Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

ThrackleyI always look forward to getting my hands on titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but this one was particularly exciting for me. You see, Death of Anton from the same author was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year and remains one of my go-to suggestions when someone asks for a recommendation from the range.

Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.

The hero of our story is Jim, an unemployed young man who unexpectedly receives an invitation to a country house party from a man he doesn’t know. That man, Carson, claims to have known his father and while he is perplexed by this supposed connection, he is not one to pass up a weekend of fine dining so agrees to go. It turns out that one of his friends has also been invited down and the pair motor down together, making an agreement to have a coded message arrive should they wish to make an early escape.

When they arrive they encounter a fairly strange mix of guests, none of whom know Carson personally either and they have little in common with each other. We will soon learn the reasons why they have been invited however and, knowing those intentions, we then watch to see how those plans will play out.

The characters comprising the house party are rendered in varying degrees of detail with some remaining only loosely sketched. Freddie Usher, Jim’s friend, was a favorite as while he is quite affable he is not a great thinker. Kate in her excellent review suggests that he ends up acting as a sort of ‘not hugely bright sounding board for Jim’ which I think is pretty accurate.

There are three other characters who stand out: a shapely dancer named Raoul who is in a popular West End show, a socialite who enjoys supporting a diverse mix of causes and Carson’s daughter. Much like those early Christie thrillers, there is a light romantic subplot here that adds some appeal to the story. Happily though this character is more than just someone for Jim to hold at the end as she will play an important role in some key points of the resolution making her feel much deeper than the romantic interests often do in these stories.

Given we already know the villain’s identity and plans, there are really only two questions that the reader will be invited to solve: why was Jim invited to this party and how will Carson be stopped? While I found the twists and turns of Melville’s story to offer little in the way of shock or surprise, I did think it was very neatly executed and easy to follow.

While I think Weekend at Thrackley does what it sets out to do quite well, unless you are specifically a fan of lightly comical thrillers I would not suggest it as your first encounter with this author. The book certainly charms and entertains but it reveals so much so soon that it is not particularly mysterious while, if you are looking for a comic read, those elements become less prominent in the story in its action-dominated final third.

Melville’s Death of Anton feels like a more substantial and complete work, reflecting his development as a writer and a growing comfort in subverting some of the traditional beats of a mystery story. Alternatively, while I think Quick Curtain disappoints as a mystery it does at least maintain its humorous approach throughout the whole novel, building it into its resolution.

If you have read and enjoyed those other titles however, I do think there is plenty here to appeal. While it may have been his first novel, Melville had clearly already developed his voice as an author by this point and he writes an entertaining, charming piece of fiction. I really hope that the British Library will release his other remaining crime fiction works as I gather he played around with some of the other crime fiction subgenres and his work, even when not perfect, is always sparklingly witty and charming.

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 7 by Poisoned Pen Press.

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracksThe latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

MurderofMyAuntThe Murder of My Aunt is a story in the inverted style, told from the perspective of a young man who is plotting to kill the aunt who he must live with in order to receive an allowance that he regards as pitifully small. It is an overtly comedic tale and, in talking about it with friends, I have likened it to imagining a less imaginative, more feckless Bertie Wooster trying to off his Aunt Agatha without any assistance from Jeeves.

It should be said that not only is this not a conventional mystery novel, it isn’t even really a conventional inverted story either as almost all of the action takes place prior to the murder taking place. There is no period of reflection, no telltale conscience or worrying about clues left at the scene. Instead this is a journal-style report of the development of the protagonist’s plans as they try to find a scheme that will work.

The first few chapters are the best in the whole book as we get to know that protagonist and see how his resentment towards his aunt has built and the manner of their interactions with each other. The incident that sparks it all is his Aunt insisting that Edward take a stroll into the village to pick up a parcel of the French novels he orders that she thoroughly disapproves of. He wishes to avoid the exercise but everything he thinks to try she has already prepared for. It is tremendously enjoyable opening to the novel and features some of the best comical writing I have ever encountered.

It is in the aftermath of that event that we see Edward come to the decision that his aunt must die and he begins to scheme ways to make that happen. There are still a number of very funny moments and sequences in these sections of the book as the battle of wits continues and the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the titular murder will ever take place. Don’t worry, it will and when we finally get to that moment the reader ought to be prepared to work out precisely how it will be managed based on the hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel.

Both Edward and his Aunt Mildred are glorious creations and come to vivid life on the page. Certainly their antagonistic relationship feels believable and like one that may have developed over a lifetime of growing up in close proximity to someone you don’t particularly like or respect.

Edward is idle, insolent and believes that he is entitled to live a life of leisure and comfort at his aunt’s expense. He begrudges having to live in the country where he lacks diversions, and lavishes what little attention he possesses upon his French novels, his Pekinese dog So-So and his fashionable roadster La Joyeuse. He is not unintelligent but does not apply himself to anything which will be one of the challenges he will struggle to overcome in organizing an effective murder plot.

Meanwhile his Aunt Mildred is domineering and wishes to mold her nephew into her image of a fit young man to be the future of their old family name. Even keeping in mind that this narrative is told from the perspective of a man who feels vindictively toward her, she is someone it would be hard to like and the reader may well question whether there might have been a better approach she might have taken in managing her wayward charge.

The secondary characters are much less vividly drawn and occupy only very limited roles in Edward’s narrative, reflecting his narrow view of events, though they do play significant roles in parts of the plot. Hull’s writing style is engaging and even though it becomes clear where things will be headed by the midpoint of the novel, I felt the novel lost little of its interest.

Unfortunately I think there is little more I can say about this novel without running the risk of spoiling the experience. I am extremely glad I read it and have already sought out some other books by Hull that I plan on reading over the next few months. What I can say is that this is an excellent, if unconventional entry in the British Library Crime Classics collection and well worth checking out if you like darkly humorous stories or the inverted mystery form. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How) – A bit of a cheat here but there is an incident of arson within the narrative.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

SerpentsinEdenLife commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

LongArmI have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

StandsFirmAmy Snowden married in her mid-forties to a much younger man who had been working in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw. Their marriage however turned out to be far from a happy one and a short time later she was found dead in her home with the gas valve opened. There is a general presumption that she has committed suicide but Sergeant Cluff believes it was murder.

As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction to the novel, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is not a mystery novel. Cluff almost instantly identifies the culprit, even if he is unable to prove their guilt. Nor is there much question about how or why Amy was killed so we can’t really call this an inverted story either (although several sections of it are told from the perspective of the chased person).

Instead the focus of the story is really more about the way a crime affects Cluff and causes him to undertake an obsessive cat and mouse chase across Yorkshire. PuzzleDoctor calls Cluff ‘Terminator-like’ which is a brilliant way to put it and sums up his approach pretty nicely (I wish I’d thought of describing it that way). He is essentially haunting the guilty party, refusing to allow them the comfort of thinking they are not suspected. It gets pretty dramatic too, reaching a high point with an act on page 74 that stands out as one of the most striking moments in the book.

Cluff is an intriguing character, a little reminiscent of more recent characters like Frost and Morse. He is an isolated figure, a lifelong bachelor and relic of an earlier age of policing who has failed to get promoted as you might expect but has some value because of his knowledge of the community. He would feature in eleven novels and a television series and I am at least interested to see how North developed the character in his later books.

The novel does present a strong sense of place, with the author effectively conveying something of the character and landscape of Yorkshire in this period. It is a work that speaks to some of the isolation and difficulties that arise in isolated, rural communities and reminded me of Bellairs’ work, albeit from a much bleaker perspective.

The obligatory comment reviewers have to make is to compare the book to Simenon’s Maigret works but given I have only read Pietr the Latvian I can hardly claim any authority in saying so. Certainly I think there is a certain similarity in outlook and characterization between the two authors but I can’t speak to much beyond that. I will say that I think North writes in a relatively compelling style and the book’s brevity is largely a positive, reinforcing its protagonist’s obsessive approach to getting the person he believes is guilty to confess.

The reason it is only relatively compelling is that there are aspects of North’s style that flat-out irritated me. The presentation of the female characters, almost always introduced with some reference to the shape, cuppage and pertness of breast, feels seedy rather than characterful – particularly when a seventeen year old character is introduced that way as the comments are made in the third-person narration rather than from the perspective of a lecherous character. There is even an uncomfortable moment early in the book where Cluff just stares intensely at the naked victim when with the Police Surgeon that the latter makes comment on.

I also think that North writes himself into something of a corner at the end, creating the potential for a tense showdown. Unfortunately I think this falls a little flat in its execution, resolving far too quickly and neatly given the tone of the novel up until that point.

The result is a book that I think is more of interest than it is interesting. I admire aspects of the writing and the way North conveys Cluff’s obsession but I never really enjoyed reading it. Knowing I have access to some others in the series, I may opt to give North another shot at impressing me but I can’t imagine rushing to seek out others in this series.

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

SevenDeadBack in the run up to Christmas I read and reviewed J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White – a novel that was reissued just at the perfect time to catch a growing interest in Golden Age crime fiction to become a surprise bestseller. While I liked some aspects of the setup though, I found I didn’t care for the book as a whole and was ultimately quite disappointed.

 

Happily I found Seven Dead to be a far more satisfying read as it not only had a strange and somewhat unsettling opening but managed to deliver a compelling resolution to those ideas.

The opening chapters of the book detail how a man breaks into a seemingly empty house intent on looting the place. He quickly amasses a good haul and is about to leave when he notices a door with the key in the lock. When he unlocks and opens it he flees in terror from the house, getting arrested in his desperation to get out of there.

This is a wonderful opening for the book and it builds up lots of anticipation about just what the burglar may have discovered inside. When we do get to learn about the crime scene it is quite wonderfully macabre. Seven bodies, six of them men and one a woman dressed in men’s clothing, in a sort of circle with lots of strange details scattered around the room. There is a note implying that they are members of a suicide club yet our detectives note that the room had been locked from the outside meaning that an eighth person must have been present.

The investigation that follows is conducted in two countries by two different people. One of them is a policeman, Inspector Kendall, the other is Thomas Hazeldean, a freelance journalist who is there when the crime scene is discovered. While the former is a competent and diligent detective who gets on with his job, the latter is the more interesting and characterful figure and thankfully it is he that is the focus for the lion’s share of the story.

Hazeldean is a very likeable figure, approaching his investigation with a disarming flippancy and charm that enable him to befriend and break down some stony resistance from the characters he encounters (and to get himself access to the investigation in the first place) yet clearly he also possesses observational and deductive skills. He’s your sort of perfect 1930s adventure thriller hero and I particularly enjoyed his lightly flirtatious interactions with a young woman he meets in Boulogne.

Farjeon’s story unfolds at a brisk pace, packing plenty of revelations and throwing several strange and unsettling supporting characters into the mix once the action shifts to the continent. This makes for quite an exciting and atmospheric tale and I genuinely had little idea where things were headed until shortly before the end of the novel.

That is not to say though that the killer is difficult to identify. I would argue that this is the most straightforward aspect of the plot – instead the reader’s task really is to explain how and why these strange events have occurred. I didn’t mind this at all and enjoyed the way the case comes into focus but the ending did leave me with some mixed feelings.

After some skillful and wonderfully paced investigating, I felt the resolution of the case was really quite abrupt. Certainly I liked some of the ideas involved in that ending but rather than teasing and reasoning out the solution we are just presented with an explanation. I felt it was a little anticlimactic and wished Farjeon had given that part of his story a little more room to breathe.

On the whole though I think this is a really quite thrilling and entertaining read. I would certainly suggest it above Mystery in White as a starting point with Farjeon and I’ll look forward to continuing to explore his works over the next few months.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Number in the Title (What)