Category Archives: Melville Alan

Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville (1934)

“This is getting too much like one of those gangster films for my liking.”

The gathering of a motley assortment of guests at a remote country house is a staple of crime fiction, but when author Alan Melville adds humour to the mix, the plot suddenly becomes light and breezy. Result: Weekend at Thrackley is a delightful romp.

Jim Henderson, unemployed for three years, and living in a boarding house, is down on his luck and short of funds when he receives an unexpected invitation to Thrackley, a country home for the weekend. He doesn’t know Edwin Carson, the man who sent the invitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Jim thinks that at least he’ll be in for a mini-holiday in Surrey and free grub. Why not accept?

But then Jim talks to his friend, Freddie Usher, who has also received an invitation, and the two friends exchange notes. According to Usher, Carson, who has a shady reputation, as “the greatest living authority on precious stones” is interested in the Usher diamonds, and has requested that Usher bring the diamonds to Thrackley so that Carson can compare the Usher diamonds to some in his own collection.  It seems a foolish idea to agree to Carson’s request since it’s rumoured that Carson may have acquired his collection by nefarious means. Jim is appalled:“You’re not going to?”

“If I can get them out of pawn and give them a wash and a brush up in time. Why not?”

“Of all the blithering, nit-witted –“

But Usher assures Jim that Carson is now “reformed,” plus he’s packing a revolver along with his razor and toothbrush.”

A handful of guests gather at Thrackley for the weekend. The home is isolated and has a depressing, suffocating setting. Along with the host, Carson, his lovely daughter, and a sinister, thuggish butler, there’s Mr and Miss Brampton, Lady Stone, and Miss Raoul, an actress. There’s a commonality with the guests: they all possess a disgusting number of jewels. The exception is Jim, who has  a modest private income but little beyond that. He can’t understand why he was invited, but Carson claims that Jim’s father, (a man Jim knows little about) was his best friend and that they met in prison. This is all news to Jim, and he’s stunned by the revelation.

So here we have a shady jewel collector who has invited jewel laden visitors for the weekend. We more or less can guess why these people have been invited, but the fun here in the story comes from its humorous approach. Jim, as the main character, sniffs out some bizarre goings-on almost immediately and then he enlightens his friend. These two men stumble towards the truth, and a great deal of the novel’s lively wit is derived from their energy and attitude towards life. Jim, for example, considers Lady Catherine Stone, a “dangerous type of woman. The type that spends her days and other people’s days in Getting Up Things; on fifty-three committees, he had heard, and perpetually organizing charity matinees and midnight cabarets and chain teas for vague and unknown institutions.”

According to Freddie, Lady Stone makes an appointment to talk about “the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Aged Organizers of Charity Bazaars, or some such title,” but she fails to meet him. Where did she disappear to? Carson has an explanation, but it seems suspicious at best. Freddie and Jim decide to begin their own investigations which is assisted by the fact that Carson drives off with Raoul, who is “plastered with good jewellery given to her by bad men.” Carson, according to Jim, “is a “dirty old devil,” who tries to isolate Raoul in order to make a pass at her.

I read Death of Anton from the same author, and while I enjoyed it, I preferred Weekend at Thrackley–the opening scenes with Jim’s landlady were brilliant and set the jolly tone for the rest of the bookAccording to the introduction from Martin Edwards, this novel was extremely successful and represented a turning point in the author’s career. Melville went on to have a career in entertainment and given the wonderfully light, well-paced tone of the novel, I’m not surprised.

Review copy

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Death of Anton: Alan Melville (1936)

“When the circus was here last year I was away, helping to bury my brother-in-law. It was the only thing I ever did for my brother-in-law that I didn’t immediately regret afterwards.” (Dodo to Minto)

Crime blended with humour can work well–and it can also be a tasteless disaster. Rest easy crime fans, Alan Melville’s Death of Anton from British Library Crime Classics is a delight.

Death of anton

As the cover indicates, this is a novel that focuses on a circus– Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie to be precise, which arrives in town for a number of performances. Also in town is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Minto who is dealing with family problems (namely a younger sister with a penchant for trouble who insists on marrying a gormless vacuum cleaner salesman).

Detective Inspector Minto strikes up a conversation with a man in the hotel dining room, and the man, who is the circus clown Dodo, mentions, before he realizes that he’s confiding in a Scotland Yard police detective, that the circus is a hotbed of crime:

No, Mr Minto, if it’s crime you’re after. Carey’s is the place for it. Theft, immorality, blackmail-you’ll find all the pretties there.

This incident turns out to be significant when the circus lion tamer, Anton, is found dead in the lion cage. First appearances indicate that he was mauled to death, but in reality, he’s been murdered, and someone’s made a clumsy attempt to cover up the crime.

Minto becomes an instant fan of the circus, and when he’s also befriended by some of the circus workers, naturally he becomes embroiled in solving the crime. There’s no shortage of suspects. Scraping away the facade of the circus as some sort of ‘family,’ we see that there was some funny business between Anton and the womanizing owner, Joseph Carey who makes many enemies through his “amorous adventures.” Anton stirred the jealousy of a another circus performer, and there’s also Anton’s ex-partner, Miller, who was kicked out of the lion act. Before Anton’s murder, there’s a wonderful section which details Anton’s performance in the ring with the tigers, and the tension and very real threat of violence is well conveyed. Circus life may be non-traditional, but it’s also portrayed as slightly claustrophobic, distilled into a microcosm, full of rivalries and tensions. The married trapeze artists, Loretta and Lorimer are perfect examples of this; husband and wife squabble over her behaviour, and whereas an ‘ordinary couple’ might stew in silent rage, we see how trust is so important when you are swinging, passing from one trapeze bar to another, 100s of feet up in the air without a net below.  ‘Mistakes’ in timing are fatal, so trapeze performers need marital bliss or risk death.

The delight here comes in the humour, and we see the dynamics of the Minto family set within the construct of the crime. Early on in the novel, the murderer confesses to Detective Inspector Minto’s brother who is a priest. Father Minto won’t reveal the confessor and DS Minto wishes that his brother “had stuck to his original idea of becoming an engine driver.” 

I knew very early in this novel that I was going to love it. Here’s Minto questioning Mr. Carey

“What did you find?” asked Mr. Carey. He seemed a little worried about this.

“Never mind. And stop asking me questions. It’s most disconcerting. I’ve lost the place now–where were we? Oh yes. Anton, for the third and last time, was killed during the party–probably between midnight and one-thirty. So that anyone who wasn’t at the party at that time is under suspicion. Clark Gable, for instance. The Emir of Transjordania, for example. Or the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Or you… You left the party about half past twelve, didn’t you? You’d any amount of time to do it. Much more time than Mr. Gable or the Emir of Transjordania. In fact I think we can safely wipe them out. I’m not so sure about the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He might have been addressing a meeting in the district, and nipped over and done it.”

I follow several other crime bloggers and they all reviewed this novel enthusiastically too, so I’d say if you are at all interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction or British Library Crime Classics, give this one a go.

Cross Examining Crime

The Invisible Event

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

(I thought Catholic priests were required to report crimes as serious as murder so I looked it up and apparently they aren’t. They keep quiet about child abuse, so why was I surprised.)

Finally for animal lovers, the tigers don’t fare well, and reading the book was a painful reminder about the lives of some of the animals (and an argument for the closing of all animal acts.)

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Melville Alan