The Murders Near Mapleton by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

Anthony Bathurst #4
Preceded by The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye
Followed by The Five Red Fingers

The Blurb

Christmas Eve at Vernon House is in full swing. Sir Eustace’s nearest and dearest, and the great and the good of Mapleton, are all there. But the season of comfort and joy doesn’t run true to form. Before the night is out, Sir Eustace has disappeared and his butler, Purvis, lies dead, poisoned, with a threatening message in his pocket. Or is it her pocket?

That same evening, Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble and investigator Anthony Bathurst are out for a drive. They come across an abandoned car at a railway crossing, and find a body – Sir Eustace Vernon, plus two extraordinary additions. One, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two, a red bon-bon in his pocket with a threatening message attached.

The Verdict

An enjoyable puzzler which offers up a number of interesting questions for the reader to solve.


My Thoughts

I really enjoyed my first taste of Brian Flynn’s work when I read and reviewed Tread Softly earlier this year and ever since then I have been keen to get back to him. When I remembered that he had written a mystery that begins at a Christmas Eve dinner party I thought that it might be a good candidate for my festive reads series and decided I would give it a try.

Sir Eustace Vernon hosts a gathering at his home which is attended by his friends and neighbors. After giving a short speech he opens a red bonbon, which the excellent introduction to the reprint explains is another term for cracker, and reads the message inside. Moments later he hurriedly excuses himself from the party, explaining that he has received ‘some very bad news’. The event continues for some time but eventually his absence is noticed. A note is found suggesting that Sir Eustace intends to take what some may consider ‘the coward’s way out’ prompting a search. Instead of Sir Eustace however they find the butler dead with a red bonbon in their pocket containing a threat that they have just one hour to live and will pay their debt that very night.

Coincidentally Sir Austin Kemble, the Police Commissioner, and Anthony Bathurst are in the vicinity when they notice an abandoned car near a railroad crossing. Stopping to investigate, they notice Sir Eustace’s body on the tracks. While the first thought is suicide, the discovery of an identicle threatening note in the bonbon in his pocket leads Bathurst to suspect murder – an idea borne out when the investigation reveals he was shot in the back of the head.

The opening chapters of the book are excellent with Flynn doing an excellent job of introducing the reader to the characters and establishing the chain of events leading to the disappearance, often in quite some detail. One example would be the careful descriptions of who was sat in which spots around the dinner table and how they were positioned in relation to the each. On occasions information that will be relevant later is almost buried in description or conversation, making it feel all the more satisfying whenever the reader does catch an important point.

Let’s dispense with the weakest part of the novel first: the murder of the butler. This is not weak because the concepts are poor but simply because there is so little time given to this story thread. In short, we are never given enough time with the character to feel truly invested in them and so their story can feel like a bit of an afterthought, particularly given the way it is suddenly resurrected in the final chapters and explained away.

In contrast, the main storyline feels rather more compelling. I think that this is partly because we get to know Sir Eustace before his vanishing and the subsequent discovery of his body, building the reader’s attachment, but it is also that the knowledge that he has a niece humanizes him, as does the story of his bravery in saving children from a huge fire. It helps too that the situation around the disappearance and murder raises so many interesting questions about the victim and the circumstances of his murder.

Bathurst once again makes for a fun and engaging investigator in the Great Detective style. He focuses in on small details of the crime scene and declares at several points that a piece of evidence or information is vital to the understanding of what happened. There are a few occasions where those declarations feel a little hasty, yet given they are there for the reader’s benefit it didn’t trouble me too much.

While I think the ultimate explanation of the crime is clever, if a little sensational, there is an aspect of the solution that I felt was insufficiently clued. I could guess at the idea based on other aspects of the scenario but it seemed that there were few if any positive clues for the reader or Bathurst to reach that conclusion. To be clear, I still appreciated and was entertained by the solution but some may feel that Bathurst doesn’t quite have enough evidence to back up every point in the case he will make.

Overall however I found The Murders at Mapleton to be a very enjoyable read and one that delivered exactly what I hoped for – a puzzling scenario with some unique points of interest. It makes solid use of its seasonal elements yet it can be easily appreciated at any time of year. In short, another positive experience with Flynn’s work that leaves me excited to delve more deeply in the new year.

The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

The Blurb

The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

The Verdict

As much as I liked the premise of this mystery, I found the investigation and its sleuth to be rather unengaging. The solution to the puzzle is rather good though.


My Thoughts

The Shop Window Murders opens as a crowd gathers outside a department store’s windows to await the unveiling of a new display featuring fancy dress costumes. When the blinds are raised at nine the crowd are initially appreciative but it doesn’t take long for someone to notice the figure out of place in the scene – a man dressed in mechanic overalls – and that he doesn’t seem to be made of wax like the other figures.

The police are summoned and investigate, finding that the masked mechanic is the store’s owner and that he has been shot. Meanwhile another figure is spotted within the window – a woman who has been stabbed. She has a gun and yet close examination will prove that her weapon was not the one that killed Tobias Mander, only making the scene in the window more puzzling.

I selected to read The Shop Window Murders as part of my Festive Reads series this year but I should probably start by saying that there is absolutely nothing seasonal about this work. While the story is set in Novemeber, there is no mention within the text of the window display being related to the holiday and given that these window displays are changed weekly there is nothing to suggest that this was a particularly significant event in the store’s calendar. I will not hold that against the book itself but feel I ought to clarify that rather misleading blurb.

The best thing about this book is its initial premise which is delightfully puzzling. In just a couple of pages Loder lays out a crime that appears neat and tidy but that actually is far more complex than it seems as the reader realizes that the story the crime scene appears to tell simply does not make sense. There are too many gaps for the easy explanations to make sense.

The chapters that follow introduce us to our handful of suspects, some with clear motives while others’ are less obvious. I appreciated that there are efforts made to have those characters drawn from different spheres within Mander’s life and I respected the role they played within the context of the puzzle. I was less impressed however with the depth of their characterizations.

With the expection of the department store manager, Mr. Kephim, I never really had much sense of the various suspects or their personalities beyond a sense of their occupation. I did not find their voices to be strong or distinctive and, once again with the exception of Mr. Kephim who has an emotional reaction to the discovery of the bodies, I struggled to feel engaged with their stories.

It was not just the characterization of the suspects that disappointed me however but I similarly felt unengaged with Inspector Devenish, the detective Loder creates. In his excellent introduction to the edition reissued a few years ago, crime historian Nigel Moss quite rightly points out some of the similarities and differences between this work and Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. What strikes me most as I think about book is that I think this sort of story needed a character like Ellery to inject a little more life into the investigation and, in particular, the various questioning sessions he conducts.

Inspector Devenish is, for want of a better description, a bore. He is hardly the first detective I have encountered who feels a little lacking in any strong characteristics but he does differ from the likes of Crofts’ Inspector French in that I never found his process or the way he intellectually approaches solving the crime to be particularly compelling. In short, I simply didn’t enjoy his company and that didn’t help with my overall engagement with this story which I found to be rather dry once we get beyond the first few chapters of the book.

This is unfortunate because the actual explanation of what happened is really interesting and I do acknowledge that the essential points are properly clued (though I think Devenish does guess a few points). Similarly I have to acknowledge that the explanation is quite clever and, as far as I can tell, fairly novel at the time. Perhaps most importantly though, I feel like it is fairly comprehensive and avoids leaving any loose plot ends.

There were clearly some parts of The Shop Window Murders that did hold some appeal for me. I think the core premise and the multiple contradictions within it are cleverly introduced and I think the explanation given feels compelling and sensible. The problem for me was that the path to reach that explanation felt dry and seems to move quite slowly. Others may feel differently though, particularly those who focus most strongly on the puzzle elements of a mystery.

Mrs. Claus and the Santaland Slayings by Liz Ireland

Book Details

Originally published in 2020
Mrs Claus #1

The Blurb

Love is full of surprises—though few compare to realizing that you’re marrying the real-life Santa. April Claus dearly loves her new husband, Nick, but adjusting to life in the North Pole is not all sugarplums and candy canes. Especially when a cantankerous elf named Giblet Hollyberry is killed—felled by a black widow spider in his stocking—shortly after publicly arguing with Nick.
 
Christmastown is hardly a hotbed of crime, aside from mishaps caused by too much eggnog, but April disagrees with Constable Crinkle’s verdict of accidental death. As April sets out to find the culprit, it’ll mean putting the future of Christmas on the line—and hoping her own name isn’t on a lethal naughty list…

The Verdict

This lighthearted novel is build around a decent mystery but it is at its most enjoyable when it leans into the silliness of its setting and concept.


My Thoughts

In the past few weeks the weather has grown chillier and our nights longer which leads me to suspect that the holiday season is around the corner. While I am not much of one for celebrations, one tradition I do like to keep each year is reading festive and wintery mysteries in the month of December.

My first selection this year comes from the world of cozy crime fiction. Part of the fun with these sorts of books is their unorthodox sleuths – some titles I have reviewed on this blog see crimes solved by microbrewers, a former Vice President (who is now our President Elect) and even a kite seller. This book however takes that idea to a whole new level by taking place at the North Pole and casting Mrs. Claus in the role of sleuth.

After the death of her husband, April had opened a small hotel using the life insurance payout. Some time later she met Nick, a visitor from somewhere vaguely north of the Northwest Territories, and the two fell in love. It turns out that her beau is none other than Santa himself, newly installed in his position after the tragic death of his elder brother in a hunting accident. Marrying, the pair agree that they will spend their summers at her beachfront hotel and winters fulfilling their duties in Christmastown at the North Pole.

The book begins as the big day draws near when Giblet Hollyberry, a rather cantankerous elf, is found dead from the bite of a black widow spider that was in his stocking. This death came just hours after he had a heated argument with Nick in which he had called him a murderer and things look even worse for Santa when April sees a note written in his handwriting calling Giblet ‘a venomous elf’. Could April’s husband (who is, let us remember, Santa) be a murderer?

So, a lot of the fun in this book comes when the book leans most strongly into its rather ludicrous premise giving us rivalries in Santa’s workshops, fights between the various Mrs Clauses (both Nick’s mother, the Dowager Mrs Claus, and his elder brother’s widow) and a splendidly silly second murder of a different type of yuletide figure. The tone is definitely silly and in my case I smiled more than I laughed but it was a fun, lighthearted read that did a decent job of delivering on its premise.

I quite enjoyed April as the narrator of this story and I think her voice is used well, balancing moments evoking sympathy with ones that seem to suggest that she recognizes the craziness of the situation she has found herself in. The story never calls on her to do anything outrageously outside of that character’s likely experience or ability, and so she I found her pretty easy to accept. If I have any reservations at all, I think a few aspects of her character and background remain a little loosely sketched – for example, I remain a little confused about how old she is meant to be.

I also felt that the references to her life away from Christmastown and her squabbles with a busybody neighbor via email never seemed to have much purpose in the context of this story, particularly given how easily they could be resolved. Happily these diversions are rather limited and perhaps they will be more relevant in future installments.

Turning to the details of the mystery, I feel that the initial setup is pretty engaging. The evidence against Nick is fairly clear and this gives April a solid reason to get involved, particularly given her feelings about whether the elf constabulary will be up to investigating its first murder case. The stakes of her investigation are clearly communicated and the details of that crime seem fairly clear, making it easy to understand the initial facts of the case.

Similarly I think that the author also does a pretty solid job of expanding on this initial setup to add complexity to their plot, incorporating additional murders and providing the reader with a wealth of suspects of consider. While I think some characters stand out as more likely than others, the author does a good job of keeping most credible until pretty late in the novel.

Unfortunately when it comes to the solution for that mystery, I was a little less convinced. Though Ireland does well to maintain the reader’s suspicions of her various suspects, some are clearly more likely than others. By the time we near the resolution, the reader does stand a pretty good chance of guessing that guilty party’s identity. The problem is though that I think that is all the reader can do – guess.

The issue for me is that while I felt the evidence leant towards one character, there really is nothing definitively proving it. That means that when April does attempt to accuse the killer she cannot really prove what she is saying, making it more a really well-informed suspicion rather than a reasoned deduction of that person’s guilt. In spite of that however I did find the overall ending to be entertaining and satisfying in its handling of the character and her situation.

Most importantly, I found this ending to be in keeping with the overall tone of the book, keeping its sense of fun even as it injects a little peril into the mix. That lightheartedness helped to make this a quick and entertaining read that delivered much of what I wanted from this book – something light and silly.

Apparently Mrs Claus and the Santaland Slayings is intended to be the first of a new series of books. I am a little skeptical about the idea that this premise is sustainable as an ongoing series but I enjoyed this first one enough that I can imagine myself picking up the next for a future festive reads project.

Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

OldVicarage
Murder at the Old Vicarage
Jill McGown
Originally Published 1988
Lloyd and Hill #2
Preceded by A Perfect Match
Followed by Gone to Her Death

As I write this the clock is just about to strike midnight and it will be Christmas Eve meaning that I have run out of time for this year’s festive reads project. While I had big plans – I have a full stack of about a dozen titles I was hoping to read – I only actually managed to get around to reading three in full. Still, it’s quality not quantity that counts and I am happy to say that Murder at the Old Vicarage is a really excellent read if rather more Pogues than Slade in tone.

The book begins by introducing us to the Reverend George Wheeler, a vicar who is dealing with a crisis of faith (or perhaps midlife). While his wife Marian is comfortable living the life of a vicar’s wife, he only became a priest out of a sense of familial expectation rather than any great passion or sense of a calling and does not really believe in what he is doing.

He has two other, more immediate problems facing him. One is that he finds himself attracted to one of his parishioners whose child is a member of the local playgroup. The more pressing one is that his abusive son-in-law Graham has followed his daughter Joanna to their home and is seeking a reconciliation. By the end of Christmas Eve Graham is found dead in a bed in their home, apparently beaten to death with a poker.

The novel is the second title in Jill McGown’s Lloyd and Hill series though if, like me, you haven’t read the first you will have no problem catching up. Inspector Lloyd is having an affair with Judy Hill, his Detective Sergeant, who works with him on this case. He is divorced but she remains married, creating emotional complications in their working relationship. Rather than distracting from the story or acting as a plot filler, these interactions integrate well into the story and complement some of the themes and ideas raised and discussed in the case itself making for an even richer read.

While my description of the plot emphasizes issues within character relationships I do want to stress that this is really an excellent example of a puzzle mystery. Puzzle Doctor calls it a ‘proper mystery plot’ and I quite agree. It is all fair play and I felt McGown sets up the solution very cleverly, developing a really challenging crime scene. Certainly psychology is important to understand the case but I think that ultimately it is secondary to identifying and resolving some of the contradictions in the physical evidence.

Some of those problems with the evidence are directly flagged early in the investigation such as the question of why someone would hit a corpse after death had occurred, others are just implied. There are even a few problems that don’t occur to the detectives until very late in the case though the observant reader may pick up on them.

I have previously described how my ideal mystery is one in which all of the clues are there in plain sight and yet the solution still eludes me and this is a perfect example of that. It is a solution that feels completely clear and logical once it is given and I didn’t doubt any element of it.

My admiration for the puzzle is all the greater considering that McGown tells her story with a very small cast of characters, almost all of whom are suspects. Those characters are each given credible motivations to want Graham dead and it appears that each possessed the means and opportunity meaning that no one can really be eliminated from the investigation until close to the end of the novel.

McGown’s approach to developing her characters goes beyond simply supplying them with a motive as she explores aspects of their lives exposing the reasons behind the seemingly straightforward character behaviors. I appreciated the effort she puts in to exploring how they interact with and feel about each other. In nearly every case those relationships are more complex than they initially seem which made them seem more dimensional and realistic.

This empathic approach to characterization can also be seen in the novel’s handling of its domestic abuse plot thread. Though some aspects of the way this is addressed by other characters are clearly of their time, I was struck by the degree of thought McGown put in to depicting how this has affected character relationships and contributes to some tensions within the family, not to mention how it affects Joanna’s feelings towards the detectives who raise the issue with her with little sensitivity or understanding.

It is that attention to developing empathy for her characters and the situations they find themselves in here that made the novel feel a rich and rewarding read. Though some of the issues raised are upsetting I think the author handles them with appropriate empathy and a desire to understand what drives her characters. It all makes for an impressive, if not perfect read and while it is certainly on the darker side of festive crime fiction in terms of its depiction of domestic violence I think it is certainly very effective.

This book was first published under the title Redemption in the UK.

The Dead Shall Be Raised by George Bellairs

DeadShall
The Dead Shall Be Raised
aka. Murder Must Speak
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #4
Preceded by Death of a Busybody
Followed by Murder of a Quack

When I was making my plans for my week of festive reads I had not noticed that my 200th fiction review would be falling right in the middle of it. I only noticed a few days before and when I found that I wasn’t enjoying the book I had planned to review in this slot I decided to change things up and find something else that would not only fit the festive theme (as I happily learned from a review at Gaslight Crime) but also feel appropriate for a milestone post.

Over the past year I have returned time and again to the mystery novels of George Bellairs. Looking at the list of authors I have previously reviewed he comes second only to Freeman Wills Crofts which is remarkable given I was never really bowled over by any of his books. I always believed that, with patience, I would come across one of his books that would really hit the mark for me. I am very pleased to be able to report that The Dead Shall Be Raised proved I was right to keep that faith.

This novel was one of the earliest Bellairs wrote, being published in 1942 and it was recently reissued by the British Library in a double-bill with The Murder of a Quack. It is notable for several reasons but the one that interests me most is that it is essentially a cold case story. Littlejohn happens to be in the area visiting his wife for Christmas when a body is discovered of a man who disappeared over twenty years earlier having been believed to have murdered one of his colleagues in a dispute over a woman’s affections. Many of the original figures from that case have died or moved away leaving the Inspector with limited leads to follow.

Bellairs presents us with a situation that feels much more complex and mysterious than any I have encountered in his other stories to date. The crime scene itself is inherently confusing as it is hard to understand why the two bodies, apparently linked in death, were treated differently with just one being buried. As Littlejohn interviews the surviving witnesses and family members he learns more about the two victims and their relationship, identifying several suspects into the bargain.

I have written before about how well Bellairs conjures up a sense of the countryside in his work and I can only reiterate that opinion here. He not only gives a strong impression of the rugged landscape but the people who inhabit the town of Hatterworth feel real and well-observed. They respond to Littlejohn’s presence quite differently, some being excited or drawn to him because of the idea of an important detective taking an interest in their lives, others feeling he is an outsider whose efforts are likely to cause more trouble than good. They feel like a real community and while we only get to know a few characters very well, it adds credibility to the setting and situation.

It turns out that Bellairs is not only good at giving a sense of place, his writing conveys a sense of the time in which this book is written. This book is set in 1941, a year before publication, and there are parts of this story that strongly give a sense of the wartime experience. For instance, the book opens with a wonderful sequence in which we see Littlejohn having to travel by night which means trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with so little light that you cannot see the person sat next to you in a car. Bellairs not only tells you what they had to do, he gives you a sense of how it felt and I found it to be a really compelling opening to the novel.

Littlejohn is a practical, methodical detective whose approach to a case focuses on establishing and corroborating simple details. This means that many of the key points of the story seem to be slowly teased out or come into focus rather than being revealed in a sudden twist or development. Where this story differs from some of the later Bellairs novels I have read is that the reader also has to consider the mechanics of the crime much more than usual, only serving to complicate the eventual solution.

One other aspect of this book that stood out for me was that Bellairs reveals the killer’s identity far earlier than is usual in his work. Heading into the final chapters we are aware of who was responsible for carrying out the crime but we have not seen how it was done or exactly why and so these questions, rather than that of the killer’s identity, come to dominate the book’s conclusion. It makes for a nice change and I am really happy to be able to say the clues are fairly placed throughout the story and the solution fits the facts well.

The only disappointments for me were that Littlejohn’s wife who is supposedly his reason for visiting really doesn’t feature much in the story making you wonder if her inclusion was necessary at all while that the ending feels a little too easy for Littlejohn and certainly too tidy. Given the quality of the puzzle up to that point, the resolution feels like an afterthought and not quite earned by the investigator’s efforts up until that point.

Happily I found the journey to that point to be both interesting and entertaining. This book is not just a good character study or travelogue but a fascinating case with some solid complications, interesting investigative techniques and a very clever solution. It is easily the best Bellairs I have read so far and falls into that category of mysteries set at Christmas you can really read the whole year round. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Recognized Holiday (When)

The Dead Shall Be Raised was reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in a double-bill omnibus edition with The Murder of a Quack. It was published in the United States as Murder Will Speak (both titles are excellent).

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

CCC
The Christmas Card Crime and 
Other Stories
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.

Whoops.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.

There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!

Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.

The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.

Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.

Continue reading “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards”

The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

Jesuit2
The Case of the Headless Jesuit
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1950
Inspector Littlejohn #16
Preceded by The Case of the Famished Parson
Followed by Crime in Leper’s Hollow

As the time strikes midnight and the New Year is rung in Granville Salter stumbles into the church of St. Mark’s, apparently drunk. When he collapses it is discovered that the man has been murdered having been stabbed in the chest with what seems to have been a German prisoner’s knife.

When Inspector Littlejohn arrives he learns that Salter was not the only local to have mysteriously died and also absorbs a little of the local lore. There are two legends that will play a role in this case. The first is that of a ghost that is said to haunt the area – the titular Jesuit. The second relates to a supposed treasure that is hidden somewhere around the Salter family’s ancestral home.

I have now read several Bellairs novels and I keep waiting to find the knockout read I feel sure the author was capable of. The omens with this one seemed particularly promising from its striking title, suggestions of the supernatural and the attention-grabbing opening chapter. Would this be the novel that would make me fall in love with Bellairs?

There is certainly a lot to like here and I will say that I found the book to be a pretty enjoyable read. Let’s start with its most distinctive elements – the two local legends that are incorporated into this story. From my reading so far, this hardly seems typical of Bellairs’ usual style and I certainly do not think he extracts the gothic atmosphere from these elements that other writers may have achieved but I did respect that he manages to make these elements colorful, distinctive and genuinely important to the plot without overwhelming the rest of his narrative.

While the subject matter may seem unusual for Bellairs, I think this is yet another example of his playing with aspects of rural life. His interest is less in the content of the legend but the way it hangs over and becomes part of a small community’s identity. That it adds a little color and spice to the narrative is a bonus rather than its cause for existence and I can certainly respect that approach.

I also felt that the string of murders we see here are fairly interesting in that they clearly must be connected and yet it is hard to see how they could be given the very different lives of each of the victims. The solution to just what happened is interesting and quite powerful, yet I do think that the number of deaths in such a short book means that a few of the killings get far less focus than the others. I think the resolution justifies the more superficial treatment of a couple of deaths but I could certainly understand if some readers felt frustrated that they do not receive a little more attention in the narrative.

And then there’s the characterization which I think is among the best of the Bellairs novels I have read so far. He always seems to have a good handle on countryside types but what I think he shows in this novel is his ability to condense a characterization down into a pithy description. A good example would be the character of Mrs. Alverston who, we are told:

…had a thin, puffy face and the large appealing eyes of the persecuted. If life does not unduly persecute them, they persecute themselves.

Another character who is given a memorable, scandalous introduction is PC Pennyquick.

He had one secret sin. He loved, when alone, to drink with his mouth full. He liked to mix hot, sugared tea with his food.

There are a surprisingly large number of characters in what is quite a short book, yet I think even the most incidental characters feel memorable and distinctive which is quite an achievement.

Given all of these aspects of the book I appreciated and enjoyed, you may be wondering just why I am not being more enthusiastic about this story. The answer is that I think the investigation just feels flat and passive.

While I would never list Littlejohn amongst my favorite detectives from the Golden Age, I do appreciate that he typically adopts a fairly rigorous, methodical approach to investigating crimes. He does the same here, working as usual with the local police and yet here he never really seems to take charge of the investigation. The result is that the case feels unfocused and only really comes together in the final chapters once a third party comes to explain their actions.

We do learn in the aftermath of that moment that Littlejohn had successfully identified them and yet it is hard to extract much satisfaction from that seeing as how he never shares that information with the reader. Though I think the nature of that reveal plays into the themes of the novel and leads to a pretty striking coda scene, I found the journey to that point unsatisfying, not quite working as a detective story while not being thrilling enough to work as a thriller.

Unfortunately the result is a disappointing novel that has some great ideas and themes but never manages to balance them. It’s certainly very readable and entertaining in places but it is hard to overlook a weak investigative narrative.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

This book was published in the United States as Death Brings In the New Year.

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

MysteryinWhite
Mystery in White
J. Jefferson Farjeon
Originally Published 1938

I thought that I would draw my week of Christmassy reads to a close today with a look at one of the most popular reissued Golden Age works in recent years, Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. While I own several Farjeon books, they just sat in my to read pile so this was not only my first experience of reading this book but also with this author.

The story begins with a train stuck on the line during a thick snow storm. One of the passengers runs off the train with a shout, another makes the decision to leave and then a short while later the rest of the group go in search of that passenger. They end up getting disoriented during the storm and, when one of their number gets injured and passes out, they decide to take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house.

While it seems to be deserted, there is tea boiling on the stove and provisions laid out. And when they explore the house they find a locked upstairs room where they seem to hear someone yet when they return a short while later the door is open and the room is empty. And then there is the matter of the knife left on the floor…

The chapters in which we first encounter and explore the house were by far the most successful ones for me. While the house seems quite normal, lacking blood on the walls or the sounds of screams coming from some secret chamber, it is nonetheless a little unsettling because Farjeon establishes the oddness of this setting so well. We know that there has been a thick snow storm making it unlikely that whoever prepared the tea might choose to leave and yet they are not there.

The matter of the locked room is similarly extremely effective and mysterious, only adding to the house’s intrigue. I wondered what may have been behind that door and who could have opened it when the key was on the inside and no one was seen inside the house. When we did receive an explanation I thought it was clever, simple and highly effective and only added to the story’s intrigue.

And yet…

I had loved the opening and found it to be mysterious and intriguing yet I found myself disengaging from the text in the material that followed the feverish dream sequence. I tried taking a break from the book, returning to it later and I still couldn’t really get into it although I did summon enough energy and enthusiasm to finish it.

I think there are a few reasons that I struggled with the book beyond the most obvious one that any book that my expectations may have been too high coming into it. The first thing that struck me is that Farjeon makes heavy use of dialogue here, often having group conversations take place with multiple participants. He does not always attribute speech clearly and seems to be assuming that his characters are sufficiently well-defined to make it easy for the reader to follow. Sadly, I did not find that to be the case and at times I felt it pulled me out of the story.

The second is that I didn’t care much for the character of Mr. Maltby who falls into the role of the sleuth by the end of the story. He got off to a bad start with me when he stated that he could commune with spirits but whatever goodwill I had towards him evaporated with his early displays of pedantic thoroughness in his interactions with the other passengers. I was also a little frustrated that it seems he solves this case more through intuition, instantly recognizing the importance of a seemingly mundane item.

Finally, I felt that it was hard to invest in the idea of solving the murders that take place when we really have so little sense of who these victims are for much of the book. This didn’t bother me for the first half of the story because there Farjeon devotes his energies to establishing the strange, Marie Celeste-like qualities of the house but once we are trying to understand murder I think the novel needed to become more focused.

In spite of those complaints, there were some parts of the novel that I did respond to. Of all of the books I have read this week I felt that this made the most use of the season both in terms of the hostile weather conditions and also in its awareness of the holidays. I also found the setting to be very effective and while I may not have liked Maltby much, I did appreciate that Farjeon has the other passengers (except Smith) engage in the investigation.

While I was disappointed with Mystery in White, I did wonder if I just picked up this book at the wrong moment. Certainly some people whose views I often agree with have read and enjoyed this which is enough to give me pause and make me feel like the odd one out. Perhaps some day I will revisit this to see if I like it more on a second try but, for now, I cannot personally recommend this and would steer people looking for an entertaining Golden Age mystery set at Christmas to gift to friends, family or just themselves to look at either Portrait of a Murderer or The Crime at the Noah’s Ark instead. Do be sure to get a second opinion of this one before you pass on it though because I believe I am out of step with the general consensus on this story.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresoftheBlueCarbuncle
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1892
Collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is about as Christmassy a Christmas mystery story as you are likely to find. It is so popular that the story can be purchased individually should you so wish and a few years ago Audible gave away an Alan Cumming-narrated audiobook to their subscribers as a Christmas gift.

At some point I will probably sit down and do a post about the collection of short stories this comes from, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but it will do no harm to get an early start on that by writing both about this story and also three notable adaptations that may be of interest for those searching for some detective-related viewing today.

The Short Story

The story begins with Holmes explaining the history of a battered old hat to Watson and making deductions about the wearer. It turns out that the hat and a Christmas goose were dropped in the street by a man who got into a fight with some ruffians. Holmes was asked for his assistance in locating the owner but was unable to do so and, rather than waste the bird, the man who brought it to him took it home to consume with his family.

Shortly afterwards that man, Peterson, returns to tell Holmes that they found a blue gem in the bird’s throat and Holmes recognizes it from a description in the newspaper.

While this story features a detective, like many of the Holmes stories it is really more of an adventure. The reader could not realistically deduce much of what has happened based on the facts they are given although the solution to how Holmes will track down the rightful owner is very logically.

The story is tremendous fun however and certainly appeals to the imagination. It doesn’t hurt that it draws on the image of the Victorian Christmas with its plump goose, only adding to the story’s appeal.

There have been several televised versions of this story made over the years but time will restrict me to discussing just three of them.

BrettCarbuncle

The Jeremy Brett Version

Let’s kick things off with the version that most people have probably seen – the Granada television version made with Jeremy Brett in the role of Holmes. This is not just because it is the most widely available of the different versions but it also is a reflection of the popularity of Brett’s performance which many Sherlockians feel comes closest to capturing Doyle’s Holmes.

The production looks beautiful, especially in the recent high definition versions which show the costumes and set to their best advantage, and the script is just about the right length.

In terms of the way the material is presented, the Brett production is fairly accurate to the short story although it makes a few tweaks. The biggest one is that the crime is solved before Christmas Day but it makes little difference to the way the events continue to unfold.

While I wish I could shock you by saying that some other version is the best made of this story, I have to be boring and say that if you only watch one Blue Carbuncle, this is the one to watch!

CushingHolmes

The Peter Cushing Version

The other live-action version made in English starred Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes and Nigel Stock in the role of Dr Watson.

This version takes the opportunity to show us some of the events that are only referred to in the original story such as the events leading up to the theft of the jewel and the attack on the man carrying the goose in the street. It also takes the opportunity to add a little festive cheer with a charming scene in which Watson brings Holmes a present which Holmes, of course, neglected to provide for Watson.

Cushing’s Holmes is somewhat more aloof than Brett’s and has an almost patrician-like aspect to his personality. I like it though and I think he and Stock play the scene where they discuss the hat absolutely perfectly.

Dad’s Army fans may get a kick out of seeing James Beck play a role in this (it took me far too long to recognize him out of uniform) while others may be interested to know that this production is connected to the later Brett one by a shared piece of casting. Both productions feature the veteran actor Frank Middlemass, albeit in different roles.

Molly

The Sherlock Hound Version

The final adaptation I have chosen was completely new to me and comes from an Italian-Japanese animated television series made in the 1980s featuring anthropomorphized dogs in all of the key roles. As a fan of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds and Around the World With Willy Fog I quite approve of retellings of classic stories with animal protagonists.

The story opens with a mechanized pterodactyl attacking the streets of Victorian London, masking the criminal activities of the infamous Moriarty who, it turns out, was responsible for the theft of the jewel. Because, why not? He runs into a pickpocket while making his escape from the scene of the crime, losing the jewel. Realizing who must have it, he tries to hunt the kid down, catching the attention of Sherlock Hound.

This short animation is quite enjoyable, even if it is not particularly accurate to the source material. Of the various elements of the story it really only retains the idea of the theft of a jewel and of how it might be hidden (although it is not in a goose this time). The action takes place on a regular sunny day rather than in the Christmas period and it gives a lot of time to its two chase sequences, which are quite elaborate involving coal-powered cars and the return of the mechanized pterodactyl aircraft which harass Holmes and Watson as they try to catch up to Moriarty.

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

CrimeatNoahsArk
The Crime at the Noah’s Ark
Molly Thynne
Originally Published 1931
Dr Constantine #1
Followed by Death in the Dentist’s Chair

My fourth selection for my week of Christmassy crimes is Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which was republished last year by Dean Street Press.

Travelling for the holidays can be a daunting prospect, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse.  Novelist Angus Stuart, having finally found success with a bestseller, is keen to avoid the now-loving embrace of his family for the holidays and decides to spend Christmas at a resort for the well-to-do while he works on his next book. When an accumulation of thick snow makes his route impassable, he and several other travellers are forced to stay at a nearby country inn, The Noah’s Ark, until the roads can be cleared.

Almost all of the guests at the inn had not intended to stay there and while most attempt to make the best of the situation, their first evening together does not get off to a good start. One of their number, Major Carew, gets steadily more drunk as the evening goes on and he begins to harass the female guests. Getting fed up of his behavior, the party takes him to his room and locks him inside.

Later that night one of the female guests reports seeing a masked man prowling the corridors though Stuart sees no signs of him when he goes in search of him. A few hours later the chess champion, Dr. Constantine, alerts Stuart to a rope dangling from the Major’s window. They worry that he may have climbed out in an attempt to escape his room but they are surprised to find the key to his room has vanished.

While they are searching for the key, an American guest declares that her emerald girdle has been stolen from her room. Believing the Major may have been behind this crime the group decides to break into the room but when they do so he is found dead, murdered with a blunt instrument. The sleuths will have to figure out how these two crimes might be linked and locate the stolen girdle.

The reason I have gone into far more detail about the way this story is set up than with most mysteries I have described is that a large part of the mystery in this book relates to the question of how the various events of that evening and those that follow are interconnected and why they are happening. As Kate says in her review on CrossExaminingCrime, the logistics of the crimes are complex but the motivations are quite simple.

At this point I should probably say that I do not think that the identities of the criminals or the hiding place for the jewels are really possible to deduce from the information provided. The explanations, when given, do make sense but I would be very surprised if any reader could prove their case against the characters involved. They might however be able to logically deduce that all-important sequence of events and the relationship between the crimes.

Thynne’s story is written in the third person and while we follow Stuart’s activities more closely than the other characters he is not the only sleuth investigating this case. Two other hotel guests are also working on trying to figure things out, forming an informal alliance. One of these is a commercial traveller, Soames, who is the only guest staying at the hotel who had intended to stay there. The other is a renowned chess champion, Dr. Constantine, who tries to approach the case quite methodically and refuses to share his thoughts until he is ready, much to Stuart’s frustration.

Each of these characters has a distinct personality and approach to solving the two crimes and there are points where they disagree strongly about who to suspect and why. In fact there are moments where it is clear that they may even suspect each other. I did enjoy those sometimes fractious exchanges although I think it is clear early on which of the three amateur sleuths is the one whose thoughts we should be paying the most attention to.

I liked the concept of that sleuth here a lot, even if Thynne hides his thought process from us a little more than I’d like and occasionally has him dismiss a suspect when you might think they deserve closer scrutiny. I am excited to know that they appear in two further stories as I can certainly see their promise.

Thynne creates an interesting mix of guests for our sleuths to suspect and I did enjoy how quickly they came to suspect each other and voice their suspicions of each others’ guilt. There is a surprisingly large cast of characters and she does well to make each distinct enough that I never had any difficulty keeping their identities straight in my mind and I appreciated that a few characters were more complex than they initially seemed.

The story unfolds as a steady stream of action and we are constantly reminded that the killer must still be present in the hotel, causing some panic amongst some of the guests. This is an effective source of tension throughout the novel although I was probably more intrigued by the question of how nobody could find the missing girdle in spite of repeated thorough searches and I enjoyed the way Thynne pulled everything together tidily at the end. I do agree with Kate though that the question of how the identity of the killer is proved is a little weak.

The result is a book that I found to be interesting and entertaining. Some readers may feel that the questions of the criminals’ identities is a little disappointing in how they are clued but I think, if viewed as an adventure or if you consider the mystery to be in understanding the connections between events, the story is very engaging and possesses considerable charm.