend and reluctant lawyer, John J. Malone has to come out to help them. Yet this is only the beginning of their problem and the beginning of a series of murders – all committed in different ways. As the body count increases, local feelings run high and it is not long before Jake is in real danger of getting lynched. In such chaos and prejudice Malone has to work out what is really going on. There are any surface reasons for Peveley to be murdered, but as Malone discovers the truth runs much deeper.

Overall Thoughts

Having read other earlier novels in the Jake and Helene series, I found this story quite intriguing. There is still a high level of wisecracks, but other than that the humour is much lower key. There is not a screwball comedy like others have been. The only point of humour/ understatement which didn’t work well is when a series of fatalities and injuries are described after the second crime. For me this section seemed to be lacking taste. The characters themselves are also changed to a degree. Their alcohol consumption in the main is much lower, though there is an extended scene where a drunken Malone tries to track down Jake using a bloodhound. I would also say that Helene has changed a bit. Her role this time round is very much concentrated in her wardrobe and in comparison to earlier tales she is much more demure, weaker and less gung ho, which was a bit disappointing.

However there are many positives to this novel. The opening is very effective, as is the ending and the pacing is consistently good throughout. Rice also provides an engagingly complex mystery, with lots to puzzle out, especially as the crimes pile up and the clues are fairly given. The setting of rural small insular town is equally done well and adds to the story as a whole. So overall, although this was not a perfect read, this is still a story with a lot to recommend itself.

Rating: 4.25/5

The Wrong Murder (1940)

The Corpse Steps Out (1940)

Home Sweet Homicide (1944)

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Cats and Crime: An Eclectic Exploration of the Darker Side to Cats in Early Mystery Fiction

Nowadays, cats can regularly be found in mystery fiction, often in, but by no means limited to, what is now termed ‘cosy’ crime. There are felines who assist their owners in solving crimes, such as in the Mulgray Twins’ No Suspicious Circumstances (2007) and there are even cats who embody a much more anti-heroic role; namely in Suzette A Hill’s Reverend Oughterard series, where a cat spends most of its time attempting to keep its owner from jail and other unpleasant situations. However, cats in crime fiction is no modern phenomena. Throughout the history of the genre there have always been an array of cat themed titles, regardless of whether any cat featured in the novel itself: Cat and Mouse (1950) by Christianna Brand, Kyle Hunt’s Cruel as a Cat (1968) and Curiosity Killed a Cat (1941) by Anne Rowe, are but a few examples. Incidentally D. B. Olsen wrote a dozen novels between the 1930s and 50s whose quirky titles all reference cats, such as Cats Don’t Need Coffins (1946) and Cats Don’t Smile (1945). Technically there is an actual cat in the series, as the amateur sleuth Rachel Murdock does have such a pet.

Yet I think what is not always so widely considered though, is the darker history cats have had in the mystery genre and regardless of how their role in mystery fiction has changed and developed over time, that element of danger, of the unknown, is always lurking in the background. From the very beginning, in the criminal tales of Edgar Allan Poe, we find in the short story ‘The Black Cat,’ (1843) cats are not only subjects of abuse, but are also figures of retribution and impending doom. An increasing madness which comes upon the narrator causes him to gouge out an eye from his black cat, Pluto, and ultimately hang him. However, the roles of the persecutor and the persecuted are reversed when the narrator takes in another cat, who is also one-eyed. This second cat’s deliverance of guilt and judgement upon the narrator is encapsulated in how the splotch of white fur around its neck begins to represent to the narrator ‘the image of a hideous – of a ghastly thing – of the GALLOWS! – oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and Crime – of Agony and Death!’ (Poe, 1843: 254). Moreover, the narrator goes on to complicate the cat’s role further by implying that not only was it the cat’s fault that his murder of his wife was discovered, but that it was the ‘hideous beast [’s …] craft [which] seduced [him] into murder’ (Poe, 1843: 258) in the first place. This claim significantly alters how we view justice in the story, questioning its costs (i.e. the death of the wife) and wondering how far the cat is the responsible for what happened.

This story is no isolated case as the eerie and uncomfortable feeling cats can have in mystery fiction continued into the Golden Age of crime, such as in Todd Downing’s The Cat Screams (1934), where the cry of a cat can be heard before death strikes and in Mignon G. Eberhart’s The Patient in Room 18 (1929), the birth of three kittens and the death of one of them, is feared to mean a third tragedy will strike St Ann’s hospital. In particular though, I wish to focus on Agatha Christie’s short story, ‘The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael’ (1933), where Lady Carmichael’s attempts to use the death of her cat to enslave her stepson, are violently thwarted by the cat itself, or so we are urged to believe by the story’s narrator. The cat’s eldritch presence gives the house an ‘uncanny’ (Christie, 1933: 183) feeling and the ‘menacing’ (Christie, 1933: 188) cat cries leave everyone on edge. Yet as with Poe’s story, the menace is only intended for one person, the one whose guilt begins with an act of violence against the cat and again as with Poe only death will be deemed an appropriate reparation. This ability for cats to unnerve humans, aided by their stealthy and silent movements, is also explored in this story when such movements are found in Sir Arthur Carmichael. Ellery Queen also picked up on the feline capacity for producing fear, in their novel Cat of Many Tails (1949), where a serial killer who is terrorising New York, is nicknamed by the newspapers, ‘The Cat.’

Perhaps it is this ability to frighten us that has led mystery writers to include cats so frequently as fatalities in their stories, as the Golden Age of crime has quite a catalogue of feline deaths. In another Christie short story, ‘The Cretan Bull’ (1940), a man in a drugged state kills one and in ‘The Face of Helen,’ (1927) one unfortunate cat dies when entering a house filled with gas. Violent feline death also comes up in A. Fielding’s Black Cats are Lucky (1938); an ironic title given that whilst Sir Henry Bachelor was poisoned to death, his cat was bludgeoned. However, cats did sometimes fare better in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, such as in ‘The Cyprian Cat,’ (1933) where a man who intended to shoot a tabby cat at the inn he is staying at, ends up shooting the wife of a friend instead.

Two other roles can also be found for cats in Golden Age detective novels. The first is similarly shrouded in darkness and death as in such mysteries writers have often used cats in their murder methods. For instance, in a short story by Sayers, ‘Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz’ (1933), cats are used as a means of frightening someone to death, whilst Christie finds a deadly use for pus from a cat’s infected ear in one of her novels. However the second role for felines in Golden Age mystery fiction is a more positive one, transforming and brightening their role as harbourers of rough justice, by having them help the sleuths solve the crimes they are investigating. This can happen from a distance, such as in Robin Forsythe’s The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935), where the hairs from a ginger cat provide an important clue to the killer’s identity. Or alternatively, as in Christie’s A Murder is Announced (1950), the direct act of the vicar’s cat fusing the lights by knocking a glass of water over its’ frayed electrical cord, led to Miss Marple finding the last piece of the puzzle that she needed to solve the murders. This naturalistic mode of a cat aiding the sleuth is taken even further in Ellis Peters’ Christmas short story, ‘The Trinity Cat’ (1976), where a unintentional trail of catnip enabled a cat, who was described as an ‘avenging detective’ (Peters, 1976: 110), to reveal who the murderer was. Cats at a symbolic or pictorial level can also become crucial clues, such as in Sayers’ Cloud of Witnesses (1926), where a cat-shaped piece of jewellery significantly contributes to Wimsey solving the case.

Finally no history of cats in mystery fiction, however eclectic, would be complete without a brief look at how the predatory and dangerous aspect of felines has been transferred by mystery writers to their fictional sleuths. Due to this similarity in dispositions, it is not surprising, given the previous history of cats in this post, that detectives are not always the most popular of people. In her novel debut, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Christie’s Miss Marple is introduced to us, through the vicar’s wife Griselda as, ‘the worst cat in the village’ (Christie, 1930: 6). Why might we ask? Because ‘she always knows every single thing that happens – draws the worst inferences from it’ (Christie, 1930: 6) and of course, even worse, she is the ‘kind of old cat [who] is always right’ (Christie, 1930: 20). This feline imagery draws us back to Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’ with its sense of a cat’s ability to unobtrusively observe everything that is going on and use these observations for judicial ends. Whilst Miss Marple may appear innocent and harmless, further feline images hint at her predacious approach to sleuthing, such as when Sir Henry Clithering comments on Miss Marple’s desire to investigate the crimes: ‘Wouldn’t she like to get her nice ladylike teeth into this’ (Christie, 1950: 42). Hercule Poirot is similarly depicted with his eyes being likened to those of a cat in Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and during the investigation he is said to be ‘like a cat pouncing on a mouse’ (Christie, 1934: 177). Again this undermines the genteel exterior fictional sleuths from the Golden Age often exuded, revealing the tenacity and determination underneath to see justice done for the murders committed, which in those days meant execution. As with the cats mentioned earlier on, the price of reparation was death. However, I think with a sleuth such as Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, we also see the wonderfully feline quality of being enigmatic, a quality which leads to those around Mrs Bradley frequently feeling similar sensations of being unnerved and decidedly unsure of themselves. For instance in Tom Brown’s Body (1949) Mrs Bradley is declared to be a ‘sphinx’ (Mitchell, 1949: 110), whilst in The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop (1930), it is said that Felicity on looking upon ‘Mrs Bradley’s grin […] began to understand how Alice in Wonderland must have felt upon first beholding the Cheshire Cat’ (Mitchell, 1930: 174). Whether the sleuth is as innocuous looking as Miss Marple, as eccentric as Mrs Bradley or as individualist and lonely as a classic noir private detective, I think the ambiguous qualities we associate with cats can be found in all of them, giving them a tantalising and intriguing sense of the unknown, with a capacity to unfurl justice and not always in an orthodox manner.

Bibliography

Christie, Agatha (1930; 2016). The Murder at the Vicarage. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, Agatha. (1933; 2016). The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael. In: The Hound of Death. London: Harper Collins. pp. 175-201.

Christie, Agatha (1935; 2011). Murder on the Orient Express. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, Agatha (1950; 2016). A Murder is Announced. London: Harper Collins.

Mitchell, Gladys (1930; 2010). The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop. London: Vintage.

Mitchell, Gladys (1949; 2009). Tom Brown’s Body. London: Vintage.

Peters, Ellis. (1976; 2014). The Trinity Cat. In: Penzler, O. The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. London: Head of Zeus Ltd. pp. 103-113.

Poe, Edgar Allan. (1843; 1992). The Black Cat. In: Tales of Suspense. London: The Reader’s Digest Association Limited. pp. 249-258.

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The Case of the Turning Tide (1941) by Erle Stanley Gardner

Regular readers will perhaps know that I am not the world’s greatest fan of Gardner and his famous lawyer/sleuth Perry Mason. However, I decided to return to him when I came across this novel in my local Oxfam for a mere 99p. This book is the first novel in Gardner’s Gramps Wiggins series and Wiggins is an unconventional amateur sleuth, who is certainly a handful for his granddaughter and her husband, a district attorney.

But before I get onto the story itself I found the foreword to this book quite intriguing, with Gardner discussing the writing aims he had for the story:

‘As one who has had intimate contact with several murders, who has also done some writing and some reading, I tried to find out’ why in the case of real life murders ‘that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but is much more exciting.’

Consequently he tried to construct his story with a greater sense of verisimilitude. He goes on to write that:

‘Our so-called ‘murder mysteries’ are escape fiction, and have become highly standardised through too much usage. Attempts to ‘create suspense,’ ‘plant’ clues, and above all, to ‘surprise the reader,’ have robbed the reader of far more than they have given him in return. In this book events are permitted to stream across the page in just about the way they would have happened in real life. Such clues as the reader will find are the ones that are there naturally. And if the reader isn’t ‘surprised’ in the conventional manner by having the characters who seem painted the blackest with the brush of guilt turn out to be the most innocent, while the real murderer is the one who has seemed ‘as pure as the driven snow,’ I hope he will at least be entertained.’

I think a key consequence of this writing aim is that in the first 90 pages of the book, there is far less police interviewing, with the district attorney, Frank Duryea appearing very briefly. Instead we get to see what the suspect characters are up to and how they are responding to the double murder. The investigation is much more prominent in the second half of the book, though thankfully there is not much of a legal milieu.

Back to the story though. Ted Shale a travelling paper salesman keen to do business with Adison Stearne, plans to introduce himself when Stearne disembarks from his yacht. However a woman collapsing over the side of said yacht soon changes his ideas, as he and another woman off a nearby yacht come to the rescue. On searching the yacht Ted makes the unpleasant discovery of a double murder; the victims being Addison Stearne and his ex-secretary Arthur Right. Frank gets called into investigate the case, being lumbered with a less than active sheriff. Seeing events from the suspect characters viewpoints first, gives the story a more natural feel to and it also means we get to witness the subsequent suspicious activity they get up to. The woman who was rescued for instance seems awfully keen to make friends with her rescuers, even commandeering the other woman’s yacht. Yet even her rescuers are not all they seem to be. To make the case even more complicated there is the issue of the will, with it becoming crucial to figure out who died first and there is also a business deal which several characters are keen to take advantage of.

Overall Thoughts

Unlike other Gardner novels I have read, this was one I definitely liked and could engage with. The pace is well achieved and the reader does not get bogged down in lengthy trials. The central crime is a tricky puzzle, with new evidence coming in gradually but consistently. After all it doesn’t help when so many characters have their own agendas and are not above manufacturing evidence. Of course Gramps Wiggins is a key reason for me enjoying this book. Wiggins is not the easiest of relations, insisting on sleeping in his scruffy trailer on the driveway of the Duryea house. He is a force of nature, totally unpredictable and also a mystery addict. More importantly for the reader perhaps he provides an essential note of comedy to the story as a whole and his incurable enthusiasm for sleuthing is endearing. I think in this story I could also appreciate Gardner’s style more as there are a number of good one liners. This sentence in particular stood out for from Frank’s wife: ‘I’m all dressed up. My nose is powdered, my lipstick applied carefully, and I’m wearing a hat that looks like a cross between last year’s bird nest and a flower pot that’s been stepped on by an elephant.’ However I will warn readers of a sensitive disposition that the ending does include the disturbing mental image of an elderly man in a lady’s swimming costume. I’ll say no more…

Mental afflictions aside this is a strong opening novel in the Wiggins series and I feel I could definitely read more of them. Alas there is only one more in the series: The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943), which Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has recently reviewed.

Rating: 4.25/5

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Spider Web (1938) by Alice Campbell

Alice Campbell was an author I came across earlier this year when researching for my blogpost on weird mystery fiction titles, which you can find here if you missed it at the time. Though unlike Campbell’s 1946 novel, The Cockroach Sings, today’s title seems fairly normal.

Spider Web (1938), has the kind of cinematic plot that you can imagine of early mystery thrillers. Catherine West goes to visit her cousin’s widow, Germaine Bender in Paris. On the way there she fortuitously becomes acquainted with one of Bender’s solicitors, Geoffrey Macadam, who unsurprisingly becomes the romantic lead. However, Catherine is not entirely sanguine about her visit. Firstly this is due to a letter from one of Germaine’s friends, warning of something peculiar going on in Germaine’s household. But when no one comes to pick her up from the station, Catherine becomes even more suspicious. When she finally arrives at Germaine’s apartment it is evident to the reader that Germaine’s two key servants are taking advantage of her bed bound state – though Catherine being the typical heroine takes longer to twig to this. In particular it seems that Jeanne, (Germaine’s maid), and Eduardo, (her butler), are keeping back housekeeping money, as well as selling some of her possessions. However ousting these two is no easy task, as Germaine is convinced that she is helpless without Jeanne, who deals with the outside world for her. Equally it seems as though Germaine’s mental state is less than stable, with Jeanne and Eduardo building up a picture of a suicidal woman. Whilst Catherine is trying to figure all of this out her relationship with Geoffrey deepens and she enlists his help in getting to the bottom of the matter. The real question is figuring out what Jeanne and Eduardo’s ultimate goal is and what action they will take to achieve it and the narrative soon shows the violent lengths they will go to. There is also the issue of the mysterious man who keeps hanging around the apartment block. In keeping with the film like quality of the plot, the ending is suitably dramatic in a thriller like fashion.

Overall Thoughts

I have harped on a lot about the cinematic nature of the book and in retrospect I feel this is the type of plot which works much better on the screen. It is a plot which is rather familiar and has rather familiar character types. The interest lies in how it will all turn out. This can be achieved with a great deal of suspense in a fast paced film, but unfortunately in a 310 paged story it comes across as quite slow and predictable. With such a well-known plotline brevity is key and alas this is not what Campbell choose to do. I have read much worse and in fairness to her the final quarter is quite exciting and has some unexpected drama. The mild sensation fiction and gothic elements also worked well, and again in fairness to Campbell, her central hero and heroine are likeable. I think before trying any more of her work I would like to get some recommendations as to which are her better stories. So if you know of a good one let me know!

Rating: 3.75/5

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Casino For Sale (1938) by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon

This is the second novel Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon wrote together and is a sequel to A Bullet in the Ballet (1937). In America it was published under the title, Murder a la Stroganoff. Brahms real name was Doris Caroline Abrahams and she worked as a journalist. She met Simon, a Russian student from Manchuria, at the student digs her mother ran. Later in her life Brahms commented on this partnership discussing how the detection and love scenes were written by Simon, whilst the ballet scenes were hers. Shortly after they first submitted this follow up novel to their publishers, they had to choose a new murderer and rearrange the clues and red herrings, as when their publisher started reading the first few pages they guessed who had done the crime straight away. Oh dear! Contemporary reviews of the novel focused on the humour of the work and Brahms and Simon would go on to write 10 more novels together, with only one of these being part of the “Stroganoff series,” entitled 6 Curtains for Stroganova (1948). Their collaboration was cut short by Simon’s early death in 1948. But in 1980 Brahms published Stroganoff in Company, which was a collection of four short stories and one of these had been collaboratively written with Simon in the mid-1940s.

This story is set in the south of France, where Brahms holidayed a lot with her family. In a manner similar to Toad in Wind in the Willows, Stroganoff, (who is the owner of the ballet troupe in the first novel), buys a casino on an impulse, (as you do). He believes the money from the casino will fund his ballet troupe, but he soon realises that he has been swindled, as there is another casino in the area, owned by his business rival Lord Buttonhooke. This rivalry is part of the backdrop to the novel’s central murder, the murder of Citrolo, a critic who is far from being a fan of Stroganoff’s troupe. In fact on the night of Citrolo’s murder Stroganoff is trying to bribe him into writing a favourable review. When that doesn’t work he drugs Citrolo and writes a review in his name, leaving him to sleep off the effects of the drug overnight in his office. This backfires considerably on Stroganoff when he finds Citrolo strangled the next morning and given Stroganoff’s personality it is not surprising that the less than capable local police arrest him. Thankfully he has invited Inspector Quill, (who has recently retired from Scotland Yard), for a visit and it soon becomes Quill task to solve the mystery. We soon find out that Citrolo is an extensive blackmailer and that a whole rake of people secretly went to Stroganoff’s office on that fateful night. There are a number of other minor crimes being perpetrated in the novel, which intertwine with the murder. Suffice to say Quill is an island of sanity in the sea of mad behaviour exhibited by those around him.

Overall Thoughts

I’m glad to say that this novel is a much stronger effort by Brahms and Simon. The comedy elements work more effectively and like Ianthe Jerrold they indulge in some humour over the Watson character, saying of Quill’s less than helpful Watson that ‘he interrupted far too often and he did not say ‘wonderful’ once.’ There is also an entertaining romantic comedy element too. Perhaps more importantly for us mystery fans the investigation into the murder is better put together than in Brahms and Simon’s debut novel. This mystery is technically a locked room mystery, but this story is not worth reading for that aspect solely, as it is a rather minor facet. This is a story to read for its locale, characterisation and writing style. Citrolo makes for an interesting victim, as in a little book detailing his blackmailing work, he also has a treatise on blackmail, which attempts to promote it and de-criminalise it. Watching Quill investigate outside the confines of Scotland Yard is quite intriguing as he no longer has a boss dictating what he does and in particular I think he handles information differently, acting more unconventionally. So if you enjoy the ballet and are in the mood for a fun/not very serious crime novel then this one might be for you.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Playing Cards

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Arrest The Bishop? (1949) by Winifred Peck

The last couple of days have been a bit fraught, hence this review being a little delayed, (I did end up reading the second half of this book with an injured chick on my knee). Thankfully though, Peck’s novel fitted the mood I was in and in keeping with blog traditions, it is another Christmas mystery which I have read out of season.

Winifred Peck was the sister of Ronald Knox and due to having a number of exceptional siblings, it seems she has been overlooked. She only wrote two mystery novels, this being her second. I reviewed her first mystery novel, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), last year on the blog. Given Peck’s family background, it is not surprising that she depicts the religious life and milieu well. Though the dedication at the beginning of the story indicates that this second mystery novel was also contributed to by Peck’s husband. Wittily written I have enclosed a picture of the dedication in full:

This mystery is set at the Bishop of Evelake’s Palace, (circa 1920), and takes place over 3-4 days. On the first night we have the arrival of a number of guests. Some are expected as there is to be an ordination service, whilst others are not – namely the Bishop’s wild and footloose daughter Judith and Thomas Ulder, a parson who has been a thorn in the Bishop’s side for a long time. The Bishop and his cohorts thought they had dealt with Ulder years ago, minimising scandal by giving him a small inconsequential living elsewhere. However Ulder is keen to go to America and to go with a substantial amount of cash. He is of course a blackmailer and he has his sights not only on the Bishop, (due to an indiscretion of Judith’s), but also on a number of other members in the church community. Yet when Ulder arrives he collapses, his poor heart not standing up to his heavy drinking. The doctor plans to move him to a hospital the following day. But of course we all know he won’t be going… Morphine poisoning finishes him off and inevitably a whole swathe of people visited him the last night he was alive. Even worse for the Bishop and his establishment is the Chief Constable who comes to investigate, who bears a grudge against the Bishop and his creed. Luckily for the Bishop amongst his guests is Dick Marlin, who is planning on becoming part of the Church Militant, but during the war worked in Military Intelligence.

Overall Thoughts

Whilst this is by no means a perfect mystery story, (though my reading circumstances weren’t the best to be fair), this was definitely a delightfully entertaining novel. The characters played a major part in this. Peck is very good at describing the internal states of her characters, such as with the Bishop for instance:

‘The Bishop would have diagnosed his state of mind as a want of consistent grace rather than dignifying himself as a split personality, but there was indeed a hidden conflict between the stately ascetic divine revered by his diocese and wife, and the terrified heart, haunted by memories, beset by future fears, which beat beneath his episcopal garb.’

The Bishop’s wife and Marlin also make for very entertaining characters, though of course for different reasons. Marlin is a likeable clerical sleuth, who is a man of action, but also takes time to consider the deeper aspects to the case, musing on the emotions behind crimes for example. Unlike Father Brown, he does not hide his capabilities behind an innocent/simple-minded demeanour, though of course this does lead to painful consequences later on in the story. The reader also even feels sympathy for the less than popular Chief Constable, who is faced with a lot of characters hiding information from him and trying to use their church status/positions as shields against police investigation.

One line which struck me particularly in this story, perhaps due to my feeling a bit stressed at the moment was: ‘For those who have lived through a war escapism is indeed not a vice nor a fine art but a necessity.’ Whilst I have by no means been through a war in the last couple of days, Peck’s novel has been a much needed tonic to take my mind off things and in that respect was ‘a necessity.’

So all in all this is a warm and light hearted tale, with an appealing setting and cast of characters and would make ideal reading for by an open fire, on a cold wintery day.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Damsel in Distress

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