Tuesday Night Bloggers: A is for April… and Anything Goes: What makes a good Aristocratic Sleuth?

Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.

This week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ final look at all things beginning with A in crime fiction, I am looking at the aristocratic sleuth. Such a detective type came up early in the history of the genre with Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, though not Image result for auguste dupinmuch is done with his aristocratic background in the stories. Others invariably followed such as Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk and John T McIntyre’s Ashton-Kirk. The latter of whom featured in 4 novels, beginning in 1910, and solved crimes for the sheer love of it and is seen by many to be a forerunner of the aristocratic sleuths created in the 1920s and 30s, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Often in the past such sleuths have been younger sons of aristocratic parents and have turned to crime fighting as a means of occupation – you’ve got fill in the time somehow, right? However financial difficulties have also been motivators for crime solving. In the present though I think the pendulum, gender wise, has swung the other way and most aristocratic sleuths created now tend to young women, who like their male predecessors are looking for a way of occupying their time.

In answering the question of what makes a good aristocratic sleuth I can only really answer for myself, but hopefully my ideal in this regard is not too outlandish. For instance it is said that the ‘personal lives and histories’ of the aristocratic sleuth ‘constitutes part of their strong appeal’ (Haynes, 1999: 23). To an extent I agree with this as I find the milieu of aristocratic living quite an enjoyable one in a mystery novel. However I am not a reader who needs to know the sleuth’s entire family tree and when it comes to their ‘personal lives,’ I think it is down to individual writer skill, as to whether this element is done successfully or in a poorly and dully predictable manner.

Detractors of aristocratic sleuths frequently suggest such detectives are insufferably arrogant and aloof and in the case of S. S Van Dine’s Philo Vance, they would be completely correct. However I think other writers such as Sayers have managed to achieve a middle ground with their aristocratic investigators. This middle ground is unsurprisingly a rather murky area. Any sleuth who resides in this place has to be sufficiently different and unusual that they maintain reader interest, (with their wealthy backgrounds giving them better access to education and niche pockets of specialist knowledge), but are not too distant from the reader that they become condensing, standoffish and impossible to identify with.

For me the characters who are most remembered and who have stood the test of time are Image result for albert campionthose who may have started out buffoonish, but went on to mature mentally and emotionally, moving away from being a cardboard cut-out and come across as more fully human. Of course doing this is by no means an easy feat and in fact some readers have hated this process happening to their favourite aristocratic sleuths. But I feel this is what partially aided Lord Peter Wimsey’s longevity. Albert Campion goes through a similar process to a much less intense degree and he is an unusual aristocratic detective as he has broken away from his upper class background, though of course this does not stop him being able to move in upper class circles comfortably, nor marrying a fellow aristocratic.

Though aristocratic investigators are often deferred to and accepted by police detectives in older mystery fiction, using them for their ability to fit in with fellow toffs, I think what makes a good aristocratic sleuth is their ability to function in cases outside of their own social circle. This ability often ties in with whether they are operating within that murky middle ground I mentioned above. Wimsey does this quite well in my opinion, as although his early cases stay within his own social circle, the later mysteries successfully move beyond it.

One aristocratic sleuth which I have yet to mention, is Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn, who is the younger son of a baronet. On the one hand he avoids being annoyingly

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buffoonish, but on the other hand the main reason he does not work as an enjoyable aristocratic detective is his sheer blandness. Yes he is gentlemanly and polite and able to converse easily with the upper class, but there is a lack of oomph (for the want of a better word) and there is nothing very distinctive about him. Whilst I think aristocratic sleuth eccentricities can get out of hand, if they are used minimally and effectively they can also make for an irresistibly quirky detective.

During the golden age of detective fiction successful attempts were made at creating both aristocratic sleuths in the comic mode, (though the comic effect does need to be controlled in my opinion,) and aristocratic sleuths who have undergone personal changes or have had to confront personal problems. In some ways these successes became blue prints or templates. This is good in one sense but for me there is also a negative side to this happening. This is because a lot of later writers in my opinion have adopted sleuths such as Wimsey and his 1920s/30s setting, as a template, but have added little innovation of their own, especially in the area of such sleuths having personal traumas or problems. Consequently I found these works becoming increasingly too predictable and 2 dimensional for me and I find it harder to identify or sympathise with such characters.

This brings me almost to a negative reversal of my starting question: what doesn’t make a successful aristocratic sleuth? For me modern attempts to set mystery novels in the 1920s and 30s have had uneven success. I already mentioned how many of these novels include aristocratic young women. From what I have read of these works or read about them, they have strayed into becoming rather formulaic. Such sleuths often turn into heroines in distress and the love interest looms rather too much, as Sayers would say. Solving murders at some points feels more like a means for finding a husband. Perhaps it is just me and not the books themselves, but I find it easier to believe in Wimsey and his world than the modern recreations of it.

However, I think it is even harder to be successful at creating a mystery novel set in modern times, which has an aristocratic sleuth. The age of the amateur sleuth is decidedly over or at any rate has had to adapt and evolve a lot, so often the aristocratic sleuth in modern times has had to become a policeman, such as Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Granted I have only watched the TV series featuring this aristocratic detective, but I have yet to be bowled over by him. For me he comes across as a little bit too aloof and I have invariably ended up irritated by him. I did however enjoy his partner, DS Barbara Havers, and one way the aristocratic sleuth has been used, especially within a police force setting, is as a way of examining class divisions.

To end on a more positive note on modern writers, two writers in the pastiche mode, who have successfully created aristocratic sleuths are James Anderson and Simon Brett, with his Blotto and Twinks series.

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Something which surprised me when researching this subject was that it often felt like there were more modern novels featuring aristocratic sleuths working within a 1920s/30s world than there are from 1920/30s mystery writer themselves. Therefore I would really love to hear of other, perhaps more obscure examples of such detectives from this period, as I am sure I’ve forgotten tonnes of them.


Haynes, Barry. ‘Aristocratic Sleuth’, in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, ed. Herbert, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). pp. 23-25

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

Source: Review Copy

It has been many years since I have read any Sherlock Holmes pastiches, so was interested in returning to this subgenre with today’s read. In this particular pastiche we have Russell Holmes as the central sleuth oddly enough, aided by his good friend Major James Wilson and his housekeeper Mrs Fergus. As well as some name changes there has also been a shift in locations, as the cases now take place in and around late 19 century Glasgow, a location shift which I felt worked really well.

The first of the seven cases included in this collection is the, ‘The Case of the Mahjong Dragon’ and something which immediately struck me was that these stories are not written from the “Watson” character point of view, a narrative choice which took me a little while to get acclimatised to, being a reader who is used to the Watson narrative voice in the original Holmes stories and the perspective this gives on Holmes. One consequence of this narrative choice is that I think it takes longer to get under the skins of the central characters, though McEwan does tantalise the reader with various pieces of information surrounding Russell Holmes, which are woven into the stories. Russell Holmes’ first case involves the death of a museum curate, who the police believed committed suicide due to having been found out as a thief of the museum’s Chinese artefacts. His wife of course does not believe this and asks Holmes to investigate. My first reactions to this story I have to admit were not strongly positive ones. Russell and James didn’t feel quite right, with Russell oscillating between excessive politeness and rudeness. Equally unlike in the original Doyle stories there isn’t anything for the reader to solve. The cast is so small and the story so short that only one solution is viable. Whilst the language was mostly in keeping with the “Doyle era”, shall we call it, there is the odd moment where some words and phrases feel sharply out of place.

The second story in this collection, ‘The Case of the Murder at the Falls,’ suffers from the same issues. This is an inverted mystery but there is no focus on how Russell Holmes solves the case, which is a problem, given that in inverted mysteries that is the only tantalising aspect left. A vulgar tone at points also has a jarring effect and Wilson’s immediate knee jerk reaction to use violence either verbally or physically, when a witness gets recalcitrant also didn’t sit well with my expectations of a Watson character.

However, things do begin to pick up in the third story, ‘The Case of the Asylum,’ which has an atmospheric and intriguing opening. Holmes is called in by a concerned relative to Hartwood Asylum, fearing his brother in law has wrongfully incarcerated his sister. On arriving Holmes has a strange feeling he has been there before but cannot remember when. Despite this story being well written I do think McEwan tends to tell rather than show various important points of the story and once again the reader has little to solve and can only watch Holmes as he reacts to various situations and takes a melodramatic approach to rescuing his client’s sister.

Our next story, ‘The Case of the Ivory Hunting Horn,’ contains a foe for Holmes Image result for 19th century ivory african hunting hornwhich sort of combines Irene Alder and Moriarty. Baroness Von Hochstal asks Holmes to find the man who shot her husband and stole an African ivory horn from them. Holmes achieves his objective but gets more than he bargains for and McEwan pulls off an enjoyable surprise at the end which I was not expecting. The issue of British Imperialism and the tendency to steal artefacts from other countries is a minor thread which runs through the story.

Holmes’ next case in ‘The Case of Thomas Glover,’ involves him trying to save a man from being hung for a murder he did not do and there are hints that there has been a frame up in order to attack worker agitation. Again I found this an interesting setup for a mystery, especially with the disputed use of finger printing evidence, but that the brevity of the story meant the final section of the book is more a telling of the solution rather than giving the reader the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

A concerned jewellery workshop owner is Holmes next client in ‘The Case of the Cryptic Assassin’ and the case soon develops into a matter of national importance. Again there is some criticism of Imperial Britain, though a little heavy handed perhaps. It was also at this point that I noticed Major Wilson’s propensity for drinking alcohol at all times of the day.

Image result for late 19th century horse racingA horse racing conspiracy features in the following story, ‘The Case of the Yankee Alchemists’ and once more I felt there was an intriguing setup: a corpse found concealed in a box in a cathedral, but that the limited number of pages prevented any serious investigation getting under way, leaving only room for the reader to be told of the solution which seems to come from nowhere. However, a redeeming feature of the story was the pleasantly humorous ending, as McEwan does develop a wonderfully amusing role for Mrs Fergus in this and other stories.

The final story in the collection is ‘The Case of the Criminal Mind’ and has a Jack the Ripper theme. The cast of characters is much larger this time, so much so that I wondered whether this story might have been better as a novella or novel. There is a great intriguing hook at the start of the story when someone believed to have died in a tram accident is found alive and a dead woman is found in their coffin instead. Given the complexity of the case I felt the ending was somewhat hastily wrapped up.

So all in all this was rather a mixed bag of short stories. The main thing I felt lacking in these tales was that there wasn’t really any of Holmes witty deductions. Russell Holmes once makes a deduction about a client based on their appearance, but it came across as more vulgar than clever. Russell Holmes also seems to be more a man of action rather than a detective who applies logic and ratiocination, thereby giving the stories more of a thriller quality and also meaning that the reader doesn’t get any periods of ratiocination themselves. The shortness of the stories I believe contributed to this, as given their brevity it was hard for the stories to build in such moments or periods of deduction. Whilst I grew to like Russell Holmes, I didn’t warm to the Major, whose behaviour seemed far more objectionable and antisocial than Holmes’.

Rating: 3/5

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The Adventuress (1917) by Arthur B Reeve

Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)

Arthur B. Reeve, as David Brawn intimates in his introduction to the Harper Collins reprint, was a household name during his writing career in the early 20th century. In particular he was well-known for his serial and scientific sleuth, Craig Kennedy, who was dubbed ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’ and his adventures were adapted for film, stage and even comic strips. Like every good Holmes figure, Kennedy has his Watson in narrator Walter Jameson, a newspaper reporter.

Kennedy’s use of scientific methods and inventions in order to capture criminals was one of the main reasons for his popularity as a character and the scientific principles Reeves talks about were up to date for the times he was writing in. Even Thomas Edison complemented him on this very aspect, which is high praise indeed. And it has to be said in The Adventuress (1917), that technology and scientific gadgets are prominent, being used by both the criminals and the sleuths.

This mystery centres on the death of Marshall Maddox, who had recently got his troublesome relations to agree to give him control of their family’s company, Maddox

Image result for the adventuress arthur b reeve

Munitions and allow him to buy them out. This agreement was reached on his brother’s, Shelby, yacht. However the next day Maddox is found dead and the plans and model of a dangerous new piece of technology, the telautomaton, has been stolen. Few tears are shed for Maddox though; estranged from his wife due to the allure of another woman and his own relatives are far from mournful either. Within this group of people you could say more interest revolves around Shelby as two women fight for his affections, one of whom is the titular adventuress. But is that all there is to it? Whilst this case lacks a police presence this is more than made up for by various members of the secret service who support Kennedy in his investigation. Observation, tailing and shadowing are the name of the game and it seems it is not just the sleuths who are doing these activities, making it hard to decide what everyone is really up to. Whoever is behind all of these criminal activities it quickly becomes apparent that they are prepared to attack using a variety of weapons, if they feel threatened by the investigative team, making this case quite the health hazard for Kennedy and his friends.

Overall Thoughts

Image result for the adventuress arthur b reeveOne of the things I enjoyed about this story was Kennedy. I wouldn’t say he hugely resembles Holmes in some ways, he has a much less acidic demeanour and manner, but like Holmes the story begins with a client coming to see him – though Reeves manages to give a this event some extra oomph. Whilst Jameson is quite deferential to Kennedy, I don’t think they have quite the same relationship as Holmes and Watson do; after all there are no biting comments about Jameson’s sleuthing abilities, even when he does nearly die when he tries to do a spot of independent investigating.

So all in all a very good start to the book and I equally enjoyed how Reeves teasingly unfolds the central mystery to us. Furthermore, I think he does set up a number of interesting characters, especially Paquita, the adventuress. Her entrance into the book foreshadows the complex role she will take in the story, when Reeves writes that:

‘a petite, frilly, voluptuous figure stood in the doorway. She had an almost orchid beauty that more than suggested the parasite […] For the born adventuress is always a baffling study.’

Whilst on the surface she may seem to conform to certain negative stereotyping, even Jameson eventually realises there is more to her than this, when he says that:

‘as I watched her my former impression was confirmed that the notoriety which she courted was paradoxically her ‘cover.’ She seemed to seek the limelight. In so doing did she hope to divert attention from what was really going on back-stage?’

Not until the end will the reader finally resolve who or what she is, though personally I think Reeves could have fleshed out her character/role a little more.

The technological aspects of the book, as vouched for by Edison, are first rate, but for me, ever character focused, I think Reeves could have given his readers a little more in depth exploration of his suspects. Whilst mystery readers are not unfamiliar with family members who are far from upset their relative has died, what did strike me as odd was the sheer amount of silence from the family members in regards to the case, taking stone walling to a whole new level. There are moments where you wonder if they are even Image result for the adventuress arthur b reevebothered or surprised that their brother is dead and a hugely valuable invention stolen. In some ways this is more a story of the sleuths talking with pithy interjections by witnesses. In addition I think in order to accommodate the various pieces of technology Reeves wants his detective to use, the narrative has more a thriller feel to it, lacking in the beginning an obvious line of investigation to follow. Moreover, the way the identity of the main culprit is thrown at the reader in the final line of the book with no explanation, suggests that Reeves was also not trying to write a conventional whodunit.

Given the time it was written in, the story does have its dose of non-PC language when it comes to race and the Secret Service are very keen on the theory that the guilty parties are of foreign extraction, which they back up with the idea that WW1 has caused all of the major European criminals to emigrate to America. However I think it would be fair to say that Reeves through Jameson does acknowledge the tendency of humans to be biased against those they do not understand and seem different. This is a failing Jameson recognises in himself as well as others, which I think made this book’s depiction of race relations less clear cut.

Consequently whilst this book was not a perfect read it was still an action packed yarn, with explosions, rockets and poison galore, and I think readers who love inventions, gadgets and science will get on famously with Kennedy, who is a very likeable and engaging sleuth.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Revolver

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In Honour of her Birthday: Gladys Mitchell, 116 Today!

On this day 116 years ago the creator of the infamous and famous Mrs Bradley was born. I do have to admit to not being the world’s biggest fan of Gladys Mitchell. Whilst I often enjoy her settings and her characters, especially the wonderfully bizarre Mrs Bradley, her plotting can let her down, in my opinion. Consequently this post is not going to be a list of my favourites of her work as I only have two or three of these. Instead though I have decided on a little quiz based around the titles she used for her mysteries, as she certainly knew how to pick some fairly odd ones. In the picture below are a jumbled series of words and it is your challenge, if you wish to accept it, to find 12 of Mitchell’s titles from within them. Not all of the words need to be used. You can share you answers below if you like and answers will go up next week. Enjoy!


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X v. Rex (1933) by Philip Macdonald

Like my last review, Macdonald is another author I haven’t read in a while. This story is an early example of the serial killer mystery novel, though from its opening pages you might be forgiven for questioning this, as we are told a brief history of a town called Farnley and some of its local policeman are called out on an emergency call, to a neighbouring country home. But very quickly they and the readers realise something is wrong when the call appears to a hoax and on returning to their police station they find their colleague dead, shot at his desk. After this point many policemen will fall at the hands of an unknown killer, who is prepared to use a number of unusual ways to finish them off.

We are given a more personal angle to the case in two ways. After the second killing, the daughter of the Chief Commissioner of the police, Jane Frensham, is distraught when the man she loves is arrested for the deed, though his own reckless and foolish actions do mean he is partially to blame for his predicament. This event opens up the story to various other characters, in particular Nicholas Revel. Initially he seems very helpful towards Jane but the reader and many of the other characters cannot help but treat him with suspicion. After all he is a man with seemingly no past and whose actions can only be described as romanticised manipulation. The other way we are given a personal angle on the murders is from diary extracts from the unnamed killer, which build up a picture of who they are as a person.

The bodies fall thick and fast in this book and pressure is mounting on Scotland Yard to solve the case before the army gets drafted in. But will they manage it?

Overall Thoughts

Let’s start with the positives. Macdonald captures the varying responses to the increasing troublesome situation well, such as members of the public and members of Parliament. In particular I enjoyed the moments where the double talk of politicians is criticised, when one of the Prime Minister’s colleagues boldly takes him to task over the rhetoric he is using. It might be okay in speeches but this colleague wants to know the concrete measures which are going to take place, not empty words, however good they sound.

Image result for x v rex philip macdonald

The way Macdonald explores the impact these crimes are having on the nation as a whole also interested me, given the political tensions and atmospheres of the 1930s. The same colleague who took the Prime Minister to task also sums up this theme rather well:

‘Aren’t there thousands of men and women, some vicious, some foolish, some lustful, some mad, all of whom have been praying night and day for some such collapse of authority as we’re faced with? Don’t you realise man, that it wouldn’t be beyond the truth to say that the whole of England’s social fabric rests upon her trust in policemen? For trust in policemen is trust in the Law, which means the country trust in herself.’

In many ways these murders are taken as a whole rather than the individual victims and their pasts being investigated, which made it a more unusual read for me, as I am used to a victim’s past and connections being explored.

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I would also say that this book is quite experimental in its narrative devices as one chapter, which covers the month of July begins with a couple of pages, which in its journalistic tone recounts one after another the events that took place, ranging from thefts, dinner parties and dead policemen. There is even a moment of metafiction when the narrative says, ‘Mr Victor Gollancz denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr Martin Porlock,’ (the latter of which was the penname Macdonald used to write this book). However there is a point to this long list, as afterwards Macdonald pulls together disparate threads in order to show a sequence of events and he pulls the reader up to focus on specific parts.

But now for the not so good parts of the book. To be honest, although there were some quite interesting moments there were also a lot of dull points, especially when you can see many of the characters barking up the wrong tree for a very long time. The reader can easily spot one of the big surprises of the book a mile away and one of the ways Macdonald tries to create suspicion and danger, shall we say, is not very believable. In the main we get to know the named characters at arm’s length, so I couldn’t really get attached to any of them and of course there is Jane who spends most of her time going ‘Oh’ – was seriously tempted to go out and get her a thesaurus. However the main disappointment for me was the ending, as how the serial killer was caught was far from satisfying.

So I think if you are new to the work of Macdonald I would recommend trying some of his stronger entries. This book, whilst not unreadable and without good moments, is more for fans of Macdonald who want to read all of his work and complete their collection.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Mask

For another opinion try Sergio’s review at Tipping My Fedora or JJ’s review at The Invisible Event or the Puzzle Doctor’s review at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Spoilt for choice really!

See Also:

The Rasp (1924)

The Noose (1930)

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: A is for April… And Anything Goes: Alibis

Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.

Spoiler Warning: I strongly urge readers who have not read the following books by Christie to skip the first two paragraphs immediately following the video clip: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Evil Under the Sun, The Sittaford Mystery, Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, Peril at End House, A Murder is Announced, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Death on the Nile and The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

For my third “A” theme I decided to look at that most crucial of mystery fiction components, the alibi. Alibi which is Latin for “elsewhere,” and entered into the British Legal system in its noun form in the 18th century. Commentators such as T. R. Steiner (1999) have proposed that alibis had their heyday in golden age of detective fiction, with authors during this time constructing the most elaborate of alibis for their villains. Moreover, mystery author, Freeman Wills Crofts, even became famous for how his mystery novels focused on Inspector French’s unravelling of the most fiendish of supposedly unbreakable alibis. Quite a number of these alibis in Croft’s work and others, such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Five Red Herrings (1931) involved the use of or the suggestion of use of public transport, be it planes, trains, boats or buses. In fact the involvement of public transport in classic mystery fiction even made the basis for one of the sketches created by Monty Python.

Alibis are important in ascertaining whether or not a suspect had the opportunity to commit a crime and therefore detectives are always keen to establish them. But in order for the guilty party to not seem screamingly obvious in a mystery novel, the writer often needs to give their criminal or criminals an alibi which at first glance seems sufficient. It is only later on that the detective reveals the falseness of their alibi. Steiner suggests three main ways a writer can create such an alibi, which are to manipulate either ‘time, place [… or] identity’ (Steiner, 1999: 12). One author of the golden age, who was quite an expert at such manipulations was Agatha Christie. A quick survey of her work firstly shows a strong preference for manipulating her alibis in terms of time, with many of her fictional killers distorting the time the crime took place. For instance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), technology and disguise are adopted by the murderers to make it seem like their victims were alive when actually they were already dead. Whereas in Evil Under the Sun (1941), disguise and timepiece manipulation is used in order to make the murder appeared to have occurred earlier. Although Christie plays around with time a lot in her books, she is still able to produce a new and interesting variations with it, such as in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), where a killer initially seems to have an alibi due to the perceived time it must have taken them to journey a long way through snow.

I would also say Christie was very adept on the whole at creating alibis for her guilty parties through her deceptive use of identity. Yes there are a couple of weaker entries such as Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Three Act Tragedy (1934) that readers have often been able to guess quite easily, but there have also been some awfully sneaky ones. In particular I think Christie has been at her most sneaky in this area when she has made her killers look like the intended victims. What better alibi could you have than being the presumed target? Classic examples of this by Christie can be found in Peril at End House (1932), A Murder is Announced (1950) and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962). I think Christie also manipulates identities and alibis through her use of having criminals working together, yet concealing their collaboration; be it through marital discord in Evil Under the Sun, jealousy and revenge in Death on the Nile (1937) or just plain animosity in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). By hiding these alliances Christie can fabricate alibis, as for example in Death on the Nile, because everyone assumes that Simon Doyle dislikes Jacqueline de Bellefort, no one thinks to question the wound she is supposed to have given, which in turn shows him to be incapable of having committed the murder of his wife. Very sneaky indeed…

Though I think my favourite alibi from Christie is found in And Then There Were None (1939), not only for its ingeniousness, but also for how convincingly she pulls it off. No hints need be given as to which alibi I am thinking of…

It was almost saddening when I read the end of Steiner’s piece which says that:

‘Many crimes in the period of supersonic travel and instant communication make alibis insignificant or irrelevant. The criminals are often multiple and nearly impossible to trace […] The time and space that once governed “opportunity” have been undermined; Golden Age fantasies of murder at a distance are realised everyday through letter bombs and electronic triggers. No alibis are offered, and none would serve’ (Steiner, 1999: 12-13).

In a way I can see how this is true with crimes in modern mystery fiction and real life being executed in ways which make alibis redundant. Yet is the alibi obsolete? Has it lost as much importance as Steiner implies? I don’t have any firm answers myself at the moment, more pondering will have to ensue, but I would love to hear what others think on the development or extinction of alibis in mystery fiction.


Steiner, T. R., ‘Alibi’ in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), ed. By Herbert, R., pp. 12-13.

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Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

It has been quite a while since I last read a novel by Todd Downing, so I was definitely looking forward to today’s read, which is the third mystery novel of seven in Downing’s Hugh Rennert series. Rennert is a United States Customs service agent and most of his adventures take place in Mexico. In his introduction to the Coachwhip reprint of this book, Curtis Evans notes that:

‘Hugh Rennert is fascinated with Mexico and Vacilada, the mirthfully stoic attitude of the country’s people toward life and death; and over the course of the series Todd Downing explores what might be termed the metaphysical relationship of Rennert and Mexico in interesting ways. We learn a lot about both a man and a country.’

Mexican attitudes towards death are definitely at the forefront of this particular Rennert tale, with all the characters getting plenty of opportunities to put such attitudes into practice.

What is the worst thing that can happen on a train journey? Lost luggage? Stuck sitting next to a crying baby? Well these certainly pale in comparison to what the passengers of the Pullman carriage undergo on their journey to Mexico City. To begin with railway strikes immediately add a significant strain and then of course there is the man who dies in the dark whilst the train is going through a tunnel. Despite everyone being in such close quarters little is initially known about how Eduardo Torner died. Rennert though is decidedly suspicious of this, not least because of an earlier conversation he had with a passenger, who said his wife overheard two people talking about the retrieval of money and a threat of creating a blast during the train journey if this doesn’t happen. Added to which the passenger’s wife also thought she heard the words earrings, cuffs and extra edition. But what could they possibly mean?

Of course many of the passengers have something they wish to hide, something they fear will be exposed in any investigation and silence follows a number of Rennert’s questions. Yet as the train journey continues it soon becomes apparent that Torner was neither the first victim, nor the last… Difficulties with the train itself, some accidental and some not so accidental, as darkness begins to fall and matches are far and few between, add enjoyably to the tension and atmosphere of this increasingly claustrophobic mystery. Just when you think the bodies have stopped falling more invariably follow.

Overall Thoughts

In the opening pages the story does feel rather male dominated, but just when you begin to really notice and wonder why the two female characters are so suspiciously silent, one of them, Trescinda Talcott, bluntly intrudes into the narrative, reminding the other male characters of her presence when they are discussing the first murder:

‘Masculine conceit, I suppose, that always leaves the women on the side lines when anything that they consider unpleasant is going on […] Or is it the protective instinct we read so much about?’

Bluntness is certainly a major part of Talcott’s personality and on first appearance she comes across as hard and unemotional, especially when she sees Torner’s body. However, as the book progresses she becomes a much more interesting and complicated character. Some of things she says are far from polite and in these moments you feel like pulling away from her. But then there are other times where her independent streak seems admirable and her sharp observations are greedily consumed by Rennert and the reader.

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Just love the sheer bizarreness of this Italian edition

Rennert himself is in for a hard job with this case, as very early on his sense of who he can trust is badly shaken and he is left to mostly work by himself, receiving the occasional telegram when arriving at various stations. Yet he does have a fellow sleuthing spirit on board, as Talcott has a number of similarities with him. For instance she says to him that:

‘I suppose you, too, look at it more or less abstractly, don’t you? As a problem to be worked out – by formula or by the trial and error method?’

To this Rennert replies that ‘yes, I suppose so, although I try to disguise my interest in the puzzle by telling myself that my desire for justice demands its working.’ This part interested me as it occurred to me that both Rennert and Talcott are both relatively unemotional people in the face of death, but it is because Rennert has an appropriate avenue for his puzzle solving skills, that his unemotional nature receives less criticism. Not that any reader should want to censure either of them, as like them the reader is glued to observing all the characters after Torner’s death and their reactions toward murder and crisis.

Given these similarities I think Talcott would have made for an interesting amateur sleuth. The way her movements and eyes are described recalled to mind descriptions of other fictional sleuths contemporary to the time the story was published. For instance it is said that ‘the brightness of her eyes and certain quick birdlike little movements of her body testified to her interest.’ As many golden age detective fiction readers will know, the sleuth’s eyes always sparkle, especially when they are on to something and the reference to Talcott’s ‘birdlike’ movements reminded me of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, who is described in a similar way. Moreover, Talcott also has Mrs Bradley’s detached manner when it comes to murder and their investigations which is reflected when Rennert thinks that Talcott ‘is exactly like a spectator at a play, interested not in the actors but in the parts they represent.’ It is therefore a great shame in my opinion that Talcott never truly gets to take such a role in the book itself.

Spoiler! What comes in the next paragraph constitutes a spoiler so for readers who haven’t already read the book I recommend skipping ahead to the final paragraph.

In the background of this story is a kidnapping case of a small boy from a wealthy family, who unfortunately does not get returned alive and the child’s nurse has only been recently released at the start of the story. The fact an investigator from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation was trying to follow a suspect on to this train journey soon suggests to Rennert this is a key part of the mystery. Of course hearing this and knowing that the book is set on a train, which at one point is stuck in the middle of the desert, it is hard to not think of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). I know Christie’s novel was influenced by the real life kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932, but I am not sure if Downing’s tale is as well. It would surprise me though if it wasn’t. Equally it is known that Downing enjoyed the works of Christie, so I am left wondering if he had read her novel first before writing his own. Although Christie and Downing’s stories have many surface similarities, including their decisions to have their fictional trains halted for a certain amount of time, forcing characters into close quarters, I think the way the kidnapping element is used differs. Christie’s approach feels much more personal and the kidnapping is at the heart of the mystery and the emotional turmoil it inflicts resonates throughout and gives the final solution a lot of impact. However, with Downing’s story you could remove this part of the mystery and it would not be hugely changed and the final solution in fact has a rather different emotional clout.

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I am definitely glad that I returned to the work of Downing as I loved this story. It has a strong emphasis on time as each chapter has a specific starting time, which I think adds to the pace of the story as well as its tension. Unlike with Christie’s train bound novel Downing does not need snow to cause drama in his plot, using a number of other equally successful tactics, some of which are far from expected. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the train is well created and Downing effectively conveys the increasing fear and anxiety of the train passengers. There are a number of narrative threads connected to the passengers and the secrets they are hiding, but Downing meshes them together really well, creating more than one red herring. The question of course is to figure out which one is not the red herring. The clues are very clever and sneaky and in some cases quite unusual in nature. All of this provided for a great read and I would strongly recommend others give Downing’s work a go, as Coachwhip have reprinted all of his Rennert novels.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Bird

See Also:

Murder on Tour (1933)

The Cat Screams (1934)

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Suddenly at His Residence (1947) by Christianna Brand

So this week there is not just one review from Christianna Brand’s work, but two! This one is the classic country house murder mystery, set during World War 2. We are even given a family tree and told that out of the 10 people mentioned, 2 will die at the hands of one of the others. But which one will it be?

As you would expect there is the dictator like patriarch, Sir Richard March, and every year the anniversary of his first wife’s death is commemorated, with his four grown up grandchildren, Petra, Claire and Philip and Edward playing key parts in the event. It should be mentioned that the first three of these grandchildren all came from his children from his first wife (now all dead or moved far away), whereas Edward descended from the daughter Richard had with his second wife, who had also been his mistress whilst his first wife was still around. To round out the family gathering there is Philip’s wife Ellen and their baby daughter Antonia, though their marriage is far from strong given that Philip is openly in love with Claire.

Unsurprisingly Richard’s elder grandchildren annoy him so much during the occasion that he threatens to disinherit them and leave his property and money to his second wife, Bella and then on to Edward. Thoroughly disgruntled he goes to stay in the lodge alone that night. The lodge is surrounded by dense rose bushes and has one sand path. It is the lodge his first wife died in and has become a shrine ever since. He spends his time writing a new will. Yet the next morning he is found dead and the new will he was supposed to have been writing has disappeared. Foul play is soon cried when Philip, a doctor, finds his medical bag has been rifled, with Richard’s medicine and a phial of strychnine gone missing. Enter Inspector Cockerill…

Suspects of course abound. Philip and Claire come under suspicion being the first ones on the scene and the money they would have got from the old will could have meant Philip could afford to divorce Ellen. There is also Edward. When he was a child his parents were drowned. Though he says he saw this happen, he never did. But that did not stop him from using the incident to manipulate those around him and to avoid doing anything he didn’t want to do. In the opening pages he is described in the following way:

‘In time, banishment from home had become an impossibility for the darling little psychopath, and even Edward himself could no longer distinguish between his real and his self-induced manifestations of abnormality.’

Recently a new alienist has suggested he could enter fugues or periods of automatism. Initially he loved hearing this, as it was another way to gain attention. But now murder has struck he is far from sanguine and also the likeliest subject in the eyes of others. After all what if he had committed the murder whilst in a fugue?

Overall Thoughts

For those who like locked room or impossible crimes I think this story definitely counts as such, as the lodge within which Richard is found could only be accessed by the path and the path had been smoothed down late last night by the gardener in such a way no one else could have done it afterwards. The only footprints are those from the characters which found him in the morning. This aspect was certainly intriguing, though it felt as though it was the suspects who spent more time pondering solutions than Inspector Cockerill did. I wouldn’t say the solution is ingenuous to this locked room mystery, but within the context of the story it fits very well in a way an overly belaboured solution wouldn’t have.

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One of the strengths of this book was how Brand used a familiar setup but was also able to create a number of unexpected surprises, such as at the inquest. The ending though holds Brand’s greatest surprises and I think it would certainly feature on any list of crime fiction’s most dramatic endings. The opening of the novel is also somewhat of a surprise, with Edward at another session with a psychoanalyst. Yet I think it was an opening which worked very well, as it sets up a number of expectations concerning this character, none of which are hugely positive. However I was surprised by how Edward as a character turns away from these expectations as the story progressed and in some ways for me he became the most interesting character of the book.

This read also meant a return to Brand’s serial sleuth Inspector Cockerill. His complex character although sparsely commented on, unfolded as the tale developed. Our first description of Cockerill is that he was a:

‘Small, brown and bright-eyed, a dusty little old sparrow arrayed in a startling clean white panama hat, he was soon, sparrow-like, at the centre of all interest and activity, hopping and darting this way and that, in search of crumbs of information.’

However once his investigation into Richard’s murder is firmly underway and he is using his favoured detecting technique of causing suspects to argue with one another to see who slips up, he is described much more darkly: ‘Cockerill darted to and fro like an evil spirit, throwing fresh fuel to the flames.’ With such an interesting sleuth it is therefore a big shame that Cockerill is very much in the shadows in this story, with the suspects’ discussions of the case taking up much more of the narrative space than Cockerill’s own actions. Moreover, his strong desire for the criminal to confess before they are revealed and then arrested, in order that they may save their souls, just came out of nowhere for me. This more personal and emotional sleuth didn’t really match how Cockerill appears before this point.

Nevertheless when it comes to the suspects, Brand’s character psychology is well-crafted, Image result for suddenly at his residence christianna brandwith relationships being complex and life like, avoiding melodramatic pitfalls, and in particular Brand deftly captures the sudden reversals of feelings the suspects have towards each other. I enjoyed the moments we could see what the characters were thinking, as such instances were more often than not done for a specific reason, rather than merely filling space, such as during the inquest when the jurymen’s thoughts are examined.

Whilst this is not a perfect mystery, after all I am not entirely sure the reader could deduce the guilty suspect, this story does have a lot to offer and will happily occupy a rainy afternoon, as it did for me today. Equally if you want to read a country house mystery with a highly unusually ending this is the one to go for in my opinion.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Flower

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Latter End (1949) by Patricia Wentworth

The setup in this novel is like quite a few other Wentworth novels. There is a household and a family who are far from happy, their hatred closing in one central figure. This time it is not the family patriarch, Jimmy Latter, but the patriarch’s wife, Lois. Lois is a woman who has to have everything her own way, though of course she persuades others like her Image result for latter end patricia wentworthhusband that it is actually the best for everyone. It is not for nothing that we are told in the opening pages that she was ‘mistress of herself, of her thoughts, of her life. Very much mistress of Jimmy Latter, Jimmy Latter’s thoughts and Jimmy Latter’s life.’ She works Jimmy’s stepsister Elle Street and household institution Minnie Mercer to the bone, looking after the house – though of course she reminds them of how grateful they ought to be for living there. Further tension arises when Anthony Latter, Jimmy’s cousin returns. It was Anthony, Lois preferred, but it was Jimmy who had the money. However it soon seems Lois wants to have her cake and eat it when it comes to the men in her life – though whether they will play ball is the question. Unsurprisingly there are a myriad of other ways Lois gets other people’s backs up, including Julia Vane’s; the sister of Elle, who is infuriated at how her sister is treated and how this is affecting Elle’s marriage. During the first half of the novel, when everyone’s anger levels are on the rise with Lois, culminating in Jimmy finally seeing Lois for what she is, Lois herself experiences a number of vomiting attacks, experiences which cause her some concern. After all the novel does open with her visiting a fortune teller telling her to beware of poison. They cannot tell her if she should guard against a man, a woman or even herself and like the prophecies of the witches in Macbeth, the fortune teller’s word are dangerously ambiguous.

Whilst Miss Silver does enter the story briefly at this point, she does not arrive at Latter End, until Lois’ demise, which unsurprisingly is via poison. All of the secrets and grudges of the household are brought to light via the family members themselves or by the eavesdropping maid, who relishes the scandal of it all. When Miss Silver does get to the scene of the crime she is pleasantly surprised that her old friends Chief Inspector Lamb and Sergeant Abbott are investigating it also.

Overall Thoughts

Image result for latter end patricia wentworthOne thing that I noticed was when it came to the character of Miss Silver, was how scenes involving her often seem paralleled with ones that had just occurred. For instance there is a scene where Lois is mentally redecorating Jimmy’s home and the narrative comments on the changes she has already made. The scene which follows this is our first featuring Miss silver and it felt paralleled for me because of the way Miss Silver too looks around her room and mentally decides on changes she wants to make. However this similarity is used I think to highlight a greater difference. Miss Silver is making changes to something which is completely hers and these are changes that she plans to save up her. Whereas in many ways what Lois is doing to Latter End is against the will of others and from what we know of Lois she hardly goes in for delayed gratification.

Another thing which perked my interest in this story was that although this is the usual Wentworth Miss Silver formula, there was an intriguing change. Normally the clients who visit Miss Silver either become the victims or are young men or women who can provide a clear viewpoint on the people involved in their predicament. Yet this is not the case in this tale, as it is Jimmy who goes to see Miss Silver when Lois has her vomiting attacks. At this stage his viewpoint is still a myopic one, Lois can do no wrong. So it is interesting to see how Miss Silver can still find glimmers of the reality in what Jimmy says and her advice at that point is rather telling.

Like in many other Miss Silver novels there are always the characters who underestimate her. In this case it is Anthony in particular who when picking Miss Silver up at the train station:

‘concluded that poor old Jimmy must have had a complete mental breakdown. Nothing else would account for importing this dowdy elderly spinster into his tragic affairs. She looked like a composite portrait of the Victorian governess, and she talked like it too […]’

However a matter of pages later his viewpoint has quickly changed ‘the impression he had received […being] of an intelligence keener than his own, a controlled and ordered thought, a cool authority.’ There is also an interesting moment when Anthony tries to comprehend both of these starkly different stances:

‘He had for the moment a sense of double vision – of two Miss Silvers indefinitely linked, and then quite suddenly, as if by some focusing action of the mind, quite definitely merged. There was only one Miss Silver, but she was not what he had taken her for.’

For me this speaks of the duality sleuths, especially amateur spinster sleuths, like Miss Silver and Miss Marple often have. Yet this quote emphasises the need to not separate the deceptive exterior and the keener internal intellect of such sleuths. It is not a case of there being a false Miss Silver or Miss Marple and a genuine one, as suspects often perceive or if there is a false one it is only in the minds of others. But I think this is something even readers can fall into the habit of doing, dismissing the externals of such sleuths as mere camouflage for the much more interesting sleuthing mind contained within. I felt this comment implied a more holistic way of looking at such detecting figures.

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As I hinted at in my opening of this post, this story has all the familiar tropes and character setups. The younger wife who is monstrously awful to the dependents, who themselves are under a great deal of strain, but unable to resolve their plight. And to begin with this familiar setup was fine. I was in the mood for an easy and gentle read and Wentworth does know how to tell a story. However, a common problem with the Wentworth Miss Silver novels began to arise in the second half of the book. The pace whilst manageably slow in the first half, became unbearably so in the second. The solution, whilst actually very clever, is just thrown into our laps 70 pages before the end and makes all the investigative work done previously seem rather redundant. The redundancy continues as the story drags on painfully after the solution is officially revealed and to be honest even the well-established component of young romance is perfunctorily and even at times ham-fistedly done, by Wentworth’s usual standards. Unfortunately all of this pulled my finally rating of this story down.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Jewellery

See also:

Who Pays the Piper? (1940)

Silence in Court (1945)

The Key (1946)

The Fingerprint (1959)

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Tuesday Night Blogger: A is for April… and Anything Goes: Accidental and Amateur Sleuths – What’s the Difference?

Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.

This week I decided to look at the accidental sleuth, as before writing this post I was never really sure in my mind of what the difference between an accidental or amateur sleuth was. Weren’t they kind of the same thing? Answer: Not quite. Whilst all accidental sleuths are amateurs at detection, not all amateur sleuths are accidental.

Though to be fair the definition for an accidental sleuth does have a number of similarities with the amateur sleuth, as in a story an accidental detective is a ‘protagonist who is not a detective by avocation or profession, either amateur, private, or official, but who nonetheless assumes the role of sleuth. Often a character falls into the role because of his or her proximity to the scene of the crime’ (Cox, 1999: 5). It is this final criterion which both sleuths share as they can be both found for example in country house or holiday set mysteries. Yet what makes Helen Cadel in Some Must Watch (1933) and Kate Mayhew in There May Be Danger (1948) different from say Nigel Bathgate in A Man Lay Dead (1934) or Mrs Bradley in Speedy Death (1929)?

Perhaps it is easier to begin with what doesn’t make them any different. Both accidental and amateur sleuths ‘are frequently related or personally involved in the lives of other characters directly affected by the crimes’ (Cox, 1999: 5). Furthermore, both can be propelled into detection by what they see as a mission, such as a mission to remedy a miscarriage of justice as in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958), or a fear a crime is being committed and needs to be stopped such as in The Wheel Spins (1936) by Ethel Lina White, or even because they are concerned someone they care about will be wrongfully arrested.

Take Miss Marple for instance. She comes across crimes unintentionally and in The Body in the Library (1942), she is drawn into the case because her friends own the home within which the library and body are situated. Miss Marple is not a private detective like Miss Silver and her serious attitude towards crime probably precludes her counting detective work as a mere hobby. Yet Miss Marple is not an accidental sleuth. Why? That was the question I had when researching this topic. One of the key criterion for categorising aImage result for amateur sleuth cartoon sleuth as amateur rather than accidental is whether or not the individual features in multiple cases. Once bodies get a habit of dropping whenever you come to visit you are no longer an accidental sleuth. The issue of multiple cases also suggests to me that amateur sleuths are able to build up experience in crime solving, whilst accidental sleuths are merely armed with whatever skills they have got at the time and don’t get the opportunity to use the existing experience later on in another case. With experience also comes notoriety or fame and I think another difference between amateur and accidental detective is that with the former group the police tend to work with them more often and may even call on them for help. Whereas with accidental sleuths the police may not even be aware of them until the end of their activities or that there is even a situation in which criminal activity is taking place. Again the work of Ethel Line White springs to mind where accidental sleuths have to rely on themselves much more.

Moreover, as a consequence of this I think accidental sleuths are more prevalent in mystery novels which lean more towards being thrillers or novels from the Had I But Known school and within this last subgenre this often means the accidental sleuths are female. This for me ties into some of the reasons authors might choose to have an accidental sleuth in their mystery. For instance Cox (1999) suggests that ‘readers may find it easy to identify with a protagonist who is an ordinary citizen caught up in a web of intrigue’ (Cox, 1999: 6) and that ‘the lack of fixed expectations regarding the character’s expertise, courage, and personality also allows for greater depth of characterisation, more potential surprises, and sometimes a greater sense of jeopardy threatening the protagonist’ (Cox, 1999: 6). All of these reasons, whether you or agree with them or not, (as to be honest I don’t really identify much with HIBK heroines), do fit in with the HIBK formula which sets up a lot of dangers and jeopardy for their heroines. Therefore I think another difference between accidental and amateur sleuths is the tone and style of the novel they are invariably set up in. If you compared Miss Marple alongside one of Mary Robert Rhinehart’s or Ethel Lina White’s heroines for instance, it is Rhinehart and White’s heroines, who are subjected to much more danger and threatening situations and there is much less assurance as to how they will manage the mysterious circumstances they are involved. Conversely the tone of Miss Marple’s adventures differ greatly – there is drama but not of the same style and because she features in many novels we have expectations as to how she will manage the case she has got involved in.

However I wouldn’t like to suggest that all accidental sleuths are heroines of the HIBK school, though characters such as newspaper reporters, doctor and lawyers are precluded from being accidental sleuths due to the knowledge and experience their work gives them. One example of an accidental sleuth which interested me was Josephine Tey’s eponymous anti-hero, Brat Farrar, who ‘finds himself investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of the youth he is impersonating’ (Cox, 1999: 6).

So whilst I still think the line between amateur and accidental sleuths can be a blurred one at times, having done this post, I can see differences emerging between the two and if anyone else wants to add their (no doubt much more erudite) thoughts on the matter I would greatly appreciate it; be it further similarities or differences between the two types of sleuths or whether it is examples which break the rules.

N. B. All quotes in this post are from J. Randolph Cox’s section ‘Accidental Sleuth’ in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999).

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