Some Must Watch (1933) by Ethel Lina White: 8 Reasons Why I Love It

A little while ago fellow blogger, the Puzzle Doctor, tried his first novel by White, this very one in fact. Yet whilst this is my favourite read by White, it unfortunately wasn’t the Puzzle Doctor’s cup of tea. After my initial mature response of ‘what??????????????’ I decided to give the book a re-read to see why I loved it so much. Was it just down to atmospherics? As the first time I read this book I was home alone on a stormy night; (very effective atmospherics which definitely back fired when I wanted to go to bed). Or was there something more?

For those who haven’t read the story, firstly why haven’t you? And secondly let me fill you in on what the story is all about. There is a serial killer on the loose, whose victim of choice is young working women. This is definitely not good news for our protagonist, Helen Capel, who fits this description; nor is it good news that the killings seem to be getting closer and closer to the house she works at. Initially she is not too scared, after all the house she works in, although remote, is bodied with a number of robust inmates who could repel any attack. However a lot can happen in one evening. Pillars of strength become undermined by alcohol or are put out of the way seemingly by accident. Tensions and jealousies destructively flare up in this confined space, leading to a number of departures. Moreover, there is the invalid, Lady Warren, who rules the roost and certainly has a good aim when it comes to throwing things at people. Yet she too seems to be hiding something dark and sinister. After all it is rumoured she murdered her husband. Her concern for Helen is eerily cryptic, alarmed by the trees which walk. Eventually as sources of help dwindle for Helen, she comes to the unpleasant conclusion that within this locked home is a killer…

Overall Thoughts

Well first things first I still love this book. Not sure why I worry I won’t enjoy a book on a re-read but there you go. In particular what made this a good re-read was that it allowed me to notice things that I missed on my first reading, then again I think I was a tad preoccupied with the noises outside my window and the question of why the dog was barking. Anyways here are some of the reasons why I love this book…

Reason No. 1 – Atmosphere

Though I wasn’t quite so susceptible to the pervasive terror of the book, (sensibly reading it during the daytime), White’s ability to create a credible increasingly frightening atmosphere is impeccable and she does this from the very first pages. In particular I noticed how nature is used in the setting to induce fear in Helen or to conceal malevolent humanity. For instance White writes that, ‘the evergreen shrubs on the lawn seemed actually to move and advance closer to the walls, as though they were pioneers in a creeping invasion.’ Immediately this line reminded me of the closing act of Macbeth and throughout White’s story, (which like Macbeth looks at natural and unnatural order of things), other references are made to Shakespeare’s play. Though I wouldn’t equate Helen with Macbeth, I would say they both take on more than they can handle and both have moments where things they rely upon are taken from them.

But literary allusions aside, White is just fantastic at creating dramatic imagery such as when she writes that, ‘tattered leaves still hung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering from a gibbet.’ Now that’s certainly an image which gets you thinking! In addition I think White makes her characters contribute well to the atmosphere, giving the story an And Then There Were None (1939) feel to it. Stephen Rice, sums it up well in the story when he says: ‘Our generation isn’t afraid of any old thing – dead, alive, or on the go. It’s being cooped up together like rats in a drain, that gets me.’

Reason No. 2 – Tension

I suppose this reason is a little bit similar to my first, but in my opinion tension and atmosphere are still two distinct things. What I loved most about the tension in this book is the way White works up to her final crescendo. The tension at the start is not overdone and can be classed as intermittent, which White achieves through contrasting small events, with mock terrors being paralleled with ever increasing real ones. Helen touches on this herself in her own way when she says, ‘just whenever the drama seemed to be working up to a moment of tension, the crisis always eluded her and degenerated into farce.’

Reason No. 3 – Contrasts

Contrasting images are not just used for creating tension in this story, but are also used in a darkly ironic way. The story begins with lots of images which emphasise how secure the home Helen works at is. For her it is as secure as a ‘fortress,’ ‘an armoured car’ or a ‘solid hive of comfort.’ Yet of course this illusion is ultimately taken from Helen when she realises that the danger is within. Another form of contrast in the story is the tension depicted between savagery and civilisation, particularly within the characters themselves. A particularly good example can be found in a description of the man-oholic Simone: ‘her eyes glowed with primitive fire, and her expression hinted at a passionate nature. She was either a beautiful savage, or the last word in modern civilisation, demanding self-expression.’

Reason No. 4 – Helen Capal

I am not always a fan of the HIBK type of protagonist, but Helen seems to work for me. A key reason is probably the way White writes this sort of character. Helen is not born with a silver spoon in her mouth and has had to work hard for her living and perhaps it is this impoverished background which gives her character a bit more grit. In the opening of the book she is described as a ‘realist, used to facing hard economic facts, and not prone to self-pity. Of soaring spirit, yet possessed of sound common sense.’ In keeping with the book’s title she is a professed people watcher and happily uses her employer and his family as a free version of the cinema. Helen is by no means infallible, but I think her faults are well crafted, with her curiosity getting her into a number of pickles. There are hints of romance in the air for Helen, when the handsome young doctor enters the scene, but I think White deals with this aspect well, not allowing it to drown out the rest of the plot. All in all I would say Helen stands upon an ambiguous middle ground, eager for love, but not overwhelmed with it as this following example suggests:

‘Those derided Victorians, who looked upon every man, as a potential husband, certainly extracted every ounce of interest from a dull genus. Yet, while she respected the Professor’s intellect, and genuinely looked forward to the visits of the young Welsh doctor, she resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates, for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.’

Reason No. 5 – Some Must Watch and Jane Eyre

On my first read of this book the quote just mentioned above completely passed me by. But having grabbed my attention this time round it quickly got me thinking, as in a number of ways this book forms a response to the tropes included in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In fact if anything I think White’s novel presents Jane Eyre as escapist literature, to a degree. The woman in the tower, is now an alarming invalid, supposedly confined to her bed. Whilst Jane and Helen have similar backgrounds, I would say Helen definitely avoids having the chip on the shoulder which Jane has. Both though have a fear of a particular room, Jane’s is the infamous red room, whilst for Helen is it blue. Alas for Helen there is no Mr Rochester per say, though I think White plays around with this figure quite cleverly in the story.

The title this book was given when it was adapted for film.

Reason No. 6 – Range of Female Characters

Though there are four main male characters it is the ladies which by and large stay in your mind, covering a wide range of character types. I definitely had a soft spot for the cook Mrs Oates and her response to the problem of the serial killer is classic: ‘No, miss, I’ve seen too many work-shy men to be scared of anything in trousers. If he tried any of his funny business on me, I’d soon sock him in the jaw.’ I also enjoyed the sinister and curious Lady Warren, who even Helen finds to be an admirable curmudgeon.

Reason No. 7 – More Than Just Thrills

Although my first couple of reasons have emphasised the bumps in the night aspect of the story, this reread has definitely shown me that there is more going on in this book. Amongst all the terrors and predicaments there is, for instance, a pervasive Fin de Siècle atmosphere. For example, there is a fight between the spiritual and the material point of view on life and like many novels written during the late 19th century, White’s novel has a number of characters with a dual sense of personality, such as Mrs Oates, who becomes quite a different person after downing half a bottle of brandy and of course the serial killer, whose murderous designs are concealed behind a respectable appearance. Issues such as eugenics and whether having more woman in the workforce is a good thing, also arise in the story in quite dark circumstances. In particular the nurse suggests to Helen that the reason why the killer is targeting working women is because he is ‘very likely […] a shell-shock case, who came back from the War, to find a woman in his place. The country is crawling with women, like maggots, eating up all the jobs. And the men are starved out.’ You can trust White to come up with striking images and this maggots one definitely tops the list, as well as tying into the underlying discussion of decay and degeneration in the story.

Reason No. 8 – The Ending

I obviously don’t want to say too much about the ending, but it is definitely deserving of a place on my list of reasons for loving this book. It is magnificent in its drama, its incomplete closure and the incongruity of images it presents. I would also say it is a reworking of an ending found in a novel published a few years before it, though I will let readers figure out which by themselves.

So yes this is a story to read with the lights on, though if you’re anything like me, it’ll still leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. White’s depiction of human psychology is deftly done, showing how innocent and insignificant events can pave the way for a killer. Hopefully, though, this post has given you at least one good reason to give Ethel Lina white a go.

Rating: 5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Staircase

See Also:

She Faded Into Air (1941)

The Man Who Was Not There (1943)

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Book of the Month: July 2017

July was a productive month in terms of my reading, managing to review 17 books (2 of which were short story collections). I returned to favourite authors such as Delano Ames, Leo Bruce, Henry Wade and Richard Hull. But July was definitely my month for trying out lots of new authors, many of which I would strongly recommend, such as Doris Miles Disney, Yolanda Foldes and D. B. Olsen. This month I was also continuing my participation in Bev’s Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge (whereby participants create a book chain with their reading). For more info click here. July’s reads have meant my chain length is now 98 books long (Hooray!) and below shows the links between this month’s reads.

Book 98: Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) by Francis Beeding. Like Corbett’s book this one has the word death in the title.

You may be wondering why Book 98 got left out of the above graphic, put simply Word was causing havoc with my attempts to add this one, so I decided life was too short to waste time trying to figure out how to appease it.

Choosing this month’s Book of the Month was quite an easy choice as there was one clear 5/5 winner, which was Yolanda Foldes’ Mind Your Own Murder (1948). This book had a wonderful concept which was brilliantly executed, giving the reader both a strong mystery puzzle, as  well as good characterisation. However, there were a number of worthy runner up reads this month, in particular Henry Wade’s A Dying Fall (1955), Doris Miles Disney’s Family Skeleton (1949) and Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) by Francis Beeding.

On a non-book related note July was also a good month for me bringing four new fluffy arrivals…

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Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) by Francis Beeding

Today’s book was a re-read, for me. I remember enjoying this one a lot but couldn’t remember too much about it. The mystery centres on a serial killer, who seems to be taking out various residents of a seaside town named Eastrepps. The killings invariably take place at the same time and inconveniently for Robert Eldridge, (alias for a defrauder named James Selby), amongst other things, they also occur on nights where he pretends to be in London so he can visit his married lover. As the police investigation progresses and the bodies keep appearing the reader will invariably wonder when the inevitable will happen to Eldridge. Yet, perhaps in a dark Francis Iles vein, the ending to this story is fairly surprising and unexpected. In a way you could say the ending provides complicated closure.

Nearing the end of the book I remembered the ending, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book and I think this story is definitely a real treat for the first time reader. There are a lot of things to enjoy about this book. Beeding tells the tale from a number of different angles, creating an effective layering (though not repetitive) effect. The pace maintains a good level of suspense and mystery, without becoming melodramatic. In particular I think Beeding depicts the rising anxiety in the community, not over doing it. There is also a good variety of victims, making you wonder who will be next and the body count certainly adds to the atmosphere and pace of the book.

So all in all a brilliant read to finish off the month. Just got to decide which read from this month will win the title of Book of the Month. I could be some time…

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Flashlight

See also:

This book also seems quite a popular one amongst fellow reviewers including the Puzzle Doctor (In Search of the Classic Mystery Blog), Noah (Noah’s Archives) and Rich (Past Offences).

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The Mystery Readers Journal: Latest Issue

Just a brief post to highlight the release of the latest issue of the Mystery Reader Journal, which is already on to its thirty-third volume. Impressive! The Mystery Reader Journal is edited by Janet Rudolph and something which has greatly appealed to me about this publication is the way each issue has a specific theme. This time around the theme is Murder in Wartime. Another big facet of this publication is the space it gives for authors to talk about their own work and scanning through the list I found a number of familiar names including: Frances Body, Rhys Bowen, Dolores Gordon-Smith and Peter Lovesey.
This issue also contains some of my own thoughts on World War II and the Golden Age Tradition, looking at how the war was incorporated into such mystery novels and for what purpose. I look at a range of authors including Patricia Wentworth, Cyril Hare, Ethel Lina White and Agatha Christie.
If you are interested in getting a copy (PDF or Hard copy), click here, which takes you to Rudolph’s  own announcement of the latest issue and also providing a complete contents of what the issue contains.

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Death By Appointment (1945) by James Corbett

Corbett is a mystery writer who is not well known today, though from 1929 to 1951 he published over 40 mystery novels. Although I didn’t spot any in this book, Corbett is meant to be remembered for his ‘spectacular misuse of language’ – according to the website Gadetection. Examples include: ‘He was like a fish in deep water,’ ‘It was like looking for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys’ and ‘Pritchard sat up like a full-blown geranium.’

Death By Appointment (1945) begins with a barrister named Roger Templeton going to visit a diamond expert called Arthur Lamport at his offices late one night. Although he confirmed the appointment over telephone, Templeton is rudely shown the door by Lamport when he arrives, giving indications that he is expecting someone else. Puzzled by this curious behaviour Templeton returns with his friend David Trent, an amateur criminologist. Yet on their returns they find Lamport murdered in the disused shop beneath the office. Given that this is not the first time Trent and Templeton have come across a dead body they soon swing into action calling their good friend Inspector Mordant of Scotland Yard. However, Templeton’s role in the story comes to an end at this junction, with his place in the crime fighting triumvirate being occupied by keen newspaper reporter Eileen Astor. There are various leads for them to follow up such as the suspicious caretaker and a mysterious man with an American accent, as well as the disappearance of Lamport’s clerk. The solution though is not quickly or easily found as they encounter many a dead end before the more thriller-like denouement is reached.

I don’t really have a lot to say about this read (which may or may not be a relief to you). It is a pleasant enough police led mystery, with the accompaniment of amateur sleuths in Astor and Trent. The characterisation is lightly done, with no surprises or unusual quirks, though the sleuthing trio are agreeable. The plot moves along nicely in the first two-thirds, but unfortunately the final third drags and feels somewhat repetitive. Equally the solution itself can be deduced sometime before it happens and the ending itself did feel somewhat reminiscent of a brusque stereotypical B movie thriller. Consequently I don’t feel I’ll be returning to Corbett anytime soon, though do let me know if there is a really good entry in his oeuvre.

Rating: 3.25/5

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The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945) by Robert Player

This multi-narrator story looks at the events which first lead up to the murder of Philippa Langdon-Miles, headmistress of an all-girl boarding school and then the later death of her sister, Mrs Beatrice Warburton. The task of narrating the story mostly falls into the hands of Sophie Coppock, the school secretary who has her own near death experience and Adam Muir, the lawyer of Mrs Soutar, the owner of the remote Northumbrian hotel where Beatrice dies. Consequently in a way this does feel like two separate mystery stories which are fused together with overlapping characters, a feeling which is reinforced by the very different types of narrator, as well as locations. Occurring around these deaths are a number of peculiar and baffling events, including the mysterious Mr Pym, who has been making friends with some of the pupils at Miles’ school and Beatrice’s sudden marriage to an Australian musician, (which far from impresses Philippa). Furthermore it is only when events shift to the Northumbrian location that we finally meet private detective, Lysander Stone.

Overall Thoughts

To be honest I feel this is a bit of a marmite book and a perplexing sort of marmite at that. Player is good at creating very distinctive and lifelike narrative voices, but I wonder if he is a little too good. Take Sophie Coppock for instance, who narrates most of the first 141 pages. She is an incredibly insular character, making the academics in Sayers’ Gaudy Night appear worldly. Due to this insular nature her manner of depicting events and people is highly effected and not necessarily in a good way. Her blinkered devotion to Miles can get wearing, as can her enormous sense of propriety and snobbery. Yet on the other hand you can find her a bit more sympathetic when she gets stuck going on a walking holiday with someone and she is faced with the nightmare of a tent. At such a moment I found her more endearing, though that might be due to my own disinclination towards camping.

As with some other books I have read this year, Player’s novel seems to have a deceptively simple plot to it, which even I could solve relatively quickly, but then bam! Player flips everything upside down and gives you an astounding solution. But there is a but here unfortunately. This should all be a good thing, yet I feel Player’s execution lets the whole premise down. Firstly this is because the book is too long. Lopping 80 or so pages off this story bare minimum would have really helped, as by the time you get to the moment where the rug is pulled from under your feet, interest levels are decidedly low. Equally the explanation to the mysteries is far too long and quite frankly troubling in some respects, leaving you both worn out by the length of it, but also faintly discomforted. In particular there is a late arrival character who the reader should side with, given their ability to see what is going on and not miss the blindingly obvious like everyone else, yet again there are various factors which will probably put the reader off them. I guess I just like someone I can root for or side with.

I have been rather critical to say the least and I feel this is a shame. After all there is a lot of good character work and Muir makes for a good second main narrator, presenting other people in a succinct, yet effective fashion. Equally I also love Mrs Soutar who is quite a character, controlling her hotel from her bedroom. There is even a very sneaky sentence half way through the book which has you kicking yourself later on. But I think what this story has highlighted to me is the following conundrum: If a book stretches a deceptively simple plot over too long a page span, causing a poorer reading experience due to bad pacing, before throwing in the mind-blowing-ly good twist, should this prior deficiency be forgiven for the finale? I’m in two minds about the whole thing, though my rating probably hints at which may I am leaning.

Consequently I don’t really know whether I should recommend this book or not. The solution is clever and relatively well hidden in most aspects. Equally the social commentary it provides and the characters it includes will captivate some readers that I know. Yet for all that I also know with the pacing issues it has, it might be a less than appealing read for others. If anyone else has read this book it would be great to hear other viewpoints on the book.

Rating: 3.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Item): Cigarette

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A Bullet In the Ballet (1937) by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon

Today’s read is another title mentioned by Martin Edward in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), as will my next read for that matter. Again thankfully this is another writing duo who are easy to get a hold of, as Hogarth Press reprinted their work in the 1980s. The story has a really great opening, giving a good flavour of what to expect from this book in terms of its style:

‘Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is. Dressed somewhat extravagantly in trousers of red and yellow check. Its white jumper is scalloped with scarlet jade. It wears a bouffon wig, a Russian clown’s hat and undertaker’s gloves. It is bending over the top of a booth, its arms swinging limply over the side. There is a neat little bullet hole in the centre of its forehead. It died magnificently in the presence of two thousand people…’

Yes murder occurs on the first page, with Anton Palook being shot whilst playing Petroushka in Vladimir Stroganoff’s ballet troupe and in a way the irony of the critics finding the real death unconvincing reminded me of the tone Alan Melville utilises in his mystery novel, Quick Curtain (1936). DI Adam Quill is called into investigate and he is decidedly overwhelmed by the intense, myopic and maddening world of ballet, which unsurprisingly is full of large personalities. Many reasons are brought forward for Palook’s death, which Quill works his way through. But a dramatic event prior to the inquest has him reconsidering his ideas…

Overall Thoughts

In short I would say this is a story which has a strong first half that unfortunately is not fully maintained in the second. The opening style and setup, as mentioned above, works really well. The satiric portrayal of the ballet world is effective, though some of its humour is a bit ham fisted and not wholly palpable to the modern day reader. However I did enjoy its understated dialogue between the narrator and the reader and its depiction of crime newspaper reports. This is definitely a story which does not take itself too seriously, which firstly comes through in its characters, who are lightly handled and none are free from the narrative’s barbed tongue. Yet I think this lack of seriousness in itself does effect the pace of the story, allowing Quill to meander too long in the almost dense ballet milieu at times. It also means the denouement concludes in a weaker fashion. So reading back this last paragraph it does seem I have been fairly critical. Nevertheless I would like to say that although this is an imperfect first effort, there is enough good stuff in there to make me try another story by this writing pair, after all Quill does make for a good detecting protagonist and I admired the unconventionality of the prose. Like yesterday’s review, this is another intriguing story which is quite quirky and one I feel theatre/ballet lovers will appreciate and value a lot.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Performer

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Death by Request (1933) by Romilly and Katherine John

This was Romilly and Katherine’s sole offering to mystery fiction and I came across it in Martin Edwards’ new book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017). Thankfully it is not too tricky to get a hold of as Hogarth Press reprinted it in the 80s, accompanied with an introduction written by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan; an introduction I feel which raises a number of interesting points, as well as giving tantalising snippets of what is to come in the story itself. Following in the wake of Gladys Mitchell’s The Saltmarsh Murders and Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), this book is narrated by a vicar. Craig and Cadogan felt this choice of narrator ‘enables the authors to turn out a celebration of hocus-pocus locked rooms, sinister actions, striking disclosures and all – while remaining essentially poker faced.’ One section in the introduction which drew my attention in particular was when Craig and Cadogan write that ‘the novel’s most noticeable idiosyncrasy is in the lack of an omniscient investigator; it isn’t exactly sleuthing that uncovers the solution to the Wampish crime. There is no cheating, however, readers anxious to work it out for themselves, are provided with a suitable array of clues: an exploding geyser, some missing pills, a significant bit of string.’ Having now read the story I don’t feel it is all that easy to solve based on the text alone. I myself only really selected the correct guilty party due to a comment in the introduction, a comment I unsurprisingly won’t be mentioning, I hasten to add. So perhaps a general warning may be to read the story first and then go back to the introduction.

Death By Request (1933) centres on a country house party hosted by Matthew Barry and his sister, Susan. The guests include our narrator, the Reverend Colchester, Judith Grant who is the fiancée of Barry’s son, Edward, Lord Charles Malvern, which rumour suggests used to be the former lover of Judith, Phyllis Winter, Colonel Lawrence and Anne Fairfax, a young widow, who apparently has a degree in engineering from Cambridge. The first night of their party is mostly a success, though Judith and Edward seem to have fallen out. However, the following morning brings the reader their corpse, with Lord Malvern found dead of gas poisoning in his bedroom, which was locked from the inside. This death is initially viewed as an accident but thoughts soon stray to suicide and then murder… The two main obvious suspects are a butler with socialist leanings and a personal grudge and Edward, who is suspected of having done the deed due to the rumours about his fiancée. Circumstantial evidence gets particularly damning for Edward, who doesn’t really do himself any favours. Thankfully there is more than one amateur sleuth on the scene (and even a policeman, but we don’t see much of him) and a bundle of other people acting suspiciously. In some ways this novel has quite Victorian content with secret marriages and blackmail and more than woman having a nervous hysterical moment.

Overall Thoughts

Looking back at the story I find it is the relationships between the characters which stick in my mind more than the mystery and its solution, which tries to be outré but doesn’t fully pull it off in a really satisfying way. Love and romantic relationships are presented in a quite a gritty and dark way at times. For instance the butler has got a woman he was seeing pregnant and there is some discussion in the book as to whether they should get married, an issue which becomes involved in the story’s crime due to the suspicions held against him. The vicar, who is strangely very unsympathetic, (for a vicar), writes that: ‘I was in some doubt what view to take of Mr Hatton’s parting advice to the poor girl. It seemed only too likely that Frampton would turn out to be a bad husband; but that might be her just punishment for the unsanctified love she had bestowed on him.’ However this comment by the vicar does exemplify one of the ways I found this a little bit of a harder read at times, as I guess I have a much more sympathetic conception of what a vicar should be like. A number of characters unburden themselves to him yet very often his approach seems wholly inappropriate to the situation and one wonders how he remains so well received in the local village of Wampish (brilliant name by the way). Fragmented, flawed and thwarted relationships abound in this book quite a lot, perhaps giving it a more modern outlook at times. Relationships are complicated, awkward, ambiguous and messy, if not a bit dark at times. One relationship I was quite intrigued with, was Matthew’s feelings toward Lord Malvern, as at several points in the book Matthew’s love, affection and even infatuation for him is mentioned. Yet it’s never really specifically defined. Is this just a platonic friendship or is it something more, for Matthew at least? It would be really interesting to find out which bits each of the authors wrote, as it is intriguing reading this novel for the way women see men and vice versa. As to the ending, although not feeling 100% fair, does provide a darker and more troubling variation of something I’ve come across before. An ending which provides discomfort as well as closure.

I wouldn’t read this book purely for its locked room aspect as it is dealt with fairly lightly. It is by no means a perfect novel, it definitely could have been shortened, but it is certainly an intriguing and unusual read.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Knife

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Excellent Intentions (1938) by Richard Hull

This book is structured around the trial for the murder of Henry Cargate, who was poisoned whilst on a train. The story begins with the prosecution’s case and the narrative moves from character to character in the courtroom – judge, counsel, even the accused, showing as Raymond Postgate would do in his later story The Verdict of Twelve (1940), the little factors which go into people’s judgements. This being Hull you may be wondering what the sneaky element is and in this case it is the fact that throughout the trial we never know the name of the accused until near the end. So what effect does this have on the reading experience? It doesn’t change the name of the game, you still need to solve who did the crime, but I think it heightens the challenge, as you scrutinise the text more closely to see if there are any clues as to who might be in the dock.

Although the death takes place in a train most of the investigation by the police takes place at Cargate’s country abode and it is his staff who are under suspicion the most. As the book progresses it is easy to see why someone would want to murder Cargate, who seems to go out of his way to be unpleasant, so much so that even the local vicar becomes a suspect. Whilst this is courtroom mystery novel, the narrative is made more entertaining and readable by the fact that there are longer sections where the reader is almost taken back to the event in question, as though in a third person flashback. The defence don’t have much space within this narrative, understandably enough, with just a few moments of cross examining early on in the book, (there couldn’t be too much after all as it would give the game away as to who is in the dock), and then a 14 page chapter near the end where the defence discuss their possible lines of attack. The few remaining chapters are the Judge’s summing up, the discussion amongst the jury and then the verdict.

Overall Thoughts

Starting with the positives, I think Hull does successfully manage to narrate the case without revealing the identity of the defendant until three-quarters of the way through. Moreover, the narration itself is made more interesting by the way it shifts from character to character using free indirect speech. However, in contrast to other stories of his, such as The Murder of My Aunt (1934) and Keep It Quiet (1935), I think this narrative voice lacked a little of the vitality he captures in the others. Equally this is a much less humorous story by Hull, though there are moments of satire, such as when the lawyer explains how Cargate is leaving his money to the nation, (a move Cargate thinks will profit nobody), as the lawyer goes onto to say to the inspector that: ‘You won’t, by the way, be able to contest that will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.’ Furthermore, I think this narrative experiment by Hull, although competently done, lacks the excitement of others that he did and the ending felt a bit flat for me. However to end on a brighter note this story has a strong puzzle factor, being the most clued mystery of Hull’s that I have read and there is much information given over the course of the novel for the puzzle minded reader to contemplate.

Rating: 4/5

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The Murder at Sissingham Hall (2014) by Clara Benson

The publication history for this work is a little unusual as Benson, born in 1890, wrote a series of 10 mystery novels featuring Angela Marchmont and 3 mystery novels featuring Freddy Pilkington-Soames, when she was a young woman but never published them, seeing them more as a hobby. It was only after her death in 1965 that they were found and then published.

Update: It has been brought to my attention that this biographical info is actually a hoax or at least a creative interpretation of the truth, with the author being very much alive and kicking. Being one of these innocent readers who believe the bio at the front of the book I hadn’t realised.

In the steps of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps) and Christie’s Luke Fitzwilliam (Murder is Easy), the narrator of this story, Charles Knox, arrives back in England after working abroad for a long time at the start of the story. Various clues in text place this story as being set between WW1 and WW2, possibly around 1927, given some of the dates mentioned. Knox soon meets up with an old friend, Bobs Buckley, and his now grown up sister, Sylvia. This reunion leads to Knox being invited to a house party hosted by Rosamund and Sir Neville Strickland – the only snag being that Knox used to be engaged to Rosamund before the ruin and unfortunate death of his father. Other guests at the party include Sir Neville’s cousin, Hugh MacMurray and his wife Gwen and Angela Marchmont, Rosamund’s intelligent and mysterious cousin, who will step into the role of amateur sleuth later on. Troubles and tension are not far below the surface during this party and when Sir Neville’s solicitor arrives the atmosphere becomes positively glacial. And things hardly get any better the morning after when, Sir Neville who had been locked in his study the previous night working, is found dead; with accidental death being quickly refuted.

Often with these types of stories the narrator becomes a devoted Watson figure to the sleuth. Yet in this story Benson steers away from this a little, having Knox interact with all of the party quite evenly, with Marchmont’s sleuthing weaving through it. Equally I would not say we were really in Marchmont’s confidence, though this is not much of an issue, as I think most readers, (who have read the odd mystery or two), will quickly be able to identify the killer and a key element of the solution. Normally this ability to solve the case easily would really annoy me, but I guess I was in a more forgiving mood. After all this was probably Benson’s first mystery novel and therefore the errors she makes are ones writers new to genre tend to commit. Another new to genre error Benson makes is how she introduces her twists. The twists in themselves are fine, but I don’t think the reader is fully prepared for them. However to end on a more positive note I think Benson has a very readable and enjoyable prose style, her choice of narrator works very well and Marchmont, as a sleuth rather appealed to me. So whilst I wouldn’t strongly recommend this tale to the regular mystery fiction fan, I think I would give her work another try to see if practice irons out some of these novice mystery writer errors.

Rating: 3.5/5

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