Tag Archives: British crime fiction

Rush of Blood: Mark Billingham

In Mark Billingham’s suspenseful crime novel, Rush of Blood, three British couples meet at a Florida resort, and in spite of the fact they are all quite different, they spend their days and evenings together on the beach, at the mall and at various bars and restaurants. Just as the holiday concludes, Amber, a young girl from Georgia who is also staying at the resort with her mother disappears. While the mother frantically looks for her child, the three couples lounge by the pool; it’s their last day. Why should they spend it chasing after a girl who was a bit of a nuisance to the holidaymakers?

The three couples return to their lives in England while the search for Amber rages on in their absence. Then her body is found and a murder investigation begins. In Florida, the investigation is headed by Detective Jeffrey Gardner,  and for the purposes of tying up loose ends, he asks the British police for some follow-up information from the three couples. Trainee Detective Constable Jenny Quinlan is assigned to the task as it’s considered a very minor job, but Jenny doesn’t see it that way; she takes it seriously. Then when another girl similar to Amber goes missing in Kent, it seems that the six holiday makers have moved from being witnesses to being suspects.

rush-of-blood

Mark Billingham takes us into the lives of the three couples: the obnoxious Ed whose job in the publishing industry is in a downward spiral and his teacher wife, Sue. Then there’s builder Barry and his second wife Angie. Finally there’s would-be actress/writer Marina and her boyfriend Dave–a very mismatched couple.

When the three couples parted ways in Florida, there were some airy promises made about exchanging e-mails and keeping in touch. Angie is the one who pushes keeping the connection almost as though the unsolved crime leaves unfinished business between them. The novel goes back and forth between the couples and the three dinners they have together back in Britain, and we view the “Sarasota Six”  as they see themselves but also as they are seen by others. Ed, with his constant sexual innuendos, is clearly the alpha male, and Dave’s fascination with crime is supposed to be seen as creepy (we crime readers can understand), but the relationships between the women are not so easy to define. TDC Quinlan finds them all a bit weird

Barry Finnegan was clearly capable of snapping without much provocation. Ed Dunning was a sleazebag and Dave Cullen was just downright creepy.

Some chapters are also told by the killer, and of course we try to guess the masked identity. I loved the novel’s premise of the holiday that goes wrong and the plot structure which shows the couples trying to sink back into normalcy but that happy state evades them. The relationships between the couples are well done and highlight the competitiveness through the dinners. The weakness for this reader resides in the way that it seems fairly obvious, through the process of elmination, who the killer is. The plot breadcrumbs to the solution were so obvious that I knew it couldn’t be that simple and guessed the identity of the killer fairly early on.

Luck and lies then, that’s about the size of it. The other thing, the ‘why’, well that’s not really for me to say, is it? Anyway, I’m not sure I could put it into words that made sense and how could anybody? Whatever it is that makes your blood race and puts your hands where you know they really shouldn’t be.

The thing that opens the cage. 

Here’s Cleo’s review.

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But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

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Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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The Beautiful Dead: Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer’s crime novel, The Beautiful Dead begins with the brutal slaying of a young female office worker. We don’t know the name of the killer, but we know that he’s driven by dark impulses that won’t be satisfied with one bloody death. Eve Singer, reporter for iWitness News, on the so-called “meat beat,” is so repulsed by the murder scene that she ends up vomiting in the toilet much to the amusement of rival reporter and overall wanker Guy Smith from News 24/7.  

beautiful-dead

Even though Eve has worked on the crime beat for three years, there’s something particularly horrible about this crime, and even Joe, Eve’s cameraman imagines the horror of the victim’s death:

“Seriously,” he said while he checked the light. “Imagine all those people right there, half an inch away through a pane of glass, Christmas shopping. While some sicko is gutting you like a fish.”

One death soon becomes two, and it’s at that point that Eve is contacted by the serial killer who stages spectacular gory deaths and imagines that he and Eve are somehow in this ‘thing’ together:

We’re in the same line of work, you and I. I need people to die in order to live–and so do you. We’re the same. We want the same things.

Eve already doesn’t like her job and feels morally compromised by certain situations when she begins getting special favours from the killer–without giving too much away–she basically gets a ringside seat. In terms of scooping news stories, this is, of course, a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time, giving the killer a voice and an audience may encourage him. So Eve has a moral dilemma: should she use the exclusives the killer gives her?

Belinda Bauer sets the stage to show us Eve’s desperation. Eve has financial concerns, and she’s in a highly competitive career . If she’s too squeamish to use the killer’s news exclusive ‘gifts,’ others are not, so it’s very easy to justify forming this sort of uneasy partnership with the killer. Also Eve’s job in front of the camera has a very definite shelf life; can she afford to be ethical? But on the other hand if she forms this slimy alliance with a psycho, how will she sleep at night?

There’s a lot of backstory (sometimes too much) to this tale and we see Eve’s problematic home life where she has the burden of her father’s care. We see Eve’s day-to-day job where it’s normal for her to intrude on private lives and speculate on the grief of the families of victims. She’s already engaged in behaviour that most of us would avoid when the serial killer decides to be her ‘friend.’

I really enjoyed Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye which took a different path in its exploration of crime and psychics. The Shut Eye was not gory, and so I was not really prepared for the amount of gore in these pages.  Readers are best warned before coming to the book that the deaths occur on the page, so to speak. I really liked the character of forensics officer, Veronica Creed who has “the calm detachment of a psychopath, but none of the comforting iron bars between her and the rest of the world,” and I wished we’d seen more of her. Super-serial killers are not my favourite crime sub-genre, so that added to the gore and a Hollywood-style ending all combined into a less than positive reading experience.

But for an entirely different opinion, go to Cleo’s review here.

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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.

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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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The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin (1946)

“One never knows with poets.”

In Edmund Crispin’s wonderfully funny crime novel, The Moving Toyshop, Poet Richard Cadogan pressures his publisher for an advance on his next book of poems, and so with fifty pounds in his hot little hands, he hightails it to Oxford for a much needed holiday. Having missed the last train, he hitchhikes into Oxford, and arriving late in  town, he stumbles into a toyshop. Imagine his shock when he finds a dead woman inside the building, but before he can call for help, he’s coshed on the head. When he wakes up stuffed in a cupboard, he dashes off to the police, and the police return, with Cadogan, to the scene of the crime. The toyshop has turned into a grocery shop, there’s no dead body, and the police dismiss Cadogan’s story. Cadogan decides to call upon the assistance of Gervase Fen, assistant professor at St Christopher’s College.

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The energetic, indefatigable Gervase Fen, who roars around Oxford in a red “battered” sports car named LILY CHRISTINE III, decides to investigate, refusing to turn the case over to the police. In fact he spends most of the book avoiding them with the exception of frequent phone calls to the Chief Inspector who only wants to discuss Shakespeare, but these short conversations always end with Fen hanging up.

“Gervase, it’s a common view that Measure for Measure is about chastity–“

“Very common indeed,” said Fen. “Quite reprehensible. Goodbye.” He rang off.

In his efforts to solve the crime, Fen rustles up a band of assistants including the lorry driver who reads D.H Lawrence and an amorous undergraduate whose success with women comes down to plying them with chocolates.

There are so many wonderful scenes in this literature-loving crime novel. Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,”  also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,“Detestable Characters in Fiction,” and “Unreadable Books.” In one lively scene at the pub, a debate rages over the merits of  Jane Austen, and the clues to the identities of possible murder suspects are found embedded in the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. Fen breaks the ‘fourth wall’ when he jokes about thinking about titles for Edmund Crispin’s books.

The Moving Toyshop is a romp. Although by the end of the book there are several dead bodies, our heroes are never really in danger, and they are clearly having a great time–well the inexhaustible Fen is having fun, but then he doesn’t appear to have any self-doubt or an iota of fear. The plot barrels along at a breakneck pace, but it’s the author’s wonderful, lightening sense of humour that elevate this novel and make it really something extraordinary. Here are just two examples:

At one point a policeman stops Fen and Cadogan as they pursue a young blonde suspected of involvement in the murder through the streets of Oxford:

The constable scratched his nose. “Well now,” he said. “We’re all for love in the Force, but fair’s fair, you know. One of you at a time, and no stampeding.”

And at another point, Cadogan’s publisher, who doesn’t want to give the poet an advance in order for him to take a holiday, offers a few days at his country home instead:

“Perhaps you’d like to stay with me for a few days at Caxton’s Folly?”

“Can you give me adventure, excitement, lovely women?”

“These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there’s my wife…” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.

The Moving Toyshop is book 3 in Edmund Crispin’s (real name Robert Mongomery 1921-1978) Gervase Fen series. I’ve also read The Glimpses of the Moon, book 9 in the series, and strangely, Fen seems to be a much more developed character in book 3 than in book 9. JJ at The Invisible Event says that The Moving Toyshop is the best of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series. 

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The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

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We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm: Gil North (1960)

“Of course it couldn’t be murder. Not in Gunnarshaw.”

When the body of married woman, Amy Wright is found in her gas-filled home, everyone in the small Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw assumes it’s a case of suicide. After years of nursing her ailing mother, Amy, a woman in her 40s, married a man many years her junior, a ne’er-do-well and a known womanizer. The consensus of the town is that Amy’s death is the sad conclusion to a bad mistake. Everyone from the police surgeon to Inspector Mole tells Sgt Cluff that Amy’s death is sad, yes, but nothing to get worked up about. But Sgt Cluff, a Yorkshire man of very strong opinions, is deeply troubled by Amy’s death.

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm from Gil North shows a world in flux. The market town of Gunnarshaw has many houses in which bedrooms have been converted into that perennial luxury: an indoor bathroom. Cottages are being demolished to make way for businesses. This is a time when suicide is illegal, before the birth control  pill became “available for all” on the NHS. This was also the end of the age when it was common for children to nurse their ailing parents until death.

In Cluff, we have a hero who hates his car, loves his dog (who accompanies him on his investigations), a solitary man who’s bonded to the land and has a solid moral core when it comes to right and wrong. Cluff isn’t entirely convinced that Amy’s death was suicide, and yet even if it was, can justice be brought to the callous husband who pushed her so far? Cluff takes a holiday to pursue the case, and that means keeping a close eye on Amy’s philandering husband in this tale of marital strife and revenge.There’s more than a dash of misogyny in the novel–but this is clearly not from the author but from some of more ungracious characters who pass judgments on Amy who is seen, by some, as foolish for marrying a man so much younger than herself in an ‘well-she-asked-for-it’ sort of way. The author makes it easy to delineate characters into those we should like and those we should dislike by their treatment of Cluff’s dog.

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is the first in a series of 11 novels. Gil North (1916-1988) whose real name was Geoffrey Horne was, like his protagonist, from Yorkshire, and his Cluff books were very popular in the sixties, spawning a television series. Sgt Caleb Cluff, a heavy-set bachelor who lives with a Persian cat and a dog named Clive (one in a series of Clives) is a solid character who inspires respect from the locals and fear in the baddies. Inspector Mole, Cluff’s superior, dislikes animals and is a snob. He is “at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch.” Mole underestimates Cluff, and yet Mole also dismisses the darker aspects of the Amy Wright case in his eagerness to end the investigation. According to Mole, “there’s nothing to get excited about,” and even the police surgeon chalks the woman’s suicide up to “the menopause.

This is a short, cinematic novel–not really a whodunnit. Instead the plot shows two people who made marriages for material gain–a young, ambitious woman who married a much older farmer, and the sleazy Wright who married Amy for the security she offered. Cluff is positioned in the novel, unusually for a policeman, as a wrathful, vengeful man who intends to get ‘justice’ for Amy–a woman who was neglected and ignored by everyone who knew her. As a crime novel, Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is an unusual pick for British Library Crime Classics, but then that’s part of the attraction of the series which introduces readers to British crime classics that were formerly OOP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s a competently plotted novel–although I did find some of the descriptive sentence pacing on the annoying side:

He was meagre under his gaberdine raincoat, his knees pointed, his shanks like sticks under their covering. His eyes were shifty, never still. His lips were hardly perceptible. His nose was sharp like a ferret’s. He gave the impression of being suddenly trapped. He opened his mouth. His teeth were needles.

The novel’s strength comes in the force of Cluff’s personality and battle between good and evil. Analytically, given the times, Cluff could be seen as a bastion of moral values. He doesn’t approve of a young woman in the book who appears to be a quasi-prostitute, so perhaps Cluff’s popularity was partly in response to what was perceived as the erosion of morality in the 60s. We have no doubt that crime would run amok in Yorkshire if not for Cluff’s impressive presence, and as always with a series, it’s affection for the main character that guarantees success.

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A Scream in Soho: John G. Brandon (1940)

“But the unfortunate thing about murder, Sergeant,” McCarthy pursued in that whimsical tone of his, “is that it is never committed according to any rules.”

John G. Brandon’s novel A Scream in Soho is set in wartime London, and while this is an entertaining entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, the book, with its emphasis on espionage, is also part thriller. This wasn’t an entirely successful blend in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, but Brandon makes his novel work. We never forget that there are crimes afoot, but the energetic Detective Inspector McCarthy of Scotland Yard is not on the hunt for ordinary killers, but for spies!

A scream in soho

The book opens in Soho on a dark grim night with Detective Inspector McCarthy waiting for an informant inside an Italian cafe. These first scenes set the tone for the novel with its atmosphere of wartime tension, the cosmopolitan population of refugees, and criminal enterprises which thrive in the Blackout. Early scenes establish the unique state of the country, emphasizing the mish mash of the Soho populace. There are plenty of Italians here–including members of the Mafia, the Camorrista, and also a flood of refugees.We see the crowds of people through McCarthy’s eyes as he notes the Austrian and German refugees:

Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwithstanding the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.

But-and it was a very large “but”-there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. 

Later that night, a constable hears a scream; the scream is also heard by our intrepid main character Detective Inspector McCarthy, who’s about to go to bed. McCarthy, clad in his pajamas, leaves his house and goes to the location of the scream. But there’s no body, just a woman’s hankerchief, a blood stained dagger and McCarthy’s hunch that a murder has taken place. …

The scream heralds the beginning of a series of crimes and murders, and of course, McCarthy investigates. I can’t even say that he heads the investigation as he operates outside of any sort of institution. He doesn’t use policemen to help–but instead employs “Danny the Dip,” a sneaky underworld figure and also enlists the services of a stalwart London cab driver.

This is a well-paced story with practically no down time. As a crime/thriller it works well. McCarthy, although at a loss for how to proceed at several points in the book, never really breaks a sweat or loses his sense of humour. As the book continues it becomes evident, from plot twists, that McCarthy is a lone wolf who prefers to hunt his prey with very little outside assistance.

I laughed when the sex of a murder victim is up for discussion and the coroner suggests that McCarthy establish the victim’s sex by feeling the stubble on the dead man’s chin–how much simpler to just have a look at the naked corpse, but this is, after all, 1940. Anyway, this was a very entertaining, enjoyable read which reflects the concerns and fears of the times. Regarding the crime/thriller blend here, Martin Edwards, in his introduction notes that Brandon aimed to produce a thriller and was “writing at a time when there was a sharp divide between the two styles of popular fiction. Sayers was prominent in the Detection Club, which excluded thriller writers from membership.”

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Death on the Cherwell: Mavis Doriel Hay (1935)

“But look here, aren’t there some people called police–or don’t you have them in Oxford?”

Death on the Cherwell from author Mavis Doriel Hay is a light-hearted crime novel centered on the murder of the much disliked Miss Denning, the Bursar of the all-female Persephone College in Oxford. The book’s excellent introduction from Stephen Booth gives an overview of the author’s life, stating that Persephone College is recognizable as St Hilda’s–one of two women’s colleges on the Cherwell. Mavis Doriel Hay attended St Hilda’s at a time when women were not “eligible for degrees,” and as Booth notes, “in the circumstance, it is understandable that one of the themes of Death on the Cherwell is a prejudice against women.”

death on the cherwell

The novel opens on a January afternoon with several female undergraduates gathering for a meeting on the top of the boathouse roof. This opening sets the tone for the story with its emphasis on the enthusiasm and energy of the young women:

Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human.

Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives. Inspirited by their knowledge of the ways in which authority may be mocked, they are at the same time quite ridiculously uplifted by the easy possibility of achieving local fame in the limited university world during the next few years.

As the young women, with their ringleader Sally, gather on the roof of the boathouse, the Bursar’s canoe comes floating down the Cherwell. At first, the canoe appears to be empty, and sensing something wrong, the undergraduates pull the boat to shore. The Bursar is lying in the canoe–dead. She’s been drowned but then placed back in the canoe.

The genial Detective Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard arrives to solve the crime, and while his methods of detection are fairly standard, Sally and her friends decide to do some sleuthing of their own–ostensibly to ‘protect’ the “Yugo-Slav” student Draga, who stands out as eccentric, ‘different,’ and a suspect. Draga, though, is clearly a pretext for Sally and her friends to become involved in this pleasant romp of a murder mystery.

The book bogs down a bit as the inspector tries to establish alibis, but overall the story is well done. There are references to Oxford of the 30s (Blackwell whose idea “was to run a bookshop and actually to sell books”), “late leave,” and the social relationships between male and female students. There’s one very funny scene in which a male student tries to plug his poetry book using various tactics, there’s also an insanely misogynistic character and many references regarding attitudes to women.

“Why do most women get murdered?” asked Dumps.

“Unfortunately they don’t,” Coniston informed him.

“But most of those who do–“

“Intrigue!” Owen hazarded. “Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two.”

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Filed under Fiction, Hay Mavis Doriel

Die of Shame: Mark Billingham

It seemed appropriate to move from people locked up in an Asylum to people in a recovery support group for various addictions.  Author Mark Billingham is arguably best known for his Tom Thorne novels, but Die of Shame is a standalone crime novel which emphasizes the dynamics and relationships within a support group.

die of shame

Therapist Tony De Silva, much to his wife Nina’s annoyance, holds the support group meetings at his posh London home. It’s a small group consisting of Robin, a doctor, ex-junkie Heather, sometime rent boy Chris Clemence, and well-to-do divorced Diana. The group dynamic shifts when the morbidly obese Caroline joins the weekly meetings.

The group members usually socialize at a local pub after the Monday night meetings, but the relationships are really rather forced. While all the group members share the common problem of a past addiction, these people come from different walks of life and in any other circumstances would not mingle.

A respected doctor in his early sixties, with a history of addiction to a variety of easily available medications. A thirty-two-year-old woman once addicted to drugs and gambling. A young gay man, living in a series of hostels and shelters, his drug dependency now replaced by an addiction to computer games and online pornography. A well-heeled housewife who had drifted into alcoholism as her domestic life had disintegrated and now shops compulsively instead of reaching for a bottle of wine at breakfast.

Tensions within the group increase when therapist Tony decides that exploring past events that caused group members to feel shame might well address the root problem of addiction. The group members find themselves sharing information that’s been long buried.

The group is a mixed, and believable bunch of recovering addicts: Diana, an alcoholic, is a middle aged woman who cannot accept that her husband has divorced her after meeting a much younger woman. Diane lives in a beautiful home and has no money worries, but nothing fills the void created by her bitter loneliness. Robin, a doctor with access to all sorts of drugs, ran amok with the privileges extended by his medical license, but he managed to pull himself out of the abyss of addiction–not before infecting several people with Hepatitis C. Heather, a rather tomboyish ex junkie and gambler, ekes out a marginal living on state assistance, and she’s closest to sometime rent boy, the homeless, acerbic and unpopular Chris.

The book goes back and forth between the murder investigation of one of the group members and the weekly sessions conducted by Tony. As the story unfolds, we see that Tony, with a resentful wife and a pot-smoking rebellious teenage daughter, has a number of problems of his own. The sessions between the recovering addicts come to crackling life while showing the tensions and burdens of sharing information.

What about you?” Heather asks. She looks at Caroline.

“Oh, please!” Chris leans forward. “It’s not like you need to be Sherlock Holmes, is it? Look at her.”

“You are such a twat,” Heather says.

“I’m used to it,” Caroline says. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“That’s good,” Tony says.

“Yes … I had a problem with compulsive overeating. I’ve always had … issues with food, with weight. Then, when my knees started to give out, I got hooked in painkillers. So …”

“Right,” Chris says, “But it’s really all about why your knees gave out, isn’t it? Your basic addiction is to cake at the end of the day. Eating all the pies.” 

DI Nicola Tanner investigates the murder. She’s  a humourless, but not unsympathetic character, a lesbian whose partner has a drinking problem, and so there are moments when aspects of the investigation become personally relevant for Tanner. The investigation is hampered by Tony’s reluctance to share information about the group’s sessions, but Tanner is convinced that the solution to the murder lies with the group members. In spite of the book’s length, author Billingham keeps tension and interest high, and the ending, which is, somewhat disappointingly, not conclusive, hints that perhaps the story doesn’t finish here.

Thanks to Cleopatra Loves Books for pointing me towards the book in the first place.

Review copy

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Filed under Billingham Mark, Fiction