Last week I kicked off the 2021 Reprint of the Year award. If you missed that post, here is a link. It explains what the award is about and includes all the key dates for voting, as well as providing readers with the chance to make their own nominations. Three of these nominations will make it into the final poll.
Before you find out my first candidate, here are the links for the other nominations given by bloggers this week:
Aidan – Such Bright Disguises (1941) by Brian Flynn
Bev – Odor of Violets (1941) by Baynard Kendrick
Brad – The Invisible Host (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning
Hayley – Cinderella Goes to the Morgue (1950) by Nancy Spain
Janet – Murder by the Book (2021) ed. Martin Edwards
John Norris – Sing Me a Murder (1960) by Helen Neilsen
John – The Plague Court Murders (1935) by John Dickson Carr
Karen – The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932) by John Dickson Carr
Moira – Murder’s a Swine (1943) by Nap Lombard
Puzzle Doctor – Murder at Monk’s Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye
Rekha – Sleep with Slander (1960) by Dolores Hitchens
The first week nominations are a mixture of familiar and new faces to the awards. John Dickson Carr is no stranger to them that’s for sure, with Castle Skull (1931) coming 3rd in last year’s poll. However, it is perhaps a first for the awards to have one author receive so many nominations in one go! It also surprised me that, if we include my nomination as well, we have had three books this week published in 1941. I also have to admit that one of my favourite reads of this year is in this list. Voting is going to be so difficult!
My first nomination is from an author which was new to me this year and I was so impressed by this book that I have been accumulating the other titles in the series as and when they have been reprinted by the Moonstone Press. Before diving in with my reasons here is what the book is about…
‘Theodore Terhune, bookseller in the tranquil Kent village of Bray-in-the-Marsh, interrupts the attempted robbery of Helena Armstrong, secretary-companion to Lady Kylstone. Someone was trying to steal the key to the Kylstone burial vault, which will shortly be open to the public for the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. When the key goes missing, Terhune is certain there must be something in the vault the thieves are after, but why bother when it will shortly be accessible to all? A series of mysterious encounters leads the curious Terhune from one clue to another, and eventually to the secret past of two families.’
Whilst I have a lot of favourite classic crime authors, I find that many tended to write standalone titles such as Ethel Lina White, Bernice Carey, Jean Potts etc. And of those that did I have rapidly whizzed through them such as with the Lady Lupin series by Joan Coggin and Juanita Sheridan’s series featuring Lily Wu. So I was quite excited when I discovered Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune series. After all when you have really got on with a character or characters it is a shame knowing you won’t get to encounter them in subsequent tales.
When thinking about what to put in this post I found there were lots of reasons why this is not only a good series, but that Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941) is a really good opening book. Firstly, this is a series which varies the structures and mystery subgenres it is uses, very often blending several together. John Norris who writes the introductions for the Moonstone Press reprints notes that: ‘Bruce Graeme was one of the finest narrative experimenters of the Golden Age.’ And from what I have read I would agree. Seven Clues in Search of a Crime establishes this well, demonstrating how successful Graeme could be when it came to experimenting with the genre. I love the engrossing narrative hook he provides us with, which offers an alternative form of puzzle. We do not have a first page body on the carpet type of story and instead the plot is propelled by the unveiling of 7 clues which could lead to a crime of the past, or a crime yet to be committed. I felt this was a novel way of building up a mystery and that Graeme pulled it off well, with an ending that satisfies.
This series is also perfect for those who are big fans of bibliomysteries, as this is a theme which Graeme incorporates into all the books. Moreover, John Norris is keen to emphasis in his introduction to A Case for Solomon (1943) that
‘Graeme continually found inventive ways to incorporate books and manuscripts into the plots of the Theodore Terhune mystery series, never once repeating himself. His contemporaries may have detectives who read voraciously and often quoted “great works” (Gervase Fen, Lord Peter Wimsey, Sir John Appleby, among many others), or were involved in the book trade themselves (Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamage, Joel and Garda Glass in Fast Company by Marco Page), but Graeme’s bookseller detective displayed his knowledge of books in a fashion that is intrinsic to solving the mystery.’
John further adds that:
‘What makes the Terhune books stand out as some of the most innovative bibliomysteries of the Golden Age is that the stories could not exist without the presence of unusual books or manuscripts. Not only are they essential clues, but these books become additional characters that dominate the action, never far from discussion, never ignored by Terhune.’
Yet the quality of the mystery/puzzle presented in these books does not mean there is a drop in the quality of the writing or characterisation. Graeme delightfully incorporates Terhune’s local community into the plots and whether they have big roles or small ones, they are always carefully created and penned. Their presence, regardless of size, adds value to the overall narrative. The involvement of the wider community has put me in mind of the BBC Father Brown series. From the first book Graeme introduces two possible love interests for Terhune and I liked how he brings these two contrasting females into the story. This unresolved question is dealt with in a nuanced way and Graeme eschews the more Cinderella-like treatment that is sometimes found in the work of Patricia Wentworth. I guess I found Graeme’s handling of the romance element to be more realistic with its relationship dynamics and in some ways I felt his depiction of it precedes the similar love triangles we have seen in some TV dramas in the past few decades.
Humour is always an important element for me. Not every mystery has to have comedy in it for me to enjoy it, but if it is to be included then it needs to work well. Throughout the books there is a solid and consistent thread of comedy and I think Graeme deploys it effectively to denote personalities, as well as provide some sendups of the genre. For instance, the opening sequence of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime has a Francis Durbridge feel to it, with a young woman in a car on a foggy day, being held up during a robbery. Yet humour, even in peril, is not long in appearing, as when she perceives that an outsider has arrived, an outsider that she hopes will rescue her, her hope rapidly dissolves when she gets a better look: ‘If only the newcomer had been a policeman, or at least a man with muscular limbs and burly shoulders. But no! She could just see, sideways through the corner of one eye, a slight figure in loose-fitting tweeds, a meek, ordinary face, horn-rimmed spectacles.’ This less-than-ideal physical specimen of course is going to be our series sleuth Terhune.
If those are not good enough reasons for reading and of course voting for this book, then here are two other opinions of this book:
‘Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is a delight from start to finish. It plays around with the conventions of the genre whilst still respecting them. It’s clever without being too much in love with its own cleverness. Very highly recommended.’ (Vintage Pop Fictions blog)
‘The book is an excellent example of a genre blending crime novel that mixes adventure thriller, quest story, detective novel and satire of English village life into one highly entertaining read. Graeme has a wicked sense of humor and the caustic wit that makes up most of the dialogue is a highlight.’ (Pretty Sinister blog)
Remember to tune in next Saturday to find out which titles are our second nominations.