Tag Archives: Golden Age of detective fiction

The 12:30 from Croydon: Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

“All this morality business was just an old wives’ tale.”

The 12:30 from Croydon, a 1943 crime novel from Freeman Crofts Wills, refers, not to a train schedule as I first thought, but to a flight from Croydon to France. The plane carries a handful of passengers on board: Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley, Peter’s daughter Rose, and Crowther’s butler/manservant Weatherup. The family members are making an emergency trip to Paris following the news that Crowther’s only daughter Elsie, Peter’s wife, has been knocked down by a taxi. However, when the plane lands, Crowther is dead. Crowther was a sickly man, and so at first it’s thought that he died of natural causes, but following an autopsy, poison is the known cause of death

This British Library Crime Classic reprint is not concerned with the mystery of the killer. The book steps back in time and quickly reveals the murderer to be Andrew Crowther’s nephew, Charles Swinburn, a middle-aged man whose business is about to go bankrupt. Swinburn hits his uncle for a loan–after all reasons Charles, he’s going to inherit half of his uncle’s estate. Everyone is of the opinion that Andrew Crowther doesn’t have many months of life left in him, and so reasons Charles, where is the harm of advancing the money in order to keep him afloat?

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Andrew Crowther is shown to be crotchety, unreasonable and completely out-of-touch with the 30s economy, and he thinks bankruptcy can be avoided if everyone just works harder, so it’s easy for us to have sympathy for Charles’s dilemma when faced with his uncle’s irrational objections. At the root of Charles’s distress is a woman–he’s head-over-heels in love with a local heiress, the coldly materialistic Una. He doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning her hand, and yet sadly he thinks he does as long as he can stay solvent. There’s also a degree of sympathy roused for Charles when his peers begin avoiding him yet hypocritically re-friend him when they learn that he won’t go bankrupt after all.

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!

The 12:30 from Croydon, a very strong entry in the British Library Crime Classics oeuvre is primarily a psychological novel. First murder is contemplated as an abstraction but then Charles hatches a plan. The plot follows Charles’s reasoning as he argues himself into murder, and then meticulously follows the plan which Charles is sure is foolproof. …

Author  Freeman Wills Crofts shows complete mastery over the plot as he creates each stage of Charles’s emotions; we see his anxieties, his paranoia and then his joy when he thinks he’s got away with murder, but then Chief Inspector French from the Yard arrives on the scene. There’s a lot of detail here as we move through the preparation for the crime, two inquests, jury selection and a murder trial. Apart from the last couple of chapters, we always see things through Charles’s eyes, and what a convincingly deluded Dostoyevskian view it is.

Once again Charles felt a wave of bitterness sweep over him. If his uncle had only acted with reasonable decenecy. this horrible enterprise into which he had been forced would have been unneccesary. Well Andrew had only himself to thank. 

Antidote to Venom is my favourite Freeman Wills Crofts to date followed by The 12:30 from Croydon and then The Hog’s Back Mystery. 

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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 Lake District Murder: John Bude (1935)

“One wet and windy” night in March, farmer Perryman, returning from Keswick, is looking forward to getting home, when his car comes to a halt. Discovering that he needs petrol, Perryman legs it to the Derwent garage about a quarter of a mile away. This area of the county is “a bleak and uninhabited stretch of road,” and at this time of night, despite the fact that this is tourist country, there’s no traffic.

The garage seems “curiously deserted,” but there’s a “glimmer of light” coming from the shed. Perryman goes inside and discovers that one of the garage owners, a young man named Clayton, is inside his vehicle with the engine running. From the exhaust, there’s an attached hosepipe which is tucked under a mackintosh encasing Clayton’s head and shoulders. It looks like a clear-cut case of suicide.

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Inspector Meredith is called to the scene, and although Clayton’s death certainly appears to be a classic suicide, there are other elements to the case which don’t add up. Clayton was engaged to a local girl, and he’d planned to emigrate to Canada after the wedding. The garage isn’t exactly a prosperous concern, but it’s a steady stream of income, even if Clayton, who has a ne’er-do-well partner, does most of the work.

Inspector Meredith’s suspicions are already aroused when he fails to find a motive for suicide, but then when he learns of a suicide that took place involving another garage owner just a few years ago, he insists on an autopsy on Clayton and begins digging into the case. …

The Lake District Murder is an interesting entry into the British Library Crime Classic list. Both The Sussex Downs Murder a tale of adultery, and The Cornish Coast Murder include amateur sleuths who enjoy the topic of crime, while  Death on the Riviera (which has more than a smattering of humour) involves a counterfeiting ring. The Lake District Murder, with its undercurrent of organized crime (which would seem to connect to Death on the Riviera) is much darker and much more realistic than the other Bude novels from the British Crime Library.

Inspector Meredith is challenged by the fact that he must investigate the murder of Clayton and not the nefarious doings at the garage–as to do so would possibly alert the criminals involved to temporarily shut down operations. In the absence of an amateur sleuth to offer assistance, Meredith bounces his ideas off of other police officers.  Meredith’s investigation is a hard, humourless slog as he stakes out various locations, questions numerous people and travels on a motorbike and sidecar. This police procedural is detailed with Meredith piecing together pieces of evidence and trying to create a plausible murder scenario. This section of the book will either intrigue or lose readers depending on the reader’s eye for detail and desire to solve the crime. Meredith is a rewarding character, very stable, and roping his son in for assistance when necessary against his wife’s wishes.

Lately I’ve been chewing over how some fictional/television detectives suck at their jobs and need to move onto new gigs. Nancy Devlin in The Level is just the latest example of someone who should forget police work and look for another way to make a living. The temperament of Bude’s Inspector Meredith clearly suits his career; he’s calm, patient, low-key and adaptable.

The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions how John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore 1901-1957) knew the Lake District well, and this aspect of the story definitely comes across strongly with descriptions of terrain, landscapes and weather.

For the first time since the Inspector had started to investigate the Clayton case, he could look up over the roofs of Keswick and see the snow-capped ridge of the Skiddaw range etched in details against a hard, blue sky.

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Mystery in White: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

“Do you feel the horror in this house?’

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J. Jefferson Farjeon’s novel, Mystery in White, takes the idea of Christmas being a pleasant time spent with family and friends and subverts it into entrapment with strangers–possibly dangerous strangers. The story begins in a third-class compartment on the 11:37 train from Euston. It’s Christmas Eve in the middle of a historic snowstorm, and the passengers are travelling to their destinations all with definite time restrictions. There’s a good assortment of characters:

  • Jessie Noyes, a young, platinum blonde chorus girl who’s travelling to Manchester
  • a brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington
  • shy clerk, Robert Thomson, a man with a “negligible personality,” on his way to visit an aunt for Christmas
  • elderly “bore,” know-it-all, Mr Hopkins
  • Mr Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society off to interview the ghost of Charles I in Naseby

The passengers in the compartment are all heartily sick and tired of comments from the “elderly bore” Mr Hopkins. According to him, he’s been everywhere, seen everything, and there’s a certain oneupmanship to his comments. Then horror of horrors, the train stops on the tracks.

The solid guard, passing along the corridor at that moment, was turned to with relief, although he had no comfort to offer.

“I’m afraid I can’t say anything,” he replied to inquiries, repeating a formula of which he was weary. “We’re doing all we can, but with the line blocked before and behind, well, there it is.”

“I call it disgraceful!” muttered the bore. “Where’s the damned breakdown gang or whatever they call themselves?”

One of the passengers floats an idea of walking in the snow to the next closest station, at Hemmersby, five or six miles away. This seems a foolhardy idea, so the passengers are stuck in the carriage, and an atmosphere of gloom descends. Mr Maltby takes action:

Then a startling thing happened. The old man in the corner suddenly opened his eyes and sat upright. He started straight ahead of him, but Jessie, who was in his line of vision, was convinced that he was not seeing her. A moment later he swerved round towards the corridor. Beyond the corridor window something moved; a dim white smudge that faded out into the all-embracing snow as they all watched it.

Mr. Maltby grabs his bags and exits the train with a parting”merry Christmas” to his fellow passengers. The bore thinks this is madness, but when the rest of the passengers light out, he, later, joins them. At first they are able to follow Maltby’s footprints, but then they realise that there’s more than one set. Everyone underestimated the volume of snow and the cold.

The snow had ceased falling, and the motionless white scene was like a film that had suddenly stopped.

The snow begins to fall again, and Jessie hurts her ankle.

Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.

Just as the situation becomes desperate, the travelers find a house: the door is unlocked, a fire is lit, and tea is laid–almost as though the house is waiting for them. …

Of course, there’s something very strange afoot, and Mr. Maltby leads the investigation into the murder that apparently occurred on the train and the doings at the abandoned house where all these passengers are trapped by the sheer volume of snow. It’s an intriguing premise for crime buffs, and the set-up and atmospheric descriptions of snow create a very strong beginning to the book. Unfortunately, the plot lagged after the initial set-up, the wrap-up was overly complicated (some mental juggling is required to keep up with the plot,) and the characters are ‘types’ as befitting this sort of mystery. Nonetheless Farjeon gives us some observations about human nature: here’s Jessie the chorus girl:

She was well aware of both her power and the limitation of her power, and while the power, despite its small thrills, gave her a secret dread, the limitation was a secret sorrow.

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Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

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The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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Murder Underground: Mavis Doriel Hay (1934)

“Whatever you may feel about your relations, you don’t like to hear of them strangled with a dog leash”

In Mavis Doriel Hay’s novel Murder Underground, the story focuses on a handful of people who knew the elderly victim, Miss Pongleton. Most of those people were her fellow residents at The Frampton, a London boarding house. Miss Pongleton, or’Pongle’ was a difficult woman. She changed her will constantly, vacillating between her nephew Basil, and her niece Beryl Sanders. Beryl, who’s engaged to Gerry Plasher, a young stockbroker, has money of her own, but Basil, an unsuccessful author, falls into one scrape after another and desperately needs the money.

On the morning of Miss Pongleton’s death, she was on her way, via the underground to an appointment with a “cheap” dentist, Mr. Crampit, but before she could arrive at her destination, she was strangled, from behind, by a dog leash. The leash belongs to Miss Pongleton’s elderly asthmatic terrier, Tuppy, as it turns out, so that indicates that the murderer was either a resident of The Frampton or someone who had access to the victim’s belongings. The murder is complicated by the fact that Miss Pongleton was in possession of a stolen brooch that she may or may not have intended to turn into the police. The police assume that the man who stole the brooch murdered Miss Pongleton.

Further complications can be found in the fact that Basil, Gerry, and Bob, the man who stole the brooch, all encountered Miss Pongleton on the steps to the underground–all around the time she as murdered. Did she encounter a fourth acquaintance?

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The police are far in the background in this tale. Some of that can be explained by the fact that they think the murderer is Bob. Most of the story (and the author’s focus) is concerned with the residents of the boarding house and the antics of Basil. Basil has a lot to hide and his antics, which are aimed at making him look innocent, have the opposite result. He really is an idiot, and although he’s portrayed as an amiable fool, looking at his exploits in perspective, he’s really not nice.

Tuppy is distraught without his mistress, and although Pongle is portrayed unpleasantly here, she loved her dog. Basil who calls the dog alternately a poodle and a pug, can’t even get Tuppy’s breed straight. Once it is known that a portion of Miss Pongleton’s money is directed towards the care of her dog, suddenly more people become interested in Tuppy’s welfare. Oh the depravity of human nature. …

The residents of the boarding house are a motley bunch thrown together by circumstance, and they include a couple of young women, the “pompous” Mr. Slocomb, a female crime novelist (who becomes our amateur sleuth) and a retiree, Mr Bland who keeps scrapbooks:

Many of them were yellow with age and most of them referred to crimes. Kindly and tolerant in his relationship with his fellow men, Mr. Blend would gloat over the details of crimes with a chill, inhuman joy. The truth was that he did not regard them as part of life but merely as a form of art, just as many humane people wallow deliciously in the gruesome “murder mysteries” of fiction. 

In contrast to the viciousness of the crime, a gentle thread of humour runs throughout the tale. Some of that comes from the residents or “inmates” of the boarding house, the nosiness of landladies, the clash of the tabloid press as they lay siege to the fragile gentility of the characters, but most of it comes from Basil’s pathologically, idiotic missteps:

Well, I went quietly, as the saying is–as quietly as their car would take me, but it was one of those noisy popping brutes. There they had what they call an identification parade, I think–I’m getting awfully good at all the crime lingo. I was lined up with a lot of others–and, by Jove, it gives you a pretty poor opinion of yourself to see the specimens that the police pick out as being roughly the same type as yourself!

I guessed the identity of the murderer almost immediately, but enjoyed the gentle humour here nonetheless. I wondered if the author intended us to see Miss Pongleton as negatively as the other characters saw her, and conversely whether we were supposed to see Basil as quite the way his family saw him. Perhaps the flaws of these characters are supposed to be seen as relative to the viciousness of the murderer. Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three crime novels in her lifetime: Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935), and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936).

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The Cornish Coast Murder: John Bude (1935)

“This fact seemed to rule out a homicidal maniac.”

The Cornish Coast Murder opens with two old friends, the Vicar of St Michael’s-on-the-Cliff and Doctor Pendrill meeting, one stormy night, at the vicar’s home for their regularly arranged dinner and chat about crime books. The two men take turns to send a list of six crime books to the local library; these books are delivered, carefully packaged, in a crate, and the doctor and the vicar undergo “a division of the spoils,” with a swap mid-week, so that both men read all six crime books before sending off for the next order. The two men, both bachelors with housekeepers, have diametrically opposed philosophical positions to life, but in crime, there’s a meeting of the minds.

For years the Doctor and the Vicar had indulged this vicarious though perhaps perfectly common lust for crime stories. It was one of the jokes of the parish. They made no attempts to hide their common admiration for those authors who, with spider-like tenacity, weave a web and expect the poor, harassed reader to disentangle the pattern and follow the single thread back to its original source. 

The book opens very strongly indeed with the vicar opening the box of books and delightedly pawing over the contents:

“A very Catholic choice,” he concluded. “Let’s see now–and Edgar Wallace–quite right, Pendrill, I hadn’t read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J. S Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You’ve run the gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes.!” The Doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe.

Bude very cleverly draws us into the action with this scene. He withholds the titles of the books, but the pleasure felt by the vicar also ripples through readers who can so easily share the vicar’s anticipation of a good week of reading ahead. Of course, Bude has also, by this point, introduced the fact that nothing ever happens in this sleepy “isolated” village of Boscawen which boasts a population of “some four hundred souls.”

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Even the way that the meal is announced, by the sound of a gong, underscores the idea that nothing ruffles the harmony of routine, so of course, any self-respecting reader of crime fiction knows that the peaceful ambiance of this Cornish community is about to be ripped apart. Everything changes when a call comes for Doctor Pendrill from the panicked Ruth Tregarthan who finds her uncle shot dead inside his clifftop home, Greylings. The circumstances of the crime leave some clues but also create some unanswerable questions. Poor Grouch, the local policeman, who valiantly cycles through rain and storm, is soon replaced at the scene of the crime by  Inspector Bigswell and his uniformed chauffeur.

Bigswell, pressured to solve the crime or accept the intrusion of Scotland Yard turns to the vicar for advice, and of course, the vicar is only too happy to indulge his love of crime. Apart from Ruth Tregarthan, most of the other characters can’t hide their glee that there’s a murder to investigate, but occasionally, the vicar does the appropriate thing and reminds the reader that a tragedy has occurred.

The camaraderie between the vicar and the doctor, the novel’s great strength, is great fun. Crime detection, as portrayed in this novel, favours the wealthy while the female characters are weak or prone to hysteria. Ruth, due to some unexplained behaviour, quickly becomes a prime suspect, but she’s treated rather like a pampered child by the Inspector who takes the stern fatherly role.

But there it was-a woman in love was always a foolhardy and unreasonable creature, though not devoid, as the Inspector realized, of a certain inspired cunning.

The Cornish Coast Murder is another crime novel that’s been out of print, now resurrected for fans by The British Library Crime Classics series. There’s nothing new added to the genre, and while this isn’t one of the strongest entries in the series, neither is it, with the addition of the relationship between the vicar and the doctor, the weakest.  John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore) 1901-1957 was a writer of Fantastic fiction before he tried his hand at crime, and The Cornish Coast Murder was his first crime novel.

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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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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