A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell

NewLeaseWhen I reviewed the first of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries, From Doon With Death, I described it as a competent but unsurprising plot. The bright spot for me was the character of Wexford who, while not a flashy or big personality, approached the case in a likeable and straightforward manner.

I was a little disappointed when, about halfway into A New Lease of Death, I realized that he would not play a large active role in this investigation. Certainly his presence looms large over the story but it is not his investigation and his biggest contribution is to recap the details of the crime at the heart of this story.

The novel begins with Wexford fielding a meeting with Henry Archery, a clergyman, who wishes to discuss one of his old cases. It turns out that the man’s son is engaged to the daughter of the man who Wexford identified as the killer of an elderly woman and who was executed. Archery wants to look into the case again to see if Wexford made a mistake as he and his wife are unwilling to consent to the marriage otherwise.

Wexford recaps the details of the case and gives his opinion that his reasoning was sound though he does not object to Archery’s plan to meet and talk with some of the witnesses. The investigation that follows explores ideas of family secrets and respectability but I think Archery’s experiences conducting the investigation are as much the focus of the novel as the information he discovers.

I commented in my review of the previous novel how differing social attitudes affect a modern reading of that novel with a contemporary one and I suspect that the same is true here. I think that a reader in 1967 was expected to feel a degree of sympathy with the attitudes of Reverend Archery at the start of the novel that a reader today may find a little harder to extend to him.

The attitudes in question relate to Archery’s belief that criminality is hereditary. Rendell’s novel examines that belief and its implications at points throughout the novel though it ultimately sidesteps having to take a stance on the matter. The thing is, Rendell writes as though the reader’s expected reaction will be to think he is a sound-minded and diligent parent rather than to think him narrow-minded and judgmental.

Rendell’s novel takes this character on a journey that if it isn’t quite transformative, will at least shake him and present him in a (somewhat) compromised light in terms of his own personal morality. I imagine that in the time that the book was written this would have been quite shocking, particularly in light of his position as a clergyman, but common social attitudes have shifted enough that I do not think many readers will be shocked or outraged by his thoughts and actions.

To put it more simply: I didn’t think that the character journey said anything particularly interesting or profound about the themes it was discussing. That is a problem because Rendell has made it the focus of the story and, if we look simply at the case I think the reader is likely going to feel disappointed.

The circumstances of the murder are relatively simple and much is already known to the reader at the start of the novel. There are some questions of motivation and the details of family relationships to uncover but the novel lacks much in the way of twists or surprises, relying instead on engaging the reader with the exploration of its characters. Anyone approaching this in search of a puzzle plot will likely feel very disappointed.

I did appreciate Rendell’s attention to character not only for the characters we may suspect of the crime but the other more incidental figures in the case. They are a surprisingly complex group and I think she succeeds in creating characters who have interesting backstories and that sometimes subvert expectations.

Had the narrative concentrated more closely on those elements I suspect I would be writing a more enthusiastic review. Unfortunately I did not care for Archery, his son or their journeys as protagonists and I struggled to engage with the details of the case itself.

In spite of those frustrations however I find I really enjoy reading Rendell’s prose and I think there are some wonderfully atmospheric and poetic moments within this story. The themes and the plot of this novel didn’t work for me but I am hopeful that the third Wexford story, Wolf to the Slaughter, will be more to my taste.

This book was released in the United States under the alternative title ‘Sins of the Fathers’ which is, in my opinion, a much better fit for the book.

The Pocket Detective compiled by Kate Jackson

the-pocket-detectiveThe holiday season is still several months away but knowing my readers are a canny bunch I am sure many of you are already giving thought to gifts or are perhaps tentatively putting together your lists for Santa. The Pocket Detective is pretty much the perfect stocking-stuffer for fans of Golden Age-era mysteries and, in particular, the British Library Crime Classics range.

It has taken me a week or so to get around to writing about this book because I wanted to have done (or at least attempted) every single puzzle. Being a genuinely pocket-sized book, I have been able to carry this with me wherever I have been and reach for it in quiet moments or during breaks at work. I appreciated the sturdy yet flexible binding and can happily report that after a week of heavy use it still looks very attractive.

While I didn’t manage to work out all of the answers – I am terrible at working out anagrams – I had a good time working through these and found the experience to be simultaneously quite calming and stimulating. It is a great book to reach for in a quiet moment and in most cases you can dip in and out of the puzzles at your leisure.

The book contains a nice variety of puzzle types from simple word searches and crosswords to odd one outs and letter jumble puzzles. Most of these are themed after titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but there are a few puzzles here that deal with Christie and Sayers too which came as a nice surprise for me.

One of my favorite puzzle types involves titles of mystery novels being broken up and jumbled around the page. The reader then has to reassemble the titles using each word only once. I hadn’t encountered that type of puzzle before but I felt it worked really well.

If, like me, you have only read a portion of the British Library’s output you have no need to worry. For one thing there is a handy list of titles at the back of the book that can be invaluable with some of the crosswords. More importantly though, very few puzzles require specific knowledge about the plots of stories – really only the Odd One Out puzzles and even those can usually be worked out by referring to their blurbs on Amazon. This makes it quite approachable, even for those puzzlers who are not avid crime fiction readers, while staying true to the theme of the book.

Pretty much my only (minor) complaints are that I wish that the puzzle types had been grouped together and that I think the color print in the Spot the Differences section was a little dark making spotting a couple of differences in The Notting Hill Mystery and Quick Curtain puzzles a little more challenging than I suspect they were meant to be. Neither issue seriously affected my enjoyment however and I think some of the differences are really quite cleverly achieved!

Overall I had a very good time with this and will no doubt continue to attempt to solve those last few remaining crossword clues in my spare moments in the weeks to come. I may even go back to try to work out some of the anagrams that had me stumped earlier in the week as I found my skills with them have noticeably improved!

Chimney Meddler Hog

Review copy provided by the publisher for early review though I have a copy on order. It is being released in the UK on October 18. This book is being published in the US as Golden Age of Detection Puzzle Book on November 6.

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

VengefulThe Vengeful Virgin is a pulp novel from the 1950s that on the face of it seems a little out of my reading comfort zone. The reason it jumped out at me though is that it is another example of my favorite subgenre, the inverted crime story and I came to it feeling somewhat optimistic based on my experiences with the other hard-boiled inverted stories I have reviewed recently.

The novel concerns a pair of lovers with an almost primal physical attraction to one another and their plot to kill the girl’s rich stepfather who is an invalid. The girl, eighteen year-old Shirley Angela, has been caring for him for three years and resents his demands. She knows that she is in line to receive a big inheritance from him but knows that with medical intervention he could live for ten years or longer.

When protagonist Jack Ruxton, a television installation engineer, first crosses paths with her she has already devised a crude plan to get rid of him. The two are instantly drawn to each other and she brings him in on the plan. He quickly expresses concern that her idea to have a television topple onto him would immediately be traced back to them and suggests his own plan…

Jack is far from a charming guy and is in some ways a little reminiscent of the male murderer in Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry, another inverted story. This similarity extends right to the character’s casual description of Shirley as  someone who “…made you feel as if you wanted to rape her” and is attracted to her in part because of her youth. Their relationship is all kinds of problematic if the author’s intention is to titillate his reader as Jason John Horn notes in an essay he wrote about chauvinism and ableism in this novel. Be aware that essay does spoil some key plot developments!

I am on the fence about whether Brewer intends to appeal to that side of his readers here or not. If that was the aim I think he misses the mark in any case as those scenes, while frequent, do little to appeal to the reader’s senses. They do effectively establish the main character as a seedy, brutish man who uses the women in his life to fulfil his own desires whether physical or financial.

Shirley is cast as a mix of vixen and femme fatale. She certainly tempts Jack into committing a crime though he did not need much persuasion and she repeatedly expresses her desire for him. The characterization is not particularly complex and perhaps the one revelation that may have added a little punch is spoiled within the book, reducing the impact of a key moment within the novel’s conclusion.

Though Brewer’s characters feel a little flat, the plotting is a little more interesting. I was impressed with the idea that Jack comes up with for its relative simplicity and the scene in which the plan is carried out contains some wonderful moments of tension. Throughout the build up to that moment we are made aware of the danger they face and anticipate some of the things that might go wrong. These problems are foreshadowed very effectively and while I think it would be a stretch to say there are mystery elements here, the reader can try to work out how those elements will combine to cause their downfall.

While the reader will likely predict elements of the novel’s conclusion, I do think it contains some of the novel’s strongest imagery and dramatic moments. That sequence sums up the novel’s themes well and it feels like a logical and powerful resolution to the story.

Unfortunately the journey to that point underwhelms, particularly in the saggy middle of the tale where we wait for the pair to actually get on with committing their crime. Neither Jack nor Shirley are interesting or likeable enough to make their relationship compelling and there are no unexpected revelations or moments featuring them that may have made them more complex or interesting and might have helped to drive the story.

Though The Vengeful Virgin has some strong moments, not least its punchy ending, I think it never rises above its often flat, unpleasant characterizations and the slow pacing of the scenes in which the pair develop their plan. It is not badly written and it does have a few good ideas but the sometimes seedy tone (which, to be fair, is totally hinted at in its title) had little appeal for me.

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

ManorThough I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

LuckyThe Case of the Lucky Legs is the third Perry Mason mystery and the first which I found a bit of a struggle to get through, at least at first. My first few attempts to read it ended with me falling asleep or losing concentration and while it is possible that this was not entirely the book’s fault, it certainly did not bode well. But before I delve too deeply into my feelings about the book I should outline what it is about.

The previous novel had ended with Mason receiving a letter from an “Eva Lamont” requesting his legal services but the meeting is actually attended by Bradbury, a wealthy playboy. It turns out that he is looking for help in a matter concerning a lady friend who might have married him had it not been for a roguish movie promoter, Frank Patton, who held a beauty contest for women to win a picture contract with a movie studio. His lady friend, Marjorie Clune, won the title of ‘The Girl with the Lucky Legs’ but the studio wiggled out of their contract leaving her too embarrassed to return to her hometown.

Bradbury is hoping that Mason will track down Patton and get him to confess to his deception or unethical behavior to give grounds to sue the studio. As he remarks, Patton seems to have had some ‘shrewd legal advice’ and he wants to get some of his own. One complication is that there is another man in Marjorie’s life, spendthrift dentist Dr. Doray, who is also seeking some justice for her. Bradbury wants to make sure that whatever happens, he receives the credit for helping her rather than Dr. Doray.

The early part of the novel sees Mason following up on this request and I found them to be somewhat slow and lacking in intrigue. The setup as first expressed seems pretty clear-cut and I was not particularly drawn to any of the characters. The most intriguing aspect of the case, the film studio setting, is really only background to the story and offers little in the way of color or excitement.

These chapters are not only somewhat drab in terms of the content, they move surprisingly slowly in spite of Gardner’s athletic, punchy prose style. Several conversations are quite lengthy yet they neither advance our understanding of the plot or the characters involved, particularly those with Bradbury whose demanding attitude quickly becomes tiresome.

Fortunately the pace does pick up a little as we move into the second phase of the story in which Perry discovers a body. This sequence is notable enough that it is explicitly referenced in an author’s introduction to the book in which he notes that some readers may be surprised to read about Perry Mason making use of a set of skeleton keys in this sequence and it certainly does seem like a surprisingly reckless decision from anyone practicing law. This is far from the only reckless decision he will make in the course of the story but given the others all are well within spoiler territory I had best not say more. Many of these moments are amusing but they do come at the expense of the story’s credibility.

One aspect of this novel that I cannot fault it on is its discussion of what it means to represent someone. Perry may act recklessly at points in this story but he is always clear on who his client is and how he should best serve their interests. This is a theme that dominated each of the previous stories but I think it is particularly effective here, especially bearing in mind Bradbury’s repeated attempts at interference.

The other aspect of this adventure that appealed was the divergence in the interests of Mason and Paul Drake, the head of the Drake Detective Agency who he advises Bradbury to hire. While some of the early exchanges between the two in this story are a little dry, I appreciated that this story acknowledges that Drake is not simply an extension of Mason and may disagree with his actions. This idea is not fully realized within the story but it does make Drake seem a more independent and interesting creation.

I was a little disappointed that Della Street is largely sidelined in this story and is given little opportunity to do anything beyond make shorthand notes of conversations and answer the phone lines. This is a far cry from the more vocal character we saw in The Case of the Velvet Claws and it does seem like Gardner had lost some interest in her by this point.

Turning back to the case itself, I think the solution works though it is not particularly surprising. Gardner does not give us many suspects to choose from so the solution is fairly easy to predict. The circumstances in which Mason reveals the killer’s identity are fun if a little convoluted but, once again, the scene plays out surprisingly slowly and rather than building anticipation, I was wishing he would just get on with naming them.

While I found parts of this story to be very entertaining, I do think it is a weaker work than either of the two previous Mason adventures. The opening to the case offers little in the way of intrigue and some of the plot developments feel convoluted. Mason is still a fun hero, if a little rougher and less ethical than in some of his other outings, and I do think he gets some good moments here but if you are new to this series I would certainly not start here.

I Married A Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

MarriedADeadManI Married A Dead Man is the story of a murder and the impact it has on a couple who ought to be enjoying a happily ever after. It definitely belongs to the noir school as our protagonists find themselves in a hopeless situation, each unable to shake their feeling that the other must be responsible. After establishing this portrait of the couple Woolrich jumps back over a year to show us how this situation came to be.

The story begins with Helen who is unmarried and eight months pregnant. Rather than receiving support from the father, instead she is given five dollars and a one-way train ticket back to her hometown.

On the train she is befriended by a woman who is also pregnant and travelling with her husband to meet his parents for the first time. We hear that they have never so much as seen a photograph of her so when the train derails and the couple are killed they assume that she must be their daughter-in-law and so pay for her medical care and give her and her newborn son a home.

This setup creates tension as she lives under the fear that her secret will somehow be discovered. This could not only lead to her losing her home and security for her child but the family she comes to cherish. Finally, a year later, she finds a note that seems to suggest that her secret has been discovered though she is not sure who is responsible, setting a series of events in motion leading to the situation and characters’ state of mind described in the prologue.

At this point I should probably reiterate that this is the story of a murder and its aftermath rather than a mystery story. The scenario certainly generates questions that the reader may try to work out the answers to but there are no clear answers given to the biggest question that hangs over all of the characters and that will destroy all of their chances of happiness.

What Woolrich does really well is explore Helen’s state of mind and the unlikely but compelling situation she finds herself in. While the thing she does is clearly morally wrong, we are likely to sympathise with her and absolve her of wrongdoing. She has not orchestrated this deception and we see that she does truly care for the couple who had lost their son.

The grieving parents are likeable but presented somewhat abstractly, referred to by their roles as mother and father rather than by name and given limited and fairly general personality traits. While that approach would not suit every work it is appropriate here because the couple represent a set of values and a family lifestyle that Helen comes to cherish. They give her a sense of belonging that she clearly has not experienced before.

Bill is given more depth not to mention a name. We know from the start of the novella that Helen will end up married to him and that she will think him responsible for the murder and yet when we first meet him that unhappiness seems unlike him. He possesses a strong sense of charm and while his intelligence poses a threat to Helen, the two are clearly attracted to each other from shortly after they meet.

This relationship sits at the heart of the novella because for the conceit of the story to work we must view them as a tragic couple and believe that had they met under different circumstances they might have been happy. The length of Woolrich’s story means that we do not have much time to see the couple’s friendship and relationship slowly develop and so instead we see a few key moments in that process but I was convinced by the type of interactions they shared that they could have been happy.

I ought to have seen the circumstances of the crisis coming, though somehow it caught me by surprise. I think even if you know what will get in the way of their happiness those scenes are cinematically written and highly effective. I felt the protagonist’s sense of panic, anger and frustration at the possibility of losing everything and understood her actions.

It should probably be said that while the scenario is set up to have each character believe the other guilty of the crime, we do follow Helen’s actions more closely than Bill’s. That does not necessarily mean though that we know Bill to be guilty and in a way the actual solution to the crime doesn’t matter – it all comes down to how the couple’s suspicions and feelings alter the rest of their relationship. It is powerful stuff, underlined by the striking decision to return to the material from the start of the book at the end.

Is it perfect? Well, it must be said that the scenario outlined does seem wholly unlikely to ever happen. I think Woolrich does take steps later in the novella to give a rationale to how the mistake could have come about and gives her a strong reason to maintain the fiction but it does require some pretty odd plot contortions to set everything in motion. This is a scenario that really could not work in the present day as it relies on a lack of documentation that would be close to unthinkable today.

Overall I found this to be a fast and highly engaging read. It certainly veers towards melodrama in some aspects of its scenario and storytelling but I felt that the ending was really effective, packing an emotional punch.

This book was originally published as the work of William Irish, a pseudonym for Cornell Woolrich. Reprints have typically used the author’s real name so I am following suit.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

DivisionAs I noted yesterday, the past couple of weeks have seen me hit a bit of a reading slump and I have found myself struggling to engage with anything I read. When I find myself in this sort of mood I inevitably end up turning to my stack of unread British Library Crime Classics novels for inspiration.

The title I grabbed from the pile is one I have been looking forward to reading for a while, The Division Bell Mystery. My reason for being interested in this is that it was written by a Member of Parliament, Ellen Wilkinson, and having a background in British politics I was interested to see how that world would be represented and used to inspire a mystery plot.

The novel takes place in a period of financial uncertainty for Britain as the nation faces a currency crisis and is looking to borrow a sizeable sum from a reclusive American financier, Georges Oissel, to prevent disaster. The Home Secretary has arranged a private dinner with him in a small room within the House of Commons, Room J, where they can hash out some of the details but during the meal he has to leave for a short period to attend a vote.

Robert West, the Home Secretary’s Personal Private Secretary is having dinner with a friend and passing the room when the Division Bell rings and a gunshot is heard. They see no one leave the room and when they open the door they find Oissel dead with his gun lying near the body giving the impression of suicide. What makes the death even more suspicious is that the rooms in which he was staying in are burgled that same evening and the Home Secretary’s batman is found killed. And then there’s the billionaire’s niece who insists that it would make no sense for him to have committed suicide when he believed a medical breakthrough for his condition was just around the corner.

The sudden death of one of the world’s wealthiest men within the House of Commons threatens to become a source of scandal for the Government and so West is tasked with trying to understand what has happened to quell the rumors and minimize embarrassment. This means he is cast in the role of sleuth and while others will contribute to discovering the solution, he is presented as a sympathetic and trustworthy figure.

Both of the introductions to the novel within this British Library Crime Classics edition comment on how fair the portrayal of this Conservative politician is given it is written by a Labour politician who was given the nickname “Red Ellen”. Certainly I think Bob is portrayed as someone who cares about discovering the truth of what happened and is doing their best to understand what is going on. At times he is portrayed as being a little naive, particularly about women, but it is clear that Wilkinson has affection for her protagonist.

I do not want to suggest that this is an apolitical novel however as there are some issues on which the author’s views are conveyed, albeit in quite a gentle and restrained tone. These passages are not the focus of the novel however being quite short and limited in number making them easy to quickly gloss over.

Where Wilkinson is at her best is in bringing to life the little details of life in Parliament and she peppers her story with lots of witty and wry remarks and observations about the lifestyles of those in government and the anachronisms and traditions of Parliament. She creates some striking and believable characters, not least the senior civil servant who clearly resents having to be responsible to any minister – I suspect many readers may be reminded of Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister although he is presented as a more serious character who might be a help or a hindrance to Robert in his investigations so expect wry amusement rather than hearty guffaws of laughter.

Turning to the murder at the heart of the mystery, the location and circumstances of the crime certainly grabbed my attention and appealed to my imagination. I do have to agree with Kate (from CrossExaminingCrime) in saying that while there is a crime that appears to be a locked room murder, readers should lower their expectations on that front. Robert pays little attention to the question of how the crime was achieved and when we discover the answer it is handed to him rather than solved by his own efforts, arguably reducing its impact on the reader.

After amusing and intriguing in its first two-thirds, the final chapters of the novel feel anticlimactic. Part of the reason is that I am not sure I can say the mechanics of the explanation to the mystery are entirely fair. When the crime scene is first described Wilkinson appears to give a definitive piece of information that rules out an explanation that ought to remain on the table. I could still enjoy the story on its many other merits but should you come to this expecting to be dazzled by how it was done I fear you will be disappointed.

While the howdunit aspects of the novel disappoint, the book is much stronger as a whodunit. Wilkinson establishes several strong candidates and though I think one comes to stand out by the time we reach that final third of the novel, I did enjoy seeing how it would play out. These aspects of the story are much more strongly clued than how the crime was done and I think they are very successful.

Sadly The Division Bell Mystery is not a perfect work though I do think it is very impressive, particularly with regards its portrayal of life within the House of Commons. It is those extra little details that help bring this setting and these characters to life and make it enjoyable to spend time in their company.

Unfortunately Robert West would turn out to only appear in this one novel. This seems a shame as he is quite an appealing lead character but before long Wilkinson would be elected as Member of Parliament for Jarrow and there would be little time for writing.

Review copy provided by publisher.