End of an Ancient Mariner by G. D. H. Cole and M. Cole

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Superintendent Wilson #10
Preceded by A Lesson in Crime
Followed by Death in the Quarry

The Blurb

It is said that dead men tell no tales, but sometimes sudden death is the means of bringing well-hidden tales to light. It is so in this story; for out of the seemingly accidental death of the unknown old man who called on Philip Blakeway at Hampstead comes the clearing-up of an old crime. How Captain John Jay really died, how Ann Burton set out to look for her missing father, and how Superintendent Wilson unravelled the tangle, you will read in this book, in which you will find not only a detective story in Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s best manner, but also another example of their habit of writing about people who behave like real men and women, and not merely figures whom the author moves about at his pleasure.

The Verdict

An intriguing inverted story scenario is spoiled by a dull investigation and a lack of interest in exploring the character of its killer. Ends strong but takes too long getting there.


My Thoughts

After several years of financial worries, Philip Blakeway seems to finally be living comfortably. He has married a wealthy widow who is able to keep him and sustain his business, though he could easily afford to live a life of leisure. Even her children’s lack of warmth towards him does not seem to seriously bother him and he hopes to make some progress with his relationship with her son while she is away for a few days.

All that comfort seems to evaporate however when he spots a seafaring man at a religious gathering while out on a walk – a situation that becomes even more worrying when that man follows him home and asks for an audience. Blakeway asks for the man to be shown into his library and gives the servants the night off, even though he will be having a few friends over later that evening. He goes ahead with the party as planned, staging a scene where he happens upon the mariner robbing his bedroom and they struggle, causing the mariner’s gun to go off and kill him. We know however that this is murder – what we do not know is why Philip felt driven to commit the act.

I first learned about this book several months ago in the chapter on Inverted Mysteries in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. While Edwards’ short essay on the book is not exactly glowing, he describes it as ‘good enough’ to make it feel disappointing that the authors did not return to the form. Always keen to try a new author’s take on this type of story, particularly those from the Golden Age, I couldn’t resist snapping up a copy. I am pretty sure I did so before I even finished the article.

The book gets off to a strong start with a chapter that establishes Blakeway and his new lifestyle. While it is quite clear that we are not given the full story and that secrets are lurking in his past, this chapter does help to give us a sense of the man and what he values. It also goes some way to laying the foundations for the later revelations about his past and his relationship to the man who will be murdered.

By choosing to give us this introduction and the events leading up to the meeting with the victim at his home before jumping forwards a few hours, picking up the story at the moment of the shooting, the authors add an additional layer of mystery to the proceedings. We can infer from the circumstances of that meeting that the victim posed some sort of threat to Blakeway and his security yet we do not know the nature of that threat or whether those secrets truly died with the mariner. Nor do we really know much about the victim himself beyond a physical description and our knowledge of the fear he creates in Blakeway. In short, this choice to not show us exactly what happened works pretty well to build a sense of uncertainty and emphasize that the book’s central questions relate to the relationship between those two men.

We then follow Blakeway as he answers police questions and then receives a blackmail request. This is a relatively common plot point in this sort of mystery and it often inspires additional plot developments but here the authors do not really exploit it. After being raised near the start of the novel, this plot point really slips out of view to the extent that, when it was referenced again late in the book it had completely slipped from my mind.

The reason it slipped my mind and struck me as pretty unimportant reflects that the bulk of the novel feels really rather unstructured. While we might think of those middle chapters of the novel as showing how Blakeway responds to some external pressures, the story seems to ooze towards its conclusion rather than feel like it is being driven towards it. There is a sense of a building series of pressures but no sense of an antagonist for Blakeway to pitch his wits against or the need to construct a cover-up. While that may be realistic, it does not make for particularly compelling storytelling. The entry of Superintendent Wilson late in the day does little to help this.

Martin Edwards describes him as dull and I cannot really disagree. His role in this story is fairly minimal, reflecting that he is brought into the affair late in the day, but he does not have much personality or bring much force to bear on the investigation. He really just works out a probable (and correct) explanation from a distance. Even that however feels rather anticlimactic and, once again, it never feels as if he is engaged with the other characters in the story.

While the process of getting to the explanation is rather dry, the content of that explanation is rather more interesting. I was certainly surprised to learn one element motivating the crime which is fairly clued and was intrigued to see how another character would respond. It sets up an interesting final few chapters that feel less predictable than what has come before while not losing sight of the characters or the relationships that had been established earlier in the novel.

As interesting as the start and end of the novel are, I feel that I cannot really recommend it. It is not just that the plotting is sometimes a little loose with some elements, like the threat of blackmail, being raised but then forgotten for much of the story. I think the problems lie in the choice to prevent the reader from really getting to know Blakeway. Following the murder he seems emotionally remote, even when we are being shown how he is responding to events. That works in terms of sustaining the mystery about why he has resorted to murder but it does mean that for much of the book the character feels more like a cipher than a fully-dimensional person and I think it kept me from really caring about his fate.

Have you read anything by the Coles? If so, what is your opinion of their writing? Are there any books you would recommend to me?

Lord Edgeware Dies by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Hercule Poirot #9
Preceded by Peril at End House
Followed by Murder on the Orient Express

Also known as Thirteen at Dinner

The Blurb

When Lord Edgware is found murdered the police are baffled. His estranged actress wife was seen visiting him just before his death and Hercule Poirot himself heard her brag of her plan to “get rid” of him.

But how could she have stabbed Lord Edgware in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? It’s a case that almost proves to be too much for the great Poirot.

The Verdict

By no means a classic story but the plot has a few interesting features while the characterizations are pretty good.


My Thoughts

Lord Edgeware Dies begins with Poirot and Hastings attending a theatrical performance at which they witness an impersonation of the actress Jane Wilkinson by Carlotta Adams. As it happens Wilkinson is in the audience and afterwards loudly voices her frustrations towards her husband, Lord Edgeware, who refuses to grant her a divorce, declaring that she would willingly murder him. Later she approaches Poirot and begs him to intervene for her by visiting him and making a case for why it would benefit him to divorce her. He is persuaded and tries to set up an appointment, only to be told Lord Edgeware needs to meet that day instead.

In their meeting Lord Edgeware declares he withdrew his opposition to divorce some time before and had written to Jane agreeing to proceed. Poirot is confused but breaks the good news to Jane who is delighted. The next morning however Inspector Japp visits Poirot to tell him that Edgeware was murdered in his home and Wilkinson was witnessed visiting him that night. The problem is that another group of witnesses can confirm that she was present at a party at exactly the same time some miles away.

Up until just a few years ago when I first discovered GAD blogs, I would have likely cited Lord Edgeware Dies as one of the classic Poirot novels. I should say that was not based upon my own assessment but rather my perception of what others thought of the novel. I was rather surprised when I learned that its standing was lower than I had anticipated and, incidentally, broadly in line with my own opinion of the novel.

The reason for my belief that this must be a classic was that the novel was one of the first four adapted when Poirot returned to our television screens in its glossier, star-studded TV movie format. The other three books – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Evil Under the Sun and Murder in Mesopotamia were all clearly highly regarded so I naturally assumed that this one must be of a similar status. Knowing no other Christie fans at that time, I simply assumed that I must be the outlier and that I simply didn’t get it.

Before I dig into the problems I had with the novel both then and now, let me take a moment to point to some of the things I think it gets right. First, I really enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings in this novel which blends moments of warmth with a fair number of moments when Poirot is being quite insufferable towards his friend. The pair share quite a few amusing exchanges with each other and I think that sense of their being friends enjoying each others’ company on this investigation comes over well. Japp similarly fares well with the novel doing a good job of capturing the teasing, frustrated relationship between him and Poirot.

I also think that Christie does a pretty good job of conveying both Jane Wilkinson’s appeal and also her rather enigmatic qualities to the reader, helping them understand the differing opinions of her character held by others. While I do not think she is quite as magnetic a figure as Nick in Peril at End House, the interpretation of her personality and actions by Poirot and others is central to this novel.

As much as I appreciated these aspects of characterization, I feel that the book is much less successful in terms of its plotting. To be clear, I do not have a problem with the logic of the solution – Christie’s explanation of the crime made sense for me and seemed quite credible as a sequence of events. Instead, my issues with it are more structural and based on Poirot’s own responses to the facts of the case.

I do not think I will be spoiling anything for first-time readers by saying that Christie spells out rather openly near the beginning a possible explanation for what happened. Readers well-versed in her work will likely spot some implications of the setup and notice how they might lead to some opportunities for murder but even those less familiar with her work will likely be able to make some logical deductions about the crime based on what we learn. Of course, the reader will also probably realize that it is unlikely that they will have solved the whole thing just a couple of chapters in.

One problem I have is that Poirot really does not consider the most obvious and simple explanation for what has happened for much of the novel, instead positing a more complicated solution. Even when parts idea falls through he never stops to think what the simplest solution to the puzzle might be, making him appear rather dense or stubborn. That is certainly not the Poirot I think of and does not show him in a particularly strong or brilliant light.

Indeed I was rather struck that Christie never really seems to consider that the reader might simply not read the evidence in exactly the same way as Poirot. For that reason there never really is any attempt to hide the facts associated with the real solution and instead it just seems to be assumed that it will never occur to the reader.

I also felt it was strange that there are several aspects of this book that do seem to parallel or mimic aspects of a previous and then quite recent novel by the same author. This immediate repetition feels rather unfortunate and seems to keep the book from feeling as original as it could have done, also causing some unflattering comparisons with that other – and in my opinion, superior – novel.

When we do get to the end of the novel I am struck by the sense of being rather underwhelmed. That is not because the book is bad – there are some very well written moments and ideas to be found here but the misdirection simply did not work for me here making for a disappointing experience.

Overall then, though I would not suggest that this is my favorite Poirot, I should stress that I consider it to be far from the worst. Even the elements that don’t really work here are at least quite interesting while Christie creates several interesting characters who do stand out as being quite effectively developed, particularly Jane and Carlotta, while the motive for the crime is reasonably clever.

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

Book Details

Originally published in 1949
Mrs Bradley #22
Preceded by The Dancing Druids
Followed by Groaning Spinney/Murder in the Snow

The Blurb

Gerald Conway was a junior master at Spey College. The Head considered him a reliable history specialist and a useful games coach, but his fellow masters thought him a rude and insufferably presumptuous young man and the boys called him a mean and treacherous beast. But, as Inspector Gavin said, “Public schoolboys don’t murder the staff.” Mrs. Bradley wasn’t so certain; at least she felt sure they knew more than they would say. The erudite Micklethwaite, for example, an expert in Judo, refused to speak of the abominable Conway who had accused him of cheating in the exam for the Divinity Prize. Mrs. Bradley had to use tact and guile and a bit of black magic to make boys and masters tell her the whole story.

The Verdict

The mystery underwhelms but the setting is credibly drawn as are most of the characters.


My Thoughts

It is an ongoing frustration for me that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service is obsessed with trying to get me to read more Gladys Mitchell books. No matter how much else I read or the scores I assign to the Mitchells I have read, my Suggested For You list is entirely comprised of her works. Which means that from time to time, when I feel forgetful of all of my previous frustrating experiences with her novels (not chronicled here because I do not review books I fail to finish), I find myself clicking that borrow button and rolling the dice once again.

Tom Brown’s Body takes place at Spey College, an English public boarding school. In the story a junior member of the teaching staff, Gerald Conway, is found drowned in another teacher’s garden with markings on his neck and signs of a blow to his head. There is no water nearby so the body was clearly moved which raises questions as to where the man was killed and why.

One theory that concerns the school’s headmaster is that some of the students might be involved. Fearful for the school’s reputation, the headmaster secures the assistance of Mrs. Bradley to come in under the guise of offering psychiatric services to one of the students while also discretely investigating the matter. Fortunately she was in the area, trying to persuade a distant and rather eccentric relative to part with the spellbook owned by one of her ancestors.

Mrs. Bradley soon identifies a good number of possible suspects both from the school’s staff and student bodies. It seems that Conway was not well liked, having fallen out with several colleagues over the previous few days and being widely reviled by his students. Any of them might have committed the murder.

The most impressive aspect of the book for me was its depiction of its public school setting. Mitchell captures each of these elements of the public school experience accurately, creating a really credible school environment complete with tensions within the faculty and between the liberal, modernizing headmaster and his much more conservative school board.

This is a world that is all too familiar to me having spent five years of my life attending one, albeit as a day student. Perhaps the most depressing thing comparing my own experience with those of the fictional students here is how little appeared to have changed over the fifty years that followed this book’s publication. There are certainly quite a few things I recognize from the indulgent theatrical presentations to the teachers’ non-curricular passion projects, obsession with school sports and, of course, the bullying.

Mitchell’s writing is often quite biting, particularly when discussing the attitudes of the adults responsible for these young men. One example of this can be found when the Housemaster contacts the parents of one boy to see if they would consent to their son being seen by a psychiatrist. They reply back giving their agreement on the basis that they cannot think anything that might be done would alter their son for the worse before taking a holiday and forgetting all about it. They were, the Housemaster thinks, ideal ‘for parents who take undue interest in their boys are the bugbear of all Housemasters’.

Mitchell also does not shy away from depicting instances of antisemitism and ‘colour prejudice’ among the teaching staff and the students themselves. Several instances of bullying of a Jewish student by the deceased teacher are listed, making it clear that the experience was harmful to the student and source of considerable pain and resentment for them.

The ‘colour prejudice’ refers to other characters’ views of Prince Takhobali, a West African who receives the nickname ‘Tar Baby’ from students and teachers alike. While I do not doubt that this would be realistic, the student’s cheery acceptance of it renders it as a quirky public school nickname rather than an example of racist bullying and means that it is not entirely clear if Mitchell disapproves of that sort of thing. The character struck me as less dimensional than Issacher, the Jewish student, and I have to confess I felt a little uncomfortable with the tone of the characterization.

The characterizations of the rest of the students and staff all struck me as pretty deep and dimensional with each character possessing quite a distinct personality. In some cases motivations for murder were quite apparent – in others they were slowly revealed. This exploration of personality and interpersonal relationships lies at the core of the novel and makes up the bulk of Mrs. Bradley’s investigative efforts.

I also quite enjoyed the colorful subplot with Lecky Harries, the distant relative who may or may not possess the spellbook belonging to Mary Toadflax. Almost all of the book’s oddness is confined to this aspect of the plot with its talk of witchcraft and magical artifacts and yet it did not feel like a distraction because Mitchell takes the time to establish some clear links between these two plotlines early in the novel.

I have found that Mitchell’s prose can sometimes make for heavy work but here she writes in a pleasingly direct style. There are certainly some examples of some archaic turns of phrase or literary reference and yet their meaning is almost always quite clear from the context and feels quite appropriate in the school setting. The book is a relatively quick, engaging read.

Which leaves the biggest question of all – what did I think of the mystery itself? Well, that is rather tricky to answer. I liked the core premise and found it to be a pretty credible crime that might take place on the grounds of a school. The motivations are explained well and strike me as also being quite convincing, though I do think the killer’s identity will not be much of a surprise for readers. They do rather stand out…

As disappointing as that ending may be, I did find parts of this book to be quite effective and well-described. The setting is clearly a triumph, as are many of the characters. It is unfortunate that the puzzle does not match the quality of these other aspects of the story as in every other respect I would have little hesitation in labeling it easily my favorite Mitchell to date although some might consider that faint praise.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Blurb

Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.

The Verdict

A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.


My Thoughts

The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.

While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.

My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.

The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.

Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.

Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.

I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.

One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.

So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.

On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.

Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little

The Blurb

Who was she? Where was she going? And why?

All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.

As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.

The Verdict

Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.

Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.

The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.

Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.

Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.

One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.

I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.

The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.

You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.

In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.

Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.

I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.

This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…

The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

Book Details

Originally published in 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #5
Preceded by The Dead Shall Be Raised
Followed by The Case of the Seven Whistlers

The Blurb

Nathaniel Wall, the local quack doctor, is found hanging in his consulting room in the Norfolk village of Stalden – but this was not a suicide. Wall may not have been a qualified doctor, but his skill as a bonesetter and his commitment to village life were highly valued. Scotland Yard is drafted in to assist. Quickly settling into his accommodation at the village pub, Littlejohn begins to examine the evidence…Against the backdrop of a close-knit village, an intriguing story of ambition, blackmail, fraud, false alibis and botanical trickery unravels.

The Verdict

Solid, middle-of-the-road Littlejohn with few surprises. Bellairs is always good at depicting rural England though and this is no exception.


My Thoughts

I am terrible at sticking to blogging plans. One of the main reasons I stopped doing my monthly review posts was that I never seemed to follow through on any of the things I predicted I would do. Something new and exciting would always crop up to distract me away from them. As anyone who has casually glanced at my TBR Pile will note, there is always a new distraction.

The Murder of a Quack was released as part of a double bill in the British Library Crime Classics range eighteen months ago. At the time I enthusiastically reviewed the first half of the book, The Dead Shall Be Raised, a title that I still regard as one of the best Littlejohn stories I have read. My plan had been to review this work the following month but unfortunately it got forgotten in the excitement of the new. Whoops.

The Wall family have been a fixture in the village of Stalden for centuries. While not formally trained as doctors, they have been trusted for their medical knowledge and alternative remedies. Nathaniel Wall has operated the practice now for many years and seems to be well liked and trusted by the villagers so it is a shock when he is discovered murdered and strung up with his bonesetting equipment in his office. Recognizing that the case has the potential to upset the locals, the police decide to send to the Yard for outside expertise and Inspector Littlejohn is dispatched to look into the matter.

Like the previous story in the collection, this is also a very short work at well under 200 pages. That is about the right length though for this case which, while entertaining, is more straightforward than some of his later works and hinges on a few simple revelations.

In my previous experiences with Bellairs’ work I have found him to be particularly adept at portraying countryside life and this work is no exception. We get to meet a variety of types here from a variety of backgrounds and social standings, giving a sense of the wider community and how people live there and interact with one another. While I am never a fan of exaggerated phonetic spellings to convey a voice which is used frequently here, I do appreciate the thought he gives to representing as broad a range of characters as possible with respect (there is a lovely exchange with regards a charwoman that stood out to me as a highlight).

Littlejohn soon discovers local rivalries and arguments, providing us with at least a handful of suspects, although I found some to be more convincing than others and had no difficulty identifying the culprit and working out the clues that were pointing there. This is perhaps not Littlejohn’s most puzzling case. In spite of that however, I was entertained by the process by which Littlejohn reaches that same result and gratified that my reasoning was proven correct.

While there are no shocking moments in the plot, each development is set up well and there are a few powerful moments with one of the best coming near the end. Bellairs writes well, maintaining a decent pace and balancing action and description effectively. Though I find his style to be more amusing than comical, there are plenty of reasons to smile and chuckle. One of my favorites, though probably quite obscure, accompanies the reveal of the very fitting name of a woman in Cornwall.

Beyond that it is hard to think of much to say about this work (this may be my shortest review here in about two years). It is solid and very representative of the other Littlejohn stories I have read that were written in this period. No big flaws but no strong reasons to seek it out. I certainly enjoyed it and liked it more than Death of a Busybody but found it to have fewer points of interest than the more complex The Dead Shall Be Raised. That story alone justifies the purchase of the British Library’s double feature and is, in my opinion, the chief reason to pick it up. Viewed as a bonus however this is worth the read but if, like me, it takes you eighteen months to get around to it you probably won’t end up beating up on yourself.

The Vicar’s Experiments by Anthony Rolls

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
The American edition was published as Clerical Error that same year

Plot Summary

The Reverend Mr. Pardicott is struck by the idea that he should kill one of his parishioners, Colonel Cargoy. He sets about trying to devise a method by which he can eliminate him and finds his answer in a book of poisons…

The Verdict

Consistently amusing and well observed. Only the final few chapters underwhelm but the journey to that point is witty and entertaining.


My Thoughts

Those of you who listened to my appearance on one of the very early episodes of the In GAD We Trust podcast will be aware that another novel by Anthony Rolls, Family Matters, was largely responsible for my starting this blog. It also was the book that I credit as piquing my interest in inverted crime stories – an interest that you could fairly describe as having transformed into a fully-formed obsession.

Today’s post is not about that book. I will, no doubt, eventually get around to writing about that book in more detail though I feel I ought to save it for one of the big landmark posts. Instead I decided to read and write about Rolls’ first criminous novel which, depending on whether you read the British or American editions is either The Vicar’s Experiments or Clerical Error.

Now, before I go much further I should make it clear that this book is sadly long out of print. As you may expect it is rather expensive to acquire – I found that the American edition is cheaper but even that set me back $50. If this book interests you enough to search it out I strongly suggest looking for both titles and keep an eye on it appearing in some listings as by C. E. Vulliamy (Rolls’ actual name).

Okay, so that is more than enough introduction – what is the book about?

The Vicar’s Experiments introduces us to the Reverend Mr. Pardicott who presides over a small rural parish. He is in the middle of a meeting with Colonel Cargoy, a busybody who makes it his business to object to every proposal on the parish council. Pardicott is enduring the conversation when he is struck by the idea that he should kill the old soldier:

Up to a quarter past three, Mr. Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.

The Vicar’s Experiments, Chapter One

Those seeking a detailed psychological portrait of the murderer will likely be disappointed with the treatment Rolls gives to motive. In the short passage quoted above we see Pardicott snapping as an idea occurs to him he simply cannot or will not shake. He appears to view himself as an instrument acting under some sort of divine instruction and much of what follows seems to only confirm that idea to him.

We do soon see though that Pardicott does have at least one other motivation. Although he himself is married, he has a growing attachment to Cargoy’s much younger wife. Pardicott does not focus on this and indeed, his interest in the experiments he will start to conduct seems to outgrow these beginnings, but they are at least there and I think it is a more satisfying explanation than his simply being mad.

Once Pardicott gets the idea of murder in his head he then sets out to figure out how he will accomplish his deed. Though Pardicott’s motivations for murder are not particularly complex, I found it interesting to follow him as he devised and brought about his plan. The method he decides on is quite novel and while scientifically complex, explained well. Before long the parish has one fewer resident and the question becomes what will happen next. If you are in any doubt, I would invite you to consider the original British title for a clue…

Published just a year after Iles’ enormously influential Malice Aforethought, there do seem to be some similarities between the two works. Both are set in the countryside and strike broadly humorous tones, making light of some pretty dark ideas. Each features someone in a profession traditionally held in esteem behaving badly, involve obscure poisons and in both cases sexual desire is at least a partial motivation for murder.

In spite of those similarities I think it would be a mistake to think The Vicar’s Experiments a derivative work. While psychology is a factor in both books, Rolls emphasizes his own belief that murder is almost always committed by the insane. Iles’ Dr. Bickleigh was clearly a man in control of his faculties, choosing to apply them to a dark purpose. Pardicott has become seduced by an idea that compels him to act and everything he sees appears to reinforce that he is acting in accordance with Providence.

Where much of Malice Aforethought is spent getting to a point where Bickleigh is able to commit the crime, Rolls dispenses of Cargoy early in the narrative. As a consequence of this, much more time is spent exploring what happens after the murder and how the local community responds.

Rolls also places far more importance on the detection of the crime, albeit while employing a rather ineffective sleuth. This investigation is not particularly rigorous, in large part because the person carrying it out is a man of pretty limited imagination and ability. The reader will likely identify multiple loose ends and clues that might point the sleuth in Pardicott’s direction – the question is whether they will notice them and, if so, what they will do.

Rolls is able to sustain much of the lively pacing and work in some humorous moments in the early part of the investigation. One of my favorites is a sequence involving discussion of church architecture which is done very well, featuring some amusing turns of phrase.

There is a definite shift of pace and tone however in the final few chapters of the book. These feel quite noticeably slower than what has gone before and the comedic elements largely disappear. This is understandable given the turn of events in those chapters of the novel and yet it does seem quite sudden and, in my opinion, it is not wholly successful.

I think that endings are often a problem with the more comedic inverted stories. If they were successful there needs to be some form of justice and yet it is hard to provide that while keeping the laughs coming. Those who are able to do it usually manage this by making that moment come quickly with an explosive, ironical reveal. This is part of what makes Malice Aforethought such a memorable read.

The Vicar’s Experiments sustains its comedic tone much longer and more successfully than most. It captures a rural community quite well and there are some very amusing observations and commentaries in the narration. One of my favorites isn’t really a gag at all in the usual sense but rather a sort of in-joke with complaints about the dreary church architecture of Lewis Vulliamy (the author’s grandfather – a fact hidden by the use of the Rolls pseudonym).

I appreciated that the characters are all pretty colorful and distinctive. There are some amusing observations about several of those in professional roles (some of the sharpest relates to the country doctor). On the other hand, the women suffer from not being given much to do and Pardicott’s wife feels largely peripheral to much of the story.

In spite of these flaws, I felt that The Vicar’s Experiments was a really entertaining read. If, like me, you are a fan of Rolls’ Family Matters I think you will find this enjoyable and worth your time. I found it consistently amusing and was impressed by how that tone was sustained for most of the book. The murder plot uses some clever ideas, some of which seem quite inventive, and while the investigation feels quite bumbling in comparison the book remains readable right until the end.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Book Details

Originally published in 1952
Inspector Rivers #8
Preceded by It’s Her Own Funeral
Followed by Murder as a Fine Art

Carol Carnac also wrote E. C. R. Lorac

The Blurb

In Bloomsbury, London, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. The victim of a ruthless murder lies burnt beyond recognition, his possessions and papers destroyed by fire. But there is one strange, yet promising, lead—a lead which suggests the involvement of a skier.

Meanwhile, piercing sunshine beams down on the sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps, where a merry group of holidaymakers are heading towards Lech am Arlberg. Eight men and eight women take to the slopes, but, as the C.I.D. scrambles to crack the perplexing case in Britain, the ski party are soon to become sixteen suspects.

The Verdict

The alpine setting is handled well and adds appeal to a solid but relatively straightforward case.


My Thoughts

It feels rather odd to be reading about snowy holidays with the summer sun beating down on me but I was inspired to push Crossed Skis to the top of the TBR pile after a brief Twitter exchange with another book blogger about Lorac. After sharing that I have found Lorac to be a little inconsistent based on my pretty small sample, I noted that I had been intrigued to read this recent reprint. I was asked to share my thoughts when I did and so I figured I might as well do that sooner rather than later…

The story begins with a group of eight men and eight women departing Britain to travel to Lech in Austria on a skiing holiday. Most of the party do not know each other already but there is a general sense of excitement at a break from the dismal British weather, work and post-war rationing.

As they are on their way, Inspectors Brooks and Rivers are investigating a fire in a boarding house in Bloomsbury and the burnt corpse they find inside. The blaze was devastating, destroying most of the papers and objects within the room and it also rendered the body unidentifiable. The investigators have to identify the body, work out how and why they died and also understand the relevance of the strange impression that has been left outside the window.

The most striking characteristic of the novel is the decision to develop story strands in two separate locations. With the investigation confined to London until near the end of the novel, our pool of suspects are able to interact and enjoy themselves without the knowledge of the crime or the progress that the detectives are making. There are no formal suspect interviews, no structured examinations of movements or alibis. We simply observe how each member of the travel party is acting and, with knowledge of some of the findings in London, draw our own conclusions from that.

It is surprising just how well this approach works. Lorac is able to reveal much of the same information that you might expect to find in a more traditional detective story structure quite organically, often providing us with information without specifically drawing the reader’s attention to it.

On the other hand, the case seemed to have less elements than some of the other Lorac mysteries I have read. That is not to say the solution is simplistic but rather there are less attempts to use misdirection or introduce secondary mysteries to sustain the story. By the end of the novel the reader will be able to solve the mystery using their observations and logical reasoning, even as the Police characters are only learning the critical information for the first time.

I enjoyed both the London and Lech settings and story strands but not equally. While London was the site of the crime, I found I was a little impatient to see those characters make the connections to the traveling party abroad, especially once the basic facts of the case were confirmed. This does not so much reflect any lack of interest in those characters as a preference for the more colorful cast of characters we encounter in that group and for the more unusual Austrian setting.

The traveling party is large but in practice readers will likely consider only a handful of the group as suspects. This is reinforced by the author giving us more time with some characters than others. While I think each of the characters are distinctive, in practice several do feel quite peripheral to the story. The important figures however are colorfully drawn and easily distinguished, each possessing quite distinct personalities.

While the group are generally amicable in their relationships with each other, there are some points of conflict during the trip that do expose their personalities and help us understand them better. In short, I think that the book strikes a good balance between giving us a manageable group of suspects while also reflecting the sense that they are travelling as part of a larger party.

The other aspect of the trip I appreciated was the sense of time and place that Lorac is able to inject into those passages. Some of it are observations about practical details, such as the currency restrictions or arrangements for meals at the hotels, but there are also sections where the characters reflect on the need to behave courteously towards their Austrian hosts and Austria’s desire to open itself back up as a holiday destination after the war. In short, this is a book that feels like a window into the time in which it was written.

While Crossed Skis did not cause me to significantly rethink my feelings about Lorac as a writer, I did find it to be an entertaining read. It boasts a solid, if relatively simple, mystery plot elevated by the unusual story structure and choice of setting.

I imagine that to readers in 1952 the depiction of a continental skiing holiday would likely have felt very exotic and glamorous. Strangely, reading this in lockdown, I cannot help but feel I could understand the appeal of this sort of armchair travel all the more. Certainly I appreciated a chance to be diverted and transported somewhere different – it was just what I needed.

A copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Hercule Poirot #7
Preceded by The Mystery of the Blue Train
Followed by Lord Edgeware Dies

The Blurb

On holiday on the Cornish Riviera, Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear pretty Nick Buckley describe her recent “accidental brushes with death.” First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

So when Poirot finds a bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat, he decides that this girl needs his help. Can he find the would-be killer before he hits his target?

The Verdict

One of my favorites. It is cleverly plotted with a memorable setup and some entertaining interactions between Poirot and Hastings.


My Thoughts

I had not planned to be writing about Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House today but this week I have found myself tremendously distracted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to be checking to see if those test results are in and, as a consequence, I find I cannot really concentrate on anything. Realizing that anything new I read was not going to get a fair hearing, I decided to revisit an old favorite instead.

While I do not typically think of myself as Cornish (my parents both having moved there as adults), I spent my entire childhood living there. As a consequence any time I encounter a book that is set there it tends to stand out and stick in my memory. Peril at End House stands out all the more as the first novel I can remember reading to be set there. That is not to say that I think the setting comes through particularly in the prose – it is really just a series of place names – but at the time that gave it a huge amount of novelty, grabbing my attention for long enough for me to notice the superb plotting.

The story begins with Poirot and Hastings holidaying together in a hotel in Cornwall. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Nick Buckley, who tells them about her frequent narrow escapes from death over the previous few days. During their conversation Nick complains of a wasp flying past her head but Poirot finds a bullet nearby leading him to suspect that she had just survived yet another attempt on her life.

Poirot, although still retired, decides that he will act as Nick’s protector. He meets her friends and, fearing that one of them may be responsible, persuades Nick to invite her cousin Maggie to stay and act as a protector. Unfortunately that act does not prevent a murder from taking place.

One of the things I remember most about the experience of reading this for the first time was my sense of shock at the killer’s identity and their motive. It was a significant enough surprise that I never had any difficulty remembering that solution. I have revisited Peril at End House many times over the years since though and I find that each time I am struck by how very cleverly and carefully it is constructed. This is one of Christie’s purest puzzle plots and I appreciate that it is achieved with some simple but very effective uses of misdirection.

My enjoyment of the story begins with the very organic way in which Poirot is brought into this case. He is not hired or compelled into taking this case but he is a witness and his decision to become involved is a consequence of his feelings of empathy towards Nick and his natural sense of curiosity. In short, I appreciate that this is a case that emerges out of his character and that, as such, it feels like it fits with the more empathic and gallant Poirot that we see at points in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It struck me that this case is the first time we really see Poirot challenged to prevent a murder. This is an idea that Christie returns to in several other Poirot stories, most memorably in my favorite Poirot story The A.B.C. Murders, and I think it suits his character particularly well. This case represents a challenge to him and makes him feel personally involved in its resolution. I think this helps us understand better why he becomes so agitated about any little failures or misjudgments on his own part – here it is less a matter of vanity and more the knowledge that if he fails it could mean death for those he has sworn to protect.

I also really appreciate that this novel brings back Hastings and builds on the sense of friendliness and comradeship we see on display in The Big Four. Here, once again, we get the sense that the two men simply enjoy each others’ company and care about each other. They are, after all, choosing to holiday with each other. There are, of course, plenty of Poirot’s typical little dismissive comments about Hastings’ mental abilities but towards the conclusion we see another little instance of Hastings being valuable to Poirot precisely because he thinks so differently from him and I think he has a much clearer purpose here than in his first few appearances.

Nick is an intriguing character and it is easy to understand why Poirot and Hastings are drawn to want to protect her. She epitomizes that sense of carefree living in the moment that was in vogue at the moment. This carries through into some of the details we learn about her life and those of the set she associates with and, as a result, the story feels quite youthful and energetic. This is not only entertaining, it also reminds us that Poirot and Hastings are of a different generation and that, quite amusingly, Poirot seems more aware of what is in fashion than his considerably younger friend.

The other characters are perhaps a little less fully sketched but each is easily distinguished and several are quite entertaining. There is just one story strand that I think feels disconnected from the others. I cannot identify the character or characters without spoiling their role in the plot but I will say that I find their appearances to be a little tedious and that I find it hard to take seriously as a killer or killers. They are not in it enough however to really irritate me and I can imagine others may find their appearances more entertaining than I did.

The plotting is, as I suggested above, generally very good with Christie pacing out her little moments of surprise and intrigue well. Things build to a close with a rather wonderful set piece sequence that stands out for me as being one of the great Hastings moments and sets up a powerful sequence in which Poirot identifies the killer. Unfortunately a choice made in the ending seems to undermine it a little, not feeling entirely earned, but on the whole I think the story is wrapped up very tidily.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a greater work with a more intricately worked plot and narrative trickery, I find Peril at End House to be the more entertaining read. The situation is clever and I really enjoy the interactions between Poirot and Hastings throughout the book. I am happy to find, each time I revisit it, that it stands up to repeated reads and I am sure that I will find myself reading it again before I reach Curtain in my read-through.

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer

Book Details

Originally published in 1951
Shaffer originally published this under the name Peter Anthony.

Mr Verity #1
Followed by How Doth The Little Crocodile

The Blurb

The little Sussex town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century. And certainly none more baffling— to all except Mr Verity. From the moment he appears this bearded giant— ruthless inquirer, devastating wit and enthusiastic collector of the best sculpture— has matters firmly (if fantastically) under control. Things are certainly complicated, but this is hardly enough to deter Mr Verity. As he himself observes: “when the number of suspects is continually increasing, and the number of corpses remains constant, you get a sort of inflation. The value of your individual suspect becomes hopelessly depreciated. That, for the real detective, is a state of paradise.”

The Verdict

More amusing than raucously funny, but the mystery is solid enough to please puzzle fans.


My Thoughts

It is always exciting when a new British Library Publishing catalog arrives and I get to look through to see what new releases are coming up. I love to look through and pick out the upcoming titles I am most excited about. Sometimes it is because the author is an old favorite but sometimes it is because there is a title you didn’t expect to see at all. That was the case with The Woman in the Wardrobe by playwright Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer is perhaps best remembered for his plays Equus and Amadeus but he also penned several mystery novels under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, sharing writing duties on later volumes with his brother Anthony Shaffer. This first volume however was apparently written by Peter Shaffer alone. These books have been out of print for a long time so it is exciting that the first has been made available again, complete with Nicolas Clerihew Bentley’s lovely illustrations.

The story begins with Mr. Verity observing a man climb into a bedroom window at the Charter Hotel. Thinking this odd, Verity decides to go inside the Hotel to alert the staff to the unusual behavior. Investigating, they discover the door to the room is locked. Once inside, they find a man shot dead, a woman tied up in the wardrobe and the window locked from the inside.

Mr. Verity, who is apparently already a seasoned amateur sleuth, is drafted in to help Inspector Jackson with his investigation. In practice however he quickly seems to take charge, identifying several suspects and leading the questioning. It is not hard to find people who wanted the victim dead – the problem though is understanding how they were able to lock the door and the window from the inside.

Before I get into talking about the plot itself, I should probably mention that this novel strikes a decidedly comedic tone. In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes how Verity is a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ type. I would agree that the character does call back to many of the amateur sleuths of the Golden Age but it is more pastiche than parody. Certainly we should take Verity more seriously than, say, Melville’s Inspector Minto.

Shaffer primarily uses two types of humor in this novel. Much of it is situational, such as the farcical movements of characters back and forth through the supposedly locked room. In his excellent review, Puzzle Doctor rightly suggests that there is something of the West End farce in those scenes and I would agree, although I found it more amusing than raucous.

Incidentally, I was struck when reading this just how well it would probably translate to being adapted into a theatrical production. Much of the action takes place in just a few spaces and most of the important points about the plot are conveyed in conversation rather than description. I never had any difficulty visualizing characters’ movements or actions which is invaluable in any locked room story.

The other strand of humor is more consciously zany, with an attempt to create a sense of the ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is a rather colorful suspect who speaks at length about his obsession with Verity and Jackson – I won’t say exactly what the subject of that obsession is but the passages in which they interact are the most overtly comedic in the novel. I found these pretty funny but I am conscious that they do feel somewhat tangential to the overall plot, particularly given how short the book is.

In addition to being a comical mystery story, The Woman in the Wardrobe is also a locked room mystery. Bob Adey is quoted in the introduction as describing this as ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution’. At this point let me say I agree with the second half of that statement – the solution is very clever indeed – but I disagree with the former.

My issues are largely presentational. Shaffer establishes from a very early point in the novel that while the victim’s room key is locked inside the room, there is a hotel master key unaccounted for. That key would enable anyone to lock the room from the outside, basically undermining the idea that the door is a barrier at all. While I trusted that this would not be the explanation because of Adey’s comment, that master key becomes a bit of a distraction.

My other issue with the locked room is impossible to describe in any details without giving a significant spoiler. The best I can offer is that there is a possible (and fairly obvious) explanation for how the locked door and window could have happened that is dismissed on logical grounds that are, I think, flawed and certainly I found them much less persuasive than Verity or Jackson did.

On the other hand, I do agree with Adey that the actual solution is brilliant (and I will trust him that it was new). Every aspect of that solution is carefully clued and Verity’s explanation given makes perfect sense of each part of the crime scene, overcoming my frustrations about each of the above points. While I do not think that Verity fully disproves the issues I mention above, I think his explanation of his own solution is clever and convincing that ends the novel on a very high note.

The Woman in the Window is a short but entertaining read. I was amused by the comedic elements of the investigation and appreciated the solution which felt clever and imaginative. I enjoyed this enough to hope that the other two Verity stories will follow in the future.