Death of a Train by Freeman Wills Crofts

Death of a Train
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published in 1946
Inspector French #26
Preceded by Enemy Unseen
Followed by Silence for the Murderer

Published in 1946, Death of a Train is set at the height of the Second World War and sees Inspector French taking on a case which has profound implications for the whole British war effort.

Crofts begins by detailing discussions in the War Cabinet in which the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Severus L. Heppenstall, is asked to decide on how to allocate Britain’s dwindling stocks of radio valves. There are nowhere near enough to serve the needs of the British army both at home and on the African front so the decision is made to try to sneak them out of the country by train to Plymouth then by boat.

The early chapters follow the preparations as they are made and we learn exactly what measures are being taken to disguise the shipment. The point that the reader will take on board is that only a couple of figures had knowledge of the shipment and its movements so when an attack occurs on the line it creates a panic that there must be someone leaking from high office.

These early chapters feature a lot of technical discussion of the train and the logistics of assembling and loading it. This clearly was of enormous interest to the writer who takes pains to try and explain these elements to the layman who may be reading the book to allow them to follow what is happening. These efforts are, in my opinion, only partly successful. Certainly I think the reader can follow the action without any specialist knowledge but progress can feel a little slow and, quite frankly, I felt a little bored.

That feeling changed however for me when we get to that moment where the train is attacked. Crofts gives us a dramatic and quite visceral description of what happens to the train that brings that moment to life and communicates a sense of the enormous power and force of the train. I rarely think of action-writing as one of the author’s strengths so this was a nice surprise and, after chapters of slow build-up, it does move us into the more interesting territory of an investigation.

After a brief inquest, Inspector French is dispatched to investigate what is going on. However, because of the sensitivity of the investigation, he cannot be seen to be directly involved in the case as to directly investigate would tip off those responsible that they were suspected. The solution is that a second case will be investigated at the same time, albeit one that is wholly fictitious, that will justify him asking questions in the area.

Crofts’ depiction of wartime Britain is excellent in many respects. He certainly captures the challenges of maintaining secrecy, even between government departments and cabinet colleagues, and I think he does a very good job of conveying the gravity of the situation, even if he is a little hazy at points about exactly why the radio valves are so important.

Other aspects of the period play an important part in the story at points such as civilians’ sense of duty and volunteerism, the attitudes of the soldiers working to load and unload goods as well as the blackout which both limits French’s choices and opens up possibilities for him at different points in the story. In general, I think Crofts makes good use of his wartime setting.

While the initial terms of French’s inquiry suggest that we are in whodunnit territory, it soon becomes clear that this is going to be a thriller rather than a fair play mystery. In fact it would be hard to think of any aspect of the plot that the reader has any chance of working out prior to French. This struck me as quite reminiscent of some of the earliest French stories like The Box Office Murders and I must say it is not my favorite style for Crofts to be working in. That being said, he does incorporate some interesting espionage elements and ideas that I do think were worth exploring.

One of the ideas that Crofts uses most successfully is the need to hide that the detectives are on the trail at all. Throughout the book there is a sense that someone might be watching and so he can never let on to how the investigation is progressing except to those in the highest authority. This, of course, is also the reason that a decision is made to commission a false crime to give separate grounds for French to come to the area and investigate.

This, for me, was the book’s most compelling idea but it is one that I think is not fully exploited. The sequence in which we see the elements of the phantom investigation being set up are quite fascinating and creative but once French is on the scene he doesn’t really acknowledge his reason for being there and he is never really forced to find a way to creatively maneuver ask questions about his real purpose as the setup seemed to hint he would.

This book also explores the idea of French as the wartime hero and his willingness to push the boundaries of what he is allowed to do in order to achieve his goals. Many of the earliest French novels show the detective purposefully misleading interviewees or engaging in covert actions using his skeleton keys and that side of his character is certainly on display here. What is different is the extent he is willing to take things to.

There are several instances in this story where French makes decisions for what he deems to be the greater good of the country and some of those risk significant harm to innocents and, in one memorable instance, to himself. This results-driven French is always interesting to read and Crofts handles him quite well, making it clear that he is compromising his own moral comfort for the war effort. In one instance what he is willing to allow to happen to preserve the secrecy of his investigation is quite shocking and certainly pushes this idea far further than I have ever seen in a French story before.

This brings us to the ending and here, frankly, we have a bit of a mixed bag. Crofts’ depiction of his villain is rather bland, offering them little depth or definition and never allowing us to really get to know them. Still, the final few pages are actually quite thrilling and return to the book’s most successful themes, rounding things off quite well.

It makes for a solid end to a mid-level Crofts adventure that features plenty of wartime adventure and espionage but at the expense of any sort of a puzzle element. The heavily detailed early chapters may delight train enthusiasts but I found them hard going. Still, the wartime setting is interesting and the espionage elements are used well.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set during WWI or WWII – wartime setting is obvious (When)

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

Unnatural Death
Dorothy L Sayers
Originally Published 1927
Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Preceded by Clouds of Witness
Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body

I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.

The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!

The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.

Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.

Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.

Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!

I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.

The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.

The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.

One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.

Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.

The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.

Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.

Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).

The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.

I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.

Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.

Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.

The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.

So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.

The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)

Further Reading

Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.

I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.

DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.

Nick @ The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book – always interesting!

Bev @ MyReadersBlock describes this as a marvellous vintage mystery that she does not tire of and comments on Sayers’ thoughtful exploration of ethics.

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

Surfeit of Suspects
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1964
Inspector Littlejohn #41
Preceded by Death of a Shadow
Followed by Death Spins the Wheel

This novel opens with a literal bang as an explosion occurs in the offices of the Excelsior Company, killing three members of its board who were having a late night meeting inside. When it is discovered that dynamite was to blame so assuming foul play, the local police send for help to the Yard.

Littlejohn and Cromwell are dispatched and quickly set about interviewing the two surviving board members, several employees of the company and the bank to learn more about the situation. They discover that the Excelsior Company had run close to bankruptcy for several years and the directors were personally liable for far more than they could afford to repay. As is remarked at one point, the company is the sort of place you wouldn’t even accept as a gift, let alone buying it, so Littlejohn is puzzled when he finds the charred remains of a paper referring to a takeover offer in the debris.

In addition to the company’s financial problems, Littlejohn uncovers infidelities and resentments, with one of the dead directors, John Dodd, at the center of all of them. With a large number of suspects to consider, Littlejohn must try to understand who or what the intended target was, how the weapon was procured and the motive behind the attack.

Bellairs’ novel is told in the procedural style as we follow each stage of the thorough and methodical investigation. The case is rather detailed and given that several possible explanations for the crime involve a financial angle, we spend quite a bit of time with the Yard’s fraud department trying to understand the company’s position.

These sections of the book clearly make considerable use of the author’s own knowledge and experience from his work as a bank manager. While this is a positive from the point of view of the novel’s credibility, I suspect that these chapters may feel a little dry and detailed to readers whose interests lie outside of balance sheets and financial projections. They are necessary though to understand the novel’s plot and I think Bellairs does a good job of making a complex topic accessible to readers who may have little knowledge of the business world.

As indicated in the novel’s title, Bellairs does give us a wide cast of characters to consider as suspects. This reflects the uncertainty about who the intended victim was, particularly early in the book.

Though there are three victims who die in the explosion, we quickly come to focus on one of them – John Dodd – who we learn may have been a bit of a charming rogue. This is not the first Dodd we have met of that type in Bellairs’ work (A Knife for Harry Dodd) which leads me to wonder what the author had against this particular surname. The Dodd in this story is perhaps a little less colorful than his counterpart in that book but I still enjoyed learning more about him and the way he had been operating the Excelsior Company.

One of the problems with establishing a larger cast of suspects is that many of the characters are not really given the time to make much of an impression on the reader. Few really establish themselves as personalities and while I remember that there were a large cast of possibilities, I would have to think hard to remember exactly who most of them were.

The actual villain of the piece stands out as being a bit of an exception to this but of course that isn’t necessarily a positive as the thinner characterizations elsewhere means that there are few credible alternatives. Their motive for murder is at least pretty strong and was, for me, the most compelling part of the story.

There are also issues in the choice of weapon used. While the explosion makes for a strong hook to the story, the lack of dynamite on site means that we have to spend quite a while working out how it was acquired and why that was the method used. These questions are not uninteresting but I do feel that some of the space used would have been better spent on fleshing out the other suspects a little more.

In his introduction to this book Martin Edwards makes mention that by the time this book was written its style would have been considered a little old-fashioned. This is certainly the case in terms of the style and structure Bellairs employs and I was a little surprised to realize that the action was meant to be taking place in 1964. The Sixties were certainly not swinging in the new town of Evingden.

There are some signs of the commercial changes that were beginning to take place in this period, not only in the problems that the Excelsior Company faced but also in the way the town is being redeveloped. It may only be a small part of this story but I think Bellairs handles this well, depicting it quite simply as a change that is taking place rather than offering any particular take or opinion on them.

I have now read quite a few of Bellairs’ novels and I would consider this to be a lesser work though it is still quite readable. The puzzle aspect of the novel is quite serviceable and I think the financial aspects of this story are well handled, even if they won’t have the broadest appeal. The novel’s title points to its greatest problem – with so many suspects, few are established well enough to be taken seriously and neither the questions of how or why are interesting enough to make up for this.

Further REading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime enjoyed it more than she expected and appreciated some of the comedic notes.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder comments that while she enjoyed it, Surfeit of Suspects felt a little slow in the banking scenes and is not on the level of some of Littlejohn’s earlier cases.

The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

The Mad Hatter Mystery
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1933
Dr. Gideon Fell #2
Preceded by Hag’s Nook
Followed by The Eight of Swords

Of all of the American Mystery Classic releases to date, none have excited me quite so much as The Mad Hatter Mystery. It wasn’t just the prospect of owning a shiny, fresh hardcover of a Carr work (a novelty after their being out of print for so long) but also a reflection of how appealing I found the blurb.

The Mad Hatter Mystery promises a lot. We get a strange murder at the Tower of London, a curious spate of hat thefts and the missing manuscript of the very first Poe detective story (predating The Murders in the Rue Morgue). The cover of the Penzler reprint even alludes to Carr’s reputation for impossible crimes which may set a false expectation since this novel really doesn’t fit into that category of crime fiction.

Before I discuss whether it lived up to those expectations I should probably go into a bit more detail about the setup…

London has been terrorized by a prankster who has been dubbed The Mad Hatter. This individual has been stealing hats off the heads of Londoners and putting them in odd places. Among the newspaper reporters following this case is Phil Driscoll who is the man found dead in the mist at Traitor’s Gate, a crossbow bolt through his heart and his uncle’s oversized top hat pulled over his head.

The guards at the Tower have quietly detained all of the visitors to the Tower that day for questioning but no one appears to have been near or seen what happened clearly through the heavy fog. Fortunately Dr. Gideon Fell is on hands to work through the various accounts and make sense of this baffling crime.

I really appreciate and admire how novel and imaginative the circumstances of this crime are. The idea of a hat thief terrorizing London society makes me smile and I think the question of why the hatter would have placed a hat on a corpse (or possibly killed the man themselves) is a really strong hook for the story.

The initial batch of interviews only makes the circumstances of the murder more baffling. The problems lie in tracking various suspects’ movements around the Tower and throughout London and the ways that information affects their alibis for the crime. I particularly enjoyed a evasive interviewee who lived in the same building as the victim and learning more about their reasons for being at the Tower.

The problem with these interviews is that the more information we receive, the harder it becomes to keep in your head exactly who is where and when. I ended up having to switch from the ebook copy to reading the print edition to make it easier to refer back to the map regularly (perhaps the first time I have really found a map to be essential in following the action of a case) and rereading sections to make sure I was sure I was remembering those movements correctly.

As I noted above, readers should be prepared that this is not one of Carr’s impossible crime stories. The case reads more like an unbreakable alibi story where no one who could have committed the crime would have done and those who might have a motivation can be shown to be away from the Tower at the time of the crime. As an example of that type of story, it is fairly solid but the complexities of the case can make it a surprisingly heavy read at times.

Carr does try to keep things light by incorporating quite a lot of humorous scenes and elements into his story. Some of these moments land quite well such as the grouchy Police doctor who has the misfortune to share his name with a famous fictional character and the interrogation where Fell decides he needs to project the image of what a lawman is expected to be through some elements of costuming to be taken seriously but others can fall a little flat or might be more entertaining if they could be seen rather than described. For the most part I would describe it as a gently amusing rather than hilarious read.

Though I do have issues with the middle investigative section of the novel, I do think the conclusion to the mystery is really quite cleverly thought out and, after such a complicated investigation, surprisingly simple. I do wonder if one of the reasons that this story seems to be pretty fondly remembered is the cleverness of this resolution.

A revelation shifts our understanding of the basic facts of the case and it is the sort of thing that the reader does have a fair chance of beating the detectives to. I don’t happen to love the way we get to that moment, in part because it relies on an unpredictable external event, but I was at least satisfied that Dr. Fell had basically solved the thing prior to that, keeping it from frustrating me too much.

I think the other reason that this story is fondly remembered relates to an event in the final chapter that feels organic and earned. It is, of course, the sort of thing that you can’t discuss without spoiling it but I think anyone who has read the book will know the moment I am referring to. It is the type of moment that defines a character and I think it gives us a very clear sense of who exactly Fell is not only as a detective but as a man.

Where does that leave me overall? Well, I liked moments from this story a lot and I certainly liked the ideas but the middle third turned out to be a bit of a slog. I am glad that further Carr stories are getting reprinted, both by Penzler and the British Library, so that this isn’t the only of his stories that is widely available as I would not suggest this as a first outing as it is hardly Carr at the height of his powers. Those who have already read and enjoyed books by the author will find there to be enough here to make it a worthwhile and solid, middle-of-the-road sort of read.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title with a literary allusion in it (What)

Further Reading

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World describes the novel as one of the best in concept, characterization and execution of the Fell novels.

The Green Capsule’s review is pretty mixed, praising some of the humor and appreciating the bit of background we get about Fell but noting that the case is a little too open ended and underwhelming on the question of how the murder was done.

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his views of this book, noting that it didn’t quite match up to his fond memories on a second reading.

Unexpected Night by Elizabeth Daly

Unexpected Night
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1940
Henry Gamadge #1
Followed by Deadly Nightshade

Back at the start of the year I posted about my excitement at finding an affordable vintage crime novel in a local second hand book store. Since then I returned to the same book store and found that they had acquired used copies of most of the rest of Elizabeth Daly’s works. It was a pretty simple decision to go ahead and buy up their stock for a rainy day…

That previous experience of Daly was with her last book, The Book of the Crime, so it is nice to be able to jump back and start the Gamadge series at the beginning. Unexpected Night introduces us to Daly’s antiquarian bookseller sleuth as he finds himself pulled into a case as an expert in handwriting analysis.

The story concerns Amberley Cowden, a young but very sickly man who will inherit a great fortune if he lives past midnight when he reaches the age of majority. He and his family check into a hotel where he celebrates his birthday only to sneak out from his room during the night. When his body is found at the foot of a cliff it appears he has met with an unfortunate accident but the timing of the death, so soon after he inherited his fortune, leads the authorities to want to look at the matter more closely.

As set-ups for mysteries go, this makes for a pretty intriguing start to a case. Why was Cowden walking along the cliffs so late at night? If he was killed, why do it so soon after he reached his birthday and knowing that a natural death would likely occur within the next year or two? There is a lot to make sense of – fortunately Gamadge is up to the task!

When I wrote about The Book of the Crime one of my complaints was that I felt that we didn’t really get to know Daly’s sleuth. While I think he is not sketched in enormous detail here either, I did feel I had a better grip on his personality throughout the novel and understood why he was curious about particular details of the investigation.

One of the big challenges with any amateur detective is creating a credible reason that they might find themselves involved in an investigation. I appreciated that Daly does not shy away from this problem, having Gamadge say pretty bluntly that he is not really qualified to help on several occasions and quickly steering the investigation away from his area of expertise (though not in such a way that it becomes irrelevant). After a while however his curiosity is clearly aroused and he finds himself drawn to protect one of the family members who he sees as vulnerable, creating a compelling reason for him to keep investigating.

One of the nicest things about the character is that he exudes a warmth that I am not used to from several of the more famous series detectives of this period. He cares about the people involved in this case and works hard to take their feelings into account as he pursues the truth. This connection to his humanity is rather refreshing and I also appreciated that he never really feels the need to show off his skills – his ego being confined to his own area of professional expertise.

Daly also introduces an interesting dynamic between him and the Police, having him work as a sort of informal consultant. This works nicely as it allows them to share information but it also enables her to show how Gamadge possesses a brilliant and creative mind, building him up without diminishing the police (also fairly unusual in my experience of this era of detective fiction). Essentially the contrast comes down to one of flexibility – Gamadge dares to question some of the details of the case taken as facts and, in doing so, is able to envisage the case in a different way.

In her review (I have linked below), Kate suggests that Daly does not offer quite enough evidence to back up some aspects of the conclusion. I think that it is true that Gamadge should not be able to prove his case with the evidence the reader has been given at the moment of the reveal and, thus, the book perhaps doesn’t quite play fair. That being said, I do see how Gamadge’s solution (even lacking evidence to prove it in a court of law) could be seen to offer a tidiness that no alternative reading of the facts would allow. The way Daly opts to have the case proved though is quite lazy, relying on a third party to confirm a significant chunk of the solution he could otherwise only guess at and I do think it is those final two chapters feel a little rushed and unsatisfying as a result.

There are many other aspects of the book that I responded very well to however, not least the interesting cast of suspects Daly develops. Cowden’s family make up an interesting blend of types, clearly all financially dependent on their relative to some extent. Daly does a good job of allowing their personalities and feelings towards Amberley to emerge over the course of the novel as I found that I remained uncertain of several characters’ motivations and sincerity until close to the end of the novel. This added to the intrigue of the situation and made aspects of the conclusion all the more compelling to me.

I also appreciated the wonderful descriptions of the small theatre that Atwood has created on an old pier with the actors using tents on the sand for changing rooms and all the small cast having to double or triple up on parts. I found this an easy location to imagine and felt that Daly did a good job of bringing her cast of theatrical characters to life.

All in all, I found this second experience with Gamadge to be a much more satisfying encounter than my first. The mystery, while not perfectly clued, is engaging and presents a solid puzzle for the reader to solve and I found the sleuth entertaining company for a couple of hours. As I noted at the start of this article, I own most of Daly’s works so I am confident that I will be returning to experience more of his adventures soon.

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

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime found the book uneven, though she had praise for the sleuth himself and Daly’s writing style. I cannot disagree with her opinion that the evidence for the conclusion rests a lot on a statement from a third party.

Les @ Classic Mysteries suggests that while this is an entertaining read, it is far from Daly’s strongest work. He suggests that as they do not need to be read in order that some may want to start with a later title and then return to this.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Death on the Cherwell was the second of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s, all of which were reprinted a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range.

I previously read and reviewed Murder Underground, the first of her novels but found it to be a frustrating read in the way it blended (or rather, failed to blend) its comical and mystery elements into a plot. Still, I owned Death on the Cherwell already and felt that it was worth giving the book and the author another chance to impress.

The novel opens with four students gathering on top of a building to discuss their shared loathing of their college’s bursar, Ms. Denning. They form a secret society where they can share their complaints and frustrations about her. As they talk they notice a canoe drifting down river and the very person they were talking about lies dead inside having drowned. The problem is that if she drowned as a result of an accident how did she come to get back in the boat?

As introductions for murder victims go, having your corpse drift slowly down a river is fairly memorable while also serving to reinforce that university setting. At the same time, the situation is genuinely mystifying, in part because the manner of discovery is so suggestive of murder when you consider that were the body not in the boat the assumption would have been accidental drowning.

The four girls decide to play sleuth and start looking into the death on their own, inspired by the exploits of one of their cousins. Now, when I had read Hay’s previous novel, Murder Underground, I had assumed that it was a one-off novel so I was surprised to discover that two characters from that novel make extended “guest” appearances here. I can only assume that Hay intended to create a Marvel-like Pongleton Extended Universe with Betty and Basil serving as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson-type characters…

The tone of the investigation, much like that previous novel, is often quite comical. Betty and Basil do end up making pretty significant contributions to the story and contribute a light and breezy tone to the proceedings. While I felt this often worked against the premise of Murder Underground, coming off as callous given the characters’ relationships to the deceased, here it fits much better. Indeed I found myself wishing that more time was spent following their somewhat amateurish efforts rather than the somewhat drab and lifeless police investigation portion of the narrative.

This procedural element feels, in contrast to the adventures of the Pongletons and company, to be simultaneously detail-focused and lacking in energy. We traipse up and down the banks of the Cherwell, following a grumpy farmer and spend lots of time tracking movements. I often like those types of detail-driven detective stories (I do, after all, enjoy the adventures of Inspector French) but I found little to excite or interest me here because for much of the book there seems to be little progress being made.

This weakness in the middle section of the novel feels particularly disappointing because the plot’s ultimate destination and explanation of the circumstances behind that death are really quite interesting. Hay clues these developments fairly but I think the relevance of those clues passed me by as I allowed myself to be distracted by some other aspects of the story. This made for quite a satisfying reveal and certainly one of the more memorable resolutions to a Golden Age mystery I have encountered for quite some time.

Fortunately while the mystery elements drag in this section of the book, I found other aspects of the story’s setting to be appealing enough to keep me going. For instance, the characters Hay creates to populate her book with are all pretty recognizable university types of the era and certainly help to ground the action in its Oxford setting. There is a little bit of conflict between town and gown to navigate and some jokes are directed at the students who are studying English Literature and Language because they lack any other passion to pursue.

One aspect of the book that seems to trouble some readers is the portrayal of an Eastern European student who comes under suspicion for basically being foreign in England. While I can see that there are definitely some stereotypes at play, I feel Hay ultimately punctures them later in the story and in the process she shows that character to be a little more developed than she initially appears.

Perhaps my favorite sequence in the novel doesn’t really have anything to do with the mystery at all. It involves a character who has produced a (very!) slim volume of poetry that he is endeavoring to sell through the local bookstore. We are told that students and dons alike have got into the habit of reading entire books while in the shop itself and this character has developed a rather elaborate plan to make sure his copies actually sell. This sequence is handled with a wonderfully light touch and it is probably the thing I will retain longest from this book.

So when it comes to evaluating this novel I am left with a bit of a problem. While Death on the Cherwell starts and finishes well, the middle meanders and is mostly forgettable as a mystery, even if I found other parts of the story that appealed to me. As a result I am a little uncertain about how I feel about it. I certainly found it to be a more entertaining and balanced read than its predecessor and I found its university setting to be pretty appealing but were I reading this purely for the mystery I would probably have given up and not reached the ending.

As things stand though I have bought the final of Hay’s mysteries and will be curious to see how that compares (and if it also fits into the Pongleton universe).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Mill-Race
E. C. R. Lorac
Originally Published 1952
Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead (US)
Inspector MacDonald #36
Preceded by The Dog It Was That Died
Followed by Crook O’Lune

I have not previously written about any works by E. C. R. Lorac though that does not mean that I was entirely uninitiated when I picked up Murder in the Mill-Race. I own copies of each of the other Lorac titles released as part of the British Library Crime Classics and have made several attempts to read them. Somehow I just could not get into them and so they stay sat on my shelf waiting for me to give them another try.

I had little intention of reading Murder in the Mill-Race but it happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was about to leave for a weekend trip with my family when a bundle of ARCs arrived. I expected to have little time for reading but took the books anyway only to find when we got to our room that it had a really comfortable balcony that was the perfect place to read. The laptop wasn’t charged and the other book was a Bellairs (and I generally don’t read the same author back-to-back) so Lorac suddenly appeared at the top of the pile…

Murder in the Mill-Race begins by introducing us to Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife who have recently relocated to North Devon for the sake of his health. He establishes a practice in Milham and gets to know the locals, including Sister Monica – the warden of the children’s home who he takes a pretty quick dislike to.

Several months later she is discovered floating in the mill-race (for the sake of those who, like me, have no clue what this is it apparently is the channel of moving water next to a mill that turns its wheel – the book and introduction both assume the reader will know what this is). The local authorities would like to believe that the death was an accident and yet no one seems able to explain how she might have contrived to hit the back of her head and fall in the water. Inspector MacDonald is summoned and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, uncovering some local secrets including a previous suspicious death in the same place.

I should perhaps start by saying that I clearly enjoyed this a lot more than the other Lorac titles I tried to read. For one thing I completed this. A totally relaxing environment probably helped a little but I particularly appreciated the way Lorac depicts her setting. She so perfectly captures the stagnation of a rural village setting and the relationships between gentry and villager in that period that I found it a pretty immersive read and had little trouble believing that these locations and characters might exist.

I rarely make notes while reading but I wanted to share one moment that I found particularly effective. Emmeline Braithwaite, in talking to Anne Ferens, tells her how welcome she and Raymond are because they are the first ‘people from the outside world’ to have settled in the area in a quarter of a century. I found this sentiment to be a really interesting one as I don’t think it had ever really struck home with me quite how static communities could still be at the midpoint of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find it interesting how quickly the pair are integrated into village life, seeming to view MacDonald as an outsider themselves (particularly Raymond).

Several other reviewers (linked below) have commented on how they liked Raymond as an investigator and found the sudden switch from establishing his perspective to that of Chief Inspector MacDonald to be jarring. I have some sympathy for this though I think Lorac’s decision to introduce us to some of the personalities within the village prior to the crime being committed was a solid choice. After all, given the way the locals clam up once Sister Monica is dead it is helpful to get a sense of what they really think while she is still living and vexing them.

The actual circumstances of the murder are not particularly dazzling or memorable. This is perhaps appropriate given there is supposed to be considerable question about whether it is even a murder at all but it does mean that those initial phases of the investigation do not feel particularly remarkable.

MacDonald’s arrival gives the investigation some energy and I think sets the story on a more interesting course, though it does not present the reader with much in the way of clearly defined (or rather signposted) clues. Instead we observe the locals, hear what they say and choose not to say, and generally get a sense of the relationships between the different parties involved.

It resulted in a reading experience that reminded me more of Rendell than the more puzzle-focused Christie. I do feel that the reader is given the information they need to work out the killer’s identity (I say that in part because I did just that) but that relevant information tends to be buried and we are given little interpretation of those facts until MacDonald summarizes his findings. In other words, Lorac avoids giving us the opportunity to learn what information MacDonald views as relevant and makes solving the case a little bit tougher.

Rekha comments on finding MacDonald unlikeable and I can certainly see why he might inspire that reaction. Just as we do not follow his investigation very closely, I similarly felt that we get much of a sense of his character from this story. Now, I will say that this was a very late entry in a long-running series so there may have been an expectation that most readers would know him already but I did not get the sense of him as being a particularly dynamic or interesting sleuth off the back of this outing.

I did like the solution Lorac provides for the story and I do think it is both credible and interesting on a character level. I had no problem accepting MacDonald’s reasoning for his summation of the case but I will say that this part of the book struck me as a little dry and drawn out.

I think it’s fair to say that Murder in the Mill-Race exceeded my expectations by being a pretty solid case, even if the telling of that story was, at times, a little dry. What I appreciated most about it was the way Lorac is able to depict a community reacting to tragedy in ways both positive and negative, making those reactions feel credible and interesting. While not perfect, it’s enough to make me give those Lorac paperbacks a second chance.

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his thoughts on this last year which are broadly positive. I do agree with his comments about the sort of false start Lorac gives us where one investigator is replaced by another.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was less enthusiastic, finding Inspector MacDonald’s investigative style grating.

Countdown John falls somewhere in the middle, finding it readable but quite ordinary while Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime felt that the crime was not one the reader could solve themselves.

Finally, if you are looking for an interesting look at the life and career of E. C. R. Lorac I can recommend this overview by Curtis Evans.