The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen

It has been a long time since I have read anything by Queen. In fact it has nearly been 2 years! I guess he has never been a favourite author and there have been so many other books and authors to try, that they have somewhat slipped off my radar. The reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for Queen have varied; finding their earlier novels somewhat dull and dry, whilst some of the later efforts exhibit a highly troublingly and creepy Ellery Queen.

Today’s read though is from the first Queen writing period (so we’re save on creepy Queen front). It’s very classic in its puzzle focus, with a character list, two maps, a challenge to the reader and even an interlude where one chapter only has one column of writing to along for reader note taking in the margins. There is also the foreword by a Watson type character, who frames the story as a case memoir.

The novel opens with Queen Junior and Senior discussing the importance of the first 5 minutes after a crime has been discovered. They bemoan how the detective always seems to be brought into the situation much later. Yet this will not be the case for Ellery Queen’s next investigation, as he is 20ft away when it is discovered in an operating theatre that hospital founder, Abby Doorne, has been murdered. This was an unplanned operation, as she had only fallen into a diabetic coma on some stairs, (thereby rupturing her gall bladder,) that very morning. Yet the crime itself seems very well executed and it is not long before both Queens fear that this is no ordinary case, especially when it may involve a frame up for one of the doctors. The suspects themselves are equally very reticent, much to the chagrin of Inspector Queen.

Overall Thoughts

The first 2/3s of the novel were fairly enjoyable in my opinion. The story opens in a very strong way and I liked how it was very dialogic in style, (which helped to mitigate the minimal characterisation), and another positive was that Ellery held back from long winded theorising. The shortness of the chapters also worked well for me, as the pace in these sections was good, as other Queen novels have dragged on a lot! An additional murder also helped the pacing of this book and it was introduced at an effective point. Queen too comes across quite well, limiting annoying mannerisms and objectionable attitudes. There were even moments of humour (which felt like a first for my Queen reading experiences).

However, one issue with Queen taking a backseat role in this case is that when he finally unleashes all of his theorising it comes across as rather unachievable to the reader, even if a formal challenge to the reader is issued. The clues are technically there, but whether anyone can generate the correct inferences is another matter entirely, (and of course I will now be overwhelmed with comments saying how easy this case was to solve). The final third of the book did drag and unfortunately the authors are not adept at writing theorising or explaining of solutions in an entertaining style. That final 23 paged chapter was a chore. Though it has made me consider how hard it is to write theorising in an entertaining way.

So despite that short catalogue of negatives this was actually a better Queen experience than many of the others I have had. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend anyone spend a fortune on getting a copy of this, there are thankfully a few reasonably priced copies for under £5 online. Queen in my opinion is a bit like marmite in the way these mysteries can divide the mystery fan community. There are those who rate these books very highly. Noah at Noah’s Archives for instance says ‘this book gets an automatic pass into your library simply because, well, it’s an Ellery Queen novel.’ Whilst there are others, probably including myself at this point, which think the stories are somewhat overrated. Of course the only way to decide is to try for yourselves…

Rating: 3.75/5 (My highest Queen novel rating on the blog yet!) Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Item): Doctor

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel has also reviewed this book here.

See also:

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’ (1948)

The Origin of Evil (1951)

Did Ellery Queen Ever Escape the Golden Age of Detection?

Typing Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen and the Secret to Writing a Bestseller Title

Advertisements
Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Book of the Month: September 2017

It has been quite a busy month one way or another, so I’m quite impressed with the amount of books I managed to squeeze in. My reading has been fairly varied this month with a number of Christie and Marsh re-reads, some new releases, some literary criticism and even some true crime! There was also of course my informal poll to find the most popular titles in the British Library Crime Classics series, which brought up a quite a few surprises. So all in all deciding on my Book of the Month was a very hard task, so much so that I did decide to cheat a little…

Best Short Story Collection

Technically I only read one short story collection this month, but The Long Arm of the Law is such a good one that it definitely deserves a title of its own.

Joint Best Novels

This was the trickiest round for me to decide on and in the end I opted for the Littles’ The Black Coat (1948) and Farjeon’s Seven Dead (1939), which show both writers at their best.

9 months in and I am still managing to participate in Bev Hankins’ Follow the Clue Challenge. With this month’s reads my chain is now 126 books long!! The latest links in the chain can be seen below:

 

 

Posted in Book of the Month | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Hot Off The Press: CADS 76

It is always a great day when the latest issue of CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) pops through my letter box. The variety and depth of the articles and reviews make each issue a pleasure to read and today’s issue is no different. There is lots I am looking forward to reading to such as:
Serendip’s Detections XVI: Disjecta Membra by Tony Medawar. Despite the slightly baffling title, this article ‘is the first attempt to provide a definitive and accurate overview’ of all the unpublished material featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Two and Nearly Three, Crime Classics by Andrew Garve by Pete Johnson. Although Garve is not a writer I have read often, I have always enjoyed his work when I have, so looking forward to reading about his work here.

Women Detectives in Fiction: The Early Period by Philip L. Scowcroft, who explores Sayers’ comments on female detectives.

My own offering for this issue is: Is Mystery Fiction the Prerogative of Individualist Cultures?, a piece which muses on how crime fiction works in collectivist and individualist cultures, commenting on works from China, Czechoslovakia, India and lots more. It will be great to see what people make of it.

If you feel like giving this magazine a try then email the very hardworking editor, Geoff Bradley at: Geoffcads@aol.com.

Posted in Magazine Publications | Tagged | 2 Comments

Murder in Pastiche (1955) by Marion Mainwaring

Metafiction and pastiches are definitely a form of the mystery genre I am keenly drawn to, having loved Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives (1936). So I was quite excited when I came across this title on Curtis Evans’ blog The Passing Tramp.

As the title suggests there is a lot of spoofing going on, as within this ship bound mystery Mainwaring spoofs the following authors’ sleuths:

And for a little extra fun I’ve left it so you can figure out whose detective is whose in Mainwaring’s novel.

The story opens in a wonderful way with a chain of vignettes introducing the various sleuths and in each vignette we find out a little more about the other passengers and the events which lead up to the murder. There is the anxious Homer T Anderson who is keen to become acquainted with Paul Price, an American gossip columnist, with a very unsavoury reputation and whose snooping activities suggest he has dirt on more than one person aboard the ship. There is also the suggestion that Price is in fear of his life, which is not surprising given the way he treats his niece and the ship’s Captain, amongst others. It is not gone unnoticed that there are 9 sleuths aboard the ship ‘and some wit declare[s] that, under the circumstances, if a murder did not exist one would have to be invented.’ Soon after this comment someone obliging murders Price and the First Officer decides to get the sleuths involved. Not all accept the invitation immediately, with some taking up the task under extreme reluctance, whilst others only end up doing so accidently. From this point in the chapters are then devoted to a single sleuth and the information they uncover in the case, with each sleuth falling upon a particular piece of information due to the type of detective they are. But which sleuth will reveal the criminal? All is revealed in the final chapter…

Overall Thoughts

I will say from the outset that this is not a perfect read, but then this level of pastiche is no simple task. However, despite this I still felt this was a very fun and entertaining read. Miss Silver’s pastiche was particularly well captured and was amusingly exaggerated: ‘She could not, of course, hope to have many of her photographs about her on a sea voyage, but thirty or forty were placed here and there on the desk and on the little chest of drawers.’ Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin’s doubles (Trajan Beare and Ernie Woodbin) were also well drawn in my opinion, especially their bantering relationship: ‘And if one of the other detectives solves the case – well, you’re still the fattest one, they can’t take that away from you. I think Ellery Queen (Mallory King) becomes the most exaggerated version of himself in this story, with his desire to find a symbolic pattern within the case. The only sleuth who didn’t really fit in was Spike Bludgeon (Spillane’s Mike Hammer), whose exaggeration leads to him coming across as a psychopath or as someone with a psychological disorder, so great is his propensity for violence in the story. Having not read any of Spillane’s books I don’t know how much of an exaggeration this is. I enjoyed how the First Officer becomes a Watson figure for the sleuths, as it means there is limited repetition of information and it also means we can be given questions to answer ourselves. The chapters I least enjoyed were those for Innes’ Sir John Appleby (Sir Jon Nappleby) and Marsh’s Roderick Allen (Broderick Tourneur), but then these are not sleuths I enjoy much anyways. In fact I think Mainwaring makes Allen a more interesting sleuth in pastiche form. The solution although sneaky worked for me as I found it very fitting and pleasing.

This is a novel and interesting mystery, which although not perfect, has a lot going for it and is, in the main, a delightful comic crime story to while away an afternoon.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Typewriter

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer

This is the 3rd Hildegarde Withers mystery and weirdly also my third read by Palmer. Palmer is said to have referred to his creation as a ‘meddlesome old battle axe,’ but I think she is the kind of old battle axe you quickly grow to love rather than find annoying. Withers was based on a number of people; an actress named Edna May Oliver, (who went on to play this character when the first book in the series was adapted for film), a librarian from Palmer’s home town, a ‘horse faced English teacher’ from his high school and his father, (for the sense of humour).

This mystery sees the school Withers teaches at turn into a crime scene, as the music teacher, Anise Halloran, is murdered one afternoon after school. Yet things are far from simple. Halloran’s body is moved by the time Inspector Oscar Piper (Withers’ Homicide Squad friend) arrives and upon investigating the cellar, for the killer is still at large in the school, Piper is badly injured with a blow to the head. With him out of action it is up to his subordinates to figure out what has happened. However, Withers has a pretty low estimation of them, especially when they arrest the drunk janitor, (who appears from the cellar, having somehow been missed during two police searches of the area) and they plan to use the third degree to a get a confession. There are a lot of interesting strands to this investigation: an Irish sweepstake ticket, illicit alcohol dealing, another missing teacher and even scandalous rumours of a school staff romance. Of course everyone on the staff invariably makes themselves look suspicious, especially the Principal. Whilst Withers is far from perfect, she is a darn sight smarter than the police, as she finally brings the case to a dramatic close.

Overall Thoughts

I am glad I read this book as my last Palmer novel wasn’t as good as I was hoping it was going to be. So it was good to return to a stronger earlier read in the series. The story has a wonderful opening, full of mock pathos over a ‘solitary prisoner,’ who we eventually realise is not a hardened criminal but a 9 year old being kept after class. Withers is equally a wonderful character and I love how her approach to getting good behaviour out of children amusingly extends to other people such as members of the police force and hospital call operators, who are certainly not going to be allowed to fob her off. She also has an acidic wit at times, with her faith in the police being fairly low, such as when she says: ‘They couldn’t find anything unless it had a thirty foot neon sign over it.’ At another point she says to a policeman, ‘besides, you don’t think that Anise Halloran was killed with poison, do you?’ To which he replies, ‘I’m not thinking, yet.’ Withers follows this up with the barbed comment: ‘let me know when you start […] Anytime you’re ready, this case could use it.’ Ouch! The other characters are also well made and the Viennese Psychoanalyst provides an entertaining interlude. The writing style is engrossing and I didn’t find any pacing issues this time, making this a quick read. I suppose what I had to dock marks for was the solution. It is a great solution in itself but it isn’t one you are ever likely to figure out entirely. After all one element in particular has to be given wholemeal to the reader as they are not going to have that sort of information at their fingertips. I think what needed to happen was better cluing earlier on so the reader could see how Withers arrived at the solution. For me this felt a little lacking. Nevertheless despite this flaw I found this an entertaining read and I think readers will have a lot of fun with it.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Any Piece of Furniture

Sergio at Bloody Murder has also reviewed this book here and Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery Blog has done a blog looking several of Palmer’s novels (including this one) and their adaptations here.

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Black Coat (1948) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Constance and Gwenyth Little are one of the many authors I blogged about in my early days, but haven’t really got around to trying again until now. Bad I know, but hopefully today’s review will make up for it. The Littles wrote standalone mysteries, rather than having a serial sleuth, though you could say their novels shared a number of tropes. In particular they tend to have a female protagonist, often a working woman and the mysteries themselves frequently occur within a household of sorts. Romance is also in the offing for the female protagonists, but the Littles are savvy enough to avoid fairy tale stereotypes.

Yet having said all that, I would say this novel by the Littles is unconventional to say the least. The opening premise is quite complex but once you get your head around it, it is easy running after that. Of course that does not help me out when writing a review, which can only really summarise what happens in the beginning. Oh well here it goes… There are two women on a train to New York and they are both called Anne. Anne 1, our main protagonist, is going to New York to find work as a commercial artist. The other, Anne 2, is somewhat of an unreliable party girl, who definitely doesn’t earn Anne 1’s approval when she steals her coat (leaving her own behind), and gets off at an earlier station. From here on in there is only Anne 1 so I’ll skip the number. Having lost her coat Anne has difficulties making her rendezvous in New York as she does not know the appearance of the person she is meeting and her own coat had a flower in it to identify herself. Things certainly go awry once she gets off the train, being incorrectly picked up by George Vaddison, believing her to be the other Anne, who was supposed to visit her sick grandmother, Ellen, for the first time. However, when the error is realised, George is keen for her to stay on at the private hotel Ellen owns whilst the real Anne is found. Ellen does not have all her wits about her and the mystery begins with the cryptic and enigmatic phrases she says to Anne, in particular implying that she will show Anne where something is, that she had to kill a man for! Though it seems there are a number of other people who are also interested in finding out where this something is too and suffice to say they do not all end well. Of course another key character comes in the guise of the person Anne was supposed to meet at the station, a maverick and mysterious man named Tim, whose urge for amateur sleuthing finds an opening in the weird events happening at the hotel, many of which I haven’t shared as I would be here all day and undoubtedly spoil your own fun.

Overall Thoughts

As you can tell this mystery doesn’t have a normal structure and in fact there isn’t a dead body until at least half way through the book, though it is none the worse for that. In style it is a comic crime novel, possibly even one of the screwball variety. Bodies appear and they’re not the ones expected, people have a strong tendency to disappear and a lot of mischief is caused with a prosthetic hand. I really enjoyed the unusual nature of the plot as it did keep you on your toes and certainly led you down the garden path a number of times. It is so light and entertaining that you don’t see what the Littles are up to behind the scenes. In a way it is a book with a set of open and closed suspects, which was interesting to see. The romance element of the plot is very cleverly done and wittily handled. It is not saccharine sweet and avoids being predictable. Quite a thrilling adventure in many ways and the only quibble I think I would have is, is that the final quarter of the book is a little too rushed. Delightful story though and one I would definitely recommend.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Bottle/Glass for Drinking.

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Anthill Murders (2017) by Hans Olav Lahlum

Source: Review Copy (Mantle)

This is the fifth book in Lahlum’s Kolbjorn Kristiansen (K2) and Patricia Borchmann series. I initially got a bit perplexed by this read, as based on a quote about the series on the dustjacket I assumed it was a locked room mystery like the first in the series, The Human Flies (2010). However, in keeping with the general trend of the series, the mystery in this book is in fact a series of murders, committed in the public sphere. Serial killings is a narrative choice which I think is becoming increasingly popular in mystery fiction, making me wonder what makes a series of killings more gripping than a single murder? Is one body not enough? An obvious answer as to why this is the case, I think lies in the fact that an increasing body count radically increases the pressure on the characters whose job it is to solve the case. In particular this book finds Patricia, who in past novels easily helps K2 solve his cases, at a loss because rather than K2’s investigative work enabling Patricia to develop new leads, this time round such leads become mostly and repeatedly dead ends more or less. An added moment of tension with the book is the rapidly changing nature of K2 and Patricia’s relationship, which I’ll talk about a bit later.

But now for murder…

The novel opens with the killer’s thoughts, which are an eerie and unsettling mix of invulnerability and exclusion from the world. We watch their thoughts as they wait for their victim, the narrative only switching to K2 at the moment of death. The first body is that of Agnes Halvorsen, a minister’s daughter. In time honoured fashion K2 begins to conduct an ordinary murder case, despite the odd inclusion of an ant picture in Agnes’ handbag. Yet for all his investigative work little seems to have been uncovered and on top of that another murder closely follows. Throughout the series of killings it becomes increasingly evident that despite the killer having insider knowledge, they are not close to their victims. As with the other cases Patricia has helped K2 to on she comes up with a phrase to encapsulate the crime, ‘the Anthill Murders,’ saying that ‘the murderer is an ant and it is impossible to differentiate him from the masses […]’. You can see why this case soon becomes a policeman’s nightmare. But will K2 be able to get out of it though?

Overall Thoughts

I’ve tried to not say too much about the plot, as the murders are fairly intricate in themselves and overlap and interlace in a myriad of ways. To do them justice you would need to detail the entire story, which of course would somewhat defeat the point of the review.

I always find it interesting when a writer includes excerpts from the writers’ thoughts. Initially as a reader you begin to feel in a more privileged position than the fictional sleuths who lack this additional information, which reveals a bit more about the killer and their personality each time. Yet the more conversant I have become with mystery fiction and its tricks, the more suspicious I have become of these moments with the murderer, having realised the number of ways a writer can fox you by using these sections to create expectations or assumptions within the reader about the identity of the criminal.

Throughout reading this series one thing which has particularly struck me about it is the way K2 perceives and interacts with women. From the very first book female physical attributes play a big part in how he makes his value judgements on women. It occurs with witnesses, suspects and even Patricia. Initially I felt that K2’s interactions with Patricia were complicating or changing this and one key change in their relationship in this book is that they have begun to meet socially, indicating that K2 is seeing her less as a crime solving resource and more as a human being. Yet for all this I think K2 has a long way to go in becoming a less patriarchal character. Male dominance over women is still something which surfaces in K2’s interactions with women, especially Patricia, who conversely is someone, let’s be honest intimates him, even if he doesn’t like to admit it and due to his intimidation he is all the more keen to reassert himself, whilst trying to get handle on his new feelings for her. I could waffle on about this more and no doubt drop a few spoilers along the way, but I think I’ll end this meandering with the fact that I find K2 an increasingly ambiguous character. Not someone I whole heartedly like, nor someone I completely hate. On side note Patricia’s own character has a significant shuffle round as well, as K2 debates and ponders whether he could have a full relationship with a woman whose legs are paralysed. I think being allowed into Patricia’s thoughts at this point would have helped to balance things out and made the narrative voice less male dominated. Though something I have pondered myself is how the historical/social context affects this issue. Does K2 have to be the way he is in order to fit in with the time period he is operating it? Am I just making a mountain out of a mole hill? In my somewhat sleepy state both options feel quite viable…

In quite a number of ways this is an ambitious book, which sets out to achieve a lot with its two protagonists, as well as provide a highly complex, seemingly motiveless serial killing, which does have an ingenious surprise, with what you could almost call a backwards clue. In the main I would say it reaches these targets and it was quite novel to watch an investigation bump into dead end after dead end, challenging reader presumptions in a way. The pacing though could have been a bit quicker, (as this book is the longest in the translated series so far), and with this type of plot the trickiest point was going to the moment when the information/evidence drops into place and the killer can be revealed and to be honest I don’t think this moment was created in a sufficiently satisfying way. Patricia’s lightbulb moment did not fully convince me, though it seems we were thinking along the same lines. Again this might be due to the historical/social/cultural context of the series, but one niggle I had was with the borderline stereotypical depiction of faith and religion, finding that the main characters were often treating it as an irrational affliction you had to tolerate in others, which did come across as a bit patronising. This issue may well not affect other people of course.

However, as I have said, in the main, this story is another entertaining entry in the series, which is creative in varying ways, making full such of its historical setting and as always keeps you guessing and wondering whether you have figured out the crimes correctly or not.

Rating: 4.25/5

K2 Series in full:

The Human Flies (2014)

Satellite People (2015)

The Catalyst Killing (2015)

Chameleon People (2016)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The Golden Spiders (1953) by Rex Stout

I am not one of Rex Stout’s biggest fans. I don’t actively dislike his work but at the same time I’m not invariably jumping up and down with excitement over his work. However, I decided to give him another go, as the premise for this book was quite intriguing. Definitely picked my moment right as well because after giving up on a book yesterday, Stout’s book seemed infinitely better in comparison.

My edition (as pictured) also comes with dustjacket pictures from foreign editions and an introduction by Linda Barnes, who although weirdly categorises her books by groupings such as ‘comfort reads,’ does make a very good point about this story being ‘atypical Stout, atypical Wolfe.’ Wolfe’s world is definitely turned upside down when Archie lets a boy named Pete Drossos consult Wolfe, on what he believes is a case. Whilst washing a woman’s windscreen at some traffic lights, she mouths to him for help and for assistance from the police and she seems highly uneasy around her passenger. However Pete is not able to fulfil this task and goes to Wolfe with his story, helpfully having got the number plate of the car. It doesn’t look like much will happen after this discussion, until the following day when Pete is the victim of a hit and run accident and it seems like he is not the only one who has died at the hands of the mysterious car he washed that fateful day… Aside from the child victim, this story is also unusual in how Wolfe gets involves, as he doesn’t have a conventional client to serve and there are many, including the police, who are far from pleased with his interest in the case. A key clue to the mystery is that Pete noticed the female driver wearing a pair of golden spider earrings and true to the genre this is a slippery clue to follow up.

Overall Thoughts

I think this book is one of the strongest openings I have read in a Stout novel. There is a brilliant sense of comedy in the opening chapters, with Wolfe and Goodwin trying to best each other and having a child client brings these two more to life. The unusual nature of the case and how it is investigated held my attention better, as did the more personal nature of it, as there is a sense of vengeance behind Wolfe’s pursuit of the killer. Unlike other Wolfe mysteries I don’t feel like this case had a specific or set milieu, which I liked in the main, though it did mean in the final third there was an abrupt style change when Goodwin and his cohorts use physical pressure, say we shall, to get some suspects to talk. The revelation of the killer was well done, though I am not sure how easy it is for the reader to deduce the guilty party for themselves. But at the end of the day Stout’s book was a much needed antidote for me after my truncated previous read.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Spider

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Blood Upon the Snow (1944) by Hilda Lawrence

One technique which I have found quite helpful for finding new reads/authors is to search online for specific book imprints and in the case of Amazon seeing what other titles are suggested. Whilst this does not bode well for my TBR pile(s), it has meant I came across today’s read, which was reprinted as part of the Pandora Women Crime Writers series; a series I definitely plan to explore further.

Hilda Lawrence (1906 – 1976), was an American mystery writer, who worked for Macmillan Publishers, in their clipping department, as well for reading to the blind. She didn’t write many mystery novels, as apart from today’s read, she only wrote three others: A Time to Die (1945), Death of a Doll (1947) and The Pavilion (1948). In 1949 a collection of novellas/short stories was published under the title of Duet of Death.

An unusual aspect of this story is that it is in the domestic suspense subgenre, yet it has a male protagonist, Mark East. He is employed by a Joseph Stoneman, to work for him as a secretary. Stoneman is staying with some friends called the Moreys, who are living in a remote country home on a mountainside near Crestwood. It is a cold and snowy evening when Mark arrives. Yet from the very start things are not what they seem. Why does Mark not want to be spotted getting off the train? Why does he conceal one of his suitcases in a linen closet? And things are no less suspicious with his employer and friends. Why does Stoneman seem so anxious, yet so unwilling to reveal his real reasons for summoning East and the truth behind his injuries? What is actually wrong with the seemingly highly strung and depressed Laura Morey? (A character who evokes echoes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.) The servants too are incredibly uneasy, with one of them planning to quit the next morning. There is equally something odd going on with Laura’s children. From the first night of East’s stay death strikes and continues to strike as the days mount and the householders decrease in number, though definitely grow in feeling terrorised and afraid. I am trying to be circumspect in my detailing of the plot, as being a suspense novel the plot is not entirely linear, with many threads to follow. Equally I think it is a story that you shouldn’t know lots about before reading.

Overall Thoughts

The strength of Lawrence’s writing style hits you the moment you read the first page; the wintry setting, the small town locale is captured immediately. Her drawing of characters and their manner of doing things quickly pleases. Her ability to create and maintain suspense and a tense atmosphere is also evident in the opening pages and is kept up pretty well throughout the tale. She uses two characters from outside the Stoneman household effectively to reveal information about that household’s inmates. Miss Beulah Pond and Bess Petty are brilliant elderly spinster characters and I think Lawrence has fun using them later on in the plot to do some minor amateur sleuthing. Beluah in particular has a sharp mind and tongue and the nosy nature of the pair of them is summed up well in the phrase, ‘benevolent hawks.’

Whilst it could be said that Lawrence is a literary descendent of Ethel Lina White, I think Lawrence uses gothic overtones much less frequently. Moreover, Lawrence’s decision to have a male protagonist also produces a radically different effect on the story. I think this is because when female protagonists are used in domestic suspense novels they invariably come across as HIBK heroines or at very least have a strong tendency to walk into danger every other chapter. This is not the case in Lawrence’s book though. The tension and the way it is depicted and experienced by the characters feels different. In a way it feels much less emotional and personal. This might be due to the story being told in the third person and I am not surprised that other readers have commented on a similarity to the tension John Dickson Carr creates in some of his books. Although Mark is no heroine in distress, I wouldn’t say he is a stereotypical he-man hero either. This is like much of the rest of the characterisation, where everyone is not quite what they seem, with the violent events creating a change in many of them. Stoneman for instance seems to become less vulnerable, whilst Laura is incredibly hard to pin down. Is she good or bad? Sane or mad? The seeming lack of a motive for the crimes adds to the unnerving atmosphere of the story. The solution when it is finally unfurled is clever and surprisingly complex. Though readers should bear in mind that this is a suspense novel, so the solution is not one I think readers can wholly figure out for themselves, as information is at times withheld near the end of the story via telephone conversations for instance. However I wouldn’t let that put you off giving Lawrence’s work a go, as this story was a thrilling read and I’ll definitely be giving her work another try soon (hopefully). It is a shame Lawrence is not as well-known as she should be, though thankfully some reprints from the 80s means that getting copies of her work is relatively easy.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Spooky House/Mansion

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie

Another Christie re-read today on the blog. As the title suggests the book opens with a flight between Paris to Croydon. Our favourite Belgian sleuth is on board, which is a good thing, considering that by the time the plane lands, at the end of the first chapter, there is a corpse; a moneylender having been murdered in what seems to be a highly fantastical manner. However, going on the witness statements though, nothing untoward seems to have been noticed. Surely in such a confined space any murderer would be spotted in seconds? Yet seemingly they have not. So begins another transport confined murder mystery for Poirot…

Overall Thoughts

As with many other of her stories, Christie takes a panoramic approach to opening her tale, moving from character to character, sampling the passengers’ thoughts. Yet despite this, in the main, we don’t get too much close access to the characters and in the instances we do, the reader better beware… Young love has an odd role in this story, as initially it seems like this strand will go the way of most Patricia Wentworth novels, but to Christie’s credit she takes another far more unconventional route, which is aided by the non-linear investigation taken by Poirot. Whilst this is not a story where you strongly get behind a given character, Christie does still explore the theme of how a murder effects the innocent involved:

‘Murder doesn’t concern the victim and the guilty only. It affects the innocent too. You and I are innocent, but the shadow of murder has touched us. We don’t know how that shadow is going to affect our lives.’

In fact this theme proves an important clue for uncovering the killer. Of course Christie more fully examines this theme in Ordeal by Innocence (1958), but I find it interesting to see the earlier beginnings of her considering this subject.

When I reviewed Cannan’s Death at the Dog (1940), a few days ago, I found there were some striking similarities between it and another novel published in the same year. A similar thing also happened with today’s read. A year earlier to Christie’s novel, Freeman Wills Crofts published a mystery called The 12:30 From Croydon. This novel too has a murder committed during a flight. Coincidence? Maybe not. One of Christie’s suspects is a mystery writer who during the flights gets ‘a continental Bradshaw from his raincoat pocket […] to work out a complicated alibi for professional purposes.’ Crofts was and is renowned for the complexity of the alibis in his mysteries, alibis which often involved time tables for various modes of transport. Is it just me or does this feel a little like a brief nod to Crofts?

In some ways this is a very clue focused mystery, including a complete list of all the passengers’ possessions. Yet Christie being Christie in this mass of mundane detail plants a very significant clue. Camouflaging is something Christie does very well in this book. Other clues follow, but part of me wonders whether all of these clues are that easy to interpret correctly. This feeling only really came to me at the end of the book, on reading the solution. All the pieces fit together, but I didn’t feel wholly satisfied with it. Maybe it was a bit rushed or fantastical? Had Poirot been too cryptic earlier in the book? Whatever it was I haven’t quite made my mind up. Christie uses a number of previously used tricks in this story, but this time round they didn’t have quite the same impact. Again maybe it’s to do with how she ends the book.

But to end on a more positive note, this is a good book for witnessing Christie’s humour and comic touches. For example you can imagine she felt great glee when devising the inquest’s initial findings. What’s more her humour in this story also merges with her ever growing interest in archaeology, as two of the suspects are archaeologists. It is almost a pity that we never get to know them that well. Christie perhaps includes a more personal note though in having her novel espouse the idea of an archaeological dig being a balm for an emotionally wounded person.

This might not be Christie at her best, but there is a lot to enjoy with this highly unusual case.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Plane


Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments