Not me, I hope, but the characters in two Christmas mysteries I’ve just read back to back. Mystery in White I bought in a charity shop a while ago and saved for Christmas. Until I read the introduction to the book, I hadn’t realised that J Jefferson was the brother of the more famous Eleanor. When I posted a review of another BLCC book on Amazon, saying it was the worst I’d read, someone commented on the lines of, ‘You think that’s bad! Try Mystery in White and read my review.’ I didn’t bother with his review but I have to agree that the book was disappointing. When a train becomes stuck in snow, a group of travellers make a break for it and find an apparently welcoming house, with fires blazing and tea laid. But there’s no one at home. The ill-assorted characters decide they have no alternative but to trespass and make themselves comfortable. One of their number is a psychical researcher and immediately detects ‘horror’ in the house. What that is, you have to read the book to find out. There are two solutions, one found by the stranded ones and the other by the police. Which is correct?
two more )

Simon of the Stuck in a Book blog has been recommending The Red House Mystery forever. I’d never read it but seeing it currently on Amazon for 76p I snapped it up.

Also available: Dr. Thorndyke’s Case Book by R. Austin Freeman and a number of his other books. Has there ever been a better time for reissues of out of print books? I think bloggers can take some credit for this.

The Champagne Queen , Petra Durst-Benning. Out on 20th September.
E F Benson re-read:
Lucia in London
Mapp & Lucia
Lucia’s Progress
Trouble for Lucia
Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, ed. Melissa Harrison. Just out.
The Dancing Floor, John Buchan
Trio , Sue Gee
St. Simon Square , Frances Hamilton
The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, Jenny Colgan
She Shall have Music , Kitty Barne
The Lark in the Morn , Elfrida Vipont
The Lark on the Wing , Elfrida Vipont
Arsenic for Tea , Robin Stevens
Jolly Foul Play , Robin Stevens
Death in the Dentist’s Chair: A Golden Age Mystery, Molly Thynne. Out 5th September.
The Lake House, Kate Morton
books )

I read the first book in this series, Murder Most Unladylike before its release in 2014 and reviewed it here. I was very enthusiastic about Daisy Wells, Hazel Wong and their Detective Agency at Deepdean School and wasn’t alone in my appreciation. The book was such a success that four more have followed already, plus two Mini Mysteries. The series is published by Puffin, so the stories are intended for young readers but they can be enjoyed by people of any age, especially if they happen to be aficionados of school stories. I’ve at last partly caught up with the series, having just read the second book, Arsenic for Tea and the fourth, Jolly Foul Play.
the books )

Good news from the nice people at Dean Street Press: ten more books by E R Punshon are being reissued this month. They kindly sent me There’s a Reason for Everything to read. This is the 21st Bobby Owen book and he is now a Deputy Chief Constable. Bobby is not the type to sit behind a desk issuing orders and when there’s a local murder, he takes an active role in the investigation. The book was first published in 1945 and has a wartime background, so Bobby is contending with the problems caused by a lack of manpower and petrol. Even the Deputy Chief Constable has to ride a bike.

The story begins when two psychical researchers are investigating a vast, deserted mansion called Nonpareil, which is supposedly haunted. It was also the repository of a vast collection of artworks, mostly worthless. But there’s a possibility that the house once contained a previously unknown painting by Vermeer. If it exists, can it be genuine? This is a treasure people are prepared to kill for, and they do. Bobby has his hands full chasing up everyone with a connection to Nonpareil and following red herrings. But are they? He doesn’t like coincidences and sure enough, all the mysterious events in the area turn out to be connected. In his introduction Curtis Brown suggests Punshon may have got the idea about forged art from the true story of the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. The Bobby Owen books are well worth reprinting; they have tricky plots and plenty of interesting characters. I enjoyed this one very much.

I loved Beswitched and Five children on the Western Front but had never read any of Kate Saunders’ adult novels. When I saw that The Secrets of Wishtide was to be the first in a series about a Victorian lady investigator, I was eager to read it.

‘Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent.’

The book got off to a good start for me with a quotation from David Copperfield about Little Em’ly. Sure enough, the book is full of ‘fallen women’ but I was a little surprised to find part of the story a direct twist on Dickens’ novel. The author explains at the end that this was done ‘with the deepest respect’. You don’t have to be familiar with David Copperfield to enjoy the novel; the critique of Victorian morality, and the unjust fact that ‘the woman always pays’ is decidedly modern.

Mrs Rodd travels to deepest Lincolnshire, ostensibly as governess to two girls but really to find out the truth about the ‘unsuitable woman’. No sooner has she achieved this than the case takes an uglier turn with several savage murders. The evidence points to Sir James’s son Charles as the culprit and he is arrested. Laetitia and her brother are convinced he’s innocent and our female detective ends up putting her own life in danger in order to get the real criminal brought to justice.

The book is made by the character of Laetitia Rodd. She’s middle aged, still grieving over the loss of her husband, yet putting her energy to use in helping others. She is kindness itself but shrewd with it and not easily taken in. Victorian family life is believably described but Kate Saunders sensibly doesn’t attempt to reproduce nineteenth century speech. (If she has done, it doesn’t show.) I loved this, read it quickly, and look forward to the next Laetitia Rodd mystery.

I read this book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

June Books

Jul. 3rd, 2016 10:30 am

Jane’s Parlour, O Douglas
Dark Bahama, Peter Cheyney
The Two Mrs Abbotts, D E Stevenson
The Countenance Divine, Michael Hughes
Love Notes for Freddie, Eva Rice
Death on the Riviera, John Bude
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, H E Bates
Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
The Sea Garden, Marcia Willett
A Week in Paris, Rachel Hore
Weekend with Death, Patricia Wentworth
The Butterfly Summer, Harriet Evans
Eliza for Common, O Douglas
opinions (long) )

News from Dean Street Press that they’re bringing out the last thirteen Patricia Wentworth books. They’ve been kind enough to send me Weekend with Death, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

Even more exciting news about the enterprising Dean Street people. They are going to publish Furrowed Middlebrow Books. If you follow the blog, you’ll know already that Scott’s literary passion is for books written by women authors and published in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, many of these are hard to find so reissues will be very welcome. Scott is naturally wildly excited about the project and you can read more about it here.

I can’t wait!

Once an international bestseller, his books made into films, now Cheyney doesn’t even appear in the Fantastic Fiction lists. I’d had Dark Bahama lying around for ages (probably 20p from the market) and at last picked it up to read. The first chapter, set in the Bahamas, put me right off. I feel so uncomfortable reading about ‘a coloured gentleman’, ‘the negro’ and so on. I thought I must find out more about this author and didn’t like what I found. In 1931 he joined Oswald Mosley’s New Party and was said to be good at fending off disruption at meetings. In other words, good in a scrap. He didn’t join the British Union of Fascists when it was formed the following year but had he changed his views or was he just too busy writing? He wrote at least two novels a year. Several of these were turned into films, mostly arty French ones starring Eddie Constantine. The artwork for these is amazing. You can see some on the website here.

Dark Bahama is apparently ‘a Johnny Vallon book’ and the last in the ‘Dark’ series. It was published in the US as I’ll Bring her Back. You can see more covers here. The second chapter is quite different from the first. We meet Johnny Vallon, who runs a detective agency. He’s already featured in several books which, of course, I’ve never read. He’s obviously tough, experienced and attractive to women. A beautiful woman visits him with a request for help to fetch a young woman home from Dark Bahama. Vallon hardly features after this. Instead we have a variety of agents, all working towards the same end but from different angles. Who can be trusted in this murky world?

The text reads like the script for a film noir; I could almost hear Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity) reading it to me. Cheyney’s characters drink and smoke a great deal, like women and are rootless adventurers. I dislike characters who see themselves as outside the law; it’s one of my chief complaints about Dornford Yates. Yet I go on reading him because he was a good story teller. The same can be said for Cheyney, although I prefer Yates.

Here’s what Peter Quennel wrote for The Daily Mail, quoted on the back cover.
Heavens, what a craftsman! How adroitly he keeps a story going; how cleverly, like an experienced bar-tender, he slaps in and briskly shakes together all the right ingredients – sex, violence, mystery, laced, when the occasion serves, with an entertaining fashion-hint!

Portrait of a successful author. Note the monocle.

Cover of reprint

After reading The White Cottage Mystery, I embarked on a small Allingham re-read. I began with The Fashion in Shrouds, an old favourite set in the upper class, fashionable pre-war world which was then Campion’s natural milieu. I moved on to The China Governess. This was a late addition to my collection and I’d only read it once before, so it was like reading a new book. The plot is very complicated. A young man, Timothy, recently engaged to a beautiful heiress, suddenly discovers that everything he has believed about his birth is wrong. His prospective father-in-law wants to know more before allowing the marriage to take place and most of the book is taken up with finding out the truth.

What struck me on re-reading this was what an isolated little world Margery Allingham created for it. She rarely visited London, preferring to stay at home in the country, yet you believe totally in her imagined little corners of London. This goes for More Work for the Undertaker and The Tiger in the Smoke as well. The China Governess has the usual cast of Albert Campion, Charlie Luke and Lugg but sadly no Amanda, whom Allingham made little use of in her later books. Timothy’s family live in a world of their own; they are a family for whom the very word ‘governess’ is strangely sinister. The book was first published in 1963 but it might as well be 1953. It’s as if the end of the "Chatterley" ban And the Beatles' first LP. had never happened.

more )

I love Margery Allingham’s books, as you can tell from what I’ve written about her before. Yet I’d never read The White Cottage Mystery, her very first detective story. It’s hardly a scarce title, as there was a Penguin edition but it’s been reissued by Bloomsbury with a lovely cover similar to those of the British Library Crime Classics. I read it courtesy of NetGalley. It was first published by The Daily Express in 1927 and features the elderly (according to the author) detective, Challoner, and his son Jerry.

A man who is universally loathed as ‘a devil’ is found murdered in The White Cottage, home to a neighbouring family. Young Jerry coincidentally happens to be on the scene and his father is called in to deal with the case. It’s a tricky one because so many people had a good motive for murdering Crowther and several of them were around White Cottage at the time of the crime. Plus, Jerry is falling in love with one of the suspects and won’t hear a word against her. Challoner soon realises that most of those involved are frightened and are lying to him. The question is: why? The conclusion he eventually comes to is very unusual and for the first time in his career, he abandons a case.

This novel was written very early in Allingham’s career and is nothing like as good as her Campion stories. Yet already she shows the talent for characterisation and the feeling for place which make the Campion stories so successful. It may be considered a minor work in her canon, but for me it’s far better than some of the detective novels being reissued as ‘neglected masterpieces’. She was, quite simply, a far better writer than some of those authors who have been quite justifiably forgotten until now. I felt an Allingham re-read coming on and have started with The Fashion in Shrouds (1938). My old Penguin copy has brown pages and is falling apart, but I’m gripped by the story already.

For a person who has read all the Miss Silver books , I was woefully ignorant about Patricia Wentworth’s work and life. Thanks to Dean Street Press I’ve now read two of the non-Miss Silver books she wrote. Thanks to Curtis Brown’s introductions, I now know something about her life. She began her writing career with historical romances, and moved on to mysteries. When Miss Silver proved so popular, she rather took over from the other detectives Wentworth had created and it’s the thirty two books featuring her which are mostly read today, the others being almost impossible to find. In a long writing career, Patricia Wentworth wrote thirty three mysteries which were not about Miss Silver and Dean Street Press are reissuing the lot. The first batch will be out on 2nd May.

Silence in Court is a punning title. It’s a standalone novel which opens with a young woman called Carey Silence on trial for murder. Although there is a necessary back story, most of the action takes place in court. The book was published in 1945 and Carey is a war casualty, injured when a train she was travelling in was machine gunned. She is taken in by a distant relation who was a friend of her grandmother’s; a rich, capricious old woman who lives with assorted relatives and is constantly changing her will according to how much they annoy her. She takes a great fancy to Carey and changes her will again to leave her a considerable inheritance. When ‘Cousin Honoria’ is murdered, Carey is the chief suspect.

Carey herself is rather a cipher. She’s not fully recovered her health and endures her trial in a dream-like state. Luckily, the relations are more interesting; it’s a pity the liveliest had to be killed off. The court room scenes are tense because the evidence and testimony against Carey are so strong that it’s hard to see how she can be proved innocent. The way the mystery is solved is rather too deus ex machina for me but it’s certainly a surprise. A very enjoyable book.
Benbow )

This is the worst book I’ve read in the BLCC series. First published in 1950, it’s a locked room mystery and seems old fashioned even for that time. A man is found murdered in a locked lift (one of those seaside cliff lifts). First on the scene, after the liftman, is Jimmy London, a former Fleet Street journalist recuperating from an operation in the pleasant resort of Broadgate. By happy coincidence, his old acquaintance Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard is in town and put on the case. What beggars belief is that Shelley would then encourage Jimmy to investigate, putting more trust in him than in the local police. Neither comes over as a pleasant or interesting character.

Forget ‘if you know how, you know who’. The investigation concentrates almost exclusively on the background of the dead man rather than on how he came to be found dead. That’s annoying. The book is also badly written. In the first chapter the word ‘queer’ (as in odd, peculiar), is used repeatedly. Throughout the book Shelley is described as ‘the man from Scotland Yard’ or, as a change, ‘the Scotland Yard man’. It was all rather tedious and I guessed who the murderer was. What a let down. I read it courtesy of NetGalley

Today, Dean Street Press are reissuing all eight Richardson books and they kindly sent me the first one to read. The author was himself Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard for a while, so well placed to write police procedural novels. He’s dead set against the ‘instinct and drugs’ (i.e. Holmes) method of deduction. In his books detectives rely more on perspiration than on inspiration and luck. His character Richardson is interesting because we first meet him as a humble bobby on the beat and he ends up an Inspector.

Richardson’s First Case is a double murder mystery in which everything hangs on not just who killed the victims but which died first. This makes for an absorbing mystery set in a seedy London in which ‘The Yard’ is all powerful. It’s good to see the ambitious Richardson going stoutly and steadily about his work but my chief criticism of the book is that his character is not developed at all. We know absolutely nothing about his background, where he lives, whether or not he has a private life. Modern crime writers tend to make their detectives divorced/ alcoholic/ pursued by private demons and generally full of angst. This can get tedious but I find I want my hero to have some character, which Richardson lacks.

The English Girl , Katherine Webb
One Summer, Ruby M Ayres
Out of Sorts , Aurélie Valognes, Wendeline A. Hardenberg
Summertime , Raffaella Barker
The End of Law , Thérèse Down
Miss Buncle’s Book, D E Stevenson
The Shadow Hour , Kate Riordan
Coming up Roses, Rachael Lucas
The Bungalow Mystery, Annie Haynes
The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson
Remember the Moment, Denise Robertson
reviews )

Dickens at Christmas
A Winterfold Christmas , Harriet Evans
Number 11, Jonathan Coe.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend
The Murder at Sissingham Hall, Clara Benson
The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse , Alan Bradley
Exposure , Helen Dunmore
The Vintage Teacup Club, Vanessa Greene
Let Him Lie , Ianthe Jerrold
The Moonlit Garden , Corina Bomann
Missing or Murdered , Robin Forsythe
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter , Dinah Jefferies
Fencing with Death, Elizabeth Edmondson
Death in Profile, Guy Fraser-Sampson
thoughts )

The man who is either missing or murdered is Lord Bygrave, a wealthy, highly respected official at an unnamed Ministry. One evening he leaves London for the country, spends the night at an inn and next day vanishes, leaving his traps behind in his room. Detective-Inspector Heather of Scotland Yard is on the case but so is ‘Algernon’ Vereker. Eccentric, whimsical Vereker is an artist who obviously has means enough not to rely on painting for a living. He also happens to be a close friend of Bygrave and his executor. The plot unfolds in a leisurely fashion, with Vereker and Heather sparring pleasantly with each other while each hopes to be the first to solve the case.

As there’s no body in the case, it seems impossible to know whether Bygrave has gone missing for reasons of his own or has met with an accident or worse. There are a few obvious suspects, chiefly the nephew who inherits the estate. What about Bygrave’s secretary, rather a cad and with debts? Who is the mystery woman to whom Bygrave apparently made over £10,000 six months before his disappearance? In this case, nothing is straightforward but Heather and Vereker do eventually come to a similar conclusion and solve the mystery.

Missing or Murdered is another offering from Dean Street Press, who kindly sent me a copy of the book to read. They’ve brought out five Vereker mysteries. I really fancy reading The Ginger Cat Mystery for the title alone. A curious fact about the author is that he was himself a civil servant, working at Somerset House, who was sent to prison for a fraud he was involved in there. How many crime writers have a criminal record, I wonder?

Dean Street Press very kindly sent me another of their re-issued golden age of crime books: Let Him Lie by Ianthe Jerrold. An author previously unknown to me who obviously wrote light but very engaging crime fiction.

The story is set in a country house and the local village. Robert Molyneux, owner of the house, is warned that if he excavates a local antiquity known as Grim’s Grave, dire consequences will follow. Molyneux is shot dead while pruning trees in his orchard. The plot is quite technical, as the solution lies in discovering exactly from which angle he was shot and therefore who might have been in a position to do the dirty deed. There are plenty of suspects.

There happened to be lot of people around the house that day. Molyneux’s wife Agnes discovers the body. She seems overcome with shock but is a selfish and calculating woman with secrets in her past. Fone, a local antiquarian who is strongly opposed to the excavation, was in the house and had a clear view of the victim falling from his ladder. He also had access to guns kept in the house. There’s a former secretary who may bear a grudge, a neurotic governess who was in love with Molyneux but kindly rejected by him and Fone’s secretary and factotum, who owed money to the dead man. I expect I’ve left someone out!

There is a detective on the case but it’s solved by Jeanie, a young artist living in a cottage on the estate. She moved there to be near Agnes, to whom she was once devoted. She is now greatly disillusioned and sees the woman’s true character. She doesn’t search for clues and go around asking questions; rather she is intelligent, observant and capable of putting two and two together. As the book reaches its conclusion, Jeanie is in great danger and it all gets quite exciting.

I think it’s great that out of print books like this are being made available again and each only costs 99p to buy for the Kindle. I now have another to read, by Robin Forsythe, and I’m looking forward to it. So far, E R Punshon is my favourite discovery.

This book should perhaps be read as a companion to Murder at the Manor ; set in the country but with the murders taking place out of doors. In his introduction, Martin Edwards quotes Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum (from The Copper Beeches), that there is more evil undetected in the countryside than in the city. Hence the title: murder in Eden destroys what should be a rural idyll. Again, many of the authors are well known. Conan Doyle appears, with a non-Holmes story and we have G K Chesterton and Margery Allingham, too. I liked the Dr Thorndyke mystery, by R Austin Freeman (must read more of these) and another scary one from Ethel Lina White. I’m usually disappointed when I find a book consists of short stories but these detective ones work well and are just the right length to read while having a cup of tea. What could be cosier? I enjoyed the country house book more than this one, but it’s still worth reading. Another book in the British Library Crime Classics series (lovely cover!), which will be out next March. I read this courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley.

Here’s another volume in the British Library Crime Classics series. This time the stories have been chosen because they’re set in country houses, a classic mystery genre. The authors are not forgotten or neglected; the very first story in the book is Conan Doyle’s The Copper Beeches, which must be very well known indeed.

I particularly liked The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley, which was truly baffling. Then there’s a very amusing, tongue in cheek story by E V Knox, The Murder at the Towers. Here’s a flavour of it:

The gathering consisted, as the inspector had foreseen, of the usual types involved in a country house murder, namely, a frightened stepsister of the deceased, a young and beautiful niece, a major, a doctor, a chaperon, a friend, Mr. Porlock himself, an old butler with a beard, a middle-aged gardener with whiskers, an Irish cook, and two servants who had only come to the place the week before.

But whenever Scotland Yard was unable to deal with a murder case—that is to say, whenever a murder case happened at a country house—Bletherby Marge was called in.
Bletherby Marge, indeed!

For me, the most frightening story is An Unlocked Window. It’s by that interesting writer Ethel Lina White, author of The Wheel Spins, which Alfred Hitchcock filmed as The Lady Vanishes. Two nurses alone with their patient in an isolated house, with a murderer on the loose, an atmosphere of fear and terror and a great twist.

I read this courtesy of NetGalley and enjoyed it very much.
Edit: oops, I've only just noticed it's not out until February. Something to look forward to.



January 2017



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