A Dangerous Crossing (2017) by Rachel Rhys

I took a chance on this book when I came across it in my local Oxfam. The story takes place between July and September in 1939, with the impending war becoming an increasingly antagonistic background for the characters. A Dangerous Crossing (2017) opens in an intriguing way, with a woman in green being led off a ship, which has just arrived in Sydney, in handcuffs by the police. We know no more and the story then goes back to the start of the ship’s journey. Due to a government/church scheme young women, such as our protagonist Lily Shepherd, are able to immigrate to Australia, with a view to working in service when they arrive. From the very beginning we are unsure about Lily, who seems to have left some troubling events behind her in England. Clues litter the early chapters and that particular mystery is quite easily solved.

In many ways Lily reminds me of the maids out of the works of Agatha Christie, though more educated I think. She is quite naïve and soon out of her depth with several of the young men, from more affluent backgrounds, on the boat. In effect this story charts her interactions with the various passengers, some of whom make sensible companions, such as a Jewish refugee named Maria Katz, whilst others such as Max and Eliza Campbell are decidedly unwise ones. These two would fit in very comfortably with the crowd found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922) and one character wisely foretells that damaged people can often be dangerous ones as well.

So whilst this description might sound quite intriguing, I am afraid that this is not going to be a positive review. Page after page you read seeing Lily and the other passengers get intensely wrapped up in each other, yet nothing really happens. This is a plot type which requires a much more concise page count to be truly effective. This story is definitely mis-categorised as a mystery novel, despite being based on true events. In fact the few pages of documents at the end of the story were more interesting than the fictionalisation and in some ways I think Rhys’ handling of the material minimalizes the much more interesting and mystery making element of the true events. Crimes occur at the end of the novel, but for well over 300 pages you are kept waiting for them. The bulk of the novel examines the events leading up to the crimes, but unfortunately for me at any rate this examination of events was deadly dull, despite the dust jacket snippet reviews promising lots of intrigue, as well as a gripping read. The small pockets of mystery are quite easy to untangle and decipher and the ending, where we return to the handcuffed woman in green was rather disappointing and on the whole this was quite a de-energising read. Part of this may have been due to the realistic portrayal of 1930s attitudes towards Hitler and Jews. Whilst I appreciate the need for realism and verisimilitude, it did get rather draining over the large amount of the pages this story is comprised of. So whilst the real life events were perhaps ripe for being written about, I think the drama and real human interest of it has partially been lost in the retelling.

Rating: 2/5

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Murder on the Minnesota (2002) by Conrad Allen

This is the third mystery by Allen to feature ship detectives George Porter Dillman, (trained by the Pinkertons no less) and Genevieve Masefield, (who joined Dillman’s team after meeting him on the Lusitania). Normally they have been working on ships run by Cunard Line, which go across the Atlantic. In this story though there is a change of scene, with Dillman and Masefield taking a sleuthing job aboard the Minnesota, which crosses the Pacific to China, via Japan. Their mission at the beginning of the story is to uncover the smuggling plans of well-known but never convicted crook, Rance Gilpatrick. Gilpatrick is not a nice man to cross, so our sleuthing duo have to tread with caution. However, their own plans are altered when a couple of days into the journey there’s murder. The choice of victim, Father Liam Slattery, is unexpected in some ways, as Masefield and Dillman are perplexed as to why Gilpatrick could have ordered this death, but on the other hand for the reader Slattery’s death is not so surprising, given how unpopular he makes himself during the voyage with all and sundry.

Given that the story takes place in 1908, the means of finding evidence and clues is much less CSI, and much more via expert conversational skills. One feels Poirot would approve. Working separately Dillman and Masefield quickly make new friends, though of course the reader is suitably suspicious of them, knowing at least some of them must be too good to be true – but which ones are they? From the social side of things and how characters interact with each other, this is an entertaining novel, though it does recourse to some stock in trade admirers for Masefield. There is also the will they? won’t they? thing going on between Dillman and her as well. However, I think what prevented this from being a really good read was the lack of mystery for the reader to solve. From the outset we know Gilpatrick has to be up to something, it’s just a matter of proving it and in regards to the other mysteries on the ship, there aren’t a lot of overt clues for the reader to follow up on. It is a case of using your reader instinct to pick who the guilty parties are. I would also say that the expected jeopardy near the end of the story felt rather muted and unconvincing. But to end on a more positive note I think Allen does a very good job at recreating his early 20th century setting, without info dumping on his readers. So, if you don’t mind your mystery stories rather light, this is definitely a very readable and fun yarn.

Rating: 3.75/5

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A Whiff of Cyanide (2017) by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Source: Review Copy (Urbane Publications)

Image result for a whiff of cyanide guy fraser sampson

Earlier in the year I reviewed (and warmly recommended) the second novel in Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead Murder series, Miss Christie Regrets (2017) and having now read the latest in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, I can again give another big thumbs up. Reality and fiction (well mystery fiction to be exact) seem to merge in this latest work, when a poisoner strikes at a crime writers convention in Hampstead, leaving Ann Durham, the Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association decidedly dead – from cyanide no less. This is a mystery where it is not easy to say with any certainty whether the death is definitely murder or suicide, as the evidence for quite a while fits both options. Durham unsurprisingly is not very popular, with her family, nor her crime writing colleagues; some of whom who were keen to oust her from her dictator-like role in the CWA. There is also a secret in her past which is uncovered early on and adds further motives for her death. Whilst the investigation into her death is going on, we also see behind the scenes into the lives of the investigating officers and their relationships, which although can often bring them heartache and difficulty, are written with originality, avoiding overused tropes. In particular one police team member gets into trouble after a poor judgement call, which leads to unpleasant consequences. We also have our golden-age-detective- fiction-like amateur sleuth, Peter Collins, (one of DS Karen Willis’ boyfriends), on hand to offer timely and crucial support, as well eye witness testimony, having been in close vicinity to Ann when she died. A particularly interesting character for all us fans of Agatha Christie is Miss Marple – or rather an actress who plays her on television, but who is so absorbed in her role that she only answers to that name and can be frequently seen knitting. It is also her who ominously says there will be another murder… ‘After all, if one is living a real life situation which has all the hallmarks of a detective story then is it really unreasonable to expect real life to observe the conventions of the detective story?’

Overall Thoughts

There are lots of reasons to give this story a big thumbs up, as I said above. A big reason, particularly relevant to all us golden age detective fiction fans, is that the narrative style itself often embodies or mirrors this earlier style, such as in the opening paragraphs which move from broadly describing the scene i.e. the area of Hampstead, to introducing us to one particular home and dinner party – a structuring device which does come up a lot in many golden age novels. As well as this, like with the books earlier in the series, there are many well placed and chosen metafictional references to golden age detective fiction. A particularly apt reference to the plot, is to Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (1945), though of course not quite in the way you imagine. Equally the choice of setting, a writers convention, sets up a ‘closed community’ where ‘things can get blown out of all proportion,’ between members who store up age old jealousies and resentments. Fraser-Sampson recreates this settings with a great deal of verisimilitude, poking gentle fun at writers and the conventions they go to. I would also say that middle class London is dealt with in a rather tongue in cheek manner as well. However all the humour is done with a great deal of affection so works very effectively.

Readers of this book don’t have to choose between getting either strong characterisation or a complex but gripping mystery puzzle, as this story gives you both. Peter Collins is still my favourite character, who is very endearing and easy to warm to, especially due to his bumbling nature. The actress who takes her Miss Marple role a little too seriously, although a bit surreal to begin with, is a character you also quickly warm to and feel comfortable and familiar with. It was a good decision, in my opinion, to restrict her role in the plot, as I think too much exposure to her would have unbalanced the plot. We get just the right dose of her. I did pick out the culprit early on, due to my reader instinct as one of my blog readers put it recently, but due to the complexity of the case and the strong range of suspects, including the victim herself, I could not be sure until the end if I was right. Of course I blithely missed many of the clues placed throughout the story. However this does mean that whilst the solution is quite clever and sneaky, it is not underhand. The right questions are raised by the characters throughout the investigation and the reader has a lot of information about the case to use in putting the solution together.

So all in all another strong and entertaining effort by Fraser-Sampson, providing not only an enthralling case to explore and characters you can invest in, but also giving the reader plenty of surprises along the way to keep them on their toes.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Piccadilly Murder (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

Today’s read is a speedy return to the work of Anthony Berkeley, as last week I reviewed another of his works, Mr Priestley’s Problems (1927). The Piccadilly Murder (1929) features Berkeley’s spasmodic and unusual serial character, Ambrose Chitterwick, who first appears in The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and his final highly memorable appearance is in Trial and Error (1937). In each of these tales, including this one, a different facet is added to his character and it is a pity Berkeley didn’t write more featuring Chitterwick, as I much prefer him, to Roger Sheringham.

The Piccadilly Murder commences with Ambrose Chitterwick taking respite from his overbearing aunt, (who he lives with), by partaking of refreshment in the lounge of the Piccadilly Palace hotel. In true golden age detective fiction style, this is a location where a wide variety of people can easily come into contact and amongst all the hustle and bustle Chitterwick loves to play his favourite game of people watching and making Holmes like surmises about them. Most of his interest is taken up by an old lady, uncomfortable in her surroundings. She is soon joined by a red haired man, who Chitterwick presumes is a relation and they appear to be quarrelling quietly. Chitterwick’s attention is drawn to the man’s hand which hovers over the woman’s cup. However Chitterwick is then called away by a bogus phone call and on his return finds the woman alone, sleeping. Keen to save her embarrassment Chitterwick goes to wake her up, only of course to find she is dead. Initial ideas that she committed suicide with prussic acid are largely dispelled by Chitterwick’s testimony and it seems Chief Inspector Moresby’s task is a very easy one, as the woman’s nephew is found sitting elsewhere in the lounge, a nephew who Chitterwick is sure is the red haired man he saw earlier. Yet we are only a matter of chapters into the book, so the reader is suspicious of how easy the case is to solve and this is vindicated when Chitterwick is tricked into visiting the nephew’s wife, Judy. She and her friends’ appeals ultimately lead to Chitterwick being prepared to look at the case again, aided by Judy and her childhood friend nicknamed Mouse. At first he feels like he is doing this under false pretences, sure that what he saw was right, but as he begins to re-examine the evidence he soon gets different ideas…

Overall Thoughts

Whilst my last Berkeley read was a comic mystery novel, showing what happens when you try to do an elaborate prank, today’s read is a much more conventional detective novel. Chitterwick is a very likable sleuth, whose inability to cope with crying women and other foibles are very endearing and sweet. Again like the sleuth from my previous read (Enter Sir John (1928), Chitterwick is a character with real warmth. In the opening third of the novel Chitterwick’s dynamic with his aunt does have a Bertie Wooster air to it and his aunt entertainingly brings him down to earth after his experiences at the lounge, by deliberately preventing him from telling her what has happened. Equally his temporarily inflated ego after finding himself the star witness in the case is comically punctured in lines such as this:

‘one of the most important men in the country started violently and quickened his pace almost to a run. He had undertaken to be back in Chiswick with the curtain patterns for his aunt by half-past nine.’

The opening third of the novel also has a bit of a Jane Austen feel to it, in its inclusion of dictating elderly relatives, younger relatives keen to obtain their inheritance and not reveal secrets which would jeopardise that – a feature which quite appealed to me.

The puzzle itself is a good one. About two thirds of way into the novel I can imagine most readers will have a fair idea of the who and why of the case. But beware! Berkeley cleverly constructs his puzzle in such a way that you have the right pieces but you don’t give them the correct significance or meaning. Having been deftly fooled by Berkeley, the ending certainly took me by surprise. On the whole I think it is rather a fair play sort of mystery, as the pieces of information Chitterwick uses are at the reader’s disposal. An additional bonus of this book was that in my copy I found an old fashioned looking receipt with notes on the character and remarks on the evidence. Moments like these always seem to vindicate my love of second hand books, as I love how they have their own personal histories as they pass from person to person.

It’s not impossible to get copies of this book, though it will set you back around £30, from what I can see online. However it is a very enjoyable and clever mystery, with a well-made puzzle, which also has highly engaging characters and Berkeley writes about Chitterwick’s investigation in an interesting way. A delight for the seasoned and new reader of Berkeley.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Statue

See also:

Martin Edwards on his blog: Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, has also reviewed this title here and was also foxed by the puzzle Berkeley sets.

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Enter Sir John (1928) by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

This is a writing duo I have known of for quite a while (think I came across them first in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder (2015)), but I haven’t been able to procure any of their work (at a reasonable price) until now.

This is mystery with a theatrical milieu, in that the suspects and amateur sleuths arise from such ranks, though the murder itself takes place nearby in lodgings. The story opens with Gordon Druce, manager of a touring company, pounding on the door of Martella Baring lodgings, concerned that his wife, (who was meant to have been having dinner with her), has not yet returned home. This scene is looked upon by Novello and Doucebell Markham, who not only notice the policeman who appears then disappears, but also hear the screams which follow from Baring’s rooms. On entering her rooms Novello has quite the sight. Edna, Gordon’s wife, is dead on the floor and by a dazed and confused Martella is the bloodied poker. The circumstances are further incriminating for Martella as she is known to have had a poor relationship with Edna, who was very unkind to her and her skill as an actress plays against her when it is assumed that Martella’s ability to play villainesses on the stage has been transferred to real life. Thankfully she is known to Sir John Saumarez, the famous actor and owner of the Sheridan Theatre. Taking an interest in her case he comes to the conclusion that she is innocent. Her jury though do not agree and in a month’s time she will be hung for the murder. Determined that this will not happen Saumarez begins his own investigation, enlisting the help of the Markhams and it soon becomes apparent there is more to this crime than is first imagined.

Overall Thoughts

It always intrigues me when stories are written through collaboration and in this case I think both writers create an even and seamless finish, though the opening chapter needs careful reading, as its syntax is a little deceptive. A key strength of this book is that Dane and Simpson have made a very appealing amateur sleuth, who demonstrably enlivens the narrative when he begins his investigation in earnest, giving it a certain sparkle. Although very sure of himself, Saumarez is very likeable, aided by his kind hearted nature and warmth. Mild comedy tends to surround him such as when he encounters criticism of the theatre and of his own acting and when he tries to slum it in Peridu, (where the murder took place), but is less than impressed with the accommodation he has to take. He is definitely keen on challenging misconceptions of acting (as he sees them), which comes up when he decides to investigate the case, imagining the criticisms he might face as an actor turning amateur sleuth. He says that: ‘they look on us […] as mere manikins […] not men who think and feel and are ready if need be to do more than really think and feel, but act’ and he feels as though his critics would respond: ‘act, upon the stage. In real life leave action to your betters.’ Both writers had experience of the theatre which comes through in their depiction of actors and their personalities. I also enjoyed how Saumarez uses a play script (borrowing from Hamlet) to ensnare the killer.

Whilst I would love to go on cataloguing the positives of this book, it does has its downsides. It has many characters I would like to meet in fiction again, (and there are sequels to this story), but I would have preferred a stronger mystery. There are not sufficient clues in my opinion, but the range of suspects is limited, meaning the reader will identify the killer quite easily. Though in the story’s defence the initial crime/puzzle is setup well. The story is saved from being an awful read and remains quite a good one by its writing style and characterisation, which are superb. I think there is one aspect modern readers might have qualms about but I think Dane and Simpson’s handling of it, although not 100% PC, is more nuanced and complex than you might expect.

So yes the mystery element had its issues but it was still an entertaining read and it was pleasing for me to see in this earlier mystery novel, a facet one of the queens of crime would go on to use in the 1930s to full and great effect.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Policeman

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How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways: John Dickson Carr’s Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956)

It has been quite a while since I have read a Carr novel, 6 months in fact, and I imagine many Carr aficionados are querying my latest choice. I think the main factor behind the purchase was that it was only 99p, but I think what really prompted me to give it a read today was Tom Cat’s, (writer of the brilliant blog: Beneath the Stains of Time), warning against it. You know what it’s like someone says something is really really really bad and you just want to see for yourself how awful it is.

The story begins at the offices of the solicitors Prentice, Prentice and Vaughan. Only the two youngest partners, Hugh Prentice and James Vaughan, are in as evening draws near. But just as Hugh is about to leave the office and deliver some important papers to Patrick Butler, a mysterious thriller like stranger appears named Abu of Ispahan. He wants a private word with Hugh, but is told to wait until his return. Just as he is about to leave Hugh informs James of the situation. Yet moments later a cry is heard in Hugh’s office. Both men turn and look inside to see Abu has been stabbed with Hugh’s paper knife; his dying message is typically cryptic: ‘your gloves.’ Things look decidedly awkward for Hugh and James as the suicide theory is barely tenable and equally due to how the offices are positioned, no one could have got in or out of the office without someone seeing them. At this point Hugh loses his head and runs for Patrick Butler, the famous and infamous defence barrister, for help – not without having bumped suspiciously into a policeman first, with his hand covered in blood. Several chases ensue: Butler and Hugh after the killer, the police after Hugh and Butler, as well as James Vaughan. There are two women also involved, Hugh’s fiancé Helen Dean and Butler’s woman of the moment, Lady Pamela. What follows is a very helter-skelter night of chasing, carousing, interrogating and generally thumping people.

Overall Thoughts

So was Tom Cat right? In short, as my post titles loudly hints at, yes. Definitely yes. It is not the worst Carr novel I have read but it is certainly not one of the best. So what was wrong with it? Well…

Lets begin with Patrick Butler. From the very beginning we know he is going to be a divisive sleuth, one who has a decidedly anti-hero quality. He is certainly a detective who brings out strong opinions in others, opinions which invariably aren’t that good. Heck one character says that without Gideon Fell to help him he isn’t much of a sleuth. This is quite a brave decision on Carr’s part as his eponymous sleuth gets quite the character assassination in the opening pages. Equally our first glimpse of Patrick is hardly appealing – namely him smacking a woman on the bottom for poor grammar usage. Whilst he restrains his hands after that, his whole attitude towards women can be repellent at times, such as when he, in true advocate style, defends Hugh’s lack of resistance to Lady Pamela’s advances. There is also his tendency to put on an Irish affectation which does grate after a while. So why did Carr create such a sleuth? I have wondered whether Carr was trying to write a novel which fitted in with the changing nature of crime writing in the 1950s, write something a bit more hardboiled (as characters do recourse to their fists as much as their brains) or something which embodies a male fantasy figure who can act badly and get away with it, dare I say it, even get admired for it. Or maybe he was trying to create his own version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, a lawyer who doesn’t always follow the rules?

However I do have to admit that as the book reached its final third I was beginning to get irritated less by Patrick and more by Hugh, who quite frankly gets more interested in solving his love life than in solving the case. And to be honest the whole romance element of the book felt jarringly off key. The way Pamela and Helen change over the novel doesn’t make a lot of sense and didn’t work for me as the comedy of errors quality felt mishandled. At the end of the novel, looking back at the story it does seem like it had a Midsummer Night Dream feel to it, with events seeming mad and hallucinatory.

What also felt off key in this book was its structure as Carr seems to be trying to produce a Image result for patrick butler for the defencework which is a mishmash or poorly written hybrid of the thriller, the detective novel and the gothic mystery. The gothic and thriller components (although at times rather farfetched and straining believability) do blend together quite well and in Carr’s defence he does write some evocative opening lines:

‘It was not the pea-soup fog of Victorian fame, tinged brown with mud and chimney-soot. It was the soft, clammy, ghost-white strangler of today […] it muffled the lights in lower windows; it strangled the street-lamps […]’

Yet the detective mystery element of this story was sadly wanting. The mystery is not properly clued, so good luck trying to solve it yourself and in fact most of the important detective work takes place off the page by Patrick, whilst Hugh tries to figure out his love life. The solution is not one of Carr’s best, lacking any real sense of satisfaction for the reader. To be fair to Carr the novel doesn’t start out all that bad, but after the first quarter it progressively gets poorer.

So finally the moral of this post is to always listen to Tom Cat!

Rating: 3/5

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Pranks and Comedy Galore in Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927)

This is the next review in my recent spate of blogging on Anthony Berkeley’s work. Whilst A Puzzle in Poison (1938) by Berkeley’s standards was quite a conventional story, we are back to the unconventional with this today’s read, which has the subtitle: ‘An extravaganza in Crime’. And this is indeed the case when Pat Doyle, his fiancé and her friends and relations decide to pull a prank on Doyle’s stick in the mud friend, Matthew Priestley. Priestley leads a very quiet and dull life until one night he comes across a young woman and piqued by his recent friend’s criticisms of him, decides to go along with her misunderstanding that he is someone else. This decision places him in quite the pickle when he ends up going along with this woman to burgle a blackmailer’s house, an event which leads to Priestley’s seemingly shooting him dead in defence. Of course from the get go we know this series of events are not quite what they seem, being part of Doyle and co.’s practical joke to make Priestley think he has murdered a man. Yet we as readers know that events are going to get out of hand, beginning with the arrival of a real policeman… Our irrepressible pranksters are not fazed though and the prank continues leading Priestley and his young female acquaintance to go on the run and the police become the latest victims of the joke, as Doyle and his friends add ever more layers to their fictitious crime. No reader will be surprised when the joke soon begins to turn against its creators and then the fun really begins…

Overall Thoughts

Let’s begin with the positives. Berkeley is on top form with his characterisation, allowing you to feel sympathetic towards Priestley to begin with, but then enabling us to revaluate him later on and not see him as such a victim. There is also the endearing George Howard, a reluctant member of the prankster team, who it is hard not to feel sorry for, being put upon by his sisters for instance:

‘George would rather have had his house kept for him by a combination of Catherine de’ Medici and Lucrezia Borgia than by either of his sisters. George was the sort of person who likes to know where he is at any moment and has a rooted distaste for dwelling upon a volcano.’

Equally his lack of enthusiasm for criminology talk is so awfully sweet and funny and Berkeley really conveys his character through the narrative voice: ‘For a time George listened with interest, for murders, dash it, are interesting, say what you like. Then he listened with less interest, for murders, hang it, are a bit what-you-might-call boring, taken in mass…’

Berkeley writes really well in the comedy of errors style, creating an array of misunderstandings between the various characters, as they frequently keep turning the tables on each other. He also has a lot of fun (which the reader shares in) with playing around with thriller and fugitive on the run tropes, in ways that make it surprising that this story has not been adapted for film.

And now for the negative, one which is well known to readers familiar with Berkeley as a person as well as a writer. It is of course his gender politics. By and large such politics are given in a tongue in cheek manner. Overall I think it works quite well but there are times where the reader has to put up with some very condescending masculinity. Young women are invariably presented as handfuls and in need of handling (it’s not surprising that all of the men in this book are older than their female counterparts by a good few years). This need to subjugate women and for women to “find their match” is likely to be unsettling and uncomfortable for the modern reader (well this one anyways). However, I think what saved this book from therefore being an utterly horrific experience was that these moments are kept in check and are not allowed to overwhelm the narrative. I was very nervous about the ending and feared the direction it would be heading to, but like a pilot who at the last moment turns out of a nose dive, Berkeley equally does the same with his novel, delivering an ending which feels a lot fairer and even handed. Interesting as well is how you could argue that it is a female character who really orchestrates the ending of the book and the consequences which are meted out, which perhaps highlights Berkeley’s complex attitude towards women.

So on the whole I think this is an entertaining and hilarious novel by Berkeley and is another good example of the comic crime novel. Granted I didn’t always like the gender politics presented in the text but I think the limited amount of such humour and the way Berkeley saves his ending meant that the novel wasn’t irrevocably besmirched for me.

To end on a linguistic note I do have a query regarding a certain expression. At least four or five times Guy Nesbitt (one of Doyle’s friends) is said to be ‘stealing jam’. Now this phrase is not meant literally as the first instance takes place whilst his wife is getting ready for dinner and he has forgotten her eye colour: ‘I meant grey,’ said Mr. Guy Nesbitt, stealing jam.’ A couple of other examples are: ‘Guy, remembering his innocent curiosity on that point and the means he had taken to gratify it, began to laugh silently, stealing jam with every appearance of joyful guilt’ and ‘Guy began to steal jam with silent gusto.’ I’ve never come across this phrase before and was just wondering if anyone else had and what on earth it meant! Finally I think this is also the first novel I have read where the word ‘willy-nilly’ appears. It’s a phrase I’ve heard said but never seen in print before.

It’s not too hard to track down a copy of this book though you will have to spend £20+ (unlike me), to get hold of a copy. Not sure whether this story is available on e-readers or not yet.

Rating: 4.25/5

N. B. Today’s read was originally published under the penname A. B. Cox and in the USA the title was The Amateur Crime.

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Book of the Month: May 2017

Only a smidge late with my roundup of last’s month mystery fiction reading – hopefully somewhere in the world it is still the 31st May. I managed to read 13 novels this time, as well as Sam Naidu’s collection of essays on Sherlock Holmes. As ever I am still taking part in Bev’s Follow the Clues challenge, which she hosts amongst many others at her blog My Reader’s Block. In this challenge I have find links between the novels I read and my original goal was for 12 books. However in January I surpassed that figure and decided to keep on going, so by adding May’s reads to my overall total, my chain is now 66 books long! Below is a reminder of the books I read in May, with their all important links shown:

But which was my favourite? Whilst there were quite a number of solid reads, the two which stood out for were Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder (1976) (always an old favourite) and Richard Hull’s Keep It Quiet (1935). After a lot umming and humming and generally being indecisive I eventually decided to make Hull’s novel, the winner of my Book of the Month title. I loved his wonderfully executed humour and it is now one of my favourite comic crime novels. It has plenty of twists and surprises and is an all round entertaining read.

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: Helen’s Month: Comparing Bookshelves

This is the last week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ month long commemoration of Helen Szamuely, who was one of the founding members of the blogging meme and who sadly passed away last month. Over the month I have been looking at texts which in some way connect with Helen, either by including her name or an interest she was passionate about, such as Russia. Moira at Clothes in Books has been doing a brilliant job of collecting the posts this month so don’t forget to check out her entry for this week.

Helen was a keen discusser of detective fiction on her blog (Your Freedom and Ours) and also in the Facebook GAD group, so I decided to look at her mystery reading tastes in this final post, seeing whether my own tastes were similar or radically different to hers.

First up let’s take Christie. On the whole I would say we were both singing off the same hymn sheet. Like me Helen enjoyed Tommy and Tuppence Beresford ‘find[ing] them amusing,’ disagreeing with those who ‘find them far too flimsy.’ Though with an ever keen eye Helen deftly explored in one blog post the inconsistencies in the ageing of these two sleuths and their accompanying characters. I probably love Nemesis  (1968) more than Helen did, but then again I think I probably enjoyed this novel a lot more than most readers. Never mind it’s good to be different – or so they tell me.

Another fictional sleuth Helen enjoyed, who is also a favourite with me, is Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen. Then again it’s hard not to love Fen and his maverick behaviour. Though in her review of The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), I like how Helen brought up Fen’s wife and children and the pity that they are not included more consistently in the series. Helen wrote that ‘she is a delightful character who keeps [Fen] under some sort of control and whose opinion he values highly.’

However my reading tastes do diverge from Helen’s on the matter of Ngaio Marsh. Whilst for me I often enjoy the beginnings of Marsh novels, but find the middles quite tedious and dull, conversely Helen enjoyed the ‘pages of interrogation by Alleyn and his underlings.’ She even felt ‘Marsh to be a far better writer than Allingham.’ I can’t really comment on this because I have read much more work by Marsh than Allingham. We are both agreed though on Marsh’s ‘ability to describe people, places and events in a way that stay with the reader long after the reading of the book.’ This is probably why I like the beginnings of Marsh’s stories. But I think when it comes to Inspector Alleyn himself we are again in disagreement. Whereas Helen believed that Marsh was adept at ‘creat[ing] strong characters who develop through the series,’ I on the other hand, find Alleyn a very static and unengaging sleuth.

Do not fear though there are other places where our reading tastes converge. One of these places is Mavis Doriel Hay, whose three mystery novels have been reprinted by the British Library. Whilst I wouldn’t say The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) is my favourite, as it was with Helen, I would say we both enjoyed Hay’s writing style and found her plots ‘clever.’

We are not just similar in our likes but also in our dislikes, well dislike might be too strong a word. Niggles and qualms would better describe it. For instance we both had qualms about some of the plot mechanics in Death on the Riviera (1952) by John Bude, though still enjoying the setting and humour. Equally when it comes to Asey Mayo in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Cape Cod series, we were less than impressed with Mayo himself and his tendency to make long speeches in an indecipherable accent.

It was nice that in the researching of this post, looking through Helen’s blog posts etc., that I came across some books I hadn’t read which actually sounded quite intriguing and interesting. Murder at the Flood (1957) by Mabel Esther Allen was one such novel I am now keen to track down.

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The Lyttleton Case (1922) by R. A. V. Morris

Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)

The full name of the author under review today, is Ronald Arthur Vennor Morris (1877-1943) – you can see why he shortened it! Morris only wrote the one mystery novel and it is suggested that this was because of rivalry with his younger brother, Kenneth, who was quite a successful science fiction writer. Both brothers joined a theosophical society (though in different branches).

The Lyttleton Case (1922), begins with the disappearance of widower, James Lyttleton, who is a senior partner of a finance firm, where he worked alongside his cousin Horace. James resides with his daughter Doris, who has recently become engaged to Basil Dawson, a newspaper writer. It is these two characters who raise the alarm. James disappears one day after receiving a troubling letter at breakfast. Telegrams are forthcoming to Doris explaining James’ urgent need to travel first to Liverpool and then New York. However it soon becomes apparent to Doris and her beau that it was not James who made the journey. The narrative though does not remain with these two characters as other events are afoot, namely a body found in a river near Hillborough. The corpse died a natural death but its location is the inexplicable part and initially it seems like Chief Inspector James Candlish will have to leave the case unresolved, as he moves onto James’ vanishing act. However as the story progresses both cases intermingle and further criminal acts are forthcoming as the guilty party attempt to stave off their arrest.

Overall Thoughts

The style of this book is an odd one and I don’t mean this in a negative way. On the one hand it can be said that this plot definitely doesn’t hang around, getting straight to the point throughout, but on the other hand I wouldn’t say the narrative style itself becomes merely functionary or bland – in fact Morris has quite a flair for floridity at times. It is in this floridness which something else odd arises too and that is with how the characters are often setup. In a way the characters are often peculiarly balanced possessing certain character traits, yet not incurring the consequences of them. Doris is a prime example of this. For instance it is said that:

‘she had intellectual and artistic tastes; read Wells and Shaw; was a member of the Fabian society and the Arts League of Service; with all these eccentricities, however, she could not be regarded as a crank, for she fully appreciated the motor-car, servants, generous dress allowance, and other good things that resulted from her father’s activities in the City.’

Equally despite this wealthy background she is also said to be democratic with those less well off. Maybe balanced is the wrong word, perhaps it is more a case of fence sitting or having your cake and eating it. Either way this sort of pattern emerges with different characters throughout the story and it is not something I have hugely noticed in other reads. Given the wealthy background of the main characters it was also a little unusual when Morris interjects a character, a writer named Burton James, as a satiric voice on wealth and the upper classes. The novel’s overall attitude towards money is certainly a complex one.

 

Returning to the characters themselves, I found Doris a bit of a drip, though she does get her moment, (having of course fallen straight into a trap earlier on). However the other main characters are well created and Candlish is a likeable detective to follow. Although to be fair Candlish is only one cog in the machine for solving this case, as pieces of the puzzle come from varying sources, leading almost to a medley of investigators. The mystery itself is a sneaky one, as half way through the book I was fairly sure I had sussed it all out and in some respects I had, but in quite a few significant ways I got it completely wrong. Morris’ text is one which gives the illusion of looking seemingly simple but is actually more complicated than it seems. Furthermore, there was definitely one surprise that I didn’t see coming and certainly increased my reading rate by a rapid few knots to figure out what had happened. Overall this was an entertaining read and I can see why it did well when it was originally published, going through a number of editions.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hand Holding Weapon

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