A few days ago Roberta Hood at Books to the Ceiling, kindly talked about an article I wrote for CADs last year on the country house genre and Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, as well as commenting on a list I wrote back on the blog in 2016 about some of my favourite country house mysteries. One of the things which struck me the most was that I couldn’t remember what titles I had put on that list… So a quick re-read later and whilst I wouldn’t remove any titles from the list, I certainly think a few more should be added, which is basically the premise for today’s post. As always these are in no particular order, as quite frankly if I had to rank them as well, I’d never get the list finished:
- Suddenly At His Residence (1947) by Christianna Brand
This one I encountered last April and its ending is still one which remains with me. It also has a very effectively used WW2 setting. Yet of course it has the classic country house mould, though I think Brand adds a little pep of her own. There’s the usual cast of characters with the despotic patriarch, the second wife and step children, as well as children from the first marriage – though be warned Brand has plenty of twists and surprises up her sleeves. The cherry on top is the impossible crime element, which I think is executed well in this book.
- Dancing Death (1931) by Christopher Bush
In comparison to my first choice, this one is quite a recent read, being one of my final reads of last year. This book fulfils the even narrower subgenre niche of being a Christmas country house mystery, wherein the guests all become snowbound, as well as have a fancy dress party. The puzzle in this story is intricate and complex, but engagingly told, using an unusual murder method. The different ways of solving the case are also interesting, including one scene where the amateur sleuth, Travers, has the suspects write their own ending to the first victim’s unfinished manuscript.
- Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith
For me this book gives the Christmas country house mystery a decidedly Dickensian hue. It is an inverted mystery in which we soon see which of Adrian Gray’s relations has killed him. Suffice to say he is far from a pleasant character and whilst waiting to see if the killer will be eventually caught or not, we get a window into the lives of the suspects and the consequences their early life choices made for them. Aside from being an inverted mystery, this tale also stands out because whilst a lot of the action takes place at Gray’s country house, Meredith also shines a light on the desperate poverty of some of the characters, which looks all the more dire due to the opulence of Gray’s home.
- Grim Pickings (1987) by Jennifer Rowe
This read takes us to Australia and was my first experience of Rowe’s work. For me it provides a modern take on the country house mystery, though still including a cast of characters and a map at the start of the book. Long held grudges and bitterness erupt during a family’s annual apple gathering and murder unsurprisingly soon follows. This was one of my favourite reads from 2017 and is a good choice if you love vintage mysteries, as the characters and puzzle are both strong.
- Blood Upon the Snow (1944) by Hilda Lawrence
From Australia we head to America next, with another snowy country house mystery, though the mood is far from festive. This tale is firmly situated in the domestic suspense genre and there are many peculiar things going on at the home of Joseph Stoneman, including Stoneman’s prevarication over why he has invited private eye, Mark East, to be his secretary. There are some comic interludes though, with two local spinsters, who aid East in his investigation. Fans of Ethel Lina White are likely to enjoy this novel, though other works by Lawrence have more mixed quality. This is her first mystery novel and in my opinion her best.
- Cold Blood (1952) by Leo Bruce
Back to good old England in this tale Sergeant Beef, (now a private investigator), has to investigate the death of Cosmos Ducrow. The suspect list is a little smaller due to Ducrow’s hermit-like life style and initially there seems to be one definite suspect, with the evidence piling up against him. It is Beef’s job to prove his innocence, which of course he will do in his own imitable manner – much to the chagrin of his biographer, Townsend. The love/hate relationship between these two is definitely a highlight of the series.
- The Man Who Was Not There (1943) by Ethel Lina White
…and now for something a little bit different. It is another wartime set country house mystery, yet at this particular country abode there is a private zoo! The fact all the events take place at night, during a blackout, adds immeasurably to the tension and atmosphere of the book. This is a tale of murder which is far from ordinary and the characterisation is excellent as always with White. Highly recommended if you can get your hands on a copy.
- Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan
Back to the snow, with another ill-assorted house party being marooned at a country house. Thankfully this book was reprinted a couple of years ago, so should not be too tricky to track down. It has an interesting array of characters and the heroine, Dylis makes for an entertaining protagonist. There is plenty of action in this book, as events turn more and more unusual, (and I am not talking about the curry and spaghetti they have for dinner!). Another good mystery to line up for Christmas.
- Mind Your Own Murder (1948) by Yolanda Foldes
Another favourite read of last year and unfortunately probably the hardest book to find from this list. There were a couple of copies available online when I first reviewed it, but they were soon snapped up and I haven’t seen any available for quite some time. At the point of writing, there is one copy in French on Abe books, so if you can read French I’d grab it while you can! Unsurprisingly this is a country house mystery which I highly recommend, as it has such a great central premise, in that the murder victim tells his four nephews that they have to murder him, (as he is dying from cancer,) and that whoever does the deed will receive £1 million. If none of them manage to do so after 4 days, (as each nephew gets given a specific night to attempt the deed), the money will go to a cats home. Fairly original plot to say the least and wonderfully written as well. Just wish it was more available. It is definitely in need of a reprint.
- The Suspicion at Sanditon (2015) by Carrie Bebris
My most modern recommendation on this list, but the one which is ironically set in the earliest time period, Regency England. Though in some ways it is a bit of an odd recommendation as it is at the end of a series. However, I think new readers won’t be too confused if they jump ahead to this point. Bebris is really good at turning up the tension as the party’s dinner guests start disappearing one by one and of course in an age where there is no electric lighting or a pocket torch, the lack of light is all the more unnerving. The characters are all wonderfully Austen-esque and Bebris does interweave Austen themes in to the book such as social class and new money. A gentle thread of comedy also wends its way through the story, making this a very enjoyable read. Mr and Mrs Darcy are a great sleuthing duo.
- Thou Shell of Death (1936) by Nicholas Blake
First title on the list which has not been reviewed on the blog, but I do remember enjoying this one. Another winter set country house mystery, the snow element of which is highly important to the seemingly impossible crime that follows. At this point in the series Nigel Strangeways is still a non-creepy, comic and entertaining amateur sleuth, on the cusp of meeting his first wife. Whilst in some respects the cast of suspects are familiar types, I loved that one of the characters is a female explorer, who doesn’t adhere to stereotypical attitudes on femininity. The allusions to revenge tragedy in this book are also enjoyable, working with the plot, rather than feeling shoe horned in.
- Speedy Death (1929) by Gladys Mitchell
This is probably my most controversial choice on the list, as Mitchell’s work can cause quite strong reactions. I am not her biggest fan but this is one of the few novels by her I have read which I really enjoyed. It is one heck of an opening debut for her amateur sleuth, Mrs Bradley and she certainly turns quite a few tropes upside down. This is a book with quite a number of surprises for the reader concerning the victim, the killer and even the sleuth, dotted throughout the story and in my opinion this is one of Mitchell’s works which shows at her most lucid and at her best.
- Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggins
Despite the incredibly similar name to Bush’s novel earlier in the list, Coggins novel is quite different in style and content, though both stories take place during Christmas. The country abode might not be so grand, but the house party guests are still as fractious and annoyed with each other as ever. The death is suitably intriguing and the final solution is a knock out. Equally it is hard to not love Coggin’s amateur sleuth Lady Lupin, a vicar’s wife, who is not entirely fitted to the role and the comedy of the series is a real delight. This is another series finale and one which certainly leaves the series on a high. I only wish more Lady Lupin novels had been written.
- Dying Fall (1955) by Henry Wade
A marriage of convenience seems to be heading for the rocks when murder takes one of them out. But was their other half the killer? This is a country house mystery which certainly embodies the changes wrought on society after WW2, things are not quite so glamorous, money is that little bit more tight. A second death in the book further complicates matters and I think Wade tells his story very well. A killer last line also helps.
So here we are at the end of the list. It would be great to hear other people’s recommendations for good country house mysteries, especially those which are trying to do things a little bit differently.
On a very random final note, one author I was tempted to add to my list was duo writing team, Constance and Gwenyth Little. I feel like they are the sort of authors who would have tackled a country house mystery or two but no specific title has come to mind. So for those who’ve read a few more Little novels than I have, if you know of any which are country house mysteries, do let me know.