Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

Book Details

Originally published in 1942

The Blurb

The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he – schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she – chronic malcontent – and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.

Blue Murder was the last of Harriet Rutland’s mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

Blue Murder is a clever and well-told story that bridges the gap between the detective and the crime novel.

That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!

My Thoughts

Author Arnold Smith arrives in the village of Nether Naughton in search of inspiration for his latest work, a detective story. He has arranged to take a room in the home of the Hardstaffe family and soon discovers plenty of inspiration within those walls, eventually basing characters within his manuscript on them.

Mr. Hardstaffe, the elderly Headmaster of the school, has a vicious temper and a roving eye that has landed on Miss Charity Fuller, the ‘youngest and prettiest of his staff’. He has apparently pressed his attentions on her for some time but she has rebuffed him with the dangerous statement that she cannot consider him ‘as long as she is alive’. The she is his wife, a hypochondriac who he married purely for her wealth. She has her own reasons for hating her husband who bullies and belittles her.

It is clear from the very start of the book that there are murderous tensions present within the house but one of the most appealing aspects of this novel for me was that the reader will not know which character will be the victim. Rutland is even able to extend this beyond the point at which the murder takes place, at least for a few tension-building pages, as we learn that a murder has taken place and is being investigated but we are not sure exactly who died.

That is one example of a technique Rutland uses throughout the novel of encouraging the reader to expect a development without being clear exactly what that development will be. Take for instance the opening line of chapter thirty-three in which a character ponders with hindsight whether the solution to the murder would have ever been discovered were it not for an event that we are about to read about. This is a variation of the Had I But Known device which plants a seed in the mind of the reader, emphasizing to them that you really want to be paying attention to what will be about to happen. And it works – I was absolutely gripped by the events that followed, knowing that they would be significant but not sure exactly why.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was how much Rutland is willing to give to the reader right from the start. Typically in a detective novel we would expect that we would discover much of the crucial information about the suspects following a murder taking place. Here however we begin the story with a pretty full knowledge of the state of the various relationships between the different characters and the things that they desire that they may want to kill for. In fact within the first few chapters nearly every major character has appeared and expressed some compelling motive for murder.

Which brings us back to the idea that Rutland structures her story really well. She establishes the tensions, creates a situation and then we see what will happen and how those characters will respond. The result is a book that marries elements of the detective story and the crime story very effectively. Our focus is not really on the details of where characters were – almost anyone could have done it – but rather on evaluating the characters psychologically and deciding whether we think they really would have done it. A question that becomes all the more interesting as we see how the characters respond to the questioning and new developments. It also may prompt the reader to wonder what will they do next.

While the plotting may be less of a focus than the characterizations and development of themes it does not mean that it lacks points of interest. There are a number of revelations, both big and small, that may surprise readers and change the direction of the story. I particularly appreciated a moment during the inquest, for example, which I did not see coming and which altered my understanding of what happened, taking the story in an interesting new direction.

Now at this point I should acknowledge that while this book is not inverted, I doubt that the identity of the killer will come as a surprise to many of the readers. Rutland never confirms that person’s role until the final few pages of the novel but I think there are enough structural and thematic clues laid that many readers will anticipate that reveal long before it happens. Often that can be disappointing – a strange feature of the detective story is that while many of us read them to match our wits with the author, few of us want to identify the criminal early. Here however an early identification of the killer is not a fault but a feature because it only increases that sense of tension as we are led to wonder how this story might possibly be resolved.

One of the reasons for this is that Rutland’s story touches on some really dark and realistic subject matter and so a happy ending is far from a certainty. Blue Murder was a novel written during wartime and apparently, according to Curtis Evans’ superb introduction, at a period of personal difficulty for the author. Little surprise then that this book incorporates some really powerful and difficult themes and elements including domestic abuse and the depiction and discussion of antisemitism.

Rutland writes powerfully and effectively on these and many other serious themes, depicting them (and other typically taboo topics for the period such as sexual desire and activity) with a surprising level of frankness for a book published in 1942. This is particularly true of the book’s depiction of antisemitism which we observe in many of the characters. The passages in which Rutland has Leida, a refugee and the target of those comments, responds and explains her experiences are highly effective, communicating the nature of the horror that the character had experienced.

As you might expect from the above, readers should be prepared to not like any of the characters much as people. I think that they are interesting and well-observed but all have significant flaws that render them far from likable. Once again, for me this is a feature rather than a flaw in the novel but if you are a reader who will want someone to root for then this book probably isn’t for you.

As the book nears its conclusion Rutland gives us several moments that I found to be really quite chilling. There are some great ideas here, some of which seem to anticipate the development of the crime novel that would happen throughout the following decade. It leads to a memorable and striking conclusion that, while a little rushed, neatly pulled together many of the themes and ideas that had been developed throughout the book.

Blue Murder will not be for everyone as I can see how some readers might struggle to appreciate its difficult characters and dark worldview. Taken as a book that seems to be a bridge between the detective and crime novel styles, I found it to be masterful and suspect that it will stay with me for quite a while.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event penned an enthusiastic review late last year that I clearly missed (otherwise I would doubtless have got to this much sooner as reading the post makes it clear that this is exactly my type of book). He addresses the acidic wit of the novel which I completely agree with – it is often very well deployed and while I agree not all of it lands as strongly as it might, it is often incredibly sharp and based on clever observation.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime suggests that the book has an Ilesian flavor which I think is a fair comparison and shares some interesting observations about its discussions of antisemitism, gender and changing societal values.

Brad @ AhSweetMystery offers up a thoughtful analysis of the book, including reflections on how it compares to Christie’s The Blue Train which was written at a similarly difficult period in an author’s life, and finishes with a sentiment I share that it’s a shame that there was no subsequent novel published.

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

The Blurb

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

The Verdict

This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

The locked room is your cue. All you have to do is find someone who could have gotten out of this apartment, leaving it with the doors locked on the inside as found.

My Thoughts

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

The Forbidden House by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1932 as La Maison Interdite
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Regarded as a masterpiece by 1000 Chambres Closes, the central puzzle is one of the most baffling in impossible crime fiction: a mysterious stranger, whose face cannot be seen by the several witnesses outside the house, is introduced inside, where he murders the owner and vanishes without trace.

The several witnesses inside cannot explain what happened. A search of the house fails to find him, and the witnesses watching the outside say he could not have left.

The authorities—examining magistrate, state prosecution, and police—trying to make sense of the clues, cannot agree amongst themselves as to the identity of the murderer…

The Verdict

This highly engaging impossible crime story offers an intriguing scenario, a memorable victim and a clever solution.

MARCHENOIRE, THIS AUGUST 28 IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, LEAVE MARCHENOIRE MANOR IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. DO NOT PURCHASE THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE.

My Thoughts

Monsieur Verdinage has accumulated a fortune and decides to purchase a house fitting of his new status. The home he has set his mind on buying is Marchenoire Manor, a beautiful three story building within a private park that is curiously affordable. He tours the property and after making his decision he requests to sign the paperwork in the house’s library. When they enter they discover the threatening note quoted above (yes, the spelling is accurate) addressed to the new owner. Verdinage reads the note but scoffs at it, suggesting it is a prank, and he decides to move his household in immediately.

A short while later he learns from one of the locals about the story of the Forbidden House and why it was available so cheaply. He still does not take the threat seriously and remains skeptical even when a second letter turns up exactly a month after the first, vowing that there will be no further warnings and that the next letter received will be an announcement of his death. Verdinage takes some precautions against the author of the note but in spite of his efforts his murder takes place as announced with the killer seeming to vanish into thin air…

I really love the opening to this novel in which the authors not only do a great job of setting out the nature of the threat and building up the strange history of the house but also of establishing the stubborn (and rather gauche) nature of the victim. Monsieur Verdinage is a superb creation, poking fun at some behaviors of the nouveau riche such as his order to have the library furnished with a huge number of books but not caring what any of them actually are. He is far from self-aware and yet for all his bluster he is quite practical, devising a reasonably sensible plan to protect himself (even if the smarter thing to do would be to call the police).

Herbert and Wyl pace these early chapters really well, providing the reader with important information that will be needed to understand various characters’ backgrounds and to eventually solve the crime without lingering over them for too long. Even before the murder we have an apparent impossibility as the second letter is found behind the locked and bolted door to the house’s cellar although that will not receive serious scrutiny until after the murder.

I enjoyed the series of letters as a device for building tension. Not only does this help to establish Monsieur Verdinage’s character as we see how he responds to each threat, we also learn that each of the previous owners of the home had received similar threats, answering them in different ways. This provides an interesting background to the case and I was certainly curious to learn what was prompting them.

The sequence in which the murder takes place is, once again, very tidily written. The authors smartly use the perspectives of several servants to describe what happens which not only helps to build the tension as we await the moment of the murder, it also provides the reader with at least some detail of the characters’ movements on the night in question. It is very smart, economical writing that keeps things moving well.

The novel’s impossibility concerns the disappearance of the murderer from the mansion moments after the killing shot is fired. The killer had been observed entering the building, though their face was in shadow, but the observers did not see them leave in spite of being positioned near the only exit (in a piece of crazily dangerous architecture, the building only has one exterior door). The police arrive and search the building thoroughly, finding no one, which begs the question of what happened to the figure who was seen entering a short time after midnight?

It’s a very neat problem and one that proves surprisingly tricky to solve in spite of the efforts of several detective figures, each of whom adopt different theories as to the person they believe responsible. There are quite a few characters who take turns at positing theories so I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of them stood out quite well in terms of their personalities. I also enjoyed seeing how their approaches differed from each other and the various ideas each brought to the case.

One character in particular made a pretty big impact almost immediately both in the way he deals with other figures including those who are investigating the case and those who might be interested in its outcome. I felt he was a pretty entertaining creation. I similarly appreciated the ingenuity of the character who finally solves the whole thing.

I felt that the solution to the puzzle was very clever. If there is a problem with it I would suggest that while the explanation is thorough and convincing, I cannot say that it is proved. There is not much physical evidence that would demonstrate the case. Instead the authors rely on the killer admitting the truth themselves at the presentation of the correct solution which feels a little underwhelming, perhaps not helped by the somewhat abrupt way the novel concludes moments afterwards.

Still, while I think that the ending may have been a little rushed, I was very happy with the novel overall. While the central problem of The Forbidden House may not be the most colorful example of an impossible crime, it is all the more puzzling for its apparent simplicity and always engaging.

Further Reading

Santosh Iyer also enjoyed the book and highly recommends it, appreciating its logical solution.

The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr, edited by Tony Medawar and Douglas Greene

Book Details

This collection, published by Landru and Crippen, contains radio play scripts that were produced for The Casebook of Cabin B-13 and broadcast between 1948 and 1949.

A limited cloth-bound edition included an additional script for Secret Radio as a pamphlet. As this limited edition is now sold out I will not be discussing this story in the review below.

The Blurb

John Dickson Carr, the grand master of locked room mysteries and impossible disappearances, was also the master of the creepy radio play.

For the first time, all the scripts for the classic 1948 radio series, Cabin B-13, are printed in this volume, and they are classic Carr.

The Verdict

Almost all of the Cabin B-13 stories offer intriguing impossibilities to explore and showcase Carr’s imagination and versatility as a writer.

More than 70 years after the series was first broadcast, it is possible to see Cabin B-13 as the final flowering of the truly great days of radio.

From the introduction by Tony Medawar

My Thoughts

The Island of Coffins is a collection of radio play scripts that were written by John Dickson Carr for a CBS series Cabin B-13. The show was designed to be an anthology in which a different story with elements of mystery and adventure would be introduced each week by Dr. Fabian, the ship’s surgeon aboard the Maurevania, a liner that travels the world. Each adventure would supposedly relate in some way to the destination that the ship was visiting and draw upon Fabian’s experiences, though he does not directly feature in all of the plays.

Nearly all of the recordings appear to have been lost and so this collection will be the first chance for many fans to experience these stories. As an experiment I listened to one of the stories after reading the script and I am happy to report I found it just as involving to read as it was to listen to which I think is a testament both to Carr’s engrossing storytelling style and to the care taken in the limited directions he provides.

The show ran for two series, both produced in 1948 though the broadcasts continued until early 1949. The scripts for all twenty-three episodes are collected here and each are presented with illuminating notes that provide background on the story and the way elements were reused in other Carr stories or radio plays. These are excellent and certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the stories, though readers may want to exercise a little caution as they may inadvertantly spoil themselves for other stories.

Almost every story in the collection features some element that could be considered an impossibility, though some are stronger than others. The exception is Death in the Desert, a story from the show’s second series, which is a sort of adventure yarn and has no mystery elements at all to speak of. The notes to that story do at least help explain why it is part of this series, though I think that story does feel a little out of place and was probably the one I enjoyed least in the collection.

The other twenty-two stories though present some wonderfully varied and imaginative situations. I think this is particularly true of the eleven stories that constitute the program’s first series which feature some of the program’s most intriguing problems and impossibilities.

One of my favorites is The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower, the first story in which Dr. Fabian plays a really central part beyond introducing the adventure. In this story a young woman returns to visit a house where her mother had committed suicide years before by drinking acid and receives a message to expect to be visited by her ghost. Carr does a brilliant job of creating an unsettling atmosphere with the use of some very chilling imagery and I thought the solution was quite clever.

I similarly really enjoyed the story that followed it, No Useless Coffin, which is set on the island of Gibraltar a short time before the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Fabian is part of a group who visit a cottage which had been the setting for a miraculous disappearance when one of the party had been a child. She had disappeared from the cottage when all of the doors and windows were locked and fastened from the inside, reappearing several days later without explanation. When she disappears again Dr. Fabian has to work out where she has vanished to and how it was done. I thought it was an interesting concept and enjoyed the explanation of what happened.

Perhaps the most baffling of the stories though is the second, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed. In this story a conceited actor throws over his girlfriend causing her to curse him that he will never be able to be photographed again before committing suicide. Several days later he visits a number of photographers in Paris, each of whom tells him that his photographs have not developed and refuse to allow him to visit again. This one is very clever, if perhaps requiring a specialized knowledge that few will have, but I thought it was done very well.

Among the other mysterious offerings from this first series are locked room murders, a murder in the steam room at a Turkish bath, a strangling in an untouched expanse of sand and the activities of a strange jewel thief who always carries a heavy iron box with them when committing their crimes. Most of these stories possessed some point that intrigued me and the only one that didn’t work for me at all was Death Has Four Faces, a story about a former pilot who struggles to deal with a nervous condition. I found the action in that story a little hard to follow.

Apparently Carr was struggling to generate enough material by the time he got to series two which means that several stories rework previous scripts for Appointment with Fear and Suspense. Reworking is not a problem of course if you’ve never encountered the material before which would no doubt be the case for almost all of Carr’s audience but in some cases the revised scripts do not feel quite like the scripts around them.

Still, this second series is quite varied in its impossibilities and I appreciate the greater variety of geographic settings (there are several stories set in parts of Africa and the Middle East). Where I have problems with these stories, other than Death in the Desert, it is because those ideas can feel a little rushed or cramped. One examples would be Lair of the Devil-Fish, a story about a diving expedition, which has some clever ideas but seems to rush through some key moments, not giving them enough time to have their full impact.

The other issue that I had with quite a few of this batch of stories is the reliance on the instant love trope. This had been present in the first run of episodes too but by this stage it feels overused and sometimes a little unnecessary – as though Carr is adding it out of an expectation rather than because it is necessary to the plot. This is an issue I have with some of his novels too but it is more noticeable here given the shorter format of the stories. Still, in spite of these grumbles there is still plenty to enjoy here.

One of my favorite stories from this second batch is The Most Respectable Murder, a story about a murder that takes place in a locked room. Dr. Fabian tells the listener in a rather overenthused way that it is a totally new solution to a locked room – possibly hyperbole – but I liked the other aspects of the crime and appreciated the consideration of characters’ motives.

Another favorite is the story that opens the series, The Street of the Seven Daggers, in which an American businessman who is keen on debunking superstitutions learns of a street that kills anyone who walks down it after midnight and decides he will walk it himself. The villain’s identity will likely jump out at readers but I enjoyed the simplicity and the clarity of the setup as well as a few of the clues that Carr provides.

The other story I really liked was the very last one, The Sleep of Death, which feels rather like a love letter to Poe. While it is perhaps a little out of place in the series – we may question exactly how Dr. Fabian could have heard this story – I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the tone of the piece.

Overall then I thought that this was a really enjoyable collection that read far more easily than I expected it to. While the script format may be daunting to some, Carr does a superb job of setting up intriguing situations and providing the reader with just enough detail to imagine a scene without getting too bogged down in detailled directions. It all makes for an engaging read that I think speaks to the writer’s imagination and versatility.

Death in the Grand Manor by Anne Morice

Book Details

Originally published in 1970
Tessa Crichton #1
Followed by Murder in Married Life

The Blurb

The narrator of this classic mystery is fashionable young actress, Tessa Crichton—obliged to turn private detective when murder strikes in the rural stronghold of Roakes Common. Leading hate-figures in the community are Mr. and Mrs. Cornford – the nouveaux riches of the local Manor House – suspected by some of malicious dog killing.

Tessa however has other things on her mind when she goes to stay with her cousin Toby and his wife Matilda. There’s her blossoming career, for one thing, not to mention coping with her eccentric cousins. Also the favourable impression made by a young man she meets under odd circumstances in the local pub. If it wasn’t for that dead body turning up in a ditch . . .

The murder mystery will lead Tessa to perilous danger, but she solves it herself, witty, blithe and soignée to the last. The story is distinguished by memorable characterisation and a sharp ear for dialogue, adding to the satisfaction of a traditional cunningly-clued detective story.

The Verdict

An entertaining story with lively characters and a memorable sleuth. I look forward to reading others in this series.

“You needn’t bother to smooth it over for me, Tess. I’ve stopped crying about it now, but, whatever you say, the Cornfords did kill Oscar. They did it on purpose and that makes them murderers.”

My Thoughts

Death in the Grand Manor introduces readers to the character of Tessa Crichton, an actress though not a hugely successful one. At the start of the novel Tessa has just finished a job and has no other on the horizon though her agent assures her that her prospects are excellent. When her cousin Toby, a playwright, gets in touch to ask if she can stay with him to look after his daughter for a while as his wife Matilda, also an actress, is away on tour, Tessa agrees.

When she arrives in Roakes Common she soon discovers that resentment has built within the community toward the Cornfords, a nouveau riche family who have big plans to redevelop the area if they can persuade their neighbors to sell up. Some resent the pair’s attitude toward the other villagers while others fear that they plan to force them out by destroying the aspects of life in the village that they love. As for young Ellen, Toby’s daughter – she holds them responsible for the death of her dog.

It will come as little surprise to the reader that one of this pair, either Mr. or Mrs Cornford, will be the victim in this story but as that does not happen until over halfway into the novel I will not share any specific details concerning the murder. Instead I will try to keep my comments as general as possible.

What I am happy to say is that Tessa is not directly involved in the murder, nor is she ever suspected of commiting it, but has good reasons to want to see the investigation quickly and successfully concluded. This case will touch quite close to home for her with both Toby and Matilda coming under suspicion, giving her additional reasons to get involved.

Not that Tessa’s investigative style is particularly active. Tessa is neither snoopy nor meddlesome. She does not possess any unusual levels of deductive reasoning or intuition. One striking feature of Morice’s novel is that because the murder itself occurs so late, much of the evidence that Tessa accumulates happens before the crime itself. This is often a strong technique as it gives the reader possible answers before knowing what the question will be, helping to obscure or downplay important information while still fairly presenting it to the reader. Instead of searching for clues then, Tessa’s main activities are to talk out the case with another character and to try and think through the cast of characters to find motives, opportunities and psychological factors supporting the idea that they may be the murderer.

While Tessa may not be as brilliant as some other sleuths in terms of pure deduction (at least on the basis of this first outing), I found her to be a thoroughly likeable character and enjoyed her often wry style of narration which is peppered with observations and witty asides. She reminded me a little of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in her habit of being quite flippant and also in a pretty charming romance she finds herself involved in.

That romance is worth highlighting as it is one of the book’s strongest subplots. This begins a short while before the murder and runs throughout the whole novel, developing alongside the mystery itself. Morice writes these scenes with a great deal of charm and the same lightly comical touch found elsewhere in the novel. While it’s not deep, the quick and easy attraction reminded me of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and others may well find themselves with similarly feelings.

Morice is also quite successful in her depictions of the lives and personalities of the other villagers who make up quite a colorful assortment of characters. While we do not spend a huge amount of time in most of their lives, I was impressed by the hooks she created for each character that helped me get a reasonably strong handle on each of them from early on in the novel. Of course I liked Ellen, who from time-to-time behaves in quite a precocious way, but I also felt that Matilda and Toby made particularly strong impressions.

Which brings me, I suppose, back to the solution to the mystery. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, much of which reflects that the murder is introduced quite late in the novel. As entertaining and enjoyable as this mystery was, the case is not particularly complex. There are not many twists or big revelations, rather we just watch the situation play out. Thankfully even if the case is not particularly mystifying, these moments are handled pretty well and I remained engaged until the end.

Add in the striking photographic cover with its seventies fashion (I am a fan though they seem pretty divisive based on Twitter responses), some 70s dinner party glamor and a solid enough murder scheme and you have an entertaining and engaging read. I certainly intend to keep going with the series and will look forward to seeing where her adventures take her next.

A digital copy of the book was provided by the publisher for early review.

Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1929

The Blurb

News travels quickly and mysteriously on board ship. By the time lunch was over, the rumour began to spread that Mr. Smith’s death had not been due to natural causes.

The bibulous Mr Smith was no pillar of virtue. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Enriqueta, he met someone he knew on board at midnight – and was strangled. Chief Inspector Shand of the Yard, a fellow traveller on the luxury liner, takes on the case, ably assisted by his friend Jasper Mellish. At first the only clue is what the steward saw: a bandaged face above a set of green pyjamas. But surely the crime can be connected to Mr Smith’s former – and decidedly shady – compatriots in Buenos Aires?

The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929: originally called The Strangler in the US) is a thrilling whodunit, including an heiress in peril and a jazz age nightclub among its other puzzle pieces. This new edition, the first in many decades, includes an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

This standalone work, focused on sensation rather than detection, relied too heavily on the foolishness of its protagonist for my taste.

…the murder was obviously unpremeditated, and, it would seem, the work of a man with an unusually exotic taste in undergarments.

My Thoughts

Molly Thynne was an author who wrote six novels of mystery and detection in the late 1920s and early 1930s all of which were reprinted a few years ago by Dean Street Press. In my first couple of years of blogging I read and wrote about half of her novels. I found each of those stories entertaining though I had a clear favorite, The Crime at the Noah’s Ark. I don’t think I will be getting too far ahead of myself if I say right now that there is no risk of The Murder on the Enriqueta dislodging it from that spot.

The book opens with a murder that takes place on the Enriqueta, a luxury liner making an Atlantic crossing. One of the passengers, a Mr. Smith, is travelling to England from Argentina in the hopes of persuading his sister to support him financially. During the crossing however he has lost almost all of the limited funds he brought with him at the gambling tables and having exhausted the goodwill of his fellow passengers, he proceeds to get thoroughly drunk. Stumbling around he accidentally bursts into a cabin only to find himself face-to-face with someone he knows but that he wasn’t aware was on board. We never find out that person’s name but a short while later Smith’s body is found having been dumped in a corridor by a figure wearing some rather distinctive sleeping attire.

It happens that one of the other passengers aboard the Enriqueta is Chief Inspector Shand of Scotland Yard who was on board in the hopes of catching a criminal but was thwarted when they appear to have booked an earlier crossing. Learning of the murder he offers the captain his services and learns that Smith carried money forged by the man he was looking for but he is unable to find either the killer or their distinctive clothing.

Among the figures Shand interviews is Lady Dalberry who is travelling to England in mourning after the death of her husband, Adrian Culver, who had died in a tragic car accident shortly after ascending to the title of Lord Dalberry and inheriting one of the richest estates in England. She is met at the dock by members of the family including Carol Summers, a young woman who is set to become one of the richest young women in the country on her twenty-first birthday. Dalberry, a newcomer to the country, offers Carol rooms with her which are gratefully accepted but Carol soon becomes suspicious of a foreign man who appears to exert a strange hold over Lady Dalberry…

That rather complicated description of the setup for this novel reflects that the scenario feels somewhat disconnected and disjointed. While there is a murder to investigate that really is only the focus of a couple of chapters at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book is structured and plotted far more like a thriller in the mold of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? There is a detective at work in the background looking into some criminal matters but our focus is on the danger that a young heiress finds herself in with the dots only being connected at the very end of the novel.

One of my biggest problems with the book is its heroine, Carol Summers, who commits that cardinal sin of being perfectly aware of a source of danger yet apparently discounting it for no good reason whatsoever. Even late in the novel when she gets clear evidence of the danger to herself she opts to remain in a perilous situation in spite of the protestations of her guardians. I found this to be quite ridiculous and felt that it shifted my perception of her from naïve to reckless and foolish, significantly reducing my sympathy for her.

There is little doubt from the moment we first encounter Carol what the villain or villains’ purpose will be. We are frequently reminded that on her twenty-first birthday she will become one of the richest women in England and so the motive is a rather clear one, as is the intended means. The villains are similarly clear from the start and so there are really only two points of mystery in the novel: who killed Mr. Smith and what is the nature of the relationship between Lady Dalberry and Juan de Silva?

As I indicated earlier the questions related to the death of Mr. Smith sit entirely in the background until the end of the case so the focus of the story is almost entirely on the second of these questions. While I don’t love that these two characters’ most distinctive traits are their foreignness, I think Thynne does use them pretty cleverly and manages to sustain that mystery longer than I might have expected knowing its solution. While there are quite a few sensational developments by the end of the novel, I think Thynne had a solid idea and executed it pretty well though I think it would have worked better in a shorter form of fiction.

Thynne’s secondary characters are all fine and pretty well drawn with my favorite being Mr. Mellish, Carol’s legal guardian. He is the sharpest of the various characters concerned in this story and while Carol never follows his advice, he does his best to try and protect her. He even gets a few rare comedic moments related to his unwillingness to dance or exercise. I found myself looking forward to each of his appearances which I feel provide a little relief from the sometimes quite sensational and melodramatic tone of the rest of the story.

Still, as much as I enjoyed Mellish I sadly cannot recommend The Murder on the Enriqueta. I appreciate Thynne’s skill as a writer but the plot of this one held little appeal for me. Instead I would suggest The Crime at the Noah’s Ark or The Case of Sir Adam Braid as better starting points for exploring her work.

The A. B. C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #13
Preceded by Death in the Clouds
Followed by Murder in Mesopotamia

The Blurb

There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way though the alphabet. There seems little chance of the murderer being caught — until her makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans …

The Verdict

One of Poirot’s most interesting cases. As good upon revisiting it as I felt it was the first time around. Highly recommended.

“Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack.”

My Thoughts

When I realized that I was headed for my 400th book review I thought that I needed to mark the occasion somehow. Rather than trying something new, I decided that I would use the milestone to revisit and review an old favorite and took a list of possibilities to Twitter for people to vote on. The overwhelming favorite turned out to be this novel which I have often suggested is my favorite Christie. The thing is though that while I have often revisited the book’s radio adaptation over the years, it’s been over a decade since I read it which rather begs the question – would it hold up to my memory?

The story begins with the return of Captain Hastings from Argentina to London for a brief stay. After catching up with Poirot he learns about a strange letter that his friend had recently received. That letter was signed by ‘A. B. C.’ and challenged Poirot to stop him from committing a crime saying that he should ‘Look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month’. Poirot shares the information with Scotland Yard but when an Alice Asher is found dead in her tobacco shop it seems he has failed. Then another letter arrives referring to events to come at Bexhill…

One of my favorite tropes in mystery fiction is the idea of the cat and mouse game. While the detective and killer are always conscious of each others’ activities in detective stories, I really enjoy when the killer interacts more directly and try to influence the other’s actions as opposed to simply waiting to get caught. When done well this can make for a rich source of intrigue and tension and The A. B. C. Murders does this extremely well.

There are lots of things that I like about the setup here but let’s start at the beginning with the manner in which we, and our heroes, learn of the challenge. The idea of the anonymous taunting letters being sent directly to Poirot works well and serves to personalize this conflict very effectively. These letters not only come to insult Poirot’s professional abilities, seeming to suggest that his powers may have diminished, they also are imbued with a hint of xenophobia while the act of giving the detective the date and the general location of each crime feels shockingly arrogant. We understand what will drive Poirot to take A. B. C. seriously and why he will so active in this case – far more so than in any of the previous few adventures Christie had written for him.

The idea of a killer working with an ‘alphabetical complex’ is equally interesting and it is striking just how quickly Poirot comes to that idea. What I like about this as an idea is that it seems to narrow the focus, imposing a series of rules that the killer must work to. Those restrictions level the playing field a little, allowing the detective and the team of police profilers a chance to interpret those rules and the choices that are being made in the efforts to get an edge in identifying the killer.

Finally by starting at a point after the first letter has been received establishes the novel’s pace which is notably far faster than any Poirot story up until this point. Given that we do not know any of the victims prior to their murder, Christie avoids setting up households of characters or multiple motives. Similarly it is made quite clear that the victims come from quite different places and backgrounds. The killings appear to be the work of a madman, albeit a very neatly organized one, and so the focus instead falls on the story’s action and the sense that a net is slowly closing in around the killer.

Each murder feels quite distinct from those which precede it and while we do not spend much time with each of the other figures in their lives, I feel that each manages to pack a lot of impact and information into a very small number of pages.

Christie makes an interesting structural deviation from her usual style, mixing typical first person narration from Captain Hastings with some chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’ Personal Narrative’. These are short at first but increase in length and detail as we get further into the book and introduce us to the character of Alexander Bonaparte Cust who we encounter as a lodger in a shabby room, surrounded with paraphenalia that appears linked to the crimes that will soon occur.

The decision to have Hastings imagine the thoughts and experiences of Cust can be a rather awkward one at times given that he admits he didn’t witness these events himself. The benefit is that it raises the possibility that we may be reading an inverted mystery and while it is not clear whether that is the case for a substantial portion of the book, the reader is able to glean information that may help them make their mind up on that matter.

Structural issues aside though, this is probably my favorite of the Hastings stories and the reason is that Christie has a clear idea for how to use him. He shares several important exchanges with Poirot in the novel such as the memorable discussion about the importance of clues, each of which throw light on the character and his investigative philosophy. The most interesting of these exchanges though, at least for me, is highlighted by Poirot himself at the end of the novel and earns Hastings a ‘full meed of praise’ from his friend. It is built on a very simple idea but I feel that the novel accurately captures just how much it forces a reevaluation of the broader evidence. This not only works to contrast the pair but it shows us that Hastings actually does have a role in that partnership and can make important deductive contributions, even if he doesn’t always recognize their importance.

Another notable aspect of the novel is its incorporation of some psychological profiling techniques. While we have seen Poirot use similar techniques himself to whittle down a field of suspects in previous stories, here it seems to be used in a more critical way. The distinction between the way Poirot does it and the Police experts do may feel rather arbitrary and hard to fully understand but I think I appreciated it more on revisiting it this time. The techniques may be similar but Poirot disregards aspects of the profile when they do not conform to the logic of the crime scene.

So, what doesn’t work here? Well, not a lot. A few of the secondary characters from the investigation perhaps feel a little underdeveloped but each are recognizable as types and most play important roles in terms of the plot. I think that this is unfortunate but not unexpected given the amount of incident packed into this story. There is a particularly unconvincing example of a final pages coupling that seems to come from nowhere though and suggests some strikingly bad decision-making on Poirot’s part.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that some aspects of the solution feel rather obvious in the context of the focus being placed on certain aspects of the story. I think were this book read slowly the reader would be strongly positioned to work out the solution – the challenge is in whether they keep the story moving swiftly enough as to distract everyone. For me this definitely managed to do that and I am happy to be able to report that I enjoyed it as much on revisiting it as I did the first time around.

I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to revisit this story which brought some memories flooding back. It remains one of my favorite Poirot adventures and I look forward to hopefully wrapping up this reread project over the next 400 posts.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published 1946

The Blurb

Three desperate men converge in the midst of an annual carnival in New Mexico

Sailor used to be Senator Willis Douglass’ protege. When he met the lawmaker, he was just a poor kid, living on the Chicago streets. Douglass took him in, put him through school, and groomed him to work as a confidential secretary. And as the senator’s dealings became increasingly corrupt, he knew he could count on Sailor to clean up his messes.

Willis Douglass isn’t a senator anymore; he left Chicago, Sailor, and a murder rap behind and set out for the sunny streets of Santa Fe. Now, unwilling to take the fall for another man’s crime, Sailor has set out for New Mexico as well, with blackmail and revenge on his mind. But there’s another man on his trail as well―a cop who wants the ex-senator for more than a payoff. In the midst of a city gone mad, bursting with wild crowds for a yearly carnival, the three men will violently converge…

The Verdict

A strong example of a thoughtful and nuanced character study though the plot feels rather straightforward in comparison.

He wasn’t the only one who’d caught up with the Sen. McIntyre was here. Tonight the villagers were burning up their troubles. But the Sen wasn’t burning his. They’d caught up with him at last.

My Thoughts

Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel by Dorothy B. Hughes to be reprinted as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I held both of the previous reprints, The So-Blue Marble and Dread Journey in very high regard so I was really excited to see this release announced some months ago. Knowing that the book is one of Hughes’ most widely admired novels (along with The Expendable Man and In A Lonely Place), I was keen to get started on it and so it inevitably jumped to the top of my TBR pile as soon as my copy arrived.

It takes place on the streets of Santa Fe during the three-day carnival Fiestas de Santa Fe which commemorates the Spanish retaking the city. Sailor has arrived in town on the trail of his former employer, Senator Douglass of Illinois. He plans to stage an impromptu meeting with him to extort a sum of money from him before he flees south of the border. Unfortunately for him, he soon discovers that all of the local hotels are booked leaving him on the streets for the night. This forces him to try to befriend some of the locals to find shelter. To make matters worse, he also learns that McIntyre, an investigator from back home, is already in town and also hot on the senator’s trail…

The novel is neither a work of detective fiction, nor is it particularly mysterious. There is a question about what exactly Sailor intends to blackmail the Senator with but it soon becomes pretty clear what sort of information it is. Similarly we can pretty quickly guess the nature of his grudge against his old boss. Instead this is the story of the consequences to a crime and it offers a noir-infused exploration of the mentality of a man and the situation he finds himself in.

While the novel is generally very well reviewed on Goodreads and similar sites, one common thread in critical reviews is the suggestion that the book does not contain much in the way of plot. There is admittedly some truth in this as there is not much incident in the novel and yet there is a lot of character exploration and development. In the course of two hundred and fifty pages we see Sailor absorb and respond to his environment and the thoughts it evokes in him. The question is whether this what effect those experiences will have on his will to follow through on his plans and how that final inevitable confrontation between Sailor and the Senator will play out.

Sailor makes for an interesting, if rather difficult protagonist. Though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes’ narration is sympathetic to his thoughts, reflecting how he feels about the things he sees and the people he interacts with. That narration is liberally sprinkled with racial epithets towards the Mexican-American and Pueblo Indian characters as Sailor makes his discomfort at his new environment quite clear at every turn. Yet as the novel progresses we see those attitudes soften as he develops what Sara Paretsky terms in her excellent introduction to the AMC edition a ‘reluctant empathy’ towards those groups, even if he never quite connects the similarities between the complex relationships between the various ethnic communities of Santa Fe and those of Chicago.

Each relationship that Sailor enters into in the course of this novel is similarly hard to define. Take for instance his interactions with Pila, the young Pueblo girl to whom he gifts a bottle of pop and a ride on the carousel. Others expect that this is a prelude to sexual advances but his relationship with her turns out to be more complex and interesting. He listens to her story, hears what she wants and clearly comes to see something of himself in her. When he gives her a final piece of advice towards the end of the story he is speaking to his younger self as much as he is talking to her. His interactions with ‘Pancho’ and the Senator are just as richly nuanced.

Where I think Ride the Pink Horse stumbles is that its discussion of race often feels a little pointed and clumsy. Hughes clearly intends to educate the reader at the same time as Sailor but those passages can sometimes feel heavy-handed or confusing. This is a problem I often find with works that were trying to address social issues (for example: The Niece of Abraham Pein) as unfortunately what seems progressive in one era can seem anything but in another.

To give an example of what I mean let me once again draw on Sailor’s conversations with Pila. Towards the end of the novel he tells her she should return to the pueblo and give up her aspirations to live in the city. The suggestion seems to be that the city is a source of depravity and corruption and that life on the pueblo, while unsatisfying for many reasons Sailor acknowledges, will allow her to retain her purity. The problem is that his statement can equally read as supportive of racial segregation which would clearly be a very different message. While I think it is clear from the broader context of the book that this is unlikely to be the message Hughes intends, the author’s choice to not connect this speech directly to Sailor’s own experiences means that the ambiguity does exist – particularly given how direct she can be elsewhere in the same novel such as when a character relates the history of racial relations in the era.

The other dominant theme in the book is that of forgiveness and redemption. The question of whether Sailor can make a safe and sensible choice and let go of his feelings with regards the Senator to survive runs through the whole novel, being most clearly addressed in his conversations with McIntyre. Though the imagery here can also feel a little heavy at points, I think this theme is developed and addressed more clearly and directly building to a powerful resolution.

While I doubt that the resolution to Sailor’s situation will surprise anyone that doesn’t make those final pages less powerful. Indeed the sense of the inevitability of some aspects of the conclusion is a large part of why that ending works for me.

As satisfying as the ending is however, I think the novel never quite overcomes its clumsiness in its handling of its themes, nor its simplicity as a crime narrative. Those attempting to read this solely for the plot will come away disappointed. For those more interested in the exploration of a character or setting however, there is much to admire here and it leaves me all the more curious to delve deeper into Hughes’ other works. Hopefully more reissues will follow…

This counts towards the Colorful Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime cared for this much less than I did, and her review notes her disappointment with the pacing of the story.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell

Book Details

Originally published in 1929
Mrs. Bradley #2
Preceded by A Speedy Death
Followed by The Longer Bodies

The Blurb

When Rupert Sethleigh’s body is found one morning, laid out in the village butcher’s shop but minus its head, the inhabitants of Wandles Parva aren’t particularly upset. Sethleigh was a blackmailing money lender and when Mrs. Bradley begins her investigation she finds no shortage of suspects. It soon transpires that most of the village seem to have been wandering about Manor Woods, home of the mysterious druidic stone on which Sethleigh’s blood is found splashed on the night he was murdered, but can she eliminate the red herrings and catch the real killer?

The Verdict

Though the subject matter is dark, this is a surprisingly humorous read.

“Human joints, my dear, all hanging up on the hooks where he generally hangs his beef and lamb on a Tuesday morning!”

My Thoughts

Over the past few months I have made several attempts to start reading some later Gladys Mitchell novels, only to find myself struggling to get into them. I didn’t expect to find myself trying again so soon but a bit of adventurous reading was forced on me when I found myself without the book I was reading and needing one I could quickly access online. The Kindle Unlimited program seems to be largely consisted of Mitchell novels (at least in the US) and so I found myself scouring the blurbs to try and find one that appealed. Happily this one grabbed me with its rather grim premise.

Rupert Sethleigh has, without any apparent warning, suddenly disappeared from his home in Wandles Parva. While there is some suggestion that he might have abruptly left for America, his aunt, Mrs. Bryce Harringay, cannot believe that he would undertake a sea voyage knowing his fear of travelling. She insists on speaking to the authorities about the matter and when a headless human body is discovered, hung in pieces in the butcher’s shop, they wonder if they have found the missing man.

This image of the body in the butcher’s shop was the one that grabbed my attention when I read the blurb being so macabre. Thankfully the scene is not particularly descriptive (at least in comparison to some other recent reads featuring dismemberment) but instead it is presented in more abstract terms. It does however build a sense of a disturbing atmosphere, which is added to by the presence of a druidic stone nearby that was supposed to have been the site of human sacrifices in antiquity and on which is found a small amount of fresh blood. I know that themes of witchcraft and paganism are found in abundance in Mitchell’s work and given that this is her second novel, it is clear that they were with it from the start.

On that matter of the stone, I have to say that a small gripe I have with this book is the way it repeatedly reintroduces that stone in similar portentous terms on several occasions in just a dozen or so pages. While I think this is meant to add a sense of dread I feel this could have been better conveyed either with a more detailed description of its history or physical characteristics. This is a relatively small part of the novel however and I felt that the repeated descriptions issue was not a problem with any other element of the book.

The police’s investigation into Rupert’s life soon reveals reasons that many in the village might have wanted him dead. He was, we discover, a bad sort and when Mrs. Bradley reflects on how ‘one can see so many reasons why the murdered person was – well, murdered’ we may well see her point. While many have motives however the police soon settle on Jim Redsey, his cousin, as the focus of their enquiries. Determined to ensure that the police do not simply accuse him out of convenience, Mrs. Bradley declares that she will not leave the village until she has ensured his freedom.

It should be said at this point that Mrs. Bradley, at least in this novel, is not a particularly active investigator. This gives the book a rather unfocused quality as she does not so much direct the investigation but rather seems to repeatedly respond to it. Though she is present in the story from the beginning, she exists in the background until over a third of the way in and even once she does appear, there is little sense of a structured investigation taking place. Her style here is rather to badger the police, asking awkward questions or making knowing assertions that encourage them to look at evidence from a different perspective. When investigation is required she tends to do so through an intermediary, sometimes sending them to gather information on her behalf.

This passive style of investigation can be quite frustrating as there are points where one wishes that Mrs. Bradley would simply come out and say what she is thinking rather than playing games with the police but I think that is quite intentional. Her interest is not so much in finding the guilty party but in protecting a particular person. When their protection necessitates firmer action she steps in but often she is just happy to sit back and let things play out. I think were the case less entertaining I could well have tired of that approach. Here however this less structured approach allows an opportunity for exploration of the quirky individuals involved in this case as well as some further moments of oddity.

In her review, linked below, Kate suggests that many of the characters feel like they have stepped out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. I had a similar reaction, particularly in relation to the business concerning the theft of a ‘valuable’ stuffed fish (it must be valuable or else why else would it have been stolen, Aunt Bryce Harringay points out) which put me in mind of silver cow creamers. Certainly there are a number of moments in which the story threatens to dissolve into farce, particularly as it becomes clear that almost everyone seems to have been in or around those woods that evening. I would describe these moments as more amusing than hilarious but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

While often taking comedic detours, the grim nature of the crime keeps pulling the tone and the narrative back and reminding us of its darker aspects and that we have a murderer to find. There are plenty of clues turned up, each seemingly adding to the complexity of this crime requiring Mrs. Bradley to step in at the end and sort the whole business out for us.

This brings me to the bit of the book I liked least, though I note others feel quite differently from me – the reproduction of Mrs. Bradley’s notebook. While I certainly appreciated the little sketches which do help make sense of the geography of the crime, the structure of the text as a series of questions and answers, though neat, struck me as being both dry and a little tedious. It’s a particular shame because this text lacks Mrs. Bradley’s strong personality that is so present throughout every other bit of this novel.

The novel’s solution and resolution however is very interesting, if typically (for Mitchell) unorthodox in a few respects. While I didn’t love the manner of laying out the points leading to that solution, I think a couple of the crucial points made are really quite clever contributing to a story that feels quite strikingly different. It is certainly the Mitchell story I have most enjoyed reading to date and while I am by no means a devotee, this does leave me more interested to try her work again in the future.

As always I welcome any recommendations for favorite Mitchells if you have them!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Snatch & Grab category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Jason @ The Stone House rates this one very highly, appreciating its colorful and bizarre qualities. There are also links at the bottom of that post to some more detailed discussions from the Mitchell Mystery Reading Group.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also considers this particular successful, describing it as ‘sheer good fun’.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime is a little less enthusiastic, particularly about the treatment of the clues, noting that she enjoyed it more on her first read.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1947
Doctor Manson #6
Preceded by It’s Murder to Live!
Followed by John Klyeing Died

The Blurb

Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?

Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.

The Verdict

An excellent fair-play puzzle mystery, enhanced by its colorful theatrical setting.

“What? Well, if that ain’t the cat’s whiskers. What are we playing tonight? Whittington or Sweeney Todd?”

My Thoughts

Last year I read and reviewed The Heel of Achilles, an inverted mystery written by the Radfords and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact I even ended up selecting it as one of my nominations for the Reprint of the Year Awards. There was no doubt in my mind then that I’d be back for more. The only question was which book I’d select.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? is set against the backdrop of a British festive institution – the Christmas pantomime – though this is not really a seasonal read. As the title of the novel suggests, the pantomime in question is an adaptation of the story of Dick Whittington in which a boy travels to London to seek his fortune and ends up becoming Mayor of London. The production is doing steady business in spite of lacking a star name, helped by a lack of competition. That is not to say however that there isn’t a difficult lead actor – nobody in the company seems to have anything positive to say of Norma de Grey, the young actress playing the role.

Little surprise then when she ends up dead, though the circumstances are somewhat odd. In the scene before the interval Dick and his cat, played by an actor in a fur suit, lie down for a nap while the fairies perform a ballet. When the time comes for Dick to wake and deliver the final line in the act it never comes. The curtain falls and when the crew investigate they find her unconscious. The first-aid man quickly examines her and tells the gathered crowd that he thinks she is dead.

Examination reveals that Norma was poisoned and that it must have taken place during on stage as the poison, prussic acid, would have worked in seconds. The only person who went near her was the actor playing the Cat – the problem is that both that actor and his understudy have pretty solid alibis…

This book is listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders (an invaluable reference guide for locked room and impossible crime stories) but I cannot really understand the reason for its inclusion. After all, it seems pretty clear from early in the case exactly how the poison had been administered – the mystery really lies in the who and the reasons why. I’d suggest setting aside any expectations of an impossibility and instead enjoy what is a rather beautifully crafted piece of fair-play forensic detection.

According to Nigel Moss’ excellent introduction, which can be found in the recent Dean Street Press reprint, both Radfords had some prior professional engagement with the theater – Mona had acted and written for the stage while Edwin had been an Arts journalist. The authors clearly drew upon that experience to create a representation of a theatrical company that feels both detailed and credible. Whether it is describing the contents of a dressing room, backstage movements or capturing the professional jealousies within the company, it is easy to be drawn into the theatrical setting presented here.

In addition to this main investigation, the Radfords also provide a secondary investigation that is already underway at the start of the novel. This case, which involves trying to prove whether a series of fires at commercial properties were accidents or arson, is less colorful and lacks the color found in the theatrical setting but it is interesting enough, particularly once we learn how these two cases are connected (though it is perhaps unbelievably fortunate that Manson is assigned to both).

For those unfamiliar with Doctor Manson, he is a scientist in the manner of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke. Guided entirely by evidence rather than psychology, he is observant, methodical and detailed in the way he approaches picking apart a crime. He is perhaps a shade warmer than Thorndyke, possessing a sense of humor, though he can also be quite fussy and sharp in conversation with colleagues. Crucially for us as readers, he takes the time to explain any relevant piece of science in such a way as to make it approachable and easy to understand, meaning that the reader can expect a fair challenge.

Which is exactly what we get here. In fact we get three of them as, prior to the final challenge to the reader, there are two previous challenges where the authors pose questions about the relevance of some point Doctor Manson has asked. Each of these were quite specific in the information sought and I agree with the authors that in each case the reader ought to be able to guess the relevance of each point, making for a particularly rewarding reading experience for armchair sleuths.

In addition to these logical games, the book contains a significant amount of forensic analysis explained in pretty straightforward, if occasionally somewhat dry, English. The science is easy to follow and I was surprised at how exciting I found a few of the tests that get described. Of particular interest for me was an experiment that involved weighing some ash (I will let you discover the reasons Manson engages in this activity for yourself).

While the forensics are important to the book in terms of discovering evidence, I think that it is important to stress that the solution is found through the application of logic. Each thread is connected at the end with the links between each piece of evidence clearly explained in a newspaper account of a trial.

I was not particularly surprised by the solutions – the Radfords clue the mystery well enough that I felt confident long before the final challenge was issued that I knew who had done the crimes and even why. The greater challenge for me was in figuring out exactly how Dr. Manson would prove his case. At least one aspect of the solution completed eluded me in spite of how incredibly obvious it was which is pretty much all I want from a detective story. I want to be fooled by something that is so simple I really ought to have seen it coming. As I wrote in my Kindle notes (it’s in all caps because I was clearly quite excited):

For the curious, this note is at location 3126 in the Kindle edition. Be sure not to look at it before you read the whole book as this is critically important to a solution.

Which I think speaks to why I ended up enjoying this so much. It is a clever, well clued mystery that plays fair with its readers. Though the writing style can be a little dry and awkward in a few of the technical forensic passages, I found the science fascinating and I loved following along as Manson pieced it all together and trying to beat the challenges. Highly recommended.