The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #5
Preceded by Lord Peter Views the Body
Followed by Strong Poison

The Blurb

Even the Bellona Club’s most devoted members would never call it lively. Its atmosphere is that of a morgue—or, at best, a funeral parlor—and on Armistice Day the gloom is only heightened. Veterans of the Great War gather at the Bellona not to hash over old victories, but to stare into their whiskies and complain about old injuries, shrinking pensions, and the lingering effects of shell shock. Though he acts jolly, Lord Peter Wimsey finds the holiday grim. And this Armistice Day, death has come to join the festivities.
 
The aged General Fentiman—a hero of the Crimean War—expires sitting up in his favorite chair. Across town, his sister dies on the same day, throwing the General’s half-million-pound inheritance into turmoil. As the nation celebrates and suspicions run riot, Lord Peter must discover what kind of soldier would have the nerve to murder a general.

The Verdict

One of my favorite Sayers titles. This is a cleverly structured mystery with some powerful discussion about the effects the Great War was still having on those who had served a decade later.


My Thoughts

This is the book I was waiting to get to in my big reread of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories. While it has been years since I had last read the book, I remember it really clearly because the excellent 1970s television adaptation with Ian Carmichael was one of the very first televised mystery stories I ever watched. Even though the production values are rather dated, I still regularly rewatch it out of a mixture of appreciation for the performances and nostalgia for that first viewing.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the story is its hook – the way Lord Peter becomes involved in the case. The book opens at the Armistace Day commemorations at the rather crusty Bellona Club. During the celebrations General Fentiman is found dead sat in an armchair having apparently expired some hours earlier.

It turns out that on the same day General Fentiman died his much wealthier sister also passed away. Though the pair were somewhat estranged, she had made arrangements in her will that if he survived her that he would inherit the bulk of her estate. That would then pass down to his heirs. If she survived him then they would get a much smaller amount with the bulk passing to her niece. Lord Peter, who was at the club when the body was discovered, is asked by the General’s solicitor if he could make some discrete enquiries at the club to try and work out the precise time of death.

I would have been around ten or eleven when I first saw that TV adaptation so I saw this at a very early point in my journey to become a mysteries fan. This was the very first time I realized that a mystery story could ask a question other than whodunit – in this case, asking when a death occurred. While timing can certainly be a really important factor in a mystery, the idea of using it as the starting point for a story is far more impressive and while the story does expand to incorporate some more traditional elements, Sayers does an excellent job of sustaining interest in this initial question and also explaining the legal issue in an accessible way.

Compared to the three previous Wimsey novels this is a far more complex and intricately constructed story. Sayers structures her story around several relatively simple problems, each of which has a binary resolution. For instance, either the General died first or his sister did, either a character knew something or they did not and so on. The complexity comes from the need to piece each of those little questions together and seeing how what we learn impacts on our understanding of that bigger picture.

The solution is not particularly complex but I find it to be quite satisfying. I love that the reader is able to go back and see how crucial information has been layered into the story and, particularly, how the other characters are responding to the developments in the case or their perceptions of them. I think the explanation for what has happened, when given, is clever and makes a good deal of sense.

The other element of this story that really stands out to me is its discussion of the impact that the Great War had on a generation of young men. This is first addressed in its discussion of the Armistace Day commemoration and the different attitudes held by those marking the event. For the General and his professional soldier son, the commemorations are a celebration whereas for Lord Peter and George Fentiman, who was badly gassed in the war and suffers from shellshock, it is something to be endured – a reminder of a recent trauma they have not yet been able to resolve.

We have previously seen Sayers touch on the horrors of that war in one of the most striking sequences in the first Lord Peter novel, Whose Body?, but that sequence really exists to illustrate an aspect of his character. Here Sayers touches on the broader experiences of a generation, most of whom did not have Lord Peter’s personal resources and would need to try to hold down a job and support a family. George’s attitudes and stubborn rejections of any help offered can be frustrating but I find them completely understandable and I consider both him and his family to be really thoughtfuly characterized throughout the novel.

In several of my previous reviews of this series I noted that Lord Peter himself can be rather difficult to like because of his frustrating habit to be flippant and speak in a string of witty remarks. Sayers seemed to tone this down as the series went on and I think that trend continued with this novel. He still is more than capable of offering up a bon mot but that seems to be less the focus than the fact he cares for George and, most important of all, discovering the truth and securing justice. This is the version of the character I like best because I think the character is at his most appealing when he is fighting for someone rather than simply pursuing a hobby.

So, what are the problems with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club? I can’t find many. The only one I can offer up falls heavily into spoiler territory, relating to an aspect of the resolution of the story. Personally I believe that moment is consistent with everything that Sayers has established about everyone involved in that moment but I can understand why it might leave some readers cold.

ROT-13 (Really do not read this unless you have read the book): V unir ab qvssvphygl va oryvrivat gung gur qbpgbe, n sbezre zvyvgnel zna, jbhyq erpbtavmr gung ur unq orra genccrq naq jbhyq evfx gur qvfubabe bs gjb jbzra vs gur znggre unq gb or chefhrq va pbheg. Guvf vqrn gung qrngu vf n pbagnzvanag gung jvyy qrfgebl gur yvirf bs gubfr jub ner oebhtug vagb pbagnpg jvgu vg ehaf guebhtubhg guvf obbx naq vf pyrneyl ersyrpgrq va gur gvgyr naq qvnybt va gur fgbel jurer punenpgref pnaabg oevat gurzfryirf gb ersre gb n qrngu – vg vf fvzcyl na hacyrnfnag rirag.

Juvyr gur ynpx bs na neerfg znl srry yvxr n ynpx bs n erfbyhgvba, V guvax vs lbh pbafvqre gur bgure punenpgref vaibyirq va gur fgbel nyy bs gurz jbhyq cersre gung gur znggre tb ab shegure. V guvax vg vf bayl gur ernqre jub znl cbgragvnyyl jnag n fgebatre erfcbafr gb gur pevzr va fhpu n fvghngvba.

Nqq va gung lbh trg nyyhfvbaf gb gur vqrn gung gur gjb fvqrf bs gur snzvyl jvyy riraghnyyl or wbvarq gbtrgure naq lbh qb unir n frggvat bs gur jbeyq gb evtugf, rira vs gur zrnaf fvgf bhgfvqr gur sbezny yrtny cebprff.

Given the importance that this book has for me as part of my journey to becoming a fan of the genre I was anticipating rereading it and I am happy to say that it more than lives up to those memories. In my opinion it is the richest and most interesting of Sayers’ works up until this point and well worth your time if you have never read it before.

Constable Guard Thyself! by Henry Wade

Book Details

Originally published in 1935

Inspector Poole #5
Preceded by Mist on the Saltings
Followed by The High Sheriff

The Blurb

Two threats from a newly released convict – a poacher framed on a murder charge – put Captain Scole, Chief Constable of Brodshire, on his guard. Special men are assigned to protect him.

But four days later, Captain Scole is found shot through the head at his desk in Police Headquarters.

A full week later, young Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard is called in to follow a cold trail in the face of open hostility from the local police. And the further he explores the murder, the more baffling it becomes.

Could Scole’s First World War past be catching up with him – or something much closer to home? 

The Verdict

A thoroughly interesting (and thorough) procedural complete with a compelling impossible murder situation.


My Thoughts

Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers of the Golden Age so I cannot really explain why it has been well over a year since I last read one of his books. I had been intending to get back to him again for the past few months but got an extra little push when I noticed several of his books listed in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement. After reading the descriptions of the impossibilities this seemed like the one that intrigued me most based on the apparent audacity of the crime committed.

That crime is the murder of a Chief Constable within his office in the police station. Junior officers are present in the corridor outside when they hear shots and dash inside. There they find Scole dead having been shot in the forehead, yet there is no sign of the murderer in the room. They could not have escaped through the only door without passing the officers, nor is it easy to see how they could have got in or out through the window given the office is on the first floor and there are no signs of anyone having touched the old drainpipe which seems to be the only thing an intruder could grip onto.

Suspicion quickly falls on Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had made several threats of violence to Scole including once in person. Years earlier Scole had been responsible for sending Hinde to prison causing considerable resentment. What doesn’t make sense though is why Hinde waited to commit murder when he had already had the opportunity and how could he have got through the police station when officers had been placed on alert to look out for him.

Scole’s subordinates are keen to get to work and find his killer and initially resist calls to summon assistance from the Yard but when they are unable to track down Hinde and with their investigation stalled they reluctantly recognize that they need help. Inspector Poole is dispatched and decides to take the case back to the beginning to look at all their base assumptions, taking no fact for granted.

While this book does contain a solid impossible crime story, it is important to stress that it is first and foremost a police procedural. What this means is that we have lots of care taken to establish the critical points of the investigation, checking over important details, carefully comparing pieces of information to make sure that they fit together and ruling out other lines of inquiry. This type of storytelling will appeal to those who like to focus on the details of the investigation but may feel a little slow for those seeking action or big reveals. I enjoyed the story but I would accept that it is quite deliberate in its pacing, although I found the sensation of circling ever tighter around the killer to be quite compelling.

I have now read several stories featuring Inspector Poole and I am increasingly coming to appreciate him as a sleuth. He is a detective of the Inspector French school, albeit a little more fallible in his reasoning. At several points in this story we see him make well-reasoned but incorrect guesses about what might have happened, only to see his theories crumble around him. That fallibility only adds to the book’s strong sense of realism and makes me like him all the more.

Wade not only draws Poole well but also creates a convincing group of policemen to fill the station. While there is not a lot of diversity in the conceptions of those characters, I think each is portrayed quite thoughtfully and credibly. Their squabbles and resentments all feel well observed and I had little difficulty in believing that the reactions of those characters were realistic. Similarly those characters beyond the police station are also portrayed thoughtfully and manage to make significant impact, even when they only appear in a single sequence or phase of the novel.

I was also impressed by the rich themes Wade works into this book, some of which feel quite heavy. While I think this book works simply as a really engaging puzzle story, I think the author thoughtfully raises and tackles a number of challenging topics, some of which feel quite modern.

Reading this I was struck by the thought that this book must have been in the works at about the time a national debate was taking place around the future of policing. In 1932 Lord Trenchard, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had presented his white paper with recommendations to reform policing and in the same year that this book was published the Police College at Hendon accepted its first cohort of trainees. There was some quite strong reaction to these reforms at the time however, prompting some heated debate about the future of policing.

Given the themes of this novel, which discusses issues concerning police recruitment and heirarchies, the tension between the civilian and military mindsets of policing and issues of malpractice, I do wonder if Wade was intending this work to be supportive of the need to professionalize and reform the police. It does seem clear that Wade places much of the blame for the events of this story on Scole and his uncompromising military mindset.

I do continue to find Wade’s discussion of social and political issues to be quite fascinating, in large part because they seem so at odds with the way I often see them described. Typically Wade is portrayed as a conservative, establishment figure which certainly matches his own social background and yet I continue to find his works to offer support for a more progressive view of justice. This book is certainly no exception, discussing the way excessive punishment and a lack of support can lead to greater odds of the individual returning to a life of crime or violence. Add in the discussion of police malpractice and this work does feel quite progressive for its era and at odds with the general picture so often painted of Wade (four years later he wrote an even more pointed work addressing the causes of recidivism, Released for Death, which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Having discussed the book as a procedural, I do want to take a moment to address the impossible crime elements of the story. Those were after all the reason I was inspired to pick up this Wade.

While I stand by my earlier comment that this book is first and foremost a procedural, the impossible element of the story is quite pleasing and handled pretty well. The physical circumstances of the crime scene are explained well, as is the forensic evidence left at the scene. Though the investigation does hit several dead ends early on, I enjoyed following Poole as he tried to reason through the difference ways someone might have gained access, only to stumble when he realized why that plan did not work. We do drift away from the circumstances of the crime scene in the middle of the novel but I had confidence that there would be a thorough explanation of what happened later on and I was not disappointed.

That explanation may not be particularly dramatic or imaginative but I think it is detailed and convincing. Unfortunately I have to concur with Martin Edwards and J. F. Norris (see his review linked below) that Wade is a little heavy-handed in some of the clues he drops to the murderer’s identity at the start of the novel. I suspect he was assuming that readers would read this as an inverted-style story (or else ROT13: Abg pbafvqre n cbyvprzna orpnhfr bs n gehfg va nhgubevgl) and fail to register their significance. Unfortunately though it did stand out just a little too much for me. Still, even if you recognize the killer it is still satisfying to piece the other parts of this puzzle together.

Overall I was really pleased I made the choice to pick this book for my return to Wade. While its slow and methodical pacing will not suit every reader, the author crafted an interesting scenario with an equally interesting conclusion.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books also enjoyed this, finding it “fascinating on all levels”. He does raise a good point about the need for a character directory!

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name describes it as ‘an interesting portrait of Police work’ though he notes that a couple of early clues give the murderer’s identity away too easily.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World also praises the book, saying it has all of Wade’s merits.

Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Henry Gamadge #3
Preceded by Deadly Nightshade
Followed by The House Without the Door

The Blurb

One hundred years earlier, a beautiful guest had disappeared from the wealthy Vauregard household, along with the second volume in a set of the collected works of Byron. Improbably enough, both guest and book seem to have reappeared, with neither having aged a day. The elderly Mr. Vauregard is inclined to believe the young woman’s story of having vacationed on an astral plane. But his dubious niece calls in Henry Gamadge, gentleman-sleuth, expert in rare books, and sufficiently well-bred to avoid distressing the Vauregard sensibilities.

As Gamadge soon discovers, delicate sensibilities abound chez Vauregard, where the household includes an aging actress with ties to a spiritualist sect and a shy beauty with a shady (if crippled) fiance. As always in this delightful series, Gamadge comes up trumps, but only after careful study of the other players’ cards.

The Verdict

I love the premise of this mystery but sadly found that it never realizes its potential. There are better Gamadge stories than this.


My Thoughts

Rare books expert and amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge receives a visit from a young woman who wants his help. Her uncle, Mr. Vauregard, is one of the wealthiest men in New York and, until recently, lived alone in their family home. He now has a young female ward who he insists is the same woman that family stories say disappeared from their walled back garden a hundred years earlier with the second volume in a set of the collected poetry of Byron. He believes that she has travelled on the astral plane, pointing to her period clothing and the book she carried with her which was one of a presentational set that was specially produced.

Gamadge immediately suspects that this is an imposter – the question is what they are hoping to gain and how they acquired the information and a seemingly authentic copy of the book necesssary to pull off this deception. Keen to avoid the indignity of a public scandal or offending their uncle, they hope Gamadge will be able to prove the fraud and enable them to handle the matter quietly.

After a brief investigation however Gamadge finds himself investigating a case of murder…

Before I get to talking about the details of this book I feel like I need to take a moment to address what this book is not. You see, the reason I picked this book to read this week was because it is featured in Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders with the entry describing the disappearance of the young woman from that garden a hundred years earlier. As I read however I found myself utterly baffled, not by the mystery itself but rather why it merited inclusion. Surely, I reasoned, I am going to find that the explanation entry will say that it’s not an impossibility at all.

It does not. After much thought and revisiting both the book and the entries several times I still cannot understand why Adey views this as a legitimate impossibility. For one thing, it is never really investigated at all in the course of the novel because it is irrelevant to the problem that Gamadge is attempting to solve. For another, we are talking about an event that essentially was unwitnessed and for which the only evidence is that no one ever saw the girl or the book again. Let me suggest that you really shouldn’t be reading this for the impossibility alone and accordingly I have decided not to categorize it as such here.

Of course it is not Elizabeth Daly’s fault that I read this book expecting something quite different than what I got so, putting that disappointment to one side, I am going to try to judge it on its own merits.

One of the problems of Gamadge is that his expertise and skillset is so specific that he can feel like a rather unlikely sleuth. I think this case though is a really credible one for him to become involved in. We have clients who see that the best avenue for convincing their uncle about the fraud is to disprove the authenticity of the book, not the woman. In addition to the rather technical points of that investigation however, we can see this in more human terms because there is the question of who orchestrated this deception and why. This, for me, was the most compelling aspect of the investigation – even once we have a body on our hands.

The murder occurs, as the title suggests, in the second of the novel’s three volumes and sends the investigation in a somewhat different direction. This is important for sustaining Gamadge’s involvement in the case – he is the first on the scene and recognizes that members of the family may need his help and advice – but the circumstances surrounding the murder itself are not particularly compelling.

Where the first section of the novel delves into family history and relationships, the material that follows this murder feels more focused on discovering motive and opportunity. The solution to what happened is rather uninspiring and is reached more through persistance, attempts to undermine alibis and a willingness to lay traps by dropping hints about what he knows. In short, those who are hoping for some solid detection are going to be disappointed as there is relatively little application of deductive reasoning here. I think it would be fair to say that Gamadge does not so much solve this case as he does stir things up before waiting to see where everything lands. That approach is fine for an adventure story but much less satisfying when read as detective fiction.

This is a shame because there is some material here that I think is interesting and relatively original. I really like the premise of someone disappearing and reappearing in exactly the same place years later having not aged a day, even if it is not really the focus here. It perhaps is not sufficient to sustain an entire novel but I find the idea appealing and would love to read a story that did it with a shorter timespan (perhaps a decade or two rather than a century) to allow for actual witnesses. I am sure it must exist so please feel free to let me know of any such titles in the comments.

I also enjoyed the cast of characters, several of whom are quite eccentric and theatrical. I think Daly does a solid job of establishing their distinct personalities and I could understand why Gamadge wants to protect them. Certainly their company is entertaining enough if you are reading this as an adventure but because Gamadge is protective of them, it frustrates that he never really applies pressure or closely questions anyone.

All of which is to say that I ultimately found Murders in Volume 2 to be a deeply underwhelming read, even if I was quite engaged for much of it. The central premise of the investigation holds some promise and feels quite unusual but there just isn’t enough payoff here to make the time spent with it worthwhile. There are better Daly novels out there.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books notes how this was out of print for years and declares he has solved the mystery of why. He has less patience for the discussion of Webster than I had but I broadly agree with his review.

Murder à la Richelieu by Anita Blackmon

Book Details

Originally published in 1937
Adelaide Adams #1
Followed by There Is No Return

The Blurb

There’s sinister goings on at the Richelieu. Can Miss Adams, commonly known as “The Old Battle-Axe”, solve the mystery before it turns deadly?

In a small Southern town in a quaint old hotel Adelaide Adams is knitting, unprepared for the reign of terror and bloodshed that is about to begin. If she had been prepared she would – in spite of her bulk and an arthritic knee – have taken to her heels then and there.

The Verdict

Surprisingly dark but satisfying tale in the Had I But Known style.


My Thoughts

Murder à la Richelieu is an example of the ‘Had I But Known’ style of storytelling. These sorts of stories, which are usually first person narratives, build anticipation by emphasizing the terror or fear that they will encounter later. In some cases, such as here, they may explicitly tell you what horror awaits you – in this case the discovery of the body of a man hanging from a chandelier with his throat cut – while linking them to the much more mundane events you are about to experience. The question for the reader is how will you get from point A, the calm of the opening, to point B, the moment of terror, and what will be responsible.

Our protagonist in this story is Adelaide Adams, an aging spinster who for the past few years has lived at the Richelieu, a residential hotel that has been nicknamed ‘the old ladies’ home’ by some of the more facetious folk in town. Most of the clientele have lived at the hotel for years, many occupying the same suites and rooms, and the staffing has been similarly stable.

The character of Adelaide is the best thing about this novel. She is a really striking protagonist, in part because she feels so unusual for this sort of story. Adelaide, who regards herself as a ‘close student of human comedy’, is thought of as a ‘battle-axe’ and ‘nosy old maid’ by some. She is not, we are assured, the type of person who would be easily frightened and yet she confesses she would have ‘taken shrieking to my heels’ had she known what horrors she would encounter.

By establishing that Adelaide is confident and assertive, Blackmon is clearly indicating that this terror will not be the result of weakness of character but her experience of some genuinely horrific acts and I will say that this is borne out by the story that follows. While the violence is largely conveyed through impressions, the throat-cutting murder is perhaps the least horrific one in the story – no matter what some reviewers may say, this is decidedly not a cozy mystery.

The mundane event that we have to connect to the murders is the discovery of Adelaide’s spectacles case between the cushions on the divan in the lobby. This confuses Adelaide, who has excellent memory, because she never removes it from her bedroom and has a memory of putting it in the drawer in her bedside table. Further disappearances follow, giving us an opportunity to get to know many of the other residents in the hotel, building to the horrific discovery of that body in her bedroom.

The passage leading up to that moment is highly effective, building a sense of dread as Adelaide gropes around in the dark to try. Adelaide’s description of what happens incorporates several of the senses, slowly building a sense of horror as we wait for a more detailed reveal of what we have already been primed to expect and a sense of mystery about exactly who it is hanging from that chandelier. It makes for an excellent opening to the book and I was delighted to find that other criminous developments soon follow, making the book feel really packed full of incident.

While the events in the book can get pretty dark, Blackmon does provide some lighter, comedic moments that give the novel some balance. There are also some more tender, character-focused moments that explore Adelaide’s own background and make her a richer, more nuanced figure than she initially portrays herself as being although the tone of those more emotional scenes can feel a little mawkish at times.

There is a formal police investigation, headed by Inspector Bunyan. These characters are rather hardboiled, feeling a little at odds with the Southern town setting, but they play an important role of establishing some of the formal facts of the case and focusing the reader’s attention on some of the outstanding questions about the relationships between characters and matters of identity. While they, at points, take actions that push the story forwards, the action mostly centers on Adelaide and the things she will experience and discover.

When we get to the explanation of what has happened, the various strands of the story – the disappearing items, the questions concerning characters’ identities and the murders – are brought together pretty convincingly. Though the sheer number of murders committed in just 170 pages may raise some eyebrows, I feel that the killer chosen was fairly credible, and their motive for committing this series of frantic and gruesome murders made sense.

Overall I found this book to be is a quick and exciting read, packed with incident and featuring a great protagonist. Blackmon’s writing style is highly engaging, in part because of the very effective use of the Had I But Known style but also because there is a real sense of escalation in the crimes as they build to one of the more memorable (and gruesome) murders I can think of in a Golden Age work.

Further Reading

Curtis Evans wrote a piece about the author for MysteryFile. While she only wrote one other mystery novel, she was a highly prolific short story writer so I will have to keep an eye out for those in the future!

TomCat wrote an excellent review of this work at Beneath the Stains of Time. I completely agree with the comments about an unusual aspect of the plot that causes the work to stand out. I was struck by how direct the book is about discussing some activities that are usually only alluded to indirectly or euphemistically in works from this period.

The Capital City Mystery by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Inspector Jacks #2
Preceded by Murder by Formula
Followed by The Servant of Death

The Blurb

From among a brilliant galaxy of Senators, Representatives, Diplomats, Governors, artists, society women, wealthy aristocrats, and influential newspaper publishers of Washington D.C. – a wealthy Congressman disappeared almost before their eyes, during the progress of one of his wife’s famous Sunday night suppers.

Inspector Jacks of New York had hardly started work on the case when there was an even stranger disappearance. How he wove a cunning web into which he drew many unsuspecting human flies and finally a diabolical pair that buzzed too long around the scene of their crime, is the high water mark of a most unique and blood-curdling mystery tale.

The Verdict

Not so much a fair play mystery as a thriller but the capital setting and the development of the cast of suspects is handled well.


My Thoughts

I was really excited to get hold of The Capital City Mystery a few months ago as it completed my collection of James Harold Wallis’ detective stories. These books have been largely forgotten but I have found each of the ones I have read interesting, even if they were not always entirely successful. This is one of his earliest efforts featuring his series detective, Inspector Jacks – an independently wealthy police detective from New York.

Each week US Representative Lester Armaude and his wife Lily host Sunday supper parties for their friends and neighbors who are a mix of politicians, news publishers and other dignitaries. This week is no different, although a heavy fog does mean that the gathering is expected to be a little smaller than usual. Anticipating the arrival of a colleague, Lester decides to walk down to unlock a side gate and wait to greet them. Guests begin to arrive but Lester does not return and when the visitors he was waiting for arrive and say they didn’t see him, a small search is mounted and while his pen is found, Lester is nowhere to be seen.

While his wife seems initially unconcerned by the absence, the next day she receives a telegram purporting to be from Lester in which he explains his absence. Rather than settling the matter, the note instead makes her suspicious as there is a telltale sign that it would not be from him. Fearing kidnap but daring not to go to the Police and cause a scandal, Lily’s house guest Lais suggests that they reach out to Inspector Jacks from New York who she met when he investigated her ‘trouble’ three years earlier (the events of the previous novel, Murder by Formula) and who can be trusted to be discrete. He agrees to take some leave and visit to look into the matter for them.

A deeper investigation of the scene only seems to confirm their suspicions that something sinister has happened and leads to a more formal investigation taking place. With no trace or sightings of him anywhere, the question is where could he have vanished to and for what purpose. And then another character disappears without a trace…

While the mechanism for involving Jacks in this capital-centered case is a little contrived, I found Wallis’ setup for this story and, in particular, the political aspects of the story to be quite intriguing. One common trick Wallis used in several of his setective stories is to have characters discuss the potential for a crime in an apparently hypothetical way that subsequently turns out to be rather prescient. Here we have just such a case where characters’ comments about the potential for murder are used to set the mood and prepare us for what we know must surely have happened, even in the absence of a corpse.

Wallis would have been familiar with the world of Washington from his experience working with Herbert Hoover as a special assistant when he was serving as Secretary of State. He also had some personal political experience both from his own time in local government and as a newspaper owner. All of that knowledge and detail is there on the page, making this depiction of the capital feel well-observed with plenty of references to actual political figures and legislative debates that would have been fairly recent as well as comments on some of the locations and neighborhoods around the District of Columbia. All of the figures involved in this case however are fictional (including the President), allowing for the possibility that anything might happen to them.

This attention to the details of the setting and the characters that inhabit it is easily the most successful and interesting part of The Capital City Mystery. The pool of suspects is drawn from those characters who attended the Armaudes’ party, with the exception of Lais who is clearly established as the romantic interest for Jacks (this does feel pretty convincing and clearly evolves out of the circumstances of the previous book). This means that the suspects are all from Washington’s high society, leading Jacks to move in some relatively high circles. Wallis explains the tensions between the various suspects well and while carrying out an abduction or murder might seem to be a high risk endeavor, I had little difficulty accepting their possible motives for doing so.

Perhaps the most striking of the various suspects is Tonescu, a diplomat from one of the Balkan countries (Wallis avoids being too specific). What makes Tonescu memorable is his willingness to embrace a sort of blunt materialism where he makes no pretense about what he wants. This apparent honesty about his interest in Lily Armaude as well as his willingness to admit involvement in a previous murder (which describes in just a few lines an idea that Christie would use as the solution to a novel a couple of years later), makes him a difficult character to fully grasp and understand for much of the book and yet he plays off Jacks superbly.

Wallis’ only slight misstep on the characterization front is the character of Gaiety Joy, an out of work jester who Jacks encounters in a diner and hires to be his eyes and ears. This mechanism of hiring a surrogate is a decent one that has been used very effectively elsewhere, yet Joy is a rather odd character and as useful as he proves it is hard to understand exactly what causes Jacks to be willing to make the investment in him. There is also a rather lengthy sequence in which Joy performs some political poetry that drags on a little too long. Still, the character does open up some interesting doors to the investigation later or and there is a rather amusing development involving a decision he takes shortly after being hired.

All of which brings me to the bigger question of the plot. I do think that the book starts with a really interesting scenario and I think that the solution given is quite a lot of fun, albeit quite a familiar one. I do have to note though that it is more thriller than detective story in the telling. While I think the reader can presume some answers, I don’t think they are given quite enough to prove anything themselves. This may frustrate some readers but I remained engaged and entertained by the various twists and turns the case goes on.

Overall then I found The Capital City Mystery to be an enjoyable read. While it may not have been a fair play mystery, I had little difficulty in working out who was responsible and their motives or in maintaining my interest. Still, in spite of that it is a fun journey packed with strong characters and, in my opinion, one of the better Inspector Jacks stories.

The Great Hotel Murder by Vincent Starrett

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Riley Blackwood #1
Followed by Midnight and Percy Jones

This book was expanded from Recipe for Murder published in 1934

The Blurb

When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.

Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavors to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence―and their whereabouts.

The Verdict

Pretty entertaining Golden Age fare that blends action and mystery with a likable sleuth.


My Thoughts

As nice as it is to see new editions of books by Carr, Gardner and Queen appearing in the American Mystery Classics range, the books that truly excite me are the ones I have never heard of. That unfamiliarity is nice not only because of the variety it brings to a range, but also because there is something rather exciting about approaching a work with no expectations at all beyond what little information a cover and blurb may suggest.

The Great Hotel Murder begins with Blaine Oliver anxiously trying to summon Dr. Trample in the lobby of the Hotel Granada where she had an appointment to meet him. He is neither responding to calls to his room nor can he be found anywhere in the lobby. A friend happens upon her and suggests that they try going to his room and knocking directly but they find a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door and no response from inside. Finally they persuade the management to unlock the room and enter to find a man lying dead on the bed. To their surprise however it is not Dr. Trample and it turns out that he has died of a morphine overdose although he no syringe can be found and he does not appear to be a habitual user of the drug.

Before anyone gets too excited at the words ‘unlock the room’, I should say that the way that this case plays out serves to minimize that aspect of the plot. For one thing, we are told almost immediately after its detection that the poison could have been administered before the victim returned to the room and locked themselves in. We are also aware that several of the staff possess master keys so the locked door is less a barrier and more a logistical obstacle that the reader will have to factor into how they explain the sequence of events leading to the murder.

Instead this will be a case where we are looking for someone who has a motive for murder. While there is one character that seems to have had the clearest opportunity, it is hard to understand exactly why he would kill someone he appears to have only known for a few hours. In a reversal of the usual structure of the whodunit, here we begin with just one or two suspects and our field widens throughout the novel as we learn more about the victim. This approach works pretty well and I am happy to say that I was surprised by several aspects to the solution.

Our unlikely sleuth is theatrical critic Riley Blackwood, whose involvement in the case is justified by his being a friend of the hotel’s owner. Blackwood is a detective whose personality feels reminiscent of the Ellery Queen school of amateur detectives. He is well-read, whimsical and has a habit of responding to problems with quotations. In terms of the way he approaches the case however I think he also feels like he exists on the edge of a more hardboiled, pulpy sort of detection. After all, he forms attractions to women involved in the case, dives into a body of water to rescue someone and even carries a gun at one point. It makes for an interesting mix of traits that I think works pretty well for this sort of a case.

The pool of suspects that he is investigating make up a pretty interesting mix of characters from a variety of different walks of life. Given the importance of finding a motive to this case, the question becomes one of how the various characters knew the deceased, whether they knew he was there and what may have prompted a murder at that precise time.

These are pretty interesting questions and managed to sustain my interest for much of the book. I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.

More importantly, I think the way the story unfolds is pretty entertaining. Blackwood is often quite amusing, as are a couple of the suspects, and there are several moments of tension and action that help to keep things moving. This isn’t simply a short story with some padding to fill out the page count – it is a pretty engaging softboiled thriller that hits some solid comical notes.

Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. The plot is a little too simple and a little too familiar for that, but it entertains. In that sense it sits comfortably alongside the likes of Home, Sweet Homicide or Your Turn, Mr. Moto which are also part of this range and is worth a look for those who like novels that blend mystery and adventure.

Further Reading

The publication history of this book is just as interesting as the book itself. The Studies in Starrett Blog posted a series of articles about this back in 2017. The first installment focuses on the Redbook short story and how it differs from Starrett’s previous work. The second installment looks at the 1935 novel and the changes that were made from the Redbook version. The final installment focuses on the film adaptation which diverges quite radically from either of the texts with the author noting in his memoirs ‘Nobody was more surprised than the author by the revelation of the killer’s identity’.

There’s Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake

Book Details

Originally published in 1937

Nigel Strangeways #3
Preceded by Thou Shell of Death
Followed by The Beast Must Die

The Blurb

Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways has been invited to address the Maiden Astbury literary society in the sleepy and serene Dorset town.

But all is not as peaceful as it seems. Local brewer, Eustace Bunnet, is on the war path after his beloved dog is found dead in one of the Bunnett’s Brewery vats. This grisly crime casts an air of suspicion over the whole town, but no culprit is found.

When a body is discovered in the very same vat, gruesomely boiled down to its bones, Nigel Strangeways is called in to capture the killer and solve this very peculiar mystery in a town more perturbing than picturesque.

The Verdict

Boasts a promising, if grotesque, premise. Sadly I figured out what had happened far too quickly, leaving me feeling a little underwhelmed and disappointed.


My Thoughts

As I have previously confessed on this blog, beer does not constitute a particularly big part of my diet these days. Were I a bigger drinker however I might find myself losing that taste after reading this book which contains what may be the most nauseating circumstances to find a body that I can ever recall reading in a crime novel. And yet, I am about to describe it so the sensitive of stomach (or for that matter, dog lovers) may wish to skip over this one.

You have been warned!

Nigel Strangeways has arrived in Maiden Astbury to address a meeting of the town’s literary society on the subject of modern poetry. During a drink before the meeting, one of the gathering jokingly asks if they are drinking Truffles in their beer. It turns out that some weeks earlier the remains of a dog belonging to Eustace Bunnet, the local brewer, was found dead inside one of his brewing vats.

Following Nigel’s speech, Bunnet approaches him ask to hire him to investigate the matter for him. He insists that his dog must have been murdered because it was too old and lacking in agility to find its way into the vat by itself. Nigel is not keen on the job but quotes an exorbitant fee which the parsimonious brewer surprisingly, if grudgingly, agrees to pay.

Bunnet arranges to meet with Nigel in his brewery the next day so it is surprising when he does not show up. One of Bunnet’s staff offers to show him the vat where the dog had been found but when they open it the find another body, this time a human one, that has been boiled down to its bones. There is no possibility that it could be suicide. It seems that Nigel has lost a client and gained another murder case.

In spite of how queasy it makes me to think over those opening chapters again, I think this makes for a wonderfully striking introduction to the novel. Blake’s prose is wonderfully witty and sharp, particularly in the scenes concerning the literary society which can be quite hilarious. For one thing, I can attest to how nothing draws a crowd for a literary gathering than the offer of free food…

While having the first victim be an animal may be upsetting, it does provide Strangeways with a reason to be on the scene, enabling him to get involved in the more traditional human murder case that follows. The discovery of that body, which comes early, raises a series of questions – not least about the relationship between these two bodies in the vat. To summarize some of them:

  • Was the dog murdered?
  • Is the murderer the same person responsible for the death of the dog?
  • If so, was it a trial run for the human murder that followed?
  • If not, did it inspire the murder or was it just coincidence?

I found these questions to be quite intriguing and looked forward to learning what the answers would be. Nigel’s investigation seems to go pretty smoothly and introduces us to a set of interesting characters setting up several suspects to consider. Yet for all of the appeal of this setup, I struggled to keep my interest for a very simple and very silly reason: one part of the solution struck me as far, far too obvious.

Now clearly I am not going to give away the game (at least, not deliberately). For one thing, I would love it if you disagree with me and find that the aspect of the plot I am referring to really works for you. The problem is that this book is structured in such a way as to make the moment where that information is shared feel powerful and yet if you see the clue coming, the mystery then becomes much, much simpler to solve.

Things are not helped either by heavy usage of the trope where our sleuth compiles pages of notes on each possible killer. This results in some pages of pretty dense text that mostly just reiterates aspects of the story we have already learned, seeming to only slow down the story.

Things do pick up a little towards the end but here, once again, I felt a little deflated. I wanted some moment of surprise and yet I found that I had simply predicted each of the planned surprises. The result was a book that while often quite witty and boasting an interesting starting point, sadly underwhelmed me, particularly in regards to the solution to its central detective story. Still, in spite of that Blake’s sharp and witty writing style makes this easy and entertaining to read.

While this book may have put me off my lunch and may make me eye my next few pints with a little suspicion, I am confident I will return to Blake again soon.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this one slightly more than I did, though I would agree that this would have been improved with a slightly shorter page count.

Moira @ ClothesInBooks has actually written about this twice. The praise is muted with a note that some aspects are of their time and that the tone can be rather snobbish.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World shares a mixture of contemporary reviews and their own opinion. They enjoyed the detection process in this one more than I did but they do point out the subsequent murders add interest which I do agree with.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #10
Preceded by Lord Edgeware Dies
Followed by Three Act Tragedy

The Blurb

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.

The Verdict

A well-plotted story with a truly memorable conclusion. It is not my favorite Poirot novel but it deserves its reputation as a classic.


My Thoughts

Hercule Poirot arrives at his hotel in Istanbul where he receives an urgent telegram that suggests he needs to return to England immediately. Poirot decides to book passage on the Orient Express, a train line that spans Europe, and asks the hotel desk to make arrangements. Unfortunately the first and second class compartments are fully booked but his friend, Monsieur Bouc, is a director at the railway and is able to intervene and secure him a berth when a passenger does not show up for their reservation.

At dinner Poirot is approached by Ratchett, an American businessman, who wants to hire him. He tells Poirot that he has received death threats and wants Poirot to sniff out the responsible party. He declines the commission however, telling Ratchett that he does not like his face. Poirot retires to his berth and tries to sleep, only to be woken in the early hours by a series of noises in the corridor.

Meanwhile weather conditions outside the train seem to be worsening and before long the train has come to a halt, trapped in a snowbank. Then Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment, his body have been stabbed twelve times. Bouc implores Poirot to carry out an investigation while the train is halted in the hope that they can present their findings to the Yugoslav police at the next station and avoid further delays.

It is a curious thought that this is one of just a handful of mystery titles I could write about that I can reasonably expect anyone reading this post to have experienced in some form. Even if you haven’t actually read or watched a version of this story, even if you do not like mystery fiction, there is still a very good chance that you will know some elements of the general setup and perhaps its solution.

Though I suspect anyone reading this blogpost will already know most of this book’s secrets, I will still do my best to avoid providing spoilers. I would suggest though that if you haven’t read this book yet and you have any sort of interest in mystery fiction that you should seek it out while you remain unspoiled – if you can preserve and experience the surprise of its ending then I think you owe it to yourself to do so while you still can.

So, why do I think Murder on the Orient Express became regarded as one of Christie’s best stories? I think the answer to that begins with its setup. This was not the first Christie story to be based around a train but I think it is much more successful than the previous one because the train itself, its features and internal space and geography feel more important to the crime and the detection of the killer. The use of a snowdrift to shape the geography of the crime is also very clever, avoiding the problem of a train’s accessibility as customers move on and off and making it into a very effective closed circle.

Another reason I think the setup to this story is effective is that unusually we have a victim who expects the murder. The question of who the victim is and why they have attracted enemies is an interesting one and here, as in The Murder on the Links, Christie opts to take inspiration from a famous real-life crime. The answers to those questions are effective, both in establishing Ratchett as a character but also in providing a credible motive for his murder.

There is one other aspect of the setup that I think works particularly well – Poirot is on the scene from the very start of the case. As he is also travelling on that train, he is able to observe the suspects’ behavior prior to the crime and has already noticed some things about them prior to being aware of the death threats or the murder itself. This is not only an economical choice in terms of the narrative, allowing the sleuth to notice some key points and relationships organically rather than having them explained to them, it also adds some excitement in the idea that the crime has been committed in the presence of the detective – an idea used very effectively in Peril at End House and which Christie frequently returns to in subsequent Poirot adventures.

Christie also creates an interesting mix of suspects to consider from a variety of different backgrounds. One of the initial challenges is understanding why any of this multinational cast, all apparently unknown to Ratchett, would have motive to kill him at all. In the course of his investigation, Poirot will turn up multiple possible killers and uncovers lots of secrets.

This brings me however to the thing I like least about the book – the lengthy succession of interviews. In practice the detection process in mystery novels often boils down to a series of interviews but these are often broken up, differentiated or disguised by moving them to different locations or requiring a little effort on the part of the detective to track the interviewee down. Here however it is presented as a succession of interviews and while many of the disclosures made are interesting, the structure that information is delivered through can feel a little limited and repetitive.

[To digress – it is that same succession of interviews that makes this book such a popular choice for adaptation. You have twelve really good single scenes of about the same length – ideal for bringing in a group of A list actors for just a short filming period.]

And yet while I think the somewhat flat presentation of the interviews can be disappointing, I find it only elevates the puzzle itself. It takes confidence in the ingenuity of your solution to risk stripping everything back and place so much testimony side by side to really highlight the contradictions between them. In doing this we also see Poirot’s brilliance as he pieces the puzzle together, using logic to resolve the differences and problems in the accounts and come up with the book’s memorable solution (or, more accurately, solutions).

Which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. When I first read this I disagreed with the way the case is resolved and the resolution of a central theme of the novel but returning to the book itself I find that I feel differently about that ending. Perhaps I am reading this section of the book slightly differently – my views on the themes discussed haven’t shifted so it must be the way I am interpreting the material itself.

ROT13: V unir vffhrf jvgu gur vqrn gung fvzcyl tngurevat 12 crbcyr vagvzngryl pbaarpgrq gb gur pnfr pbafgvghgrf nalguvat yvxr n whel, ubjrire zhpu vg cyrnfrf gur gjryir gb guvax bs gurzfryirf gung jnl. V nyfb bevtvanyyl fgehttyrq jvgu gur vqrn gung Cbvebg jnf pubbfvat n erfbyhgvba ohg er-ernqvat guvf V erpbtavmr gung V zvfernq guvf – ur zreryl cerfragf gur gjb ernqvatf bs gur rivqrapr naq nyybjf rirelbar ryfr gb pubbfr n fbyhgvba gung gurl ner unccvrfg jvgu.

Revisiting this with the knowledge of the solution, I was impressed by how well it was set up and clued and I think it manages to be surprising without feeling gimmicky. I probably enjoyed it more on revisiting it than I did on my first reading. Certainly I can understand why this story remains one of Christie’s most popular, even though I prefer some of Poirot’s other cases in terms of the interest of their initial scenarios.

Second Opinions

Brad at AhSweetMystery has written extensively about this book. Two of the highlights are this post in which he discusses it in the context of Christie’s output in the 1930s and this discussion of the book, what it means to him and its adaptations.

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime shares eleven things she finds interesting about the book.

Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery similarly found that they enjoyed this more on revisiting it – perhaps this is a story that is more enjoyable if you ignore its reputation.

Christian at Mysteries Short and Sweet covered this as part of his Christie at 100 series and gave this a glowing review. One of my favorite things about this series of reviews is looking at the various covers that have appeared on Swedish editions and seeing how different publishers have interpreted the book.

Bev at My Reader’s Block discusses the importance of this book to their becoming a mystery reader and many of the adaptations.

Dead Yesterday also shares some personal experiences of the book and how it shaped their reading. There are some spoilers but they are clearly labeled and avoidable.

Countdown John shares his notes on this book including research of some of the references contained in the book.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World calls this a masterpiece and provides some interesting contemporary reviews.

Jose at A Crime Is Afoot describes the book as a classic and gives it his highest recommendation.

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil

The Blurb

Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.

Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?

The Verdict

Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.

While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.

This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.

It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?

One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.

I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.

A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.

I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.

I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.

Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.


Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!

TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.

Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.


A Cataloguing Note

For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.

Five to Try: Railway Mysteries

There are two settings that I identify strongly with the golden age of detective fiction. The first is the country house mystery along the lines of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The idea of a location where everyone gathers to relax or see friends and family turning murderous is one of those ideas that gets used again and again, particularly in contemporary works that seek to evoke that “Agatha Christie-style mystery” feel.

The other setting I associate with this era of crime fiction is, as you have no doubt guessed, the mystery set aboard a train. This is a less common setting but one that I would suggest is much more closely tied to the original golden age period. Yes, people still write works set on trains but in doing so they often trying to evoke or reference one of the most famous mysteries of all time, Murder on the Orient Express (which, as a friend noted on Twitter, will be the next title on my Poirot read-through).

I think there are several reasons that the train as a setting has such appeal to me. The first is that, unlike the plane, it is easy to move around and socialize on a train. The space becomes all the more important to the story as we become obsessed with whose cabin is next to the murder victim’s or who was sat in which seats in the dining car. It is a diagram lover’s dream – all those lovely rectangles, many of them with numbers associated with them. When you consider the possibilities for locked spaces the train offers a staggering variety of options for the crime writer.

Another reason is there is that sense of the space around the train itself. The landscape can really matter and you often have a sense of the train rushing through tunnels or through snowy, mountainous terrain that will almost certainly force the train to stop at some point. A plane or boat is obviously occupying a space but how often is it truly important to the story?

The train could be glamorous, comfortable and practical. It offered a location in which the middle and upper classes mixed, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Little wonder there are so many wonderful mystery stories set aboard them.

In the post below I share five mystery stories I most enjoyed that are set on or around the world of trains. I have tried to avoid the most obvious picks on the basis that they are already known and loved. Rather than trying to offer a ranking of the five stories I consider the best, I have instead attempted to pick five stories that illustrate different ways that this setting has been used in the genre. Okay – I cheat a little and mention a few others along the way… I may very well not mention one of your favorites. If so, I would love you to share the stories you love in the comments below and the reasons you love them.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

Dread Journey (1945) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The train as an enclosed space

Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey features a group of characters from the world of Hollywood making a coast-to-coast journey. As a consequence of being in close confinement with each other within a carriage, tensions rise and grievances are aired. It is clear that not everyone who boarded the train will live to disembark at the other end and that one character, an actress who is about to be dropped by her producer, is playing a very dangerous game…

There are multiple aspects of this book that I really responded to. The discussion of the casting process in Hollywood during this era seems horribly familiar while Hughes creates an interesting cast of characters to fill her Pullman carriage.

Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

The train as the means of death

In spite of what the cover image shown here may suggest, the train in Double Indemnity is perhaps less of a feature than in the other stories I have listed. In fact very little of the book takes place in or around a train yet when it does feature it does so in a very important way. It serves as the means that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger use to dispose of her husband as part of an insurance scam. Given that this is a noir story however do not expect all to go well for the couple.

I think it is easy to forget that a train itself was an enormously powerful object that could, with some careful planning, be used as a means to kill. After all it does have a habit of hiding other injuries that the victim may have sustained. For an example of that idea take a look at E. and M.A. Radfords’ excellent inverted detective novel The Heel of Achilles.

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing (1935)

The sudden entry into a tunnel providing the opportunity for murder

Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky takes place on a train travelling across the border between the United States and Mexico. After US customs service agent Hugh Rennert learns of a strange threatening conversation between passengers on the train he is alert to the possibility of trouble.

During the journey the train passes through a tunnel and the lights do not turn on, throwing the carriage into darkness. When the train emerges on the other side the man who had issued the threat lies dead but with no signs of violence it is not even certain if he has been murdered. Soon however further killings will clarify that matter.

Downing is an excellent descriptive writer, able to make you feel what it is like to be on that train – particularly later in the book where it becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. It is not only a thrilling read, it is an excellent puzzle mystery which I thoroughly recommend.

For those interested in another take on this theme, check out Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Great Black Kanba (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

An accident on board a train leading to trouble…

Great Black Kanba reminds us that travelers could often be meeting someone for the first time.

We meet the main character of this story after she has been injured in a baggage accident, causing her to lose her memory of who she is and where she is travelling to. Fellow passengers tell her who she is based on some items found in what is presumed to be her baggage and she sets out to complete the journey she is told she is on, hoping that her memory comes back as she does so.

Another novella that mixes an accident on a train, albeit a much more serious one, with questions about identity is Cornell Woolrich’s wonderful I Married a Dead Man. In that story an unmarried woman who is eight months pregnant gets in an accident and is mistaken for a pregnant woman who was traveling to meet her in laws for the first time. It is a truly great slice of noir fiction.

Death of a Train (1946) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Not all trains are passenger trains

Of course I had to include something by Freeman Wills Crofts who is a particularly appropriate choice for this topic given his own background as a railroad engineer prior to becoming an author. He uses trains as elements in several of his books and while train timetables are not as vital to Crofts’ storytelling as some would have you believe, he certainly had a strong appreciation for the railroad and he does sometimes get rather technical.

Death of a Train takes place during the Second World War and involves a secret plan to transport important supplies without them falling into enemy hands. A special train is laid on but when an attempt to seize it is foiled only by chance it becomes clear that there must be a leak somewhere in the War Cabinet. It falls to Inspector French to try and seek out the guilty party.

This is not the most interesting of Crofts’ railroad mysteries but I selected it as a reminder that not every train carried passengers and that while goods trains may not be as glamorous, they could still offer intriguing possibilities for storytelling.


So there you have my five suggestions for Golden Age detective and mystery novels that feature trains. What are some of your favorite stories to feature trains? Feel free to break away from the Golden Age and include more recent titles!