The Pocket Detective compiled by Kate Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chimney Meddler Hog

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

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy provided by publisher.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

ExcellentExcellent Intentions is a Golden Age crime novel that tells the story of the trial of a person accused of killing Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate, a highly disagreeable landowner. This is not a legal thriller but rather a fairly conventional mystery as the accused’s identity is held back from the reader and they will have to deduce it from the court proceedings.

On the day of his murder, Cargate was set to make a journey by train. After complaining to the station master about a small delay and the conduct of his staff, Cargate enters the compartment and is observed appearing to take snuff from his pocket and putting it to his nostril before violently collapsing. Upon examination of the snuff case the police discover that the contents had been laced with poison.

The bulk of Hull’s story establishes the case for the prosecution, building up a timetable and establishing the personalities of the suspects and their possible reasons for wanting Cargate dead. Once this information is provided a handful of chapters at the end detail the remainder of the trial, the jury discussions and final outcome.

I have to say that I am undecided about whether I feel this structure worked. On the one hand, I think Hull does manage to hide the accused’s identity well while still providing enough clues that it can be fairly worked out. I also think that there is something inherently interesting in exploring the power of the jury and the personalities that make one up although I think it misses the opportunity to consider that in even greater detail. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by how little we hear from the defence although, like Kate, I understand its necessity to preserve the surprise of the suspect’s identity.

The other issue I had was with the character of the victim, Cargate, who seems cartoonishly horrible from the start of the novel. While I do not require a rigidly realistic approach in my crime reading, this presentation of the character verges on being inadvertently comical and comes close to rendering the opening of the novel ridiculous.

Cargate is presented as being underhand in his dealings with his staff and others while also possessing an argumentative and vindictive streak. Moments before his death he is threatening to report staff at the train station for accidentally bumping into him and for the train being a couple of minutes late. Couple that with his refusal to consider employing anyone local, preferring to acquire much more expensive servants in London.

Inspector Fenby is tasked with investigating the death and starts interviewing suspects, compiling a short list of three or four credible killers. This section of the novel is, as a consequence, quite slow and I would not disagree with PuzzleDoctor’s description of it as being a ‘bit time-tabley’. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work out who was where and when!

Fenby does not have an awful lot of personality and there are no attempts to build him up as a character. He largely exists to fulfil a role that drives the story forward while being credible as a witness and investigating officer. I think he does that reasonably well but it does make the middle of the novel seem a little dry.

The suspect pool is thankfully a little more entertaining and imaginative than the sleuth and it contains several colorful characters. I was entertained by the stories told of meetings held on the day of Cargate’s murder and think that the puzzle of who was responsible was interesting, if not enthralling.

Though not a perfect read, I do think that this is a solid and intriguing one. For those keen to try Hull’s work, I would certainly suggest looking at The Murder of My Aunt first.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Changes to the final two paragraphs of this review were made within moments of publication – I had accidentally tapped post while writing. Whoops!

Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady KillerI had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston

PiccadillyI had planned to round off my week with a review of the newly translated Paul Halter novel The Man Who Loved Clouds. The problem was that when the time came to pick up that book I was thoroughly absorbed in Murder in Piccadilly, an inverted mystery by Charles Kingston that was one of the earlier titles to be published in the British Library Crime Classics range.

Bobbie Cheldon is a somewhat immature and carefree young man who has never really made a success of his life because he always has in the back of his mind that he will inherit his uncle’s estate and with it an income of ten thousand pounds a year. Accordingly he lives quite an extravagant lifestyle, taking on obligations beyond his means and showing little interest in earning his own way.

Unfortunately for Bobbie his uncle is far from being an old man and is in relatively fine health meaning that there appears to be little chance of him inheriting any time soon. It is possible that he could have continued scrabbling along in the normal way of things but for his having fallen in love with a dancer who is perhaps more interested in his checkbook than in him as a person. Young Bobbie is oblivious however and with his mother’s help, tries to persuade his miserly Uncle Massy to provide him with a paid position or to settle some sum on him to enable him to marry.

Predictably this request does not go very well and soon Bobbie learns that if he doesn’t do something Nancy will likely leave the country on a tour with her dancing partner who also nurses a passion for her. In short, Bobbie is feeling pretty desperate. Unfortunately for him he falls in with some of Nancy’s circle of friends, one of whom has a plan for getting Bobbie his fortune and, as a result, benefiting from the death himself.

While the book does not explicitly acknowledge the imminent death of Uncle Massy from the beginning or the responsible party’s identity, it is effectively an inverted crime story. A sense of dread is evoked at several points in the early chapters for several characters as they become worried about where Bobbie’s feelings are leading him and we are made party to the plans being made to kill the uncle.

Though Kingston’s storytelling style is quite careful and methodical, I really enjoyed this first half of the novel and getting to know the characters he creates most of whom are quite colorful. While some of these characters can be quite amusing, I think few who have read this would disagree with my assessment that they are not a particularly pleasant bunch. Several of the characters exhibit vanity and self-absorption while even the victim comes off as stiff, hypocritical and judgmental. In spite of that I found them to be an entertaining bunch and enjoyed learning how they would factor into the case and its outcome.

Kingston effectively builds and sustains tension throughout this first half of the novel as we wait for Uncle Massy to be murdered and for the investigation to begin. While we had been party to the planning of the crime it quickly becomes clear that the murder did not take place exactly according to plan and so the reader has to piece together just who carried out what actions and why throughout the second half of the book.

This investigation is carried out by Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard and it is made more enjoyable for his past interactions with one of the suspects who he teases, prods and manipulates throughout the remainder of the novel. At this point the reader can see both the strategy of the guilty party and has a sense of the style and competency of the detective and so the question becomes who is better placed to prevail in that contest.

Wake cuts a less colorful figure than Bobbie Cheldon yet I think he still exhibits plenty of personality. He perhaps is prone to using his intuition rather than solid procedural work to narrow the suspect pool which is not altogether satisfying but it is interesting to read how he is interviewing the various suspects and to track the course of his suspicions.

Kingston packs in plenty of incident but what really sold me on the book is a twist he saves until close to the end. It is a perfect development that transforms the ending of the story and it is fairly clued, making it all the more satisfying. To me that moment elevates the book as a whole from being a pretty solid effort to becoming something more special and satisfying.

While its slightly slow pacing and dark characterizations may not appeal to everyone, I found the novel to be a thoroughly entertaining one. The situation Kingston creates and describes is interesting and the twist is superb as are the characterizations. I was impressed enough that I know I will want to see if I can track down more of his writing to get a taste of their other work. The challenge will be finding an affordable one!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Matriarch/Patriarch of the family (Who)