Tag Archives: Golden Age of detective fiction

The Murder of My Aunt: Richard Hull (1934)

Murder has several sub-categories: there’s the Crime of Passion, murders for monetary gain, murders for revenge, and the list goes on. When the victim is known to the murderer, naturally, the possibility of motive (or motives) can help solve the case. So the dilemma arises, then– how to murder someone if it’s obvious that you are the most likely culprit?

The Murder of my aunt

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred just outside of the Welsh town of Llwll (which Edward pronounces ‘Filth.’) Edward prefers Surrey, but if he could choose to live anywhere, he would move abroad. The novel opens with snobbish, pretentious Edward launching into a long vitriolic attack on Wales.

There is a high street. It has a post office, from which the letters are occasionally deviled and occasionally not–some grocers, dealing almost entirely in tinned food of the most elementary and obvious kind at fifty per cent more than the proper price; and some butchers, selling mainly New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon and Argentine beef, which is ridiculous in a countryside which, whatever its defects, is full of sheep–peculiarly stupid sheep–and very inquisitive pigs.

There’s one cinema in town but Edward does “not consent to be seen” there as the locals smell. But then does Edward like anything? Yes he does, he loves leisure, loves his car which is named “La Joyeuse,” loves his Pekingese So-So, and loves his French novels

Edward and his Aunt Mildred are more like each other than they’d care to admit, and the two embark on a contest of wills concerning Edward’s smutty (according to his Aunt)  French novels. Edward wants the latest shipment delivered to his aunt’s house and she wants him to start hoofing it to town to pick up the package. A power struggle ensues over petrol with Edward planning to siphon petrol from his Aunt’s car, but she’s so intent on making him walk, that she actually siphons the petrol off herself.

With just a tiny amount of petrol salvaged from his Aunt’s sabotage attempts, Edward tries to drive to the town and then is forced, when the car runs out of petrol, to walk. He realises that he’s the laughing-stock of the townspeople and is so angry, he swears he will kill his Aunt. This is where Edward’s problems take a turn: how can he kill his Aunt, who is both the guardian and trustee of the family nestegg, when he is her heir, and her death will, naturally,  leave him as the only suspect? Edward reasons that her death must be an ‘accident,’ and so he proceeds to create one … or two …or three.

The story is mostly narrated, unreliably, by Edward, so we get his side of things: his victimhood, his loathing of all things Welsh, etc, and yet reading between the lines, Edward is a lazy, good-for-nothing, who sponges off his Aunt. She wants him to get a job, horror of horrors, which he feels is “degrading,” although he toys with the idea of being a poet. At one point in the book I thought that Edward’s sole redeeming feature was his love for his Pekingese So-So, but one of my favourite sayings is : “sometimes you don’t want to be the object of someone’s affection,” and this is certainly the case with poor So-So, so reader beware. I think the passages concerning So-So’s involvement with one of the fabricated accidents is meant to be ‘funny,’ but it really isn’t.

The book presents a ‘pressure cooker’ murder (a term I use to describe a murder that is created by enforced proximity–a situation so intense that murder of one of the parties seems to be the only solution–when it isn’t in fact. The real solution is that one of the parties involved should move away … asap.) For its structure the novel is sound, and its psychological aspects fascinating, but it is a mostly interior tale which involves Edward’s long complaints: Wales, his aunt, the locals, etc. They all get a sound whipping, and while these passages are witty and entertaining, the lack of action makes the novel drag at some points. Plus I can’t forgive the incident with So-So.

Review copy.

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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.

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Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

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Fire in the Thatch: E.C. R. Lorac (1946)

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”

In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her,  persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.

June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.”  The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.

Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….

Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.  Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.

The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:

She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.

Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”

What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.

Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch,  a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.

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Bats in the Belfry: E. C. R Lorac (1937)

E. C. R. Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry begins with a handful of people gathered together following the funeral of a young Australian. The topic of death holds sway, and then a young woman, Elizabeth, brings up “an intellectual exercise” set for discussion at her club:

If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any liabilities?

A lively discussion ensues with various methods suggested, but oddly, actress Sybilla, the bored, unhappy wife of author Bruce Attleton has the best suggestion. In fact, her method seems to have been refined –almost as though she has given it some thought. Sybilla’s husband, Bruce, notes that one of the guests appears shocked by his wife’s calculated approach towards the disposal of  a body, but notes that his wife is “quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?” Discussing the best way to get rid of a body is hardly polite talk, but it’s a seemingly harmless discussion that has greater significance when a nasty blackmailer appears on the scene and Bruce vanishes …

Bats in the belfry

Bruce’s suitcase and passport are found in an artist’s studio in Notting Hill, and when a headless and handless corpse is found in the same location, it seems probable that Bruce is dead.

The novel’s main characters (and suspects) are introduced right away: Bruce Attleton and his wife Sybilla, friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham, Robert Grenvile and Bruce’s ward Elizabeth. Bruce had more than his share of enemies (including his wife) and so most of the book is devoted to the police procedural with the intrepid Inspector Macdonald at the helm of the investigation and its convoluted solution.

Unfortunately I guessed the villain very early in the novel, so that took away a lot of enjoyment, but I enjoyed the portrayal of Sybilla and her “apparently lazy make-up” (as in character). The novel is also dated with one character who punctuates his sentences with the verbal tic,“what?” a mention of “over-sophisticated, man-hunting pseudo-intellectual females,” and reference to a “queer-looking dago with a pointed beard.” Still I enjoyed the atmosphere of 1930s London and the arty-crowd.

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Death Makes a Prophet: John Bude (1947)

“If there are many roads that lead to perdition, then there are as many that lead to salvation.”

I’d read 5 John Bude novels before arriving at Death Makes a Prophet. There was an unhappy marriage and a dead husband down on the farm in the 1936 The Sussex Downs Murder.  Then I read the 1952 Death on the Riviera in which serial character Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Meredith is hot on the scent of a counterfeiting ring. Then came 1935’s The Cornish Coast Murder along with a vicar who reads too many crime novels. The Lake District Murder, published in 1935, is a grimmer novel, but then humour returned in The Cheltenham Square Murders (1937) which concerns a handful of residents in an upscale neighbourhood. There’s adultery, bankruptcy, nosy neighbours and what’s more someone is taking their archery club membership to extremes by shooting the dashing Captain Cotton (wife stealer) through the head with an arrow.

Even though Death Makes a Prophet is now my sixth John Bude novel, I was unprepared for the comedy here. The novel concerns a religious cult centered in the town of Welworth:

Death makes a prophet

Welworth is not an ordinary town. It is that rarefied, mushroom-like, highly individualistic conglomeration of bricks and mortar known as a Garden City. There is no house in Welworth over thirty years old. There are no slums, monuments, garden-fences, bill-boardings or public houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor,  mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive and staggering range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of the population, Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other  community in the country. A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-much-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for the less high-minded citizens.

So Welworth is a town that attracts those who wish to live a certain lifestyle. These days we might say it’s a hippie community, or a crystal-waving town.  While there are 57 (!) religions in Welworth, the most “queer, somewhat exotic sect” is the Children of Osiris. Founded by Eustace K. Mildmann, the sect is also known as the Cult of Coo–or the religion of Coosim.

Clearly Bude is having great fun here with his subject. The timid Mildmann, a former bookseller, is Coo’s prophet and a sincere believer while the “financial prop, the true director of policy” is the wealthy, bombastic, insufferable Mrs. Alicia Hagge-Smith.

When the novel opens, Mrs Hagge-Smith claims to have had a vision of holding an “al fresco Convention”–a “gathering” of all of Children of Osiris (who will be housed in tents) at her country estate, Old Cowdene. Mildmann is horrified but the crafty, slimy Pen Penpeti, the so-called prophet-in-waiting, who claims to be a reincarnation of a “priest in the temple of Amen-Ra” is on the sidelines, flattering and stroking Mrs Hagge-Smith’s bloated ego. There’s a rift within the sect, and with money, power and influence in the offing, there will be murder….

A ferment was at work; small hostilities were growing, vague jealousies were gaining strength; little intrigues swelling into obsessions. And far off, no more than a dark speck beyond a horizon, wasn’t there a nebulous hint of approaching tragedy in the air?

Death Makes a Prophet is the funniest book I’ve read so far from the British Library Crime Classics. Bude very wisely mixes his characters, so we get sincere believers of Coo mixed with the opportunistic (Penpeti) and those who just need a paycheck (Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary). Plus then there are those innocent bystanders such as Mildmann’s adult son, Terence who is given sixpence a week pocket money and is forced by his father to wear “rational clothing.” Terence dreams of steak and kidney pudding, sneaks out for secret meat binges, and falls in love. Great fun.

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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.)

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Verdict of Twelve: Raymond Postgate (1940)

Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve is an excellent, unusual book from the British Library Crime Classics series. The plot centres on a murder trial, but in essence the book takes a subversive look at the justice system and questions the entire jury process.

On trial for murder is Rosalie van Beer, a money-grubbing, cruel unpleasant woman who married into money and after various deaths in the family, she took over the guardianship of the family heir, an orphaned boy. Before the trial begins, and before we know the details of the crime of which she’s accused, we are introduced to the jury. As you’d expect, these twelve people come from various walks of life, and each person brings their own belief system and emotional baggage to the trial.

verdict of Twelve

These days, potential jurors are asked various questions: have you ever been the victim of a violent crime, etc, and while the jurors in this trial aren’t asked those questions (the book was published in 1940), nonetheless the prejudices and beliefs these fictional jurors possess impact their judgement.

For example, one juror, Miss Victoria Atkins,  murdered a relative for financial gain years earlier. Although she was a suspect she slipped the noose, so while we readers know that this act is in the back of her mind, we understand that it will influence her decision. Will she be more less or lenient towards another woman who is accused of the same type of crime? Another juror, is a Greek immigrant with a shady past, while another juror was left a widow after her husband was beaten to death by a handful of anti-Semitic yobos. Adding to the mix, there’s also a Socialist/Communist (he can’t quite decide whether or not to join the Communist Party, a Conservative, an actor, a travelling salesman, and a religious nutcase.

While it’s perhaps pushing credulity to add a murderer to the jury of a murder trial, it’s easy to see that the other 11 people are the types you might expect to find facing the accused. The novel’s structure shows how each juror approaches the crime and applies their experience, prejudices, and belief system to the case. One juror dislikes animals and so sees a slice of testimony in a different light from the others, and yet another juror “had been patiently assembling as far as he could a Marxist interpretation of the evidence.” That said, the big question is: will justice prevail?

With only two women on the jury, it was interesting to see that they were harder on the accused (I read somewhere that this is true). The two women catch details about the accused that the men miss:

They saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in black, with a white collar. The women noticed that her nails were not coloured, but had nail polish on them. The hands were rather fattish and had not done housework for many years.

Verdict of Twelve offers an intriguing approach to a crime novel and has a phenomenal ending.

Note: animals do not fare well in this book.

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Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

Review copy

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Family Matters: Anthony Rolls (1933)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read quite a few titles from British Library Crime Classics, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The delightful Family Matters from author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) is one of the strongest titles in the series. Yes there’s a murder, but the structure and content of this highly entertaining tale is quite different from the usual. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives an overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, and mentions that he wrote his crime novels during two very specific times of his life. Sadly all of his other work (apart from Scarweather) is oop and used copies are either impossible to find or pricey.

Family Matters is a domestic crime novel and concerns the troubled household of the Kewdinghams who live at Number 6 Wellington Avenue in the town of Shufflecester. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, a man from a solid middle class background, married Bertha, the daughter of a Canadian Wesleyan minster and a French governess. The Kewdinghams, with a couple of exceptions, are not happy about the match (especially the French part), and don’t consider Bertha good enough. Robert and Bertha have one child, and also living at Number 6 is Robert’s crotchety elderly father who looks at his daughter-in-law with dislike and writes her nasty notes with very pointed quotations.

family matters

Following the economic collapse, Robert, an engineer, lost his job. The Kewdinghams have modest independent means, but there’s never enough money. Robert, now unemployed, has turned to his many hobbies: The Great Kewdingham Collection, cabinets and “precarious piles of cardboard boxes” litter the house.

Inside these receptacles there was an astounding medley of junk: bits of coral, broken pots, beetles and butterflies impaled on pieces of cork or stuck on cards, odd fossils, bones, brasses, dried flowers, birds’ eggs, little figures in soapstone and ivory, ushabtis from the tombs of Egypt, fragments of uncertain things, weird scraps of metal, badges, buttons, mouldy coins and innumerable varieties of suchlike trash.

These days we’d call Robert a hoarder, but poor Bertha must tolerate other ‘eccentricities;’ her husband’s political activities (he thinks Shufflecester is “full of Bolsheviks“), he’s a hypochondriac who medicates himself with bizarre potions, and he has a “vast library of occult books and magazines, which he was constantly reading.” Add this to his belief that he lived an earlier life as “the High Priest of Atlantis, Keeper of Wisdom.”

He was now in middle age, without a profession, impecunious, full of absurd notions, a wretched hypochondriac, irritable, silly and resourceless. 

Life at Number 6 is fraught with “incessant bickering,” and several outsiders, including the dapper little Doctor Bagge, and relative John Harrigall, feel bitterly sorry for the attractive Bertha who is trapped in an insufferable marriage to a selfish, egomaniac who has long passed the label of eccentric to mental case.

Friends of Robert, Mr and Mrs Chaddlewick also visit, and Mrs Chaddlewick with her cooing flattery and seemingly “amiable vacancy,” both encourages Robert’s foolishness and fosters domestic strife. It’s testament to Bertha’s tenacity and arguably her inflexibility  that she refuses to ‘manage’ Robert in the same way.  With criticism from Robert’s relatives and vicious notes from her father-in-law, it’s not surprising that Bertha should seek solace from the handsome John Harrigall. As Robert’s tirades escalate and become more violent, Bertha begins to consider murdering her husband.

Family Matters is an unusual crime novel for its structure and its conclusion, but it’s also separated from the herd by its attitude towards women. The court at Shufflecester, for example, is “bleak and hideous,” and we are told that “it is only possible to find this degree of squalor, of neglect and of ugliness, in courts of law–places where the sane influence of women has not yet penetrated.” There’s also mention of sex with a hint dropped of “three hours in a disused gravel-pit.” Anthony Rolls seems to understand the lonely, treacherous path to murder trod by the otherwise respectable member of society:

The inception of the idea of murder is not immediately recognised. Such an idea enters the mind in disguise-a new arrival in a sinister mask, not willingly entertained and yet by no means to be expelled. Or, in more scientific terms, it is introduced by a sort of auto-hypnosis, the mere repetition of the thoughts or words not immediately connected with personal action. Between the highly civilised individual and the act of murder there are so many barriers, so nay conventions and teachings-or so many illusions. 

In the introduction, Martin Edwards argues that Rolls had good ideas but sometimes couldn’t sustain plots. That weakness is not evident here. With its caustic look at society, marriage and norms Family Matters is an impudent, lively novel,  a delight to read.

Someone .. please bring The Vicar’s Experiments back into print.

review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Rolls Anthony