The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944) by Christopher Bush

This is an author I have known about for a while now, but despite being quite prolific (writing over 60 novels), Bush nowadays is not always that easy to get a hold of. The book begins in a reassuringly Golden Age way with a map of the tale’s setting. However our narrator, Major Ludovic Travers, is determined to disconcert us on the opening page. Travers from what I can infer, is on leave from the army, recuperating from injuries he has sustained and he says he is giving himself a fortnight to write down on paper the facts of the case he has just been involved in and that at the end of this period he must make a decision, a decision which could lead to someone’s hanging. It’s not original but the hook is strong enough to reel me in.

The case begins with Travers going to his sister’s home in Cleavesham. Although recuperating he has been asked by his friend Superintendent Wharton to see if he can trace a face Wharton saw there last year, a face Wharton feels sure has some criminal past. It seems bit of an impossible task, a long shot. Yet very quickly Travers picks up the trail, except the trail ends in murder, murder of the man Travers was trying to trace. The case has a number of suspects, though most of the interest fixes on to Thora, the Chief Constables’ wife and our title’s platinum blonde – a choice of suspect I found quite intriguing. There is also still the mystery of why Wharton remembered the victim’s face, an answer which doesn’t appear until quite a while into the story.

So far so good right? And for most of the book it was indeed just that. It was well paced and there was plenty of evidence to consider. There is even a war themed component to the case as well which I liked. The reader is likely to interpret Thora correctly in the grand scheme of things but there still seems room for plenty of surprises and opportunity to re-evaluate some suspects. Travers is a good narrator on the whole, though he does seem to act pointlessly unfair towards the police at the start, withholding information for no other reason than to inflate his own ego and give him time to needle a suspect. This becomes a little irksome when his behaviour and attitudes concerning the ethics of detection turn hypocritical. Travers criticises Wharton’s handling of suspects, saying that, ‘I was afraid Wharton was going to indulge in one of those baitings in which I have known him fairly revel, but I loathe that kind of sadism…’ Yet the only person who actually baits and manipulates suspects is Travers. Thankfully this is only a minor aspect of the plot.

However unfortunately the final third, which slowly unfolds the solution is in a word – dire. Abysmal. Horrific. Infuriating and just plain annoying. Normally I am not very good at spotting inconsistencies or holes in the solution. Usually these pass me by. So if I do see them I do feel like they must be glaringly bad ones. Without giving any spoilers away, there is something Wharton should spot but doesn’t seem to and Travers suggests when he does he won’t do anything to rectify the error. Equally the moral framework Travers seems to work from is perplexing to say the least. It seems unethical and illegal and in a way which makes you want to thump him, rather than think how clever the author has been. And I think this last phrase sums up Bush’s predicament: he is trying to be too clever. The solution has twist upon twist but they are given so slowly that the reader firstly can see them coming, meaning they enter with a whimper rather than a bang and secondly some of the twists just seem far too ridiculous to take seriously. This is all the more annoying considering the type of opening the novel has. Expectations are raised but certainly not met.

So whilst this story started well and even had a good middle, the ending leaves a lot to be desired. I think Bush had the right idea but he just didn’t execute it very well when it came to the solution. Unsurprisingly this has affected my final rating. I think Bush could be an author to enjoy but perhaps not this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blonde

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Sherlock Holmes in Context (2017) ed. by Sam Naidu

Source: Review Copy (Palgrave Macmillan)

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The Sherlock Holmes stories were my first real taste of detective fiction and I haven’t really looked back since, so I was excited to read this collection of essays on them. For fans of the BBC’s Sherlock, this collection will be of particular interest as many of the pieces focus on it, in a myriad of ways; though understandably they don’t cover the most recent series. However, context in this, well, context, is not just concerned with adaptations, but also with the historical and social context of the original works and how widely they have been transferred to other mediums and cultures. One quote I especially liked from the introduction, was one by Ellery Queen, who for an anthology in 1944 wrote: ‘that more has been written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other character in fiction. It is further true that more has been written about Holmes by others than by Doyle himself.’

The opening essay by Ann McCellan, entitled “All that Matters is the work”: Text and Adaptation in Sherlock, is concerned with how the series ‘plays with the Barthian concept of “text,” thus creating an interconnectedness with the original Doyle canon and other Sherlock Holmes adaptations.’ For those like me who responded to this statement with “Barth who?,” McCellan gives a very good and succinct definition of this concept. In particular McCellan explores how like a “text” (as opposed to a canonical “work,” with a ‘single authoritative voice and perspective,’) Sherlock has a ‘dialogic’ relationship with the original stories, juggling fidelity to them with intertextuality with other adaptations. “Text” is also shown to be treated in ‘both a literal and metaphorical sense’ and McCellan spends some time analysing the role of text messages and other written communications in the series, as often Sherlock’s thoughts are visually shown on screen. All of which are part of how the series appropriates and adapts the original works. I also enjoyed McCellan’s close attention to detail even showing how the changing of the wording in the credits links to the wider themes she is addressing. I think my only issue with this piece is the use of screen shots from the series. Whilst I think it is a good way of backing up a point, especially if it is referring to visual evidence, a number of the pictures are so black you can barely make them out, whilst others didn’t seem very necessary and then there were others were even after a long look I couldn’t see the item McCellan was referring to.

Next up is another piece on Sherlock by Benedick Turner and as the title suggests, ‘Clients Who Disappear and Colleagues Who Cannot Compete: Female Characters in the BBC’s Sherlock, this is an essay which critiques the way female characters appear in the show. A key issue with the series which I hadn’t really thought about until I read this piece, was the negation of well-developed female characters. One point Turner discusses strongly is how Sherlock in the BBC drama differently treats the few female clients he has, as opposed to Doyle’s original character who values the pluckiness and intelligence of clients such as Violet Smith or Mary Morsten. Female clients are far and few between and in situations where they would be able to offer useful skills and resources, such as Mary (who later becomes John’s wife), they are kept out of the way whilst their case is being solved. Once you become aware of this idea it is hard to not see it in the series and Turner backs up his ideas effectively. Irene Alder and Mary Watson are two key characters Turner explores and interestingly they are not as empowered as they might first seem. Equally Turner also turns his attention to Sergeant Donovan, as an antagonist of Holmes and Molly Hooper, who is a ‘proxy for the audience.’ Competitiveness and a desire for Holmes to not be competing with capable and competent women is one reason Turner explores whilst looking at these characters and their presence or lack of. Given what happens to and due to women in the latest series in Sherlock I think the issue of gender and how it is portrayed in this production is a pertinent one.

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The theme of gender depictions continues in the next article by Charlotte Beyer: “I, Too, Mourn the Loss”: Mrs Hudson and the Absence of Sherlock Holmes’, which looks at the role of Mrs Hudson and how older women are portrayed in contemporary culture. This portrayal is far from ideal and often marginalises this particular demographic, which Beyer explores through the two Sherlock episodes: ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ and ‘The Empty Hearse, contrasting them with Margaret Maron’s story, ‘The Adventure of the Concert Pianist.’ This was a thought provoking piece for me, as whilst I can see how Mrs Hudson has a marginalised role in the original stories and in the BBC

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adaptation, I am unsure how her role could be increased without undermining and fundamentally changing the structures of the story and its more central characters. The Maron story gives much greater agency to Mrs Hudson, allowing her to solve a case in Holmes’ absence, (he has supposedly gone over the Falls at this point), however I think whilst this is an interesting experiment and a good one off idea, I don’t know how this could be transferred into the original Holmes stories. I think in some ways Mrs Hudson is given more agency in the BBC adaptation as she is given a much racier backstory and in series 4 she does manage to put Sherlock in her car boot at gunpoint. I would be really interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this area as it has certainly got me thinking.

Benjamin Poore continues the run of essays concerning BBC’s Sherlock in the collection’s fourth essay: ‘The Trickster, Remixed: Sherlock Holmes as Master of Disguise’. Poore examines how the BBC production approaches the issue of disguises. This was not something I had considered, but this production does tend to steer away from explicit disguises and when they are deployed, such as when Holmes pretends to be a waiter when he goes to reveal he is still alive to Watson, it is shown to be a socially inappropriate response. Poore explores such examples and more in this piece, looking at how the trickster element in Holmes make him an anti-heroic character and also the alternative ways the BBC production incorporates the trickster aspect of Holmes.

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Fan communities and their use of cosplay and roleplay to explore and recreate fictional worlds and characters is the focus of the next essay by Lynn Duffy. In ‘Holmes and his Boswell in Cosplay and Roleplay,Duffy looks at the processes involved in creating works of fan fiction and the authorial decisions they entail. Moreover, such communities themselves are included in the BBC’s Sherlock, which she also explores.

Sam Naidu’s contribution to the collection, ‘A “Horrific Breakdown of Reason”: Holmes and the Postcolonial Anti-Detective Novel, Lost Ground,’ focuses ‘on Image result for lost ground novelthe literary legacy left by the Sherlock Holmes stories and how it manifests in South African crime fiction today.’ In particular he is concerned with how postcolonial crime fiction writes back to the supremacy stories such as Doyle’s give to reason and rationality. Instead in postcolonial works, such as Lost Ground, Naidu shows how it portrays the ‘failure of reason’ and that truth will not always be revealed or triumph. From what Naidu says of Lost Ground, it seems to be a continuation of the infallible sleuth mould of detective fiction, echoing E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) and Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (1946). However it seems that when things do go pear shaped the narrative doesn’t sweep the consequences away, the detective has to deal with what they have done or not done.

Continuing on from this last essay, Martin Wagener in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Fiction of Agency,’ further critiques Holmes’ ‘powers of reasoning.’ Through a ‘comparative reading of “A Case of Identity” and the film There Must Be Giants (1971),’ Wagener ‘revises the widespread notion that Doyle’s stories posited the power of reason and science to master the world, and thereby offered escapist comforts to their Victorian readers.’ Again this was another stimulating piece, as I could see how Holmes’ deductions are not as sound as they may initially seem, however given the big claims this essay is making, I think it needed to draw on the canon more widely for evidence to support its refutation of escapism offered in Doyle’s tales.

This piece is followed by David Grylls’ essay, ‘The Savage Subtext of The Hound of the Baskervilles,which looks at the aforementioned title ‘in its fin de siècle literary context.’ I really enjoyed reading this piece as this is the only Holmes novel I have not read yet and Grylls’ exploration of the tension between science and superstition in the novel makes it a tempting read. Grylls intelligently and engagingly looks at the scientific and philosophical issues the novel traverses, as well as touching on themes such as doubling.

The next essay is ‘Holmes into Challenger: The Dark Investigator’ by Douglas Kerr, which again was another compelling piece, comparing Holmes with Professor Challenger, one of Doyle’s other serial characters. In doing so Kerr ‘argues that these characters reveal Doyle’s complex response to the Victorian knowledge revolution [… and] embody Victorian Image result for professor challenger doyleambivalence between awe and respect for science and anxiety over the growing detachment and irresponsibility of scientists of that era.’ I have not read any of the Challenger novels, but Kerr writes in such a way that prior knowledge is not necessary and his extended metaphor of the specialist/expert vs. general practitioner, worked really well for me in reading this piece.

The last essay in the collection is ‘Modernising Holmes: Location and Bringing Sherlock into the Twenty-First Century’ by Emily Garside, which looks at the use of locations in the BBC’s Sherlock. Her piece concentrates on Holmes’ flat (which in its modernisation is quite faithful to the original in a number of ways) and also Baskerville (now a military base) and the change from the Reichenback Falls to St Bart’s Hospital for the scene of Holmes’ death. On the whole this was a good piece though I think the last location to be concentrated on could have been looked at a bit more, as I felt the arguments for it were less convincing than the other sections.

So overall this was a very strong collection of essays, which were engagingly written, thought provoking and stimulating. They follow on well from one another, with essays often picking up similar themes from the previous one but discussing them in a different way. This time it has been quite hard to pick favourites as there are so many really good ones, but if I had to choose, the topics which appealed to me were most were in the pieces by David Grylls, Benjamin Poore, Douglas Kerr and Benedict Turner. Unsurprisingly I definitely recommend this collection for fans of Sherlock Holmes, though I feel the price is a bit prohibitive unfortunately.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: Helen’s Month: Murder in Moscow (1951) by Andrew Garve

Earlier last month one of our founder Tuesday Night Bloggers members, Helen Szamuely, died and as a tribute to her the Tuesday Night Bloggers are featuring posts this month on some of her great interests in life: Europe, History and Russia and/or mysteries which feature the name Helen. I only managed to meet Helen once at last year’s Bodies from the Library conference, but I always enjoyed reading her crime fiction related posts on her blog, Your Freedom and Ours and her contributions to CADs magazine. My first commemorative post is taking a look at a Russian-set mystery novel of the 1950s and is in fact my second read by Andrew Garve. Though it is quite a departure from my first; No Tears for Hilda (1950) as this second tale moves away from a family drama to Russian espionage – though of course they both end in murder.

Our narrator for this story is George Verney, who has been sent to Russia by his newspaper to report on the changes that have been made since he was last there during the war. The political climate is not the only thing which is frosty and the bad weather forces Verney to take the last leg of his journey by train. However it is through this train journey that Verney first meets the peace delegation, led by Rev. Mullett, which is attempting to build bridges between Russia and the Western world. The rest of the delegates are from a variety of backgrounds including an MP, a Professor, a factory worker and a sculptress. Verney is not keen on Mullett and smugly notes through snippets of conversation that the delegation are not entirely peaceful with each other.

The fact the delegation are staying in the same hotel as Verney means that further counters follow and build on what we know of them already. Thankfully for Verney he also bumps into some old newspaper friends. Tension within the delegation mounts and the reader is not surprised when one night Mullett is found murdered in his own room. At last some real news for the journalists, but will they be able to get the story out, let alone find out the truth? Truth is not the top priority for the Russian officials and an innocent man is soon framed, an action which transforms Verney from being an observer to an active sleuth. But has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Overall Thoughts

This is another strong effort by Garve and again he has created a successful narrator to Image result for murder in moscow andrew garvelead the story. He begins as a quiet and understated cynic of the Communist system and his sarcasm is pitched at the right level, never going over the top. He is also successful as a narrator as he provides an enjoyable dissection of the delegates, in terms of their personalities and motivations behind going on the trip. These portraits are informative foundations for the reader to build upon later in the book. Group dynamics and pressures are equally well portrayed.

Although starkly different in setting and milieu to Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel, it did feel as though Verney had to learn a similar lesson to the one Miss Marple did; that you can’t wish back the past; change is inevitable. One aspect I found particularly interesting was how accurate and truthful newspaper reporting was incredibly difficult to do in Communist Russia, as Garve deftly and succinctly shows what the reporters are up against and what hoops they have to jump through to get any kind of a story.

Though portrayal of communist ideology and leaders is unsurprisingly negative, ordinary Related imageinhabitants of Russia are treated in a much more nuanced manner and reader sympathies in one case are cleverly played with. The milieu and setting of the book made it an engaging read and unlike in many mystery novels the dangers to the investigators are very real and very apparent, which heightened my interest in the story.

The mystery element is rather clever and I got the culprit completely wrong. Not entirely fair play but I enjoyed how this story had a heart to it in a way. It has its thriller and espionage elements but it ends with a strong clout of humanity at the end, rather than vague political bodies. There is also a very enjoyable surprise at the end which I did not see coming. So all in all another good read by Garve.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Newspaper

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Murder, Maestro, Please (1952) by Delano Ames

Thankfully the gap between my last Delano Ames read and this one was only about a month or so and in this next instalment Jane and Dagobert Brown are restless as ever and are once more travelling, this time in the Pyrenees on a tandem bicycle. Through a confusing invitation they are going to a music festival in Puig d’Aze, meeting an old school friend of Jane’s and some obscure cousin of Dagobert’s named Perdita. As with the few previous books I have reviewed, the book opens with Jane using the vehicle of crime fiction writing to provide the readers with a shocking development in their real life. This time Jane lulls us into a false sense of security about the beautiful scenery they are travelling through, only to puncture it with shots seemingly aimed at them. Of course the unusual events do no stop once they make it to Puig d’Aze, with love triangles rapidly forming and disbanding and getting horribly complicated; most of which are revolving Image result for 1950s pyrenees tandem cyclingaround Squadron Leader John Corcoran. The reader is not surprised when Dagobert and Jane encounter a distraught Perdita one night, claiming she has shot Corcoran. Yet on entering the supposed scene of the crime there is no corpse and Corcoran’s car and the Brown’s tandem have gone missing. The next morning Corcoran is found dead in his car, which has crashed at the bottom of a gorge. Was this an accident or murder? Various other tourists and local inhabitants become entangled in the case, including a Jewish refugee and her prodigy younger sister, a very suspicious roving correspondent and an eccentric and dubious musician; all of which have plenty of dark secrets of their own to hide. An espionage element also works its way into the novel and a shower of drama pours from a very badly timed picnic, precipitating further violence and mystery.

Overall Thoughts

In short this was another enjoyable and entertaining read by Ames. Jane and Dagobert do not disappoint. Dagobert is his usual unflappable self in the face of the danger, such as at the start of the novel when bullets were beginning to fly and he ‘had just been explaining that in classical tragedy death occurs at the end of the story whereas in a thriller it comes at the beginning – propaganda aimed at reassuring me that Sophocles and I (though tackling the problem differently) were aiming at the same thing.’ After all as far as Dagobert is concerned the dangers they face are good ‘copy’ and Jane does coyly write that ‘in the midst of life we are in crime fiction.’ The metafictional quality of the book, although not dominant, is always amusing when it does appear, such as when Jane says, ‘I wonder what he did with the girl in the crimson scarf? I’ve got it! The Lady Vanishes. Or has that idea been used?’

Ames in my opinion always pitches his humour at the right level, never going off key. I think it is the humanity of the humour which makes it work so well, as you can almost putImage result for murder maestro please delano ames yourself in Jane’s place, such as when she tries to get out of them using the tandem bicycle. She is initially feeling smug, believing it can be prevented, only to have a very ardent cyclist ruin it all for her. Not being a fan of cycling myself I certainly felt for Jane. There is also a moment when they arrive at the hotel and Jane pats a dog. She goes onto comment that the dog ‘gulped sentimentally, and I realised it was the beginning of one of those emotional entanglements which can prove so embarrassing;’ a line which reminds you of the times when you have made such ill-fated holiday acquaintances you know you’ll struggle to shake off. I do have to admit to also loving Jane’s tart responses to events and attitudes. After all I imagine such comments are the only sane way for her to cope with the truly bizarre adventures Dagobert gets her into. Not that she can’t laugh at herself when she makes less than wise decisions: ‘Some day I’ll have to have my woman’s intuition seen to.’ The fashion in novels is not always something which sticks in my mind, but it did this time when Dagobert is marching around the hotel in orange silk pyjamas and a mackintosh. Quite the image!

Although the book is predominantly light hearted, there are dark moments such as when some characters share about their war experiences and like in the last book, The Body on Page One (1951), the revealing of the solution is more poignant than jubilant. However, being an Ames’ novel the story is always left on a high. Dagobert may be discussing thrillers at the start of the book but I wouldn’t say this was a pure thriller novel, as the plot involves a number of twists and surprises, as first impressions in this book are rarely accurate, and when the culprit is revealed it is hard to not see the clues which were planted earlier on in the story.

Reasonably priced copies of this book are available online and it is one I’d recommend for readers wanting a light hearted and fun mystery novel. Why no one has reprinted Ames yet I do not know! In case any of you are wondering, yesterday I managed to procure a reasonably priced copy of the next book in the series, No Mourning for the Matador (1953), so hopefully I will be reviewing that one soon on the blog.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Red Head

See also:

Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950)

The Man with the Three Jaguars (1961)

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Book of the Month: April 2017

It is that time of the month again where I take a look at the books I have read from my everlasting TBR pile. I  managed 12 books this month (well technically 13 but I’ll be putting that review up tomorrow) and on the whole I would say there were a number of good books. In fact when it comes to second place for my Book of Month title there were a lot of options with books from Lenore Glen Offord, Helen Reilly and Christianna Brand. However the clear winner this month was Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky (1935), which was a very enjoyable and tense train bound mystery, where the bodies keep dropping and the unexpected invariably happens. So if you’ve not tried Downing’s work before this title would be a good one to start with and thankfully Downing’s work has been reprinted by the Coachwhip Press.

To help keep track of my progression in Bev Hankin’s (host of My Reader’s Block Blog)Follow the Clues Challenge here is how this month’s reading have linked with each other, bringing my total to 53 books:

Apologies for the smallest of the font but if I made the picture any bigger it became too wide for the post. But I’m sure being crime fiction fans you all have magnifying glasses anyways.
Also as promised here are the answers to my Gladys Mitchell Titles quiz. If you haven’t had a go already click here. Otherwise here were the hidden titles:
1. Speedy Death
2. Dead Men’s Morris
3. St Peter’s Finger
4. Printer’s Error
5. My Father Sleeps
6. Groaning Spinney
7. Watson’s Choice
8. The Nodding Canaries
9. The Croaking Raven
10. Skeleton Island
11. Gory Dew
12. No Winding-Sheet
As ever let me know what your best reads of the month have been. After all how else will my TBR pile maintain its’ infinite nature?

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Continental Crimes (2017) ed. by Martin Edwards

Source: Review Copy (British Library)


This is the latest short story collection issued by the British Library and should be available in June. All of the stories unsurprisingly are connected by the common Image result for italy rome catacombdominator of being set on the Continent. The collection opens with a story from Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The New Catacomb’ (1898). Something that surprised me, was that it was originally appeared in a Year-Book produced by a soap manufacturing company and was also originally titled, ‘Burger’s Secret.’ The story takes place in Rome one sinister night, focusing on two ambitious archaeologists. Yet it soon becomes apparent that more is going on beneath the surface than a guarded discussion over the discovery of a new catacomb. Whilst this story is perhaps not hugely mysterious, it is wonderfully atmospheric and Doyle is adept at quickly giving you a grasp of what someone is like.

Image result for brugge canal 1900The second story in the collection takes us to Belgium in Arnold Bennett’s ‘A Bracelet at Bruges’ (1905) and this story even made it into Ellery Queen’s Queen’s Quorum. The story commences with the seemingly accidental loss of Kitty Sartorius’ expensive bracelet into the canal. But for readers the circumstances are immediately suspicious, as they are for the multimillionaire Cecil Thorold. The characterisation is delicate and effective, but unfortunately the mystery is given away a little too easily. My favourite two characters were Thorold and Kitty’s friend, Eve Fincastle, and in some ways they feel like a foreshadowing of mysteries of the 1920s and 30s where romance and amateur sleuthing merge together through two protagonists.

It is back to France for an impossible crime in G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Secret Garden’ (1910), when a decapitated corpse is found within the Chief of Police’s backImage result for father brown garden. Of course amongst the Chief of Police’s dinner guests there is Father Brown who soon has the perplexing mystery solved. Although this is a story I have read before it is always a pleasure to return to Chesterton’s delicious prose style and turn of phrase: ‘the moon with her scimitar had now ripped up and rolled away all the storm-wrack’ and ‘the blue-and-silver garden, like a scene in a theatre, seemed to taunt him with all that tyrannic tenderness against which his worldly authority was at war,’ being but two examples of the way Chesterton’s descriptions make you stop and think. I do also love the moments where a phrase by Father Brown punctuates the tension: ‘I mean that cigar Mr Brayne is finishing. It seems nearly as long as a walking-stick.’ In a novel format I think this story could have been even better, but even in its short story format it is hard not to like.

Image result for riviera 1910The fourth story is by E. Phillips Oppenheim, an author I have meant to try for some time. His story, ‘The Secret of the Magnifique (1912), also takes place in France, beginning in the Gare de Lyons with a group of mysterious nefarious personages contemplating their next enterprise. Various events lead them and several others to a hotel on the outskirts of the Riviera. However, events do not transpire in the way you imagine when they all get there, with theft, intrigue, espionage and romance all rolling into one fairly entertaining yarn. It is quite a dense story given the page span and could have been lengthened, but on the whole it was enjoyable, with a number of the characters being ones you would want to encounter again in another story. Equally it is hard for any book worm to not sympathise with the character who gets interrupted whilst reading: ‘Mr John T. Laxworthy closed his book with a little sigh of regret, and placed a marker within it.’

Our next tale takes place in Belgian and is of a very different milieu, set within WW1. Image result for belgian farm ww1‘Petit-Jean,’ although published in 1931 under the penname of Ian Hay, was written by Major General John Hay Beith during the war itself, making it quite an unusual story. The action takes place in and around a farm occupied by the British Army, named Cow Corpse farm by the British Army Ordnance department. Given the slaughter occurring at the time it is not surprising that the mystery element in this story concerns the disappearance of a number of provision parcels and espionage. Death aside from the cow, is kept to the background. Nonetheless this was an enjoyable piece, with an effective use of setting and a strong ending to boot.

The sixth story in the collection is by F. Tennyson Jesse, who was a reporter in Belgian during WW1. However her story, ‘The Lover of St Lys’ (1919) is set in the South of France, following the consequences of a complex and deceptive love triangle. There are amateur sleuths of sorts in this story, who although recognise something is up, don’t really do a whole lot. Criminal psychology in this story is very interesting though and I did find the behaviour of one of the amateur sleuth type figures intriguing for its moral ambiguity.

Having enjoyed The Lodger (1913) by Marie Belloc Lowndes I was intrigued to read the next story in this collection, ‘Popeau Intervenes.’ I was also interested to read that Lowndes was not impressed with the similarities between her character Hercules Popeau and Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Marital infidelity, a Russian Countess (who even Popeau can’t help but admire) and a valuable jewel all feature in this story set in Paris.

The next story in this collection is written by Stacy Aumonier, an author I had not heard of before and his story is entitled ‘The Perfect Murder’ (1926). Though as we all know perfect murders don’t always go to plan, which is the case in this story involving two financially struggling brothers in Paris. I can see why Aumonier’s work was admired by both Hitchcock and Julian Symons, as his writing style is engaging, combining pace and character details well, making you wonder how it will all turn out right until the end.

Image result for scary german castleJ. Jefferson Farjeon is an author I have read a few times now so the evocative gothic atmosphere in ‘The Room in the Tower,’ felt quite expected. After all what do you expect when a writer rents out a German castle for his holidays? Though I feel Air B & B guests would be far from happy if they had the same experiences he does. At times I did feel the sinister atmosphere did obscure what was going on a bit and the ending was a bit clunky in my opinion, given the amount of information Farjeon needed to give the reader to wrap things up.

H. de Vere Stacpoole’s story, ‘The Ten-Franc Counter’ (1926) follows next and Related imageStacpoole is another new author to me and his tale whisks us off to Monte Carlo where M. Henri of the Paris Sûreté has to solve the murder of an invalid. Interesting setup but I don’t think we get to grips with the key figures, being kept at arm’s length until the solution is revealed. Though I think a seasoned mystery reader will probably be able to pick out the culprit early on.

The 11th tale in the collection is by Agatha Christie and is one of her Parker Pyne stories; ‘Have you got everything you want?’ (1933). For an Agatha Christie blogathon last September I reviewed all her Parker Pyne stories, so you can read my thoughts on this story here.

The next story is by another familiar author to me, H. C. Bailey and ‘The Long Dinner’ (1935) features his serial sleuth Reggie Fortune. Never been a huge fan of Bailey’s work and I am not sure this story did much to change my mind. The story concerns the disappearance of a mildly criminal and dissolute artist and involves investigative work on both sides of the Channel. This is probably one of the longest stories in this collection and I didn’t really get along with Fortune’s bizarre and outlandish deductions. For a scientific detective some of his deductions are fairly fantastical, as is the solution and the reader is left wondering how on earth the story ended up where it did.

Image result for packet boat 1950 channelThe penultimate story in this collection is Josephine Bell’s ‘The Packet Boat Murder’ (1951) and Superintendent Mitchell fears that the wrong man was executed for the murder of a French girl on the boat home from a holiday in France. The person who was condemned did have an affair with her which got out of hand, but was murder his solution to the problem? This is a very short and snappy story with a twist, though I’m not sure I am wholly satisfied with the ending.

The final story is by Michael Gilbert, whose novel, The Danger Within (1952), I really enjoyed reading earlier this year. His story in this book is the ‘Villa Almirante’ (1959) and is set in Italy. Lieutenant Lucifero has to solve the death of an English tourist, who has been staying at a local villa, along with two other guests and it soon seems apparent that they are not all what they seem. Having said that I don’t feel we get a chance to sufficiently explore these characters, meaning the solution is rather thrown at us at the end of the story, along with an unsettling feeling. I did enjoy in particular though the way the case is unfolded by degrees, surprising both the suspects and the reader.

Overall this was an enjoyable mixture of stories, with a variety of crimes and story structures, though it did occur to me that a significant amount of these stories did take place in France. Not saying this is a bad thing but it does make you wonder why authors have preferred to choose this country in preference to other countries on the Continent. My two favourite stories were ‘Petit-Jean’ and ‘The Perfect Murder’ and it is great how these collections by the British Library introduce you to new authors.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Green Object

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: A is for April… and Anything Goes: What makes a good Aristocratic Sleuth?

Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.

This week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ final look at all things beginning with A in crime fiction, I am looking at the aristocratic sleuth. Such a detective type came up early in the history of the genre with Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, though not Image result for auguste dupinmuch is done with his aristocratic background in the stories. Others invariably followed such as Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk and John T McIntyre’s Ashton-Kirk. The latter of whom featured in 4 novels, beginning in 1910, and solved crimes for the sheer love of it and is seen by many to be a forerunner of the aristocratic sleuths created in the 1920s and 30s, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Often in the past such sleuths have been younger sons of aristocratic parents and have turned to crime fighting as a means of occupation – you’ve got fill in the time somehow, right? However financial difficulties have also been motivators for crime solving. In the present though I think the pendulum, gender wise, has swung the other way and most aristocratic sleuths created now tend to young women, who like their male predecessors are looking for a way of occupying their time.

In answering the question of what makes a good aristocratic sleuth I can only really answer for myself, but hopefully my ideal in this regard is not too outlandish. For instance it is said that the ‘personal lives and histories’ of the aristocratic sleuth ‘constitutes part of their strong appeal’ (Haynes, 1999: 23). To an extent I agree with this as I find the milieu of aristocratic living quite an enjoyable one in a mystery novel. However I am not a reader who needs to know the sleuth’s entire family tree and when it comes to their ‘personal lives,’ I think it is down to individual writer skill, as to whether this element is done successfully or in a poorly and dully predictable manner.

Detractors of aristocratic sleuths frequently suggest such detectives are insufferably arrogant and aloof and in the case of S. S Van Dine’s Philo Vance, they would be completely correct. However I think other writers such as Sayers have managed to achieve a middle ground with their aristocratic investigators. This middle ground is unsurprisingly a rather murky area. Any sleuth who resides in this place has to be sufficiently different and unusual that they maintain reader interest, (with their wealthy backgrounds giving them better access to education and niche pockets of specialist knowledge), but are not too distant from the reader that they become condensing, standoffish and impossible to identify with.

For me the characters who are most remembered and who have stood the test of time are Image result for albert campionthose who may have started out buffoonish, but went on to mature mentally and emotionally, moving away from being a cardboard cut-out and come across as more fully human. Of course doing this is by no means an easy feat and in fact some readers have hated this process happening to their favourite aristocratic sleuths. But I feel this is what partially aided Lord Peter Wimsey’s longevity. Albert Campion goes through a similar process to a much less intense degree and he is an unusual aristocratic detective as he has broken away from his upper class background, though of course this does not stop him being able to move in upper class circles comfortably, nor marrying a fellow aristocratic.

Though aristocratic investigators are often deferred to and accepted by police detectives in older mystery fiction, using them for their ability to fit in with fellow toffs, I think what makes a good aristocratic sleuth is their ability to function in cases outside of their own social circle. This ability often ties in with whether they are operating within that murky middle ground I mentioned above. Wimsey does this quite well in my opinion, as although his early cases stay within his own social circle, the later mysteries successfully move beyond it.

One aristocratic sleuth which I have yet to mention, is Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn, who is the younger son of a baronet. On the one hand he avoids being annoyingly

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buffoonish, but on the other hand the main reason he does not work as an enjoyable aristocratic detective is his sheer blandness. Yes he is gentlemanly and polite and able to converse easily with the upper class, but there is a lack of oomph (for the want of a better word) and there is nothing very distinctive about him. Whilst I think aristocratic sleuth eccentricities can get out of hand, if they are used minimally and effectively they can also make for an irresistibly quirky detective.

During the golden age of detective fiction successful attempts were made at creating both aristocratic sleuths in the comic mode, (though the comic effect does need to be controlled in my opinion,) and aristocratic sleuths who have undergone personal changes or have had to confront personal problems. In some ways these successes became blue prints or templates. This is good in one sense but for me there is also a negative side to this happening. This is because a lot of later writers in my opinion have adopted sleuths such as Wimsey and his 1920s/30s setting, as a template, but have added little innovation of their own, especially in the area of such sleuths having personal traumas or problems. Consequently I found these works becoming increasingly too predictable and 2 dimensional for me and I find it harder to identify or sympathise with such characters.

This brings me almost to a negative reversal of my starting question: what doesn’t make a successful aristocratic sleuth? For me modern attempts to set mystery novels in the 1920s and 30s have had uneven success. I already mentioned how many of these novels include aristocratic young women. From what I have read of these works or read about them, they have strayed into becoming rather formulaic. Such sleuths often turn into heroines in distress and the love interest looms rather too much, as Sayers would say. Solving murders at some points feels more like a means for finding a husband. Perhaps it is just me and not the books themselves, but I find it easier to believe in Wimsey and his world than the modern recreations of it.

However, I think it is even harder to be successful at creating a mystery novel set in modern times, which has an aristocratic sleuth. The age of the amateur sleuth is decidedly over or at any rate has had to adapt and evolve a lot, so often the aristocratic sleuth in modern times has had to become a policeman, such as Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Granted I have only watched the TV series featuring this aristocratic detective, but I have yet to be bowled over by him. For me he comes across as a little bit too aloof and I have invariably ended up irritated by him. I did however enjoy his partner, DS Barbara Havers, and one way the aristocratic sleuth has been used, especially within a police force setting, is as a way of examining class divisions.

To end on a more positive note on modern writers, two writers in the pastiche mode, who have successfully created aristocratic sleuths are James Anderson and Simon Brett, with his Blotto and Twinks series.

Image result for blotto and twinks

Something which surprised me when researching this subject was that it often felt like there were more modern novels featuring aristocratic sleuths working within a 1920s/30s world than there are from 1920/30s mystery writer themselves. Therefore I would really love to hear of other, perhaps more obscure examples of such detectives from this period, as I am sure I’ve forgotten tonnes of them.

Bibliography

Haynes, Barry. ‘Aristocratic Sleuth’, in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, ed. Herbert, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). pp. 23-25

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The Case of the Mahjong Dragon and Other Russell Holmes Stories (2015) by James McEwan

Source: Review Copy

It has been many years since I have read any Sherlock Holmes pastiches, so was interested in returning to this subgenre with today’s read. In this particular pastiche we have Russell Holmes as the central sleuth oddly enough, aided by his good friend Major James Wilson and his housekeeper Mrs Fergus. As well as some name changes there has also been a shift in locations, as the cases now take place in and around late 19 century Glasgow, a location shift which I felt worked really well.

The first of the seven cases included in this collection is the, ‘The Case of the Mahjong Dragon’ and something which immediately struck me was that these stories are not written from the “Watson” character point of view, a narrative choice which took me a little while to get acclimatised to, being a reader who is used to the Watson narrative voice in the original Holmes stories and the perspective this gives on Holmes. One consequence of this narrative choice is that I think it takes longer to get under the skins of the central characters, though McEwan does tantalise the reader with various pieces of information surrounding Russell Holmes, which are woven into the stories. Russell Holmes’ first case involves the death of a museum curate, who the police believed committed suicide due to having been found out as a thief of the museum’s Chinese artefacts. His wife of course does not believe this and asks Holmes to investigate. My first reactions to this story I have to admit were not strongly positive ones. Russell and James didn’t feel quite right, with Russell oscillating between excessive politeness and rudeness. Equally unlike in the original Doyle stories there isn’t anything for the reader to solve. The cast is so small and the story so short that only one solution is viable. Whilst the language was mostly in keeping with the “Doyle era”, shall we call it, there is the odd moment where some words and phrases feel sharply out of place.

The second story in this collection, ‘The Case of the Murder at the Falls,’ suffers from the same issues. This is an inverted mystery but there is no focus on how Russell Holmes solves the case, which is a problem, given that in inverted mysteries that is the only tantalising aspect left. A vulgar tone at points also has a jarring effect and Wilson’s immediate knee jerk reaction to use violence either verbally or physically, when a witness gets recalcitrant also didn’t sit well with my expectations of a Watson character.

However, things do begin to pick up in the third story, ‘The Case of the Asylum,’ which has an atmospheric and intriguing opening. Holmes is called in by a concerned relative to Hartwood Asylum, fearing his brother in law has wrongfully incarcerated his sister. On arriving Holmes has a strange feeling he has been there before but cannot remember when. Despite this story being well written I do think McEwan tends to tell rather than show various important points of the story and once again the reader has little to solve and can only watch Holmes as he reacts to various situations and takes a melodramatic approach to rescuing his client’s sister.

Our next story, ‘The Case of the Ivory Hunting Horn,’ contains a foe for Holmes Image result for 19th century ivory african hunting hornwhich sort of combines Irene Alder and Moriarty. Baroness Von Hochstal asks Holmes to find the man who shot her husband and stole an African ivory horn from them. Holmes achieves his objective but gets more than he bargains for and McEwan pulls off an enjoyable surprise at the end which I was not expecting. The issue of British Imperialism and the tendency to steal artefacts from other countries is a minor thread which runs through the story.

Holmes’ next case in ‘The Case of Thomas Glover,’ involves him trying to save a man from being hung for a murder he did not do and there are hints that there has been a frame up in order to attack worker agitation. Again I found this an interesting setup for a mystery, especially with the disputed use of finger printing evidence, but that the brevity of the story meant the final section of the book is more a telling of the solution rather than giving the reader the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

A concerned jewellery workshop owner is Holmes next client in ‘The Case of the Cryptic Assassin’ and the case soon develops into a matter of national importance. Again there is some criticism of Imperial Britain, though a little heavy handed perhaps. It was also at this point that I noticed Major Wilson’s propensity for drinking alcohol at all times of the day.

Image result for late 19th century horse racingA horse racing conspiracy features in the following story, ‘The Case of the Yankee Alchemists’ and once more I felt there was an intriguing setup: a corpse found concealed in a box in a cathedral, but that the limited number of pages prevented any serious investigation getting under way, leaving only room for the reader to be told of the solution which seems to come from nowhere. However, a redeeming feature of the story was the pleasantly humorous ending, as McEwan does develop a wonderfully amusing role for Mrs Fergus in this and other stories.

The final story in the collection is ‘The Case of the Criminal Mind’ and has a Jack the Ripper theme. The cast of characters is much larger this time, so much so that I wondered whether this story might have been better as a novella or novel. There is a great intriguing hook at the start of the story when someone believed to have died in a tram accident is found alive and a dead woman is found in their coffin instead. Given the complexity of the case I felt the ending was somewhat hastily wrapped up.

So all in all this was rather a mixed bag of short stories. The main thing I felt lacking in these tales was that there wasn’t really any of Holmes witty deductions. Russell Holmes once makes a deduction about a client based on their appearance, but it came across as more vulgar than clever. Russell Holmes also seems to be more a man of action rather than a detective who applies logic and ratiocination, thereby giving the stories more of a thriller quality and also meaning that the reader doesn’t get any periods of ratiocination themselves. The shortness of the stories I believe contributed to this, as given their brevity it was hard for the stories to build in such moments or periods of deduction. Whilst I grew to like Russell Holmes, I didn’t warm to the Major, whose behaviour seemed far more objectionable and antisocial than Holmes’.

Rating: 3/5

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The Adventuress (1917) by Arthur B Reeve

Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)

Arthur B. Reeve, as David Brawn intimates in his introduction to the Harper Collins reprint, was a household name during his writing career in the early 20th century. In particular he was well-known for his serial and scientific sleuth, Craig Kennedy, who was dubbed ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’ and his adventures were adapted for film, stage and even comic strips. Like every good Holmes figure, Kennedy has his Watson in narrator Walter Jameson, a newspaper reporter.

Kennedy’s use of scientific methods and inventions in order to capture criminals was one of the main reasons for his popularity as a character and the scientific principles Reeves talks about were up to date for the times he was writing in. Even Thomas Edison complemented him on this very aspect, which is high praise indeed. And it has to be said in The Adventuress (1917), that technology and scientific gadgets are prominent, being used by both the criminals and the sleuths.

This mystery centres on the death of Marshall Maddox, who had recently got his troublesome relations to agree to give him control of their family’s company, Maddox

Image result for the adventuress arthur b reeve

Munitions and allow him to buy them out. This agreement was reached on his brother’s, Shelby, yacht. However the next day Maddox is found dead and the plans and model of a dangerous new piece of technology, the telautomaton, has been stolen. Few tears are shed for Maddox though; estranged from his wife due to the allure of another woman and his own relatives are far from mournful either. Within this group of people you could say more interest revolves around Shelby as two women fight for his affections, one of whom is the titular adventuress. But is that all there is to it? Whilst this case lacks a police presence this is more than made up for by various members of the secret service who support Kennedy in his investigation. Observation, tailing and shadowing are the name of the game and it seems it is not just the sleuths who are doing these activities, making it hard to decide what everyone is really up to. Whoever is behind all of these criminal activities it quickly becomes apparent that they are prepared to attack using a variety of weapons, if they feel threatened by the investigative team, making this case quite the health hazard for Kennedy and his friends.

Overall Thoughts

Image result for the adventuress arthur b reeveOne of the things I enjoyed about this story was Kennedy. I wouldn’t say he hugely resembles Holmes in some ways, he has a much less acidic demeanour and manner, but like Holmes the story begins with a client coming to see him – though Reeves manages to give a this event some extra oomph. Whilst Jameson is quite deferential to Kennedy, I don’t think they have quite the same relationship as Holmes and Watson do; after all there are no biting comments about Jameson’s sleuthing abilities, even when he does nearly die when he tries to do a spot of independent investigating.

So all in all a very good start to the book and I equally enjoyed how Reeves teasingly unfolds the central mystery to us. Furthermore, I think he does set up a number of interesting characters, especially Paquita, the adventuress. Her entrance into the book foreshadows the complex role she will take in the story, when Reeves writes that:

‘a petite, frilly, voluptuous figure stood in the doorway. She had an almost orchid beauty that more than suggested the parasite […] For the born adventuress is always a baffling study.’

Whilst on the surface she may seem to conform to certain negative stereotyping, even Jameson eventually realises there is more to her than this, when he says that:

‘as I watched her my former impression was confirmed that the notoriety which she courted was paradoxically her ‘cover.’ She seemed to seek the limelight. In so doing did she hope to divert attention from what was really going on back-stage?’

Not until the end will the reader finally resolve who or what she is, though personally I think Reeves could have fleshed out her character/role a little more.

The technological aspects of the book, as vouched for by Edison, are first rate, but for me, ever character focused, I think Reeves could have given his readers a little more in depth exploration of his suspects. Whilst mystery readers are not unfamiliar with family members who are far from upset their relative has died, what did strike me as odd was the sheer amount of silence from the family members in regards to the case, taking stone walling to a whole new level. There are moments where you wonder if they are even Image result for the adventuress arthur b reevebothered or surprised that their brother is dead and a hugely valuable invention stolen. In some ways this is more a story of the sleuths talking with pithy interjections by witnesses. In addition I think in order to accommodate the various pieces of technology Reeves wants his detective to use, the narrative has more a thriller feel to it, lacking in the beginning an obvious line of investigation to follow. Moreover, the way the identity of the main culprit is thrown at the reader in the final line of the book with no explanation, suggests that Reeves was also not trying to write a conventional whodunit.

Given the time it was written in, the story does have its dose of non-PC language when it comes to race and the Secret Service are very keen on the theory that the guilty parties are of foreign extraction, which they back up with the idea that WW1 has caused all of the major European criminals to emigrate to America. However I think it would be fair to say that Reeves through Jameson does acknowledge the tendency of humans to be biased against those they do not understand and seem different. This is a failing Jameson recognises in himself as well as others, which I think made this book’s depiction of race relations less clear cut.

Consequently whilst this book was not a perfect read it was still an action packed yarn, with explosions, rockets and poison galore, and I think readers who love inventions, gadgets and science will get on famously with Kennedy, who is a very likeable and engaging sleuth.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Revolver

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In Honour of her Birthday: Gladys Mitchell, 116 Today!

On this day 116 years ago the creator of the infamous and famous Mrs Bradley was born. I do have to admit to not being the world’s biggest fan of Gladys Mitchell. Whilst I often enjoy her settings and her characters, especially the wonderfully bizarre Mrs Bradley, her plotting can let her down, in my opinion. Consequently this post is not going to be a list of my favourites of her work as I only have two or three of these. Instead though I have decided on a little quiz based around the titles she used for her mysteries, as she certainly knew how to pick some fairly odd ones. In the picture below are a jumbled series of words and it is your challenge, if you wish to accept it, to find 12 of Mitchell’s titles from within them. Not all of the words need to be used. You can share you answers below if you like and answers will go up next week. Enjoy!

 

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