Duet of Death (1949) by Hilda Lawrence

This is my second encounter with Hilda Lawrence, though today’s read is a collection of two novellas by her: Composition for Four Hands and The House.

Composition for Four Hands

Lawrence, like Celia Fremlin, knows how to setup her stories in the most respectable, but also most chilling of places. The protagonist of this is Nora, who is a paralysed invalid and who is cared for by her husband as well as various servants and a nurse called Miss Sills. Whilst her physical needs are more than cared for, you can tell she is lacking genuine understanding from those around her, as they often talk about her when in front of her forgetting she can still hear. Direct conversation with her aside from being one sided is also rather patronising, frequently being called ‘baby’. With such a setup there are a number of immediate questions, primarily of which is, how did Nora end up this way? Whilst this question is slowly and creepily answered, other questions take centre stage: Why is she so frightened? Why does she think her life is in danger? And of course how is she going to save herself if she cannot move or speak? Who around her can she really trust? Past events mix with the present, as the novella reaches a nail biting climax.

I really enjoyed this story, as I think Lawrence achieved her setting and setup very well. In weaker hands it could have ended up rather trite, but Lawrence captures claustrophobic/trapped nature of being paralysed and she puts real effort into showing what Nora’s concerns and wishes are and how they often contrasted with what those around her need. The ending is a little rushed, but other than that this story is a first rate chilling story.

The House

In contrast to Lawrence’s first novella, I found this second one to be a poorer fare. It is written in the first person and is narrated by Isobel Ford, who has recently lost her father in unfortunate and mysterious circumstances. All of which lead Isobel to brood over her childhood, (where she was sent to boarding in school in Canada), and more recent times when she has come to stay with her parents. The antics of the family dog are also keeping the household in a state of tension and anxiety – but is there something behind them? After a lot of slow meandering prose the final section of the story has Isobel and some allies figuring out the truth. The truth once it is discovered is interesting and intriguing, yet I think what lets the story down is the how it works up to its crescendo. A slow pace definitely killed the impact this tale could have. I also found it quite hard to engage with the central character.

Yet despite this being a case of 1 out of 2, I would say that the book is worth getting for the first story alone. Just don’t read it late at night…

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Glove

See also:

Blood Upon the Snow (1944)

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The Hours Before Dawn (1958) by Celia Fremlin

Today’s read is part of my unplanned continuation of delving into 1940s and 50s domestic psychological suspense fiction, which as I read more of it, feels increasingly like a subgenre which is an offshoot or descendant of sensation fiction, given their similar tendencies for revealing chilling secrets beneath socially respectable veneers. The Hours Before Dawn (1958) is the first novel Fremlin published and was inspired by her own sleepless nights when she had her second child, who would cry through the night. In this sleep deprived state she once wondered why no one was writing about this particular life experience. Sometime later this novel is her response and what a chilling one it is…

Louise Henderson is such a young mum. She has two primary school aged daughters and a 6 month baby named Michael. Due to his tendency to scream most of the night unless attended, Louise is exhausted. That much is evident from the narrative which embodies her loss of concentration and ability to think coherently. Even worse for her there is a lack of support around her. Her husband does not appreciate the immense pressure she is under and is frequently irritable and quarrelsome. The local health care staff tell her not to worry about the night screaming, (easier to say when you’re not there of course), and the neighbours are not best pleased with the loss of sleep they are suffering from too. Having a doormat personality Louise also gets put upon by other less considerate mothers. It is not surprising that you feel almost immediate sympathy for Louise and her situation.

Into this chaos comes a lodger, a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. Louise is surprised that Vera seems quite happy to reside with them, given the wild behaviour of her children and whilst she keeps trying to battle with the never decreasing work load at home she begins to wonder more and more about her lodger… Why has she decided to live with them? Is she spying on them and creeping around the house? Is she trying to steal her husband? And why does she, her husband and some of her friends think they’ve seen her before? Of course there is also the possibility that Louise is blowing all these small and accumulating niggles out of proportion, as her mental state degenerates under the exhaustion.

Overall Thoughts

If I only had one word to describe this book, one possible word choice on my part would be: Impact, as I really felt that this story has a lot of it. Fremlin vividly recreates what it is like to be a young mother rushed off her feet and the sheer fatigue and exhaustion of a job people can take for granted. She really does transcribe brilliantly and starkly the sleep deprived state and how it affects your perceptions and consciousness.

Given the time period this was written in I think the plot line would have had even more impact at the time, when female worth was still being equated with how well you cared for your family and home. What the neighbours think, what your friends think, are nagging and insistent agonies Louise has to bear. Alongside this theme Fremlin also weaves in how mothers are perceived and what people think mothers ought to be like. Her cast of characters contains a whole range of mother types including those who hated having their children. You could say this theme is almost as prevalent as Michael’s crying fits. Incidentally it is somewhat telling that this theme is largely handled in the dialogue of the female characters, most of whom are mothers. Though at times it can be seen in Louise’s own disjointed thoughts:

‘Louise stopped, uneasily conscious that she was beginning to run on about her children in just the kind of what that up-to-date mothers must be so careful to avoid. To tall shop if you are a mother is not socially permissible as it is if you are a typist or a bus conductress.’

Whilst the plot line itself, in terms of events, will seem very simple and domestic, Fremlin creates a taut line of suspense and tension, as you don’t know what will happen next or what direction the story will take. The way Louise is potentially an unreliable narrator feeds into this and the infrequent mentioning of Medea, leaves the reader unsettled and on edge. The speed at which peculiar events occur is just right. It is not too fast that the ending is quickly deduced, but nor is it too slow that you think it is all a figment of Louise’s imagination. The speed is of that murky middle ground where the evidence can go either way, leaving Louise in a state of doubting herself and her own sanity.

Unsurprisingly this is a book I highly rate and I will definitely be seeking out more books by this author, who has a strong skill in characterisation, plotting and atmosphere.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Moon

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A Death in the Night (2017) by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Source: Review Copy (Urbane Publications)

This is my third read in Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead series and my third review this year by the author. The novels in this series are certainly coming thick and fast! In various ways these novels have been writing back to an earlier mystery subgenre: the golden age of detective fiction, which definitely had its fair share of murders in the village and I think this is something Fraser-Sampson briefly plays with in his description of London at the start of the story: ‘London, while being one of the biggest cities in the world, is really little more than a conglomeration of villages…’ He goes on to say that these “villages” have their own identities, communities and atmospheres and that these have radically changed and evolved over the last century, a feature which writers such as Christie also commented on in their post war village based mysteries.

Although part of the Hampstead series, the scene of the crime is in Mayfair in a women’s club named the Athena, (which Dorothy L Sayers was a member of in real life). But before that we see Professor Fuller going into the club and for some reason her everyday actions are causing quite a stir. Her secretary screams on the phone when she rings her and the club’s receptionist looks at her like she is a ghost. But why? Well it just so happens that everyone thought she had died in her room that morning…

Events then go back in time to the previous evening when the club is hosting a vintage dinner dance and of course some of our serial police officers and partners are attending. After all Sayers obsessed police psychologist Peter Collins, is unlikely to want to miss such an event. When events arrive back at the present time there are many questions to be answered: Who is the murder victim? Were they the intended victim or is Fuller still a target? How did the killer manage to lock the victim’s room, leaving the guest key on the bedroom floor, as access to the only spare key is highly guarded? In keeping with how Guy Fraser-Sampson covers a range of relationship types in his series, the pool of potential suspects and their motives are tightly knotted around a polyamory marital situation, as well as a string of liaisons by Fuller’s husband.

Overall Thoughts

In comparison to books 2 and 3 in the series I would say the referencing to the golden age of detective fiction is probably less overt in this story, though G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is mentioned specifically. Instead I think the referencing is much more subtle, in that given the nature of the crime being investigated, (a murder which is not identified as such until a day afterwards meaning most forensic evidence is unwittingly destroyed), the plot encourages a sense of armchair sleuthing. You could also argue that the book has a minor locked room element as well, though the solution is not an overly complicated one.

The sense of place is as strong as ever in A Death in the Night and not being someone who knows much about London and its districts, I found the author’s side lights on certain areas interesting and charmingly written. I particularly enjoyed how he references P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves’ when describing the changes to Mayfair: ‘Sadly, were Jeeves to find himself in the streets of Mayfair today he would undoubtedly look around himself with dismay, as if forced to acknowledge an old friend who, since one’s last encounter, has made a distinctly unsuitable marriage.’

As the synopsis above suggests acknowledged infidelity is fairly pertinent to the case and I found it interesting to see how the different characters involved describe and articulate Andrew Fuller’s proclivities and the motivations behind their excessiveness. At times I felt the language used normalised or validated his behaviour, though there are some characters who are less than approving. Nevertheless criticism of Fuller’s behaviour is somewhat muted and understated. Perhaps this is a way of expressing the sexual double standards in society and in fiction which still exist, as I have a feeling that if a woman acted the way Andrew did, it would be far less tolerated and accepted.

This is a mystery with a lot of red herrings, however I did manage to correctly identify the culprit correctly early on in the book, less by actual proof and evidence and more by a couple of sentences here and there which helped me make the correct deduction/connection. Yet I don’t think this affected my enjoyment of the book too significantly as it wasn’t something I was completely certain about until the final chapters of the book, which confirmed my ideas.

Rating: 4.25/5

See also:

Miss Christie Regrets (2017)

A Whiff Of Cyanide (2017)

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Death Takes a Wife (1959) by Anthony Gilbert

This is my third encounter with Gilbert’s work, (the first two being The Spinster’s Secret (1949) and Portrait of a Murderer (1934)), and as always Gilbert offers a very different type of mystery. There is no specific blue print or formula which pass between these three books. So Gilbert’s certainly good for the novelty factor.

The story begins with a nurse called Helen Wayland wanting to find a job with patients a little more likely to survive. After all it doesn’t do much good for a nurse’s reputation if her charges die, even if they are very elderly and not very healthy. Things look bright for her with her next case though with Blanche French, a rich middle aged woman who has broken her leg. Chances of dying seem fairly slim. That is until Paul French, Blanche’s husband falls in love with Helen and she eventually with him. One night Helen awakes to the noise of a gunshot. Rushing to Blanche’s room she finds Paul covered in her blood and holding the proverbial smoking gun. In court Paul says he picked up the gun after she turned it on herself as part of a melodramatic argument between the two of them. A conflicted jury gives an open verdict and after a certain amount of time it could be hoped that events would settle and wagging tongues would cease and that Paul could make a new life with Helen. Yet this is not to be when Paul’s housekeeper re-emerges on the scene… Blackmail ensues as well as further violence, yet like Helen we are left wondering until the very end of the story as to what really happened that fateful night between Blanche and Paul.

Overall Thoughts

Like the other two novels I’ve read by Gilbert, characterisation is one of the key strengths of this novel. Gilbert may use familiar character types but she adds her own twist on them: for instance Paul, who is 10 years younger than Blanche, is not your typical financial sponger and instead is a man with drive and ambition to make his own money, whether or not his wife wants him to. Deciding who is or who are the real victims and criminals in this story is no straight forward task as Gilbert shows her characters in varying lights.

The opening third of the book could conceivably be classed as a country house mystery, yet again I would say Gilbert does it her own way and I think her version is a darker one, in comparison to the light and frothy pre-war country house mysteries. Gilbert maintains suspense very well in the story and there is a Francis Iles undercurrent to the tone of the piece. I will say that this story is more of a crime tale than a tale of detection and investigation. Gilbert gives a greater emphasis on how crimes and deaths affect people emotionally, mentally and in their relationships with each other. This is indeed well done, but it has consequences and these consequences significantly affect the final quarter of the story when Arthur Crook finally makes an appearance and gets involves in the now much larger case say we shall (as this book does take place over a few years). To be honest considering what Crook contributes to the tale I don’t think his appearance is worthwhile as he doesn’t really do much in the way of investigating. This is a case which is solved primarily through a criminal over reaching themselves. Equally with the suspect group being so small I guessed the solution early on, though I will say Gilbert provides a dramatic finish.

So given how highly I rated the other two novels by Gilbert that I have read, this read whilst not bad, will look inferior in comparison. Gilbert has a strong writing style and characters which make this a much better read than it would have been in feebler hands, as the plot at the end of the day is perhaps a little too simplistic.

I will end this review with the remarks a house keeper gives on being told off for picking up a gun:

 ‘It’s news to me to be told what to do in my own house. I was always one to believe there’s a place for everything and everything in its place; and the place for lethal weapons isn’t the drawing room carpet.’

A great piece of dialogue, which could easily have come from a play script.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Revolver

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The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley

This is my 6th Anthony Berkeley review this year, making him one of my most frequently blogged authors this year.

For those interested in how interwar authors perceived the genre they were writing in, this book will be of special interest, as it opens with a letter from Berkeley to A. D. Peters, addressing the question of the future of detective story. Given that it is only 1930 when Berkeley wrote this, it is quite amusing to see him wondering where things would go next. He suggests two options quoting from a detective fiction reviewer. I tried googling the quote but could not find the originator of the statement:

‘As to technique, it appears that there are two directions in which the intelligent novelist is at present trying to develop…: he may make experiments with the telling of his plot, tell it backwards, or sideways, or in bits; or he may try to develop character and atmosphere.’

He recognises how his previous work focused on the former, but that this story is his ‘attempt at the latter’ and he goes on to say that:

‘it is towards the latter that the best of the new detective writing energies are being directed […] I personally am convinced that the days of the old crime puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour, are, if not numbered, at any rate in the hands of the auditors…’

I think his warning is a little premature, as the 30s and 40s saw further great puzzle mysteries. He is correct though in emphasising the importance of characters and character psychology which he believes will become the new puzzle factor or element as opposed to ‘a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity.’ It was interesting to come back to these ideas/goals/descriptors once I read the book as I don’t think Berkeley entirely loses the classic puzzle element in this book which has maps, clues and time tables. Equally I still think he experiments with how he tells the story using a range of text types and an unreliable or slippery narrator. But whilst he still uses familiar tools in some respects, he definitely does a lot with his characters, creating a whole fishmonger’s shop out the red herrings he pulls out. Further thoughts on the mystery novel can also be found within the story itself, in the beginning of Cyril Pinkerton’s manuscript, where he points out all the places he thinks mystery writers are going wrong and later on he continues to criticise the genre with its tension between interesting and believability.

Synopsis

But before I discuss the book any further it would probably be a good idea if I gave you some idea of what the book is about. It begins with a newspaper report informing us of the death of Eric Scott-Davies during a house party at Minton Deeps Farm, hosted by mystery writer John Hillyard and his wife, Ethel. The party planned to stage a fake murder for Hillyard’s mystery writer friends to investigate, but unfortunately a real one transpires instead on the way back to the house when two shots are heard over a few minutes and one of the guests, Pinkerton – the fake murder’s murderer, finds the fake victim, very much a real one. This account is followed by a police report which shows that not everything is as it seems and that the police are far from sanguine by the version of events presented. The majority of the book comes from a manuscript written by Pinkerton looking at the events leading up to the crime and then what happened afterwards. Things soon get difficult for him though as the police favour him as their prime suspect. Circumstantial evidence fuels this, as well as a murder motive which has been produced by a chain of events. It doesn’t help that everyone else in the house party also thinks he did it. This is despite the fact that the victim’s ex-lover, his ex-lover’s husband, his short changed cousin and his new romantic/financial target are all in the same group. It is at this point that Pinkerton sends an urgent telegram to Roger Sheringham and it is from this point that Berkeley twists and turns his plot and characters until his readers are thoroughly foxed…

Overall Thoughts

If Berkeley’s name was expunged from the book and a reader had to guess who had written it, I think the author’s identity would still have been easy to guess, as this narrative has many of the hallmarks which characterise Berkeley’s work. Firstly there is his slippery use of narrators, as throughout Pinkerton’s manuscript you are unsure how far you can trust him. He is confident of his abilities but it is clear he lacks a certain amount of self-awareness. He says that ‘the average human being is wearisomely transparent,’ yet he misses quite a few obvious things about his fellow guests. Will this affect how he sees events? Is this short sightedness all a pretence? Equally the reader is wondering whether he could be killer? After all Pinkerton does say he is trying to write up the crime from the criminal’s point of view. But is this just a red herring? Or a double red herring? (N.B. I’m not going to tell you).

The second hallmark of a Berkeley novel is its ambiguous and complicated depiction of relationships between men and women. Initially the reader is subjected to an uncomfortable scene between Pinkerton, (acknowledged bachelor who has a cynical nature towards women) and his hostess Ethel. We have Ethel confirming that women love to be dominated by rogues and bad hats, given that they ‘appeal[…] directly to every primitive instinct we women have; and we’ve a good deal more, my dear Cyril, than men of your type ever realise.’ Pinkerton concludes it all by saying that ‘one of the many things that Ethel and I have in common is the profound scorn in which she holds her own sex.’ So yeah, fun reading. Thankfully though this scene is an isolated incidence and given the events which Pinkerton goes on to experience I think his views to an extent might shift (even if Berkeley’s haven’t). Pinkerton has hopes of transforming a certain lady’s ‘untamed wildness’ and have fun afternoons teaching her about stamp collecting and identifying rare types of moss, but from what the manuscript suggests these dreams are not wholly fulfilled, (one hopes for the lady’s sake more than anything else). The subduing and taming of women is perhaps one of the less pleasant hallmarks of Berkeley’s work (and Philip Macdonald’s for that matter), but thankfully is kept in check here. Incidentally a romance element in this book between Pinkerton and another is a close parallel to another romantic coupling in an earlier Berkeley novel: Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927). However whilst this latter novel is fun and light hearted, I think Berkeley takes a number of elements from this earlier story and reuses them in a much darker and cynical way in today’s read.

Given the emphasis Berkeley places on characters, I think it is fair to say that he does a really good job in that respect. Often a reviewer might say about a story that characters are not what they seem, but I think Berkeley takes this feature to a whole new level, especially with Pinkerton who is hard to pin down and have consistent feelings towards. At times you’ll feel sympathy for him for instance, whilst at other moments you’ll want to kick him, like Sheringham does. Surprisingly with Pinkerton’s presence, Sheringham comes across as a much more pleasant character. Sylvia, Eric’s ex-lover is also another highlight of the story and is a wonderfully Machiavellian figure for a time.

So lots to enjoy with this book. Great way of introducing the crime, (in effect by using three different lens, without boring the reader), great choice of characters in the main, great choice of narrator and of course like all strong Berkeley novels, this story has the most important Berkeley hallmark, that of pulling twist after twist, yet never losing the reader for a moment. The solution has the fourth Berkeley novel hallmark by being unorthodox. I thought I had guessed the ultimate culprit but alas mid patting my back I found I was completely wrong. I think one of the things which perhaps dragged my rating down of this book was the slow pacing in the second half of the book and there were spattering of dry patches of writing.

Rating: 4.25/5

JJ at The Invisible Event blog reviewed this one last year and didn’t seem to take to it as much as I did, as you can see here. So it’ll be interesting to see how he takes this review…

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The Weight of the Evidence (1944) by Michael Innes

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,’ as Albert Einstein famously stated and today’s read is partially an instance of this. I am not a big Michael Innes fan. I would go so far as saying I am not even a small Michael Innes fan. But I was given this book by family, pleased they had found a vintage mystery whilst on holiday that I had not read (which in fairness is no mean feat these days). So I decided to give it a try. After all I recently had two reasonably good reads from Allingham, an author I am also lukewarm about.

The premise for this book by Innes seemed intriguing and not too barmy. A biochemist named Professor Pluckrose is murdered at Nestfield University, having met his end one morning after sitting in a deck chair beneath a tower, only for a meteorite to land on top of him. Yet this meteorite is not fresh from space and has been propelled by a human force. Inspector Appleby is there from the get go investigating with a local policeman called Inspector Hobhouse and they soon uncovers mild and intense animosities towards Pluckrose from staff on campus. Appleby also has the unenviable job of interviewing these staff members, who are not the most cooperative bunch, omitting important information and talking in cryptic allusions being only minor offences.

Overall Thoughts

On this general synopsis the mystery does not sound all that bad and with it being set within a university campus, Innes is on home turf and is able to add a great deal of verisimilitude to the setting. It ought to be a good novel. But it really really isn’t…

Firstly there is the issue of the pacing. It’s even more atrocious in that it is reflected in the structure of the story itself. Appleby meanders and potters about for 80% of the book before any useful information for solving the crime occurs, mostly found by Hobhouse. Equally it takes until very near the end of the book to realise it is a story set pre WW2. This is all a shame really as the plot line is relatively sane for Innes and he does give us an unusual manner of death. Yet it is a plot which is wasted as the story never properly comes to life. In the hands of someone like Sayers or Carr this story could have been something. Appleby’s lines of investigation are fairly random and he doesn’t even examine some parts of the crime scene until day 3 of the investigation. Alibi checks don’t really come in to it until 40 pages from the end of the story and Appleby’s deductions on the case do feel like they are plucked out of thin air. When the solution is finally reached it has lost impact by the boring run up and then in itself it is not that interesting a solution.

The second main problem is his writing style. It is frequently indecipherable when it comes to character dialogue. His attempts to capture academic wit fall flat as a consequence. Innes’ style is invariably long winded, his long descriptive sentences making me lose the will to live and generally make me lose concentration. Yet ironically despite all this description of place and character, there is very little sense of character personality. I don’t feel I ever get to know anyone in the book. His literary allusions are overdone. You begin to feel sympathetic towards poor Inspector Hobhouse and end up quite agreeing with him when he says to Appleby that ‘I sometimes think you’re bit off it.’ Additionally this might be a good or a bad thing but Innes equally also has a bizarre turn of phrase when it comes to describing animals. Some I grant you don’t seem too bad such as ‘narcoleptic doves’ and ‘guerrilla cats.’ But I think most readers will be scratching their heads as to why Innes felt the need to include this particular bovine detail: ‘But those cows, faintly steamy still beyond a hedge, were a picture of Arcadian innocence.’ Faintly steamy??

So on that final disturbing note I’ll leave you… Unsurprisingly this is not one I suggest everyone rush out and buy on Amazon Prime or something.

Rating: 2.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Book (on the back cover)

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Landscape with Corpse (1955) by Delano Ames

I’ve reviewed Ames’s work a lot this year, 6 times in fact and some of you may have been relieved when my progress was halted due to a dearth of reasonably priced copies for later books in the Jane and Dagobert Brown series. You may have thought no more Ames reviews this year at least and to be fair this was what I was thinking, though slightly more despondently. However fortunately for me I got a lucky break a few weeks ago and managed to procure sanely priced copies of: Landscape with Corpse (1955), Crime Out of Mind (1956) and For Old Crime’s Sake (1959). The only Brown novel I am now missing is She Wouldn’t Say Who (1957). Equally with Ames’s Juan Llorca series I am only missing one: The Man with Three Passports (1967). Ames did write a handful of non-series mysteries but they are very rare, occasionally appearing online for ridiculous prices. Whilst I am hopeful of completing the two series at some point, getting my hands on the non-series ones might be beyond me.

Enough of my day dreams back to Landscape with Corpse, which sees the Browns back abroad and in Spain once more, this time in a village named Paraiso de Mar. The return to this country is not surprising as Ames went to Spain to live there in the latter part of his life and is in keeping with how he then moved onto his second mystery series which is set entirely in Spain. The opening has a travelogue feel, though definitely one with its tongue in its cheek. In particular we are told about a festival for a saint named Santa Serafina, who died of spontaneous combustion. Norman Bloomfield, a newcomer to the village, with his wife and stepdaughter, is immediately taken with this sainted figure and goes to great lengths to contribute to the festivities. Yet Bloomfield’s new obsession does not end well as the closing lines of chapter 1 indicate:

‘Both had come from distant shores – she on the stone from the Holy Land, he on the S. S. Constitution from New York – to find Paraiso in sore need of their ministrations. Both had run into difficulties and caused riots; Serafina when she attempted to put a stop to the primitive Iberian practice of human sacrifice; Norman when he tried to introduce baseball as a substitute for bullfighting. And yet in the end each achieved miracles. Serafina in the matter of Christianity; Norman Bloomfield, more modestly, in the matter of modern plumbing. There was even to a certain modest parallel in the matter of their deaths…’

So yes Bloomfield meets his end during the parade, whilst hidden beneath the statue that is being carried through the streets in swathes of drapery and finery and which mysteriously begins smoking with fire shortly before Bloomfield dies (not due to the fire). Of course Jane and Dagobert are firm fixtures of the village, having gone there for Daobert’s latest translation work. Initially Bloomfield is said to have died of natural causes but this changes when the police arrive to interview Dagobert and it is a new experience for Dagobert to be viewed with suspicion by the police. But then the circumstantial evidence does begin to look bad. However there are many other potential suspects including Bloomfield’s wife. Bad luck she has an unbreakable alibi. Or does she? Other deaths soon follow and there are two other key strands to the narrative and the central crime, which come together in the final showdown and solution.

Overall Thoughts

Having read so many of the Ames novels now and in particular having read the Brown novels in order, I can see how Ames’ writing evolves over the series, as there is a definite transition between his zany metafictional style of his earlier novels, in comparison to his later novels in the Brown series and in the complete Llorca series, which are more subdued in their humour and are much more rooted in their settings. Today’s read is more overtly one of these transitional novels. Yet for all that I don’t think Jane and Dagobert change. They are still themselves thankfully, including Dagobert’s allergy to having a stable career:

‘But I was worried about Dagobert. There was in his eyes that indefinable “longing to get away from it all” which attacks him so recurrently. He is evasive when asked to define that “it all” consists of. Could it be the threat of employment?’

Nor has he lost his spontaneous nature:

‘But he has also bought a book called Teach Yourself Arabic in case, as he says, we go over to Tangier for the week-end. We once went for the week-end to Southend and stayed six months.’

Jane’s understated humour still comes through in the book and there is an amusing bit of metafictional humour in that Dagobert is teaching the local Lieutenant how to speak English using crime fiction novels such as those from Agatha Christie and Peter Cheyne. What made me smile is that this is not such a far flung idea as I know of ESOL projects which use Christie in their teachings.

Ames provides quite a complicated crime or crimes rather. The method of Bloomfield’s death is fairly unusual in what it involves and how and when it was administered. The case is not a straight forward one, with new surprises and turns of events around every corner and events which seem to have one interpretation, eventually have a completely different one. Whilst I don’t think the reader will have figured out the entire solution by themselves, I think like me, quite a few will have suspicions which turn out correct over who is guilty, despite the ample coverage of red herrings. There is something Christie-esque about Ames’s selection in this department. The solution used is quite a familiar one I imagine, as it had been used in a well-known book prior to this one – though not one of Christie’s. The ending to this story in keeping with the solution is fairly unorthodox in some ways.

So overall quite a good read. Ames is always ready to laugh at the foibles of the human condition, kindly of course, and it is enjoyable to see a writer who can update the time period of their novels as time progresses, without it looking painfully twee and awkward.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Door

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The Running Woman (1966) by Patricia Carlon

Today’s read is from an Australian suspense writer that I came across only recently in Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017). Our female protagonist, Gabriel, rapidly ends up in one heck of a pickle after a girl is found drowned in Larapinta Creek. It is said she fell from the bridge but was it accidental or something worse? A woman matching Gabriel’s description is seen leaving the scene by various witnesses and the police, as well as the community at large are wondering why this woman didn’t call for help and equally why she didn’t come forward afterwards. It doesn’t help that Gabriel was in the area, though her chaotic thought patterns, (she is 3 months a widow after a difficult yet short lived marriage), make her an unreliable character and the reader cannot be sure she is telling the whole truth. As rumours and gossip abound throughout the area Gabriel has to deal with the victim’s parents who are past masters in blackmail and turning the screws on people. Of course by giving into their demands initially to buy herself some time she makes her situation even worse and it is not long before the police are knocking on her door, as the circumstantial evidence piles up against her. Even her cousin Phil thinks she must have been the running woman. But can she somehow prove otherwise?

Overall Thoughts

Despite the intriguing premise I initially struggled with this book, mostly because of Gabriel. I appreciate that she might not be in the best place emotionally or mentally, given recent events in her personal life, but the naivety of her actions at the start of book, along with her prolonged inability to clearly state that she was or wasn’t the running woman irksome. I know why she is that way as a character, I really do, and I have read stories with similarly evasive or nincompoop characters, but for some reason it just got on my wick this time. Thankfully it wasn’t like this for all of the book and as events and people turn against her, besieging her house and lying to save their own skins, I started to warm to her. The central mystery also gets more interesting when it seems those closest to Gabriel are holding information back and that it looks like the drowned girl may have known something about a woman who died at the Creek a year earlier. It was also interesting to see the supposedly bereaved parents in such a hideous and appalling light and it was quite unusual to see them less as victims and more as aggressors and plotters. The final solution was good, though perhaps not the option with greatest wow factor. Additionally the ending was a bit abrupt but I suppose it is better than an ending which is overly long or emotionally flowery. So quite a mixed read this time round, but I think I would probably give Carlon another try at some point.

Rating: 4/5

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Birthday Books

A couple of days ago it was my birthday, (I’m so glad there’s a social convention of not being allowed to ask a woman their age), which of course means some new additions to my TBR pile. So I thought I would share with you the mystery books I received…

 

 

and these two great bookmarks (all the way from Australia!)…
Also when I went to Barter Books on my birthday, (you know the usual wild and out of control birthday activity), I also picked up a copy of Conyth Little’s The Black Iris. Alas the picture below is not the copy I have)…

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Police at the Funeral (1931) by Margery Allingham

Today’s read is the 2nd Allingham novel, which was bestowed upon me by a friend and since I actually enjoyed the other one much more than I thought I would, I decided to dive into this one and see how it went…

It seems almost like fate when Inspector Oates, the man trailing him, Campion and the client he is waiting for, a Miss Joyce Blount, fiancée to an old friend, all converge upon one place. Before we find out Blount’s dilemma we initially have the peculiar incident of Oates’ follower making a hurried exit, proceeding Blount’s near faint at the sight of him. Whilst we find out no more about that for the present we do hear about Blount’s problem, namely the disappearance of one of her uncles, Andrew Seeley, a highly unpleasant character and sponger. This soon turns into a case of murder when his body is found in the river, (bound hand and foot and shot in the head), near their home in Cambridge and it quickly becomes apparent that the killer is one of Blount’s fellow inmates. Blount lives with her great aunt, Caroline Faraday, as well as with her two aunts and her two uncles, all of whom are financially dependent upon Caroline despite being middle aged and older. Theirs is an odd household, its furnishing stuck in an earlier time period and it is described in the book as, ‘a hot-bed, a breeding ground of those dark offshoots of the civilised mind which the scientists tell us are the natural outcome of repressions and inhibitions. To them the old house was undergoing an upheaval, a volcano of long fermented trouble, and they were afraid of what they were about to find out.’ Further crime and death ensues leaving the household in dread of which among them has cracked and begun a spree of violence and more importantly which of them will be next!

Overall Thoughts

On the whole I think I got on well with this story. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the household of suspects, though I’d definitely not want to live with them. The matriarch, Caroline, was especially enjoyable. She is a sharp and intelligent woman, being described in a similar manner to Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, (albeit it in a minor way), here: ‘bird-like inquiring glance.’ The only black mark the book gives against her is her weakness for wearing hideous pieces of lace. Given the later plot developments, the opening, where Campion fools around with Holmes stereotypes and phrases, is very fitting. It was also interesting to see how Campion perceives his role. He doesn’t see himself as a private detective or even a sleuth, but instead refers to himself as a professional or deputy adventurer or as ‘the handy man about the trouble.’

The pacing was good initially but the final third definitely needed shortening, as for example there is a completely superfluous chapter about the inquest, which is not required at all. I did go into this story knowing the solution, (having watched the Peter Davidson series), so I was probably less wowed by it. However for those of you going in with no prior knowledge I think you’ll enjoy it a lot as it is quite fiendishly and madly clever. At this year’s Bodies from the Library conference, Tony Medawar (I think) mentioned this book as having a solution Christie did not do herself, though I think fans of the genre will know of an earlier predecessor. Returning to the issue of pacing the ending could have been tightened once the solution has been revealed. It is also marred to an extent by an unfortunate of the time’s attitude shall we say. This seems odd and a pity, considering that Allingham earlier on in the story pokes fun at and ridicules the ‘yellow peril’ phenomena by using the phrase in a joke about a yellow chair, which has not been sat on since Caroline’s husband has died, that is until of course Inspector Oates sits on it. A frosty interview ensues…

So overall I would say my two recent tries by Allingham have been a lot stronger than I was expecting, so I may well try some of her others at a later point.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Policeman

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