Tag Archives: Poisoned Pen Press

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rolls Anthony

Scarweather: Anthony Rolls (1934)

Scarweather is the first of two titles from Welsh author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) in the British Library Crime Classics series, published in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The story concerns a mysterious disappearance and is unusual for its structure. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, a prolific author whose career in crime fiction can be divided into two distinct parts.

Our narrator is a barrister, John Farringdale, and he tells a retrospective tale that began in 1913 and then unfolds over the next 15 years. We know immediately that this is a tale of criminal activity, remarkable for its “singularity of horror and [in] perversity of ingenious  method.” We also know that Farringdale’s great friend, Ellingham, takes the role of amateur sleuth, and it is Ellingham who “unravelled the mystery,” while Farringdale assumed the “traditional and honorable part of a Watson.”

Farringdale tells of his cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, a young man roughly the same age and of similar family circumstances. The difference between the two men can be found in Eric’s romantic nature and his readiness to fall in love. Eric’s hobby is archaeology and it’s through this that he meets Professor Tolgen Reisby, a notable expert in the field. Reisby’s attractive wife is 30 years younger.

scarweather

Foster spends a summer with the Reisbys at Scarweather, their remote coastal home and returns singing the praises of Mrs Reisby. Foster introduces Farringdale and Ellingham to Reisby, and soon all three men travel to Scarweather to enjoy the hospitality of the Reisbys.

Even before Farringdale meets Reisby,  Ellingham seems to have information, or an impression of Reisby. It’s easy to smell a mystery forming.

“And what have you heard?” I asked him.

Ellingham chose to ignore my question. He drew a golden toothpick from a case in his pocket and lightly tapped it along his lower teeth; it was an offensive habit which always annoyed me. though I knew it was the prelude to cogitation.

“I may have met him, or I may have seen him,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”

Foster admires Professor Reisby, but the reality is far different. He’s a rather unpleasant fellow. Farringdale says Reisby’s face is “like that of a benevolent Jupiter,” and yet he also senses that Reisby is “a man whose retaliation would be cruel and unscrupulous.”

Arriving at Scarweather, Farringdale soon feels “the shadow of a quite intangible menace, the dim foreboding of something not yet recognised on the conscious plane,” but after a fortnight at Scarweather, the holiday ends. Later, in 1914, Foster visits Scarweather again and goes missing while swimming. Ellingham is immediately suspicious, and the discovery of a bizarre letter in Foster’s coat serves to fuel the theory of foul play. The police, however, are satisfied and refuse to conduct “further investigation.”

WWI intervenes. Farringdale and Ellingham survive. Other people around Scarweather disappear….

Scarweather is unusual for its structure, but it is overly long. Ellingham’s manner of holding information close is frustrating and something I find annoying when it comes to crime books. The author’s interest and expertise in archaeology comes into play here, and while it adds authenticity to the book, it also bogs the plot down with detail. I liked the structure of a mystery taking place years earlier. Foster disappears but global events intervene, so we see the lives of Farringdale and Ellingham continue while Foster’s life freezes in time. The friends of Foster never forget him–murder never goes away, and the author shows that well even if the route to that conclusion is overly long.

Kate from Crossexaminingcrime also reviewed the novel. 

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rolls Anthony

The Cheltenham Square Murders: John Bude (1937)

Regency Square, with its “Georgian origins,” is a prestigious neighbourhood in the town of Cheltenham Spa. It’s composed of a mere ten houses in a quiet-cul-de-sac with all the houses facing a “central communal square of grass.” The area sounds so peaceful, and there’s the sense that this is a “quiet, residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.” But of course, as any self-respecting crime readers know, appearances are deceiving.

The Cheltenham Square murder

When John Bude’s crime novel The Cheltenham Square Murders opens, the residents of this elite neighbourhood with its forced intimacy are quarreling over whether or not an old elm tree should be cut down. The residents are divided on the subject, but while this may seem the overriding issue in the neighbourhood, there’s actually a few scandals afoot. The dashing “floridly handsome,” car salesman Captain Cotton, who rides in and out of the Square on his very loud motorbike, is conducting an affair with Mrs West, and the residents are scandalised and appalled. In the meantime, Mr West not only seems in danger of losing his wife, but he’s also lost his fortune after taking the investment advice of his neighbour, stockbroker Buller.

When Captain Cotton is shot through the head with an arrow, there is no shortage of suspects since several residents of the Square are proficient members of the Wellington Archery Club. But of course, since Captain Cotton had an affair with West’s wife, West immediately becomes the prime suspect.

As luck would have it, Aldous Barnet, “writer of detective stories” happens to be staying in his sister’s house in the Square and he’s invited Inspector Meredith to spend part of his holiday in Cheltenham Spa. Although the local coppers are called to the scene for Captain Cotton’s murder, both Aldous Barnet and Meredith can’t resist becoming involved.

John Bude gives us a lively assortment of residents to spice up this police procedural including the militant Miss Boon who believes that “dogs were the only sensible housemates,” two elderly spinster sisters, the “aloof” Sir Wilfred Whitcomb and his wife Lady Eleanor, the fussy Reverend Matthews along with his sister Annie, “a faded, anaemic creature in nondescript clothes,” who acts as his housekeeper and who has been “agreeing with him for over forty years.” 

With West as the very obvious prime suspect, we all know that the case can’t be so simple, and Barnet and Meredith begin digging under the surface of life in the Square to capture the real culprit.

Even though I guessed the identity of the real killer before the real sleuths did, the fun here is twofold: the assortment of residents and the liberal humour in so many scenes. Bude clearly had fun with this tale and intended his readers to put their feet up and enjoy the ride. The crime takes place in a very small neighbourhood, and it’s clear that the forced intimacy has festered and fostered murder. While this is not the strongest entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, its intention is to be a fun, diversionary read, and in this, it succeeds

Review copy

 

10 Comments

Filed under Bude John, Fiction

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries. ed. by Martin Edwards

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

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

The Ghost’s Touch: Fergus Hume

The Chopham Affair: Edgar Wallace

The Man with the Sack: Margery Allingham

Christmas Eve: S.C. Roberts

Death in December: Victor Gunn

Murder at Christmas: Christopher Bush

Off the Tiles: Ianthe Jerrold

Mr Cork’s Secret: Macdonald Hastings

The Santa Claus Club: Julian Symons

Deep and Crisp and Even: Michael Gilbert

The Carol Singers: Josephine Bell

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

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

crimson-snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy

6 Comments

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

Mystery in White: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

“Do you feel the horror in this house?’

mystery-in-white

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.

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

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?

murder-undergound

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).

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hay Mavis Doriel

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.”

Review copy

12 Comments

Filed under Brandon John, Fiction

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.”

Review copy

 

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hay Mavis Doriel

The Secret of High Eldersham: Miles Burton (1930)

Miles Burton’s novel The Secret of High Eldersham concerns a murder that takes place in a East Anglian village pub, the Rose and Crown. The pub has an unfortunate location–it stands in “an isolated spot,” outside of the village of High Eldershaw at the end of a side road.

It was about twenty miles from Gippingford, the county town, and stood upon the old coach road running northwards. At one time it had been a favourite spot for changing horses, but with the advent of the car its popularity had departed, since it was neither imposing or romantic enough the attract the attention of the passing motorist. Further, within recent years a new main road had been built, absorbing the through traffic and reducing the old coach road to little more than a country lane. The result was that few strangers entered the portal of the Rose and Crown.

That leaves the pub relying on local trade for business, and the nearby “struggling” village which sits on the banks of the River Elder only boasts 200-300 inhabitants, mostly labourers who don’t have much in the way of disposable income to take to the pub. When the book opens, the Rose and Crown’s long time publican transfers from the Rose and Crown to the much more lucrative business at the Tower of London pub in Gippingford. The head of the brewery advertises for a new publican and accepts retired policeman, Samuel Whitehead for the position.

The Secret of High Eldersham

In spite of the fact that Whitehead is an outsider, and that alone can be a death knoll for a business in East Anglia, a region where outsiders are regarded with “distrust,” the pub continues much the same until late one night, Constable Viney, the High Eldersham village policeman, riding home on his bicycle, stops by the pub and finds Whitehead dead–stabbed to death while sitting in his chair.

The case is very hastily passed along to Scotland Yard, and Detective Inspector Young arrives to head the investigation. Before long, he calls upon his good friend, Desmond Merrion, “a bachelor of independent and very considerable means,” a man he met during the war, for advice. At first Young dismisses the idea that High Eldersham is peculiar when it comes to the area’s attitude towards strangers, but he sees something that convinces him otherwise. By not revealing Young’s observations, Burton advances the story’s interest, and soon Merrion observes the same thing–we readers don’t know what they’ve both seen, and that kept me turning the pages.

The atmosphere in the village seems friendly enough, but it’s clear that outsiders will not penetrate the close knit community

I think it’s because all the people have married among themselves for so long that they’re all sort of related like. They settle things among themselves, you’ll never hear of one of them going to law with another, or anything like that. And they don’t like outsiders coming in and interfering with their affairs.

The initial set-up is strong, and the book begins very promisingly indeed  with the murder of the publican discovered by the intrepid Constable Viney. As much as I really liked the character of Desmond Merrion (and we do get to see quite a bit of him here), the murder investigation lost itself at times. I was disappointed when the topic of witchcraft arose, and the book, ultimately, seemed torn between being a police procedural and a thriller.

Some time ago, I read Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, so I looked forward to another novel by the same author. Of the two, I preferred Death in the Tunnel. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the author, real name, Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) and his very prolific career. It’s easy to guess that Burton’s series character, Desmond Merrion, is an alter ego.

For two more reviews:

Cross Examining Crime

Past Offences

review copy.

11 Comments

Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction

Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

“This case of yours seems to get more and more involved, the further you go.”

In Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, Sir Wilfred Saxonby travels home by the 5 pm. train from London’s Cannon Street to his home in Stourford. He pays the guard a pound to make sure that he is alone in his first class compartment. On the journey home, as the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver applies the brakes after seeing a red light swinging above the tracks, but then the train picks up speed when the light changes to green. About that time, the guard stops to speak to Saxonby and finds that his passenger has been shot through the heart.

Death in the tunnel

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard takes over the case from the local constabulary, and initially Saxonby’s death appears to be a clear cut case of suicide as a gun bearing Saxonby’s monogram is found at his feet. But there are a few aspects of the case that trouble Arnold. Where is Saxonby’s train ticket? And what about that mysterious light in the tunnel?  There were twenty-four additional passengers in the first class compartments (with the doors locked between the first and third class sections in case the riff-raff tries to crash in), and what of the mysterious, elderly twenty-fifth passenger? Although all the evidence points towards suicide, Arnold has this nagging feeling about some aspects of the case which don’t quite add up, and as he says, “Details like that have a way of mattering.”

As for Saxonby, although he “was a man of temperate, not to say frugal habits,” he was also intolerant, “respected rather than liked,” and as a magistrate may have made a number of deadly enemies. …

Death in the Tunnel is an intriguing book from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and comes recommended especially for fans of ‘train crime.’ There’s no CSI–just painstaking, logical police work, and in this book, the troubling aspects of the case are easy to grasp. Arnold has to follow the traces of the case that don’t add up, and he consults his friend, the wealthy amateur sleuth Merrion for his opinion. The two men work together and apply their various theories to the possible suicide or hypothetical murder of Saxonby.

Merrion laughed. “What I like about this case is the delicate balance of evidence,” he replied. “To begin with, there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it.”

The relationship between Merrion and Arnold is subtly portrayed. There’s no obsequiousness on the part of Arnold, and no condescending revelations from Merrion. They see each other as peers and so treat each other accordingly with mutual respect–often dining while they discuss the case, presenting various theories and seeing how those theories hold against the clues. Even though they certainly don’t always agree, they make a good team–Merrion, for example, believes that the identification of Saxonby’s wallet is central to the case while Arnold thinks this is a trivial detail.  This case is fascinating for as Arnold pursues one clue after another, and seems to be perhaps closer to solving the mystery of Saxonby’s death, instead of narrowing down suspects and theories, the case widens.  All of this is quite clear logically although I’ll admit that I did get confused when it came to the forger section.

British Library Crime Classics has another title from Miles Burton (real name Cecil John Street, 1884-1965) due out in North America shortly: The Secret of High Eldersham. This is another author whose books are almost entirely out of print, so it’s marvellous to see a publisher bringing Burton back to be read and enjoyed all over again

Review copy

9 Comments

Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction