Tag Archives: Poisoned Pen Press

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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Foreign Bodies: Martin Edwards ed.

“We want to murder someone. We haven’t the courage to walk up to him and attack him, or for that matter to strike him from behind. So we go to the corner drug store, buy a penny’s worth of rat poison, and give it to the son-in-law, the man across the street, the husband, the lover.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of The British Crime Classics series, published here in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The short story collection, Foreign Bodies, edited and introduced by Martin Edwards, contains a wide range of short stories from all over the globe. We readers often seek out books from other countries and chew over the customs, traditions and beliefs. Foreign Bodies shows that international flare aside, murder… occurs everywhere and for the same reasons: greed, rage, jealousy are all ingredients that, when explosive enough, can add up to murder.

Here’s the list of contents:

The Swedish Match: Anton Chekhov (Russia) Translated by Peter Sekerin

A Sensible Course of Action: Palle Rosenkrantz (Denmark)

Strange Tracks: Balduin Groller (Hungary: Romania after his death)

The Kennel: Maurice Level (France)

Footprints in the Snow: Maurice Leblanc (France)

The Return of Lord Kingwood: Ivans (Netherlands) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Stage Box Murder: Paul Rosenhayn  (Germany)

The Spider: Koga Saburo (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Venom of the Tarantula: Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (India) Translated by Sreejata Guha

Murder à la Carte: Jean-Toussaint Samat (France)

The Cold Night’s Clearing: Keikichi Osaka (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Mystery of the Green Room: Pierre Véry (France)

Kippers: John Flanders (Belgium) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Lipstick and the Teacup: Havank (Dutch) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Puzzle of the Broken Watch: Maria Elvira Bermudez (Mexico) Translated by Donald A. Yates

I’m not going to discuss all the stories in this wonderful collection–after all, the themes are murder and detection, but I will discuss some of my favourites. The Chekhov story, The Swedish Match seems to have fun with the detective genre, while The Kennel is short, vicious and horrific. Shades of Joseph Conrad linger in Kippers.

If spiders creep you out, then you will shiver over The Venom of the Tarantula and The Spider. In The Venom of the Tarantula, a man is asked to discover how a bedbound “foul-mouthed; mistrustful, crafty malicious” writer continues to get a supply of his favourite drug: the venom of tarantulas.

The Spider is eerie, unusual and gripping. In this tale, a young man is employed to enter the abandoned laboratory of Tsujikawa, a dead professor, who died of …  yes you guessed it … a bite from a poisonous spider.

At first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe. 

The narrator is asked by the dead professor’s family to go into the building which is full of jars of “monstrous spiders.” He’s supposed to dispose of them, and after all … the one that killed the professor may still be loose.

I knew where The Return of Lord Kingwood was headed, but I enjoyed the character of Mr Monk (and his bribery of a local lad) so much that I didn’t care that the story’s trajectory was predictable.

Murder à la Carte deals with the subject of poisoning in an intriguing way:

Poisoning? What with? With anything you choose! Or nothing whatever! I mean just that. People don’t realize it, that’s all. They think they know; they really don’t know anything about it. They think that you have to use a poison. Strychnine? Obviously strychnine is a poison. A killer. But the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are too well know. And besides, you have to get strychnine. But why bother with strychnine? You talk about poisons. There are hundreds of effective poisons. Ah, but their symptoms, too, are all known? And even those whose symptoms aren’t known reveal themselves in the autopsy? Well there are things which are poison, and things which are not poison. Poison and nonpoison. There’s no trick about murdering with poison; any fool can do it, provided he has the killer instinct, or the desire, or the need. 

The Stage Box Murder is an epistolary between a young man and the girl he hopes to marry when his fortunes improve. A murder opens up a career opportunity for the young man, but the crime brings a famous American detective to the scene…

A Sensible Course of Action from Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz is set right after the Russian civil war and concerns a beautiful Russian countess who claims that her vengeful brother-in-law, who is hot on her heels, intends to kill her. Lieutenant Holst is called in to investigate a situation that requires no small amount of diplomacy. Holst tends to dismiss the Countess’s claim (the fact that she’s female works against her), and yet … there’s always the thought of recent Russian political events:

The whole business mighty have come out of a Russian novel, but in Russia, as one knew from the newspapers, anything was possible. 

Included here is yet another new name for me: Maria Elvira Bermudez “One of the most prolific female detective fiction writers in the Spanish-speaking world,” and here I’d (shamefully) never heard of her, and that brings me back to the collection’s merit. I’d never heard of most of these writers, but according to the intro before each story, these authors were prolific, popular and important to the genre in their respective countries.

This is a wonderful collection for crime aficionados and it’s a great way to collect names that we may not have heard of before. Martin Edwards provides a brief, yet informative intro, focusing on literary careers, of each writer.

review copy.

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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.

Review copy.

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The End of the Web: George Sims (1976)

The End of the Web from author George Sims (1923-1999) is an entry in the British Library Classic Thrillers series. This short novel has the feel of a  WWII spy thriller, but the plot takes us into the world of 1970s London antique dealers.

When married, philandering antique dealer Leo Selver is found dead of a heart attack next to the bludgeoned body of his latest conquest, Judy Latimer, the police assume it’s a crime of passion. But Leo’s wife, Beatrice isn’t convinced. She knows that Leo was chronically unfaithful, but refuses to believe that he was capable of murder. Instead she clings to the idea that an alternate scenario is possible: a jealous lover killed Judy.

The police dismiss Beatrice’s concerns in what seems to be an ugly, open-and-shut case, so she contacts former policeman, ex-race car driver Ed Buchanan, recently returned from Greece and currently unemployed.

The End of the Web

When Ed first hears the story of Leo’s death from Beatrice, he too isn’t convinced that there’s anything inconclusive about the case, but then again, there are a few niggling issues. Leo had recently become more involved with fellow antique dealer, Sydney Chard who seems to have vanished, and a third, overly anxious, dealer has phoned Beatrice a few times from Amsterdam.

Ed, with nothing more pressing to do, and with his eye on Leo’s young female assistant, takes the case.

While all of this is going on, we readers know that yes, Leo’s death was not as it seemed, and we also know Sydney’s fate. Of course, Ed is in the dark, but he soon realises that Leo was involved in something he could not control.

There’s very little down time in this book, and the plot never really goes into anything too fantastical. Underneath the plot, there’s the sense that life is ephemeral. Most of our characters have been struck with tragedy in some way: the Selvers lost their son, and Ed’s parents were killed in a senseless accident. When the novel begins, we have the very interesting Leo Selver chasing a young woman and wondering why he bothers when he’d so much prefer to be home with his wife.  The End of the Web is an entertaining tightly-written read that touches on bigger issues, without being preachy, such as the meaning we put to our lives and using our time wisely.  This depth, along with the idea that people are complex multi-layered beings, adds a nice touch to a book from the thriller genre.

Dichotomy: division or distribution into two parts; hence, a cutting into two; a division. He did contain two selves, dissimilar but complementary characters. There was the more obvious extrovert, call him Leo for short, a typical Sun subject, born in August, romantic, impulsive, greedy, vain, a man who made money quickly and lost it, philandered, played the fool, got into trouble. Then there was the subtler character, sober old Selver who had second thoughts, watched everything and everybody including Leo, made sly comments and criticized, saw the absurdity of Leo’s behaviour, tried to take evasive action whenever possible. 

(The novel includes Ed’s homo phobia which also apparently appears in another George Sims book: The Last Best Friend)

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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.

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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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. 

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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

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction