Category Archives: Allingham Margery

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries. ed. by Martin Edwards

“It’s the bloke who spends the night in the haunted chamber who always cops it in the neck.”

Crimson Snow, a collection of crime stories set around the Christmas season is a perfect companion read to Mystery in White. Short story collections are a wonderful way to ‘try out’ new authors, and in the case of Crimson Snow, I had a reunion with Margery Allingham and met some new (to me) interesting authors. And here’s the line-up:

The Ghost’s Touch: Fergus Hume

The Chopham Affair: Edgar Wallace

The Man with the Sack: Margery Allingham

Christmas Eve: S.C. Roberts

Death in December: Victor Gunn

Murder at Christmas: Christopher Bush

Off the Tiles: Ianthe Jerrold

Mr Cork’s Secret: Macdonald Hastings

The Santa Claus Club: Julian Symons

Deep and Crisp and Even: Michael Gilbert

The Carol Singers: Josephine Bell

Solution to Mr Cork’s Secret: (author’s solution and two winning entries)

I shan’t cover every story in the review, but will instead focus on some favourites. The collection itself presents a pleasant variety with private citizens, an unpaid PI, and a few policemen in the mix. While there’s a range of stories, I found myself really enjoying the blend of voices here.

crimson-snow

I’ve been meaning to read Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hansom Cab for years, so I was delighted to read his short story, The Ghost’s Touch, in which the narrator, Doctor Lascalles is invited by an Australian friend, Frank Ringan to spend Christmas at the “family seat near Christchurch.” Frank, whose father made his fortune in the “gold-digging days”  is the wealthy member of the family, but the “head of the family” is Frank’s cousin impoverished Percy Ringan. Alarm bells ring in the mind of any self-respecting crime reader when we learn that the Ringan cousins have made their wills in each other’s favour.

Frank is extremely proud of the ancestral estate and “the position and antiquity of his family,” so he’s thrilled to spend a traditional English Christmas at the ancestral estate at Ringshaw Grange.

It was a wonderful old barrack of a place, with broad passages, twisting interminable like the labyrinth of Daedalus; small bedrooms furnished in an old-fashioned manner; and vast reception apartments with polished floors and painted ceilings. 

At Ringshaw Grange, however, things begin to go wrong when there’s an unexplained fire in Frank’s bedroom and he’s moved to the notorious haunted chamber, the Blue Room. …

Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair was another pleasant surprise. In the introduction, Martin Edwards states that while “subtlety was not” Wallace’s strongest point, “his short stories have arguably stood the test of time.”  The Chopham Affair, a story of blackmail and murder, was excellent, and this is how it begins:

Lawyers who write books are not, as a rule, popular with their confrères, but Archibald Lenton, the most brilliant of prosecuting attorneys, was an exception.

Off the Tiles from Ianthe Jerrold is a short story with a twist as it ends not so much with a solution (which does occur) as with an observation on the unwavering consistency of human behaviour. The story is an investigation into the death of a woman who appears to have fallen off of her roof. Hostilities exist between the dead woman and her neighbours and the dead woman’s sister insists that murder has occurred.

The Man with the Sack from Margery Allingham was a delight. It’s a story in which we find poor Albert Campion roped into being an unpaid PI during a Christmas gathering which takes place at the home of some old friends. In The Santa Claus Club from Julian Symons, private investigator Francis Quarles is employed by the wealthy Lord Acrise who has been receiving threatening letters from a man who went to prison decades earlier. Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas is the story of a golfing holiday interrupted, most inconveniently, by a murder. Victor Gunn’s amusing Death in December features Chief Inspector Bill ‘Ironsides’ Cromwell who investigates a murder that takes place during the holidays at a castle. A dead body pops up and then everyone finds themselves snowed in….

“A fine place to bring me to for Christmas,” he said sourly. “Ghosts all over the place before we even get indoors!”

Crimson Snow, and what a apt title that is, is a most enjoyable read for the season.

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Bush Christopher, Fiction, Gunn Victor, Hume Fergus, Jerrold Ianthe, Symons Julian, Wallace Edgar

Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes Ed. Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes is another selection in the British Crime Library Classics series. I knew that this was a selection of short stories, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the crimes within these pages are not all murders. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a list of the stories:

  • The Black Doctor: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Murder by Proxy: M. McDonnell Bodkin
  • The Fad of the Fisherman: G. K Chesterton
  • The Genuine Tabard: E.C. Bentley
  • The Gylston Slander: Herbert Jenkins
  • The Long Barrow: H. C. Bailey
  • The Naturalist at Law: R. Austin Freeman
  • A Proper Mystery: Margery Allingham
  • Direct Evidence: Anthony Berkeley
  • Inquest: Leonora Woodhouse
  • The Scarecrow: Ethel Lina White
  • Clue in the Mustard: Leo Bruce
  • Our Pageant: Gladys Mitchell

Martin Edwards provides a wonderful introduction to these tales, and this includes a quote from Sherlock Holmes:

It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that that lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.

Edwards also ties in Auden’s feeling that crime in the countryside has a particular quality to it: “the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder,” and also discusses Colin Watson’s term “Mayhem Parva” to describe the subgenre of crime in the English village which Edwards argues is personified in the extremely popular Midsomer Murders.

It’s here in this aptly-named collection that you can definitely see the roots of the cosy. In Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, for example, the crime involves the possible sabotage of the village flower show and the judging of just who’s grown the best vegetables. E.C. Bentley’s The Genuine Tabard involves some gullible American tourists while The Glyston Slander is the story of the damage wrought by a chain of anonymous poisoned pen letters–hard to imagine Scotland Yard these days dropping whatever else they’re doing to go chase the anonymous letter writer in a sleepy little village, but that’s exactly what happens in Herbert Jenkins’ story.

serpents in eden

I’ve said it before, so here it is once again–short story collections are a great way to discover ‘new’ authors, and this collection contains some gems. I’d heard a great deal about R. Austin Freeman and Anthony Berkeley so I was delighted to find a short story from each of them here. R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law is the story of a man who is found, apparently drowned, in a shallow ditch. There are a couple of things wrong with the scenario–the victim’s dental bridge and his keys are missing. Series character Thorndyke notes a third element of the puzzle that doesn’t add up, but to mention this will give away too much of the story– our sleuth holds this key piece of evidence back until the big Reveal.

Another favourite story, Direct Evidence from Anthony Berkeley (1893-1971) features the author’s series character, Roger Sheringham, and involves a case in which Sheringham can apply one of his pet theories: that “a grain of circumstantial evidence […] is worth a ton of direct evidence almost every time” although “it’s the fashion, of course, to sneer at circumstantial evidence.”

But circumstantial evidence eliminates the human factor. Circumstantial evidence is the only evidence by which a case can really be proved, logically and irrefutably.

Sheringham is busy arguing his point with his sidekick Alec, when a damsel in distress walks in and asks Sheringham to help her brother, James. James was known to be involved romantically with a married woman, a “scalphunter,” named Mrs Greyling, and according to a dozen eyewitnesses who witnessed a quarrel between the two, James shot Mrs Greyling and killed her. James will likely hang for the crime unless Sheringham can prove that a dozen witnesses were wrong.

There’s also a very unusual story, Inquest, from P.G Wodehouse’s stepdaughter. A country doctor steps into a train bound for London, and distracted by the fact he’s forgotten his shopping list, he can’t quite place his fellow passenger. But when the passenger coughs, then the doctor remembers that he met this man, a clerk, at the house of an unpleasant man who may have been murdered but whose death was ruled, ultimately, as a suicide.
I have to mention Ethel Lina White’s story The Scarecrow which features a woman-in-peril (White’s forte) whose former lover, a man who attempted to strangle her, has escaped from a mental hospital.

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Bailey H. C., Berkeley Anthony, Fiction, R. Austin Freeman, White Ethel Lina

Silent Nights: Martin Edwards ed.

“Not a nice murder. Not at all a nice murder.”

Silent Nights, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, is a compilation of short stories–all with the common factor that the action takes place over Christmas. Police agencies and even the FBI warn that crime increases during the holiday season. Is it all the late night shopping, the carrying of cash? In other words, is the increase due to increased opportunities or are the statistics driven more by the need of the criminal to provide extra for their families? After reading Silent Nights, if there’s a connective theme, it’s how the Christmas season creates opportunities for criminals, and in some instances the season even creates such tempting opportunities that normally honest people turn to crime.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

  • The Blue Carbuncle: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour Tricks: Ralph Plummer
  • A Happy Solution: Raymund Allen
  • The Flying Stars: G. K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing: Edgar Wallace
  • The Unknown Murderer: H.C. Bailey
  • The Absconding Treasurer: J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The Necklace of Pearls: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Case is Altered: Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks: Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing
  • A Problem in White: Nicholas Blake
  • The Name on the Window: Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas: Leo Bruce

Short story collections are a great way to discover new names, and in  Silent Nights, there are some very famous names and others I’d never heard of. This collection begins with an intro by Martin Edwards and each story is prefaced with short biographical content.

silent nightsSome of the stories are very traditional ‘who-dun-its,’ so in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the mystery concerns a lost top hat and a stolen diamond with Holmes managing to deduce a great deal from the hat that has seen better days while Watson stands on the sidelines wondering just how Holmes manages to make such brilliantly accurate conclusions.  Other stories, such as Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls and Edgar Wallace’s Stuffing take place at Christmas country gatherings. Some stories are very deadly serious detective stories which concern murder while other stories are light and humorous in tone.

“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; “and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”

“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice,” to own your own soot.”

That’s an excerpt from the witty G.K Chesterton story, The Flying Stars.

Of the collection, and there’s a very nice range of stories here, I have to say that I was much more attracted to the unusual stories: The Unknown Murderer: H. C Bailey, Waxworks: Ethel Lina White, Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen, and The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing.

The Unknown Murderer from H. C Bailey is the story of a serial killer, and the story’s powerful sense of evil set this tale rather disturbingly apart from the others. Waxworks from Ethel Lina White concerns an intrepid young female reporter who opts to spend the night in a waxworks museum to investigate the truth behind the mysterious deaths that have taken place there. In Cambric Tea, a young doctor sacrifices  his Christmas holiday in order to attend to a cantankerous old man who insists he’s being poisoned by his wife. In The Chinese Apple, a woman reluctantly travels to England from Florence in order to take over the care of a niece she’s never met.

Ethel Lina White also wrote the novel Some Must Watch which was made into the film The Spiral Staircase. Joseph Shearing is one of the male pen names used by Marjorie Bowen, so in other words, she ( author’s real name, Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long)  made my short list twice. The biographical intro to the story from Martin Edwards mentions that ‘Joseph Shearing’ wrote For Her to See (made into the film So Evil My Love) which was inspired by the real Charles Bravo murder case. Film fans may be interested to know that Marjorie Bowen, as Joseph Shearing  also wrote Blanche Fury and Moss Rose. Three out of four of my favourite stories, Waxworks, Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple were very cinematic stories, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham (1929)

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

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