Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

This collection was originally published in 2015

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. 

I was a late convert to the mystery short story. Read some of my earliest posts on this blog and you’ll see that I express a certain wariness about this form of mystery story, believing that the short length wouldn’t allow for the sort of complex case that would interest me.

The British Library mystery anthologies were a large part of the reason that my opinions on the form began to change. I started reading them just to experience a wide range of authors but was pleasantly surprised by how rich and interesting some of the tales were.

One of the things I like most about the range is the idea of grouping stories around a common theme. Other collections have been themed on topics like manor house murders, railway mysteries or science-driven cases. It can be interesting to see the different directions and approaches writers would take on a common theme or element, brilliantly illustrating their style and personality as a writer.

Capital Crimes is a collection that contains some very strong mystery stories, some from familiar names but several from writers who were new to me. I will share some thoughts on each story in a moment but talking about them as a group, I felt that the quality was pretty consistently high. Where I think the collection falls down is in its representation of its theme – while the stories here happen in London, I rarely felt that the stories delivered the sort of strong sense of place that I expected.

My expectations had been for something along the line of Akashic’s city-based Noir series (to be clear, this was an expectation for approach – not for tone). Stories you read and notice aspects of the city in with stories set in very distinctive places or communities. The difference, of course, is that those stories tend to be written specifically for that collection with that sense of place in mind – I imagine that finding suitable stories for this collection must have been much harder.

While the stories rarely give a sense of a specific place, they tend to be better at evoking a sense of a metropolis. Stories draw upon the anonymity of the city and the mass of people that live and work there. They frequently reflect the fears people must have felt about living in these relatively new urban spaces, particularly of being alone even when you are surrounded by millions of people.

The most effective stories in this collection for me were the ones that explored those ideas. Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask is fantastically sinister and unsettling and is brilliantly complemented by E. M. Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels. John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground explores the widespread panic caused by a series of motiveless murders on mass transit while H. C. Bailey’s The Little House may not be a puzzle mystery, but it a very effective and unsettling piece of writing.

There are relatively few misses in the collection. J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street felt too fantastical, as did Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, while Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, though effective, reads like a horror story. Even these stories though are perfectly readable though it is a little unfortunate that they all fall near the start of the collection.

The stories offer a good mix of approaches and styles and while I think other volumes offered a clearer representation of their theme, I think most who pick up Capital Crimes will find plenty here to enjoy. Thoughts on the individual stories follow after the page break!

INDIVIDUAL STORY REVIEWS

The Detection Club Project: Anthony Berkeley – Jumping Jenny

Anthony Berkeley at Sherborne School in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Berkeley, wit, charm and flair warred with demons. He loved to confound people’s expectations. The contradictions of his personality infuriated many of his contemporaries. He was the most vociferous advocate of the need for the detective novel to focus on the motivation for murder rather than mere puzzles. Yet the complexities of his own psychological make-up would baffle the most expert profiler.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

When I launched my project to read works by every member of the famed Detection Club I made a conscious decision to start out with writers who were new to me. After all, the whole idea behind this was to take in the breadth of styles and personalities who shaped the development of the detective novel. However I could not go too long without writing about one of the most important figures in the founding of the club – Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Cox was a complicated man as Martin Edwards’ portrait of him in The Golden Age of Murder makes quite clear. There are few writers whose name or, in his case, pseudonym can be used to describe a type of story yet fans of Golden Age detection will often refer to a book as being Ilesian. What we mean when we say that is the book will often have a darkly ironic tone, particularly in terms of its ending that is reminiscent of his works written as Francis Iles, the most famous of which is Malice Aforethought.

The majority of his mystery novels were written as Anthony Berkeley and a number feature his series sleuth, mystery novelist Roger Sheringham. The book I will be discussing in a moment is one of the final published novels in that series.

Sheringham first appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925. Cox had published that novel anonymously and followed it a year later with The Wychford Poisoning Case – a work I described as ‘tremendously frustrating’ when I read it last year. It is clearly intended to be a comical and perhaps argumentative work, being written to make a point about the institution of marriage and the conflation of sexual behavior with a person’s broader moral state.

One characteristic of the Sheringham stories is that he does not conform to the Golden Age model of a heroic detective. Sheringham can be rude and obnoxious, vain and judgmental. He sometimes makes mistakes or decisions to interpret justice in his own way. Edwards quotes Cox saying that he intended Sheringham to be ‘an offensive person’ but notes that there were some significant similarities between the character and his creator.

Certainly in later life Cox seems to have been a divisive and quarrelsome figure within the Club’s membership. One point of particular contention was his claim that he should be allowed to exercise a veto when new members were nominated. While his relationships with some other members may have soured, he remained a strong advocate for innovation and new voices within the genre as a critic.

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley

Cover for The British Library Crime Classics reprint of Jumping Jenny (2022)

Originally published in 1933
Roger Sheringham #9
Preceded by Murder in the Basement
Followed by Panic Party
Also published under the title Dead Mrs. Stratton

At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.

Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth. Tightly paced and cleverly defying the conventions of the classic detective story, this 1933 novel remains a milestone of the inverted mystery subgenre.

Blurb and cover from the 2022 British Library Crime Classics reprint

My original plan when I started thinking about Berkeley was that I would write about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a work of some renown that I have yet to tackle. That would have been a particularly apt fit for this set of posts as it deals with a dining club of notable people, headed by Sheringham, who each try to solve a murder coming up with markedly different solutions. I decided to change course however when I realized I would be reading Jumping Jenny, a recent reprint from The British Library’s Crime Classics range, as it didn’t make sense to read something from the author and not tie it into the project. As it happens though I think this serves to illustrate several aspects of the author’s work and style very nicely.

Jumping Jenny is billed as an example of the inverted mystery – a subgenre of mystery fiction the author had helped popularize a few years prior with Malice Aforethought. While that story focused on following the protagonist as he planned his murder, Jumping Jenny quickly disposes of its victim in its first few chapters. We then follow Roger Sheringham’s efforts not to solve the case but to ensure that none of his fellow guests are held responsible for the victim’s death as he regards the murder as an altruistic one. However he soon finds that his efforts have some unintended consequences as he and others in the party blunder and contradict one another.

As with The Wychford Poisoning Case, Jumping Jenny is intended to be a comical read but as with that other story, how effective you find the results will likely depend on your taste and whether you sympathize with Berkeley’s opinions. To give one example, Sheringham’s efforts to obfuscate the details of a crime scene may be highly amusing if you agree with the notion that the victim was a deserving one but may appall those who think that her theatrical behavior is a reflection of her mental health and that while her antics may be embarrassing, her husband’s inconsiderate behavior is never discussed quite as critically either by Sheringham or in the narration.

I personally fall between those two extremes. I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.

It should be said that Sheringham’s interpretation is not simply a matter of that character’s judgment as when we witness the moment in which the guilty party chooses murder, they do so not for any personal gain but out of the belief that it would help another. While that is useful in terms of setting this up as an altruistic event, the lack of a strong motive makes the crime seem rather unbelievable. Would someone really put their life and career at risk in that way? Perhaps, but Berkeley didn’t convince me of that here.

Still, it is a delight to see Sheringham flounder so badly at points in this story and make a series of really poor assumptions about how others will act. Sheringham can be, as I alluded to in the preamble to this review, a little vain and unlikeable so it is really satisfying to see him flustered as he is frequently here. Much of the entertainment here is to be aware of how the evidence ought to steer him toward the truth and trying to understand how it will be misinterpreted or applied.

I should also say that I rather enjoyed some aspects of the setup to this story, particularly the details of the costume party to which everyone turned up dressed as famous murderers. It’s a neat, if occasionally confusing, introduction to the characters and while I think this could have been featured even more strongly, I was amused by the notion that several draw attention to that a real murder should have been committed while everyone was playing at murderers.

Structurally the book is interesting too. While Sheringham notices a telltale piece of evidence at the crime scene, he is not attempting to discover the truth. Instead he picks up pieces of genuine information in the course of his attempts to manipulate the evidence and he uses that to formulate theories about who he must be covering up for. It feels rather novel and fits nicely with the book’s irreverent tone.

Jumping Jenny is a relatively short read which is probably just as well as I think the joke threatens to run out of steam as we head towards its final chapters. Here I think the author does a pretty good job of playing with our expectations, throwing in a couple of developments that may catch them by surprise. While many of the details of the case were known to us from the near the start, it is still satisfying to see how the clues are pieced together and to learn some things that we had not been privy to earlier giving us a richer understanding of what happened.

At its best, Jumping Jenny can be witty and quite clever. For instance, I love the depth of the discussion about a piece of evidence Sheringham interacted at the scene and the way Cox dissects what it might have been able to show. I also think that the murder method is quite striking and while the path to get to that moment might be a little convoluted, I felt that the mindset of the victim – if not the person who makes that split second choice to murder her – is credible.

The Verdict: Though I think Jumping Jenny has a few tonal problems, I find it to be a very clever work and far more satisfying than my most recent experience of his work. Its concept and structure are novel and I think the piece is paced well overall and offers a good insight into the author’s work and some of his favorite themes. Worth a look!

The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

The Verdict

A splendid, if rather unconventionally structured, mystery where the problem is identifying the victims.

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

Four men had arranged to fly to Dublin. When their aeroplane descended as a fireball into the Irish Sea, only three of them were on board. With the identities of the passengers lost beneath the waves, a tense and perplexing investigation begins to determine the living from the dead, with scarce evidence to follow beyond a few snippets of overheard conversation and one family’s patchy account of the three days prior to the flight.

Who was the man who didn’t fly? What did he have to gain? And would he commit such an explosive murder to get it? First published in 1955, Bennett’s ingenious mystery remains an innovative and thoroughly entertaining inversion of the classic whodunit.

Four men had arranged to travel by the aeroplane; four had disappeared; only three men had arrived at the airport, only three passengers had entered the plane.

My Thoughts

The premise of the story is a rather unusual one, though still firmly within traditional puzzle mystery territory. An aeroplane flying to Ireland is destroyed and the wreckage cannot be found. The authorities know the identities of the four men who were to be on that flight but the evidence shows that only three actually boarded that flight. With no bodies to identify, the authorities conduct an investigation to try to work out who the three men were who died on board that flight by speaking with the men’s friends and family.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the book is that the investigation is not into anything we might consider a crime. There is no suggestion that the aeroplane met its fate deliberately. Yet in spite of that, it is clear that there is something distinctly odd going on within that group of four acquaintances both in terms of their strained interpersonal relationships and also in the secrets some were clearly harboring. By the end of the novel we will have a clear understanding of how they relate to one another as well as some more traditional crime elements to consider.

The characters are boldly drawn and, I felt, very well observed though some may struggle to find someone they like and are rooting for. One of my favorites was Harry, the charming young poet who is reckless with money and seems to rub everyone up the wrong way leading almost all his acquaintances to try to warn his girlfriend, Hester, that she ought to stay clear of him. Advice that only seems to make her dig in. I enjoyed his flippancy and felt that Bennett did a good job of walking the line between roguishness and villainy. I suspect most readers will feel Harry is not a good man and yet there is something inherently entertaining in seeing him work little cons to avail himself of a cigarette or extra round of drinks at someone else’s expense.

Perhaps my favorite of the characters was Hester’s father, Mr. Wade, who reminded me a little of some of Austen’s eccentric fathers (I thought of Mr. Wodehouse – though Wade’s malady is pecuniary rather than health, Kate from CrossExaminingCrime thought Sir Walter from Persuasion). I felt that Bennett managed to make him comic without being too ridiculous which is often a difficult line to walk and while the treatment is often designed to be humorous, his befuddlement does play an important part in the overall development of the plot.

The only bland characters in the book are the policemen who seem competent but largely anonymous. This reflects that though they play an important part in piecing together what had happened, much of the events of the novel are recounted to them, leaving them little opportunity for interaction or to steer what was happening.

While other elements, including some more overtly criminous ones, are introduced later in the novel, our focus remains almost entirely on the question of who was on board that flight. While that may seem like a somewhat suspect premise for a mystery, I found it provided a surprising amount for the reader to consider. Perhaps the most striking of these is the matter, not of who was on board, but where the person who missed the flight vanished to and why.

I was quite delighted when I recognized toward the end of the novel that Bennett had constructed several logic puzzles for the reader to solve that will identify them. A character suggests at one point that they think they could have worked out the solution if only they had a pencil and paper and they’re right – the puzzles are clear and the logic is simple. The challenge lies in recognizing the information you need to work with in the first place.

The explanation for what happened is delivered to the reader in stages, each new reveal painting a more detailed picture. Most of those reveals feel worthwhile and there were a few early surprises to enjoy. One final revelation, concerning what happened to the fourth passenger, struck me as pretty effective, even if it only confirmed something I had suspected from very early in the novel.

It makes for a great read, rich in its characters and boasting a rather unusual premise. I found the novel enormously enjoyable and was surprised at just how often I was chuckling over some remark or situation the author concocted. The effective marriage of moments of humor with the mystery elements work very well and I felt the final resolution was largely satisfying – aside from a rather unconvincing romantic beat. I was very impressed and hope to read more from this author in the future.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

The Verdict

One of the best Carrs I have read to date, this is every bit as good as its reputation offering a scenario full of twists and turns and a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Dr. Gideon Fell #15
Preceded by Death Turns the Tables
Followed by He Who Whispers

The Blurb

Crime author Dick Markham is in love again; his fiancée the mysterious newcomer to the village, Lesley Grant. When Grant accidentally shoots the fortune teller through the side of his tent at the local fair – following a very strange reaction to his predictions – Markham is reluctantly brought into a scheme to expose his betrothed as a suspected serial husband poisoner.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller – and chief accuser – is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

Thinking the matter over afterwards, Dick Markham might have seen omens or portents in the summer thunderstorm, in the fortune-teller’s tent, in the shooting-range, in half a dozen other things at that bazaar.

My Thoughts

In my four years of crime fiction blogging, I cannot recall being as excited about a vintage crime reprint as I was when I heard that Till Death Do Us Part would be reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. I had previously enjoyed the story in the form of the very faithful BBC Radio adaptation starring Donald Sinden but I was looking forward to getting to read the story properly for myself. Little wonder then that when the package arrived on my doorstep last weekend I immediately put everything else to one side and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting.

Crime writer Dick Markham arrives at a village fête with Lesley Grant, a woman who has only lived in the area for a matter of months. We learn that the couple have just become engaged and are planning to share the good news later that day. Before they do however they decide they will enjoy some of the attractions and they head to the fortune teller’s booth where a man billed as The Great Swami promises to tell their fortunes.

Lesley enters the tent while Dick chats to the Major who is operating the shooting range next to it. He shares his good news but is surprised when Lesley emerges from the tent looking upset. Dick heads inside to speak to the Swami but before he can learn anything a gunshot is fired through the canvas. He emerges to find Lesley asserting that the rifle, which she had not wanted to hold, had fired by accident. It all seems pretty suspicious, particularly when he receives a telephone call from the doctor asking him to visit his patient who has some information to share with him about his bride to be…

This is a really intriguing setup because of the way it plays around with information. There is the information about Dick’s engagement which we learn may be distressing to at least one other inhabitant of the village, then there’s the information about the Swami’s identity and then there’s the information he has about Lesley. These opening pages are packed with revelations, each serving to shift our understanding of the situation and what is happening long before the murder even takes place. I love the sense of discovery in these early chapters and would suggest that the best way to enjoy this story is to just throw yourself straight into it and be surprised.

The murder comes pretty early in this one and does present an impossibility of sorts, though I do not want to overplay this element of the story. While it’s certainly there and does involve some well-clued details, I think what makes this a compelling story is not so much the mechanics of the crime as the tensions and suspicions it brings about in the various characters.

The story follows Dick’s perspective and so we experience his growing doubts and worries about Lesley as he battles with things he comes to learn and suspect. Carr does this well, incorporating some elements of domestic suspense into the story as Dick grapples with whether he can trust Lesley, how his feelings for her might be affected by what he is told and how he should interact with her moving forwards.

The decision to closely follow Dick means that we are kept at a slight distance not only from Lesley but also from Dr. Gideon Fell who enters the story shortly after the body is found though he is talked about several times prior to that. This is an effective technique as it serves to remind us of Fell’s reputation as a genius for solving impossible crimes, heightening our anticipation for the moment of his arrival. Even once he does appear our focus remains on Dick with some of Fell’s ideas and deductions being kept under wraps until near the end when he swoops in to bring about a resolution. Still, while Fell is utilized in a more limited way than some other of his stories I find him utterly engaging whenever he does appear and would consider this one of his best outings that I have read to date.

One aspect of the novel that I think is very striking is its depiction of life within the confines of an English village. There is of course the depiction of a village festival with their sometimes quite clunky stalls and games as well as the idea that someone might be a bigger celebrity in a small village than they would be in a more urban area hence all of the attention that the villagers pay to Dick. This also feeds into some aspects of the case and in some of the tensions surrounding Dick’s relationship with Lesley. After all the village is a small place and people will gossip, adding pressure to an already tricky situation.

The solution, when it is presented, is a clever one though I admit to finding a few of the crucial details a little tricky to visualize at first. Some aspects of this though are very clever, particularly those relating to what is observed around the time that the gunshot is fired. While Carr has been more ingenious, I do appreciate how the story comes together overall.

What I think seals its status for me as one of the best I have read to date is the manner of the resolution. This is not just an exciting scene which follows a little burst of action, I feel that the construction of this sequence is exceptional and makes very good use once again of the distance between Dick and Fell, building up to a really powerful conclusion that provides some solid closure.

Overall then I have to unimaginatively concur with those voices who suggest that this is one of the best Dr. Fell mysteries. While I wish I had something a little more creative to say about it, all I can really offer is my belief that this holds together really well and that it was a joy to experience again even knowing the solution. This is about as highly recommended as they come.

It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Henri Bencolin #1
Followed by Castle Skull

The British Library Crime Classics reprint also includes the short story ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926).

The Blurb

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realized when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

The Verdict

This story delivers on atmosphere but I felt that it distracted a little from the puzzle parts of the plot.

It will not be best to marry her. I am watching. I have put myself close to you, but you do not know it.

My Thoughts

The famed sportsman the Duc de Saligny is about to get married. His bride, Louise, had previously been married to a man who had become mad and tried to murder her, ending up in an insane asylum. In a worrying turn for the couple, Laurent appears to have escaped and may even have changed his appearance with the help of a skilled plastic surgeon. Our sleuth, juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin, suspects that Laurent’s actions have been with the intention of returning to Paris to kill the Duc and possibly Louise too.

Bencolin arranges for the couple to be guarded while visiting a gambling house but his fears become reality when, a short while after entering an empty card room, the Duc’s decapitated head is found on the floor. The position of his body suggests he intentionally knelt before the murderer, raising the question why he would just meekly submit to that fate, while there is also the problem that no one was seen entering or leaving the room by its only entrance. The crime seems impossible…

It Walks By Night has been on my to read pile for a long time. Long enough that I accidentally purchased two additional copies of it after receiving a review copy when it was first published. Whoops (this would be one of the reasons I created my publicly-accessible TBR pile page).

The novel was Carr’s first to be published and while it features an impossible crime and discovering the explanation of that will be key to solving the mystery, I think it would be fair to suggest that this doesn’t feel like its focus. Instead I would suggest that Carr is more interested in creating a thick atmosphere of dread using elements of the supernatural, sex and implied gore to unsettle the reader.

The obvious comparison would be with the works of Poe, one of the fathers of the genre who gave us another genius-level French detective in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (and its two sequels). Carr clearly leans into this, referencing the writer repeatedly including in a chapter’s title, but it is not simply a question of atmosphere. The character of Bencolin himself possesses an almost diabolic appearance with a Mephistophelean beard and an apparent appreciation for the macabre elements of this case.

Bencolin is the first of Carr’s significant recurring sleuths and differs somewhat from his subsequent and more popular creations, Dr. Fell and Sir. Henry Merrivale. Part of this is presentational as each of those characters felt lighter and more comic, but he also fulfills a slightly different role in relation to the investigation. While those characters are typically reacting to a crime that has already been committed, Bencolin begins this story aware of the likelihood of a crime and taking action to try and prevent it. Even once the crime takes place, he seems far more physically active than either Dr. Fell or H. M. and seems to be constantly moving rather than cogitating.

That sense of constant action makes this feel more like a thriller or adventure story than a straightforward detective story. While there certainly are clues that the reader can use to get to much of the solution, the story is peppered with improbable and far-fetched developments. To give just a couple of examples that leap to mind, I think the author has a misplaced idea about precisely what could be achieved with plastic surgery while a visit made to a woman in a darkened room feels rather ridiculous in the context of what had just occurred.

It was all a bit much for me, overwhelming the puzzle aspects of the novel, and I wished that the story had been a little more consice. Perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind and this was just the wrong book for my mood at the moment. I will note though that I found the additional short story included in the British Library reprint, The Shadow of the Goat, to be significantly more entertaining and engaging. I certainly enjoyed the puzzle elements of the story and found the conclusion to be both logical and satisfying.

I am sure that I will return to Bencolin at some point. I have copies of Castle Skull and The Four False Weapons on my TBR list after all. But for now I suspect my next Carr will likely mean a return to Dr. Fell.

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review though I purchased my own additional copies.

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1934

The British Library Crime Classics reprint is currently available in the UK. A US release is planned for early 2022.

The Blurb

The Chianti Flask opens at a moment of courtroom drama. A quiet, enigmatic young woman called Laura Dousland is on trial for murder, accused of poisoning her elderly husband, Fordish Dousland. The couple’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, chief witness for the prosecution, is on the stand and is also under suspicion. At the heart of the puzzle of Fordish Dousland’s death is the Chianti flask that almost certainly held the wine containing the poison which killed him. But the flask has disappeared, and all attempts to trace it have come to nothing.

The jury delivers its verdict, but this represents simply the ‘end of the beginning’ of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel. This book is, in essence, a psychological study into the bitter effects of murder and its aftermath both on the person accused and those close to her. Is it true that there’s no smoke without fire? Only in the closing pages is the mystery of the Chianti flask finally unraveled.

The Verdict

This novel about the social repercussions of being associated with a crime is well observed though be aware the genre elements may be too slight for some readers.

…there was in the story those elements of mystery and strangeness which fascinate most thinking minds.

My Thoughts

I had a plan to have several reviews written and queued up before I went on vacation and this was to be one of those titles. Rather unfortunately though I went and got food poisoning, deadlines flew by, hotel trips got missed among other things. Which is why this post is coming to you on a Sunday rather than Friday as planned. The good news is that I recovered pretty quickly and we were able to make alternative trip plans to my favorite city break spot so things worked out okay in the end and obviously I ended up bringing my laptop with me…

The Chianti Flask begins in the concluding days of the trial of Laura Dousland, a woman who is on trial for the murder of her husband who had died of ingesting poison. One of the reasons Laura found herself under suspicion, other than the prejudices of the coroner, was that their Italian manservant had suggested that he had seen a flask of chianti on the dinner tray that had been prepared for the dead man which had vanished upon his return. While popular sentiment seems to lean towards her innocence, the disappearance of the chianti flask presents a point of mystery that ensures that even when the verdict comes back in her favor the mystery lingers.

This book then is not really about the mystery of what happened to Fordish Dousland, although that will be fully explained by the end of the novel, as it is about the way the stigma of a crime lingers and the uncertainty about the explanation affects those caught up in it psychologically. This is not dissimilar from the exploration of the psychology of the two landlords in The Lodger, although though figures involved are obviously more closely tied to the central crime here.

The focus here is on the character of Laura Dousland and on exploring the social stigma she experiences as a consequence of the trial. There is quite naturally some ghoulish interest in meeting and socializing with a woman accused of murder but there is also a lot of unthinking cruelty in her treatment from her supposed friends. The exploration of that discomfort is quite thoughtful and I found it quite convincing, particularly in depicting Laura’s awkwardness in asserting her wishes with friends who had supported her throughout the trial.

One of the questions is whether Laura will be able to move forwards or if this event will define her. I found this strand of the plot to be the most compelling on a character level, even though it is quite removed from the business of the crime itself. I found myself wanting her to be able to let go of the past and people’s opinions of her, even as I understood why she struggled to do so. It is well-observed and, I feel, quite realistic in its depictions of those doubts and tensions even if the writing style must have felt quite old-fashioned, even in 1934.

I think one of the more interesting elements of this book though is allowed to play out quite subtly in the implications of characters’ conversations rather than any heavy-handed point making. It seems clear that Laura’s relationship with Fordish was a consequence of manipulation and coercion while the character of that marriage seems to have been quite cruel. It also seems clear that societal pressures were stacked against her, making it impossible for her to escape that marriage. For those reasons I found it easy to empathize with her plight, even if I wondered myself if she might be guilty after all.

That question about whether she is guilty or not is the most conventional mystery element within the novel and it is, as I said, addressed by the end of the novel. I was fine with that explanation, though not especially surprised, although I was a little disappointed that the explanation that had occurred to me was not the correct one. On reflection though as I finished the novel I could understand why it was the appropriate conclusion to this story and feel that, on balance, it works.

On the whole I enjoyed the exploration of that question but would emphasize that it is far from a central feature of the novel, meaning that this is a book about a crime that doesn’t really read as a mystery or even suspense fiction (as The Lodger had) but instead primarily as a piece of human drama. That makes this a rather hard book to endorse as a piece of genre fiction, even though I personally enjoyed it a lot. I am certainly glad that I went ahead and imported my copy early and I am interested to read more from Lowndes. I can say though respect the range for taking such an expansive view of the genre and including some occasional unorthodox selections such as this and that if you enjoy more psychological fiction you may well feel like me.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Dr. Hailey #12
Preceded by The Yellow Crystal
Followed by The White Arrow

The Blurb

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom―but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body.

Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick―perhaps too quick―to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

The Verdict

I enjoyed the Highland setting and the impossibilities. Unfortunately Dr. Hailey is a little anonymous as a sleuth, making the novel feel a little awkwardly paced.

He bent and saw a small round object which adhered closely to the skin. He touched it; it was immediately dislodged. He recognized a fish’s scale.

My Thoughts

This month (and next month) I have committed to starting each week with a post about a locked room or impossible crime novel. One of the reasons I have been keen to do this is to provide a little structure for my week’s blogging, limiting the time I spend browsing through my collection and library bookshelves in search of something to read, but it also was aimed at encouraging me to make more of an effort to work through my TBR pile.

The subject of this week’s post, Anthony Wynne’s Murder of a Lady, was particularly deserving of such attention. I cannot be certain but I am pretty sure that this was one of the very first British Library Crime Classics novels I purchased along with Death in the Tunnel but while the Burton quickly got read, this one somehow fell through the gaps and escaped my attention. Even when the time came for me to find a Wynne novel to blog about I overlooked the one I already owned in favor of a copy of The Green Knife. For the curious, I thought that one had a very clever impossible crime but was a bit tedious to read. Happily Murder of a Lady is a much more readable novel, though it is not without its own set of flaws.

Amateur detective Dr. Hailey is staying with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he receives a visit from Mr. Leod McLeod, the Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, who is seeking his help with a strange case. He is told that there has been a murder at Duchlan Castle and that the victim, an elderly spinster who ‘hadn’t an enemy in the world’, was brutally murdered in her bed. The problem is that the room was locked and the windows barred making it far from clear how a murderer could have gained entry. With the Police presumed to be unable to attend the scene for some time, McLeod wants to have Hailey start work while the crime scene is still fresh.

The initial investigation turns up some intriguing points, not least the strange matter of a deep scar on the victim’s body from years earlier. Before Dr. Hailey can get too far however the professional detective makes his appearance and asserts his control on the scene and the investigation, temporarily relegating Hailey to the role of bystander. Further murders however see Hailey called into action once again…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was its setting in the Scottish highlands. I would suggest that the strength of this book is not its geography or its description of a physical location – Duchlan Castle does not feel anywhere near as haunting as the one Innes creates in Lament for a Maker – but in its depiction of the people, the customs, traditions and beliefs. While Duchlan Castle does not necessarily make a huge impression on me as a physical space, its inhabitants struck me as very credible as did their somewhat strained relationships.

The first victim, Mary Gregor, was the sister of the laird and when she is first described she seems to have been pious and lived a rather faultless existence, financially supporting both her brother and his son’s family. Of course we soon realize that things were not quite so idyllic as they may have appeared and that there were other sides to her strong religious character that may have been a source of resentments within the household. While she is already dead at the start of the book, she feels really quite alive and dimensional.

I found the other members of the household to be equally colorful and interesting, with the exception of a few of the servants who fade a little into the background. Even these characters though are helpful in fleshing out the staff of the house and making it feel like a credible old home. Of these the two standout characters would be the laird himself and the family’s doctor who among his many attributes can boast a wooden leg. Compared with The Green Knife, the characterization here feels a lot richer and more intriguing.

Wynne offers up a series of murders, starting with the impossible murder of Mary Gregor. He is careful to set out the rules of this space, making it quite clear that the room was really locked by giving us the testimony of an independent witness. The question of how the crime was managed seems genuinely puzzling and I think Wynne does a pretty good job of stretching out the investigation, doing a particularly fine job of exploring the complicated web of relationships between the various suspects.

While the murder of Mary Gregor is the most striking of the murders committed in this novel, I should say that I find it the least satisfying on a mechanical level. I certainly think the basic concept is a clever one but I struggled to imagine how it would work physically in a way I never did with the solution to The Green Knife. This is unfortunate as I think a few of the elements are quite clever and I think the explanation for what follows and why is interesting and well explained. Perhaps most impressive is the way Wynne is able to keep adding to the death count without seeming to point the finger too much at one character – I was certainly kept guessing right up to the end of the novel.

Wynne creates two professional detectives that Dr. Hailey will have to interact with in the course of the case. This does present some interesting wrinkles as we get some clashes between Hailey as the pros in which there is discussion of their investigative philosophies but it does also slow the novel down, particularly when the second investigator is introduced. While I recognized the reality that a professional investigation will need someone in charge at all times, a consequence of having two such characters is that they eat up some narrative space that could have been given to the suspects and the novel comes to feel as much about the details of the investigation as it is the events that precipitated it. That being said, I do enjoy a number of moments of the pro vs amateur rivalries within the book and I feel it does make this a little different than many such detective stories.

One unfortunate aspect of this choice is that Hailey spends a surprisingly large amount of the novel simply observing or being told about events. This is understandable given his personality – he is not likely to want to play second fiddle to another investigator and ignore his own thoughts and instincts – but it does mean that he does not seem particularly active or involved in steering how things turn out. That being said, I do appreciate his role in the context of the story and once he does get more heavily involved things do begin to move quite quickly.

Unfortunately I think that the structural issue here is hard to ignore. Hailey spends far too long as a bystander on the edge of the case and so comes off as one of the blandest figures in the book. I felt pretty similarly about him in The Green Knife so I suspect that this is just part of his character but I consider it an unfortunate and undesirable one. As interesting as his discussions with Dundas about their respective methods are, I wanted him to take hold of this investigation – not simply wait to be given it.

As such it is hard to strongly recommend the novel. The murder method is interesting even though I struggle to accept it could have worked as initially described (unless I am just not picturing an element of the scene correctly). I just wish it moved a little faster or that Dr. Hailey was a stronger protagonist. For now all I can say is that this is a better read than The Green Knife and that while I have goodwill toward Wynne, I have yet to be blown away. If anyone has a Wynne recommendation they want to give though I am very willing to receive it…

Further Readings

JJ @ The Invisible Event described this rather wonderfully as ‘a classically-styled piece of rococo detection’. I do agree with him that the false solutions are a nice feature of this book.

Tomcat @ Beneath the Stains of Time commends the solutions to the crimes, calling them ‘simple, but convincing’. I do agree that this is particularly true of the second and third murders. He points out that Wynne doesn’t really do enough with the legend of the swimmers – a fair point that I totally forgot to pass comment on above. So yes, I agree that this thread had a great potential to be quite creepy and unsettling but doesn’t quite have that level of impact here.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praised the choice of murderer (once again, I agree).

The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

Book Details

Originally published in 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #5
Preceded by The Dead Shall Be Raised
Followed by The Case of the Seven Whistlers

The Blurb

Nathaniel Wall, the local quack doctor, is found hanging in his consulting room in the Norfolk village of Stalden – but this was not a suicide. Wall may not have been a qualified doctor, but his skill as a bonesetter and his commitment to village life were highly valued. Scotland Yard is drafted in to assist. Quickly settling into his accommodation at the village pub, Littlejohn begins to examine the evidence…Against the backdrop of a close-knit village, an intriguing story of ambition, blackmail, fraud, false alibis and botanical trickery unravels.

The Verdict

Solid, middle-of-the-road Littlejohn with few surprises. Bellairs is always good at depicting rural England though and this is no exception.


My Thoughts

I am terrible at sticking to blogging plans. One of the main reasons I stopped doing my monthly review posts was that I never seemed to follow through on any of the things I predicted I would do. Something new and exciting would always crop up to distract me away from them. As anyone who has casually glanced at my TBR Pile will note, there is always a new distraction.

The Murder of a Quack was released as part of a double bill in the British Library Crime Classics range eighteen months ago. At the time I enthusiastically reviewed the first half of the book, The Dead Shall Be Raised, a title that I still regard as one of the best Littlejohn stories I have read. My plan had been to review this work the following month but unfortunately it got forgotten in the excitement of the new. Whoops.

The Wall family have been a fixture in the village of Stalden for centuries. While not formally trained as doctors, they have been trusted for their medical knowledge and alternative remedies. Nathaniel Wall has operated the practice now for many years and seems to be well liked and trusted by the villagers so it is a shock when he is discovered murdered and strung up with his bonesetting equipment in his office. Recognizing that the case has the potential to upset the locals, the police decide to send to the Yard for outside expertise and Inspector Littlejohn is dispatched to look into the matter.

Like the previous story in the collection, this is also a very short work at well under 200 pages. That is about the right length though for this case which, while entertaining, is more straightforward than some of his later works and hinges on a few simple revelations.

In my previous experiences with Bellairs’ work I have found him to be particularly adept at portraying countryside life and this work is no exception. We get to meet a variety of types here from a variety of backgrounds and social standings, giving a sense of the wider community and how people live there and interact with one another. While I am never a fan of exaggerated phonetic spellings to convey a voice which is used frequently here, I do appreciate the thought he gives to representing as broad a range of characters as possible with respect (there is a lovely exchange with regards a charwoman that stood out to me as a highlight).

Littlejohn soon discovers local rivalries and arguments, providing us with at least a handful of suspects, although I found some to be more convincing than others and had no difficulty identifying the culprit and working out the clues that were pointing there. This is perhaps not Littlejohn’s most puzzling case. In spite of that however, I was entertained by the process by which Littlejohn reaches that same result and gratified that my reasoning was proven correct.

While there are no shocking moments in the plot, each development is set up well and there are a few powerful moments with one of the best coming near the end. Bellairs writes well, maintaining a decent pace and balancing action and description effectively. Though I find his style to be more amusing than comical, there are plenty of reasons to smile and chuckle. One of my favorites, though probably quite obscure, accompanies the reveal of the very fitting name of a woman in Cornwall.

Beyond that it is hard to think of much to say about this work (this may be my shortest review here in about two years). It is solid and very representative of the other Littlejohn stories I have read that were written in this period. No big flaws but no strong reasons to seek it out. I certainly enjoyed it and liked it more than Death of a Busybody but found it to have fewer points of interest than the more complex The Dead Shall Be Raised. That story alone justifies the purchase of the British Library’s double feature and is, in my opinion, the chief reason to pick it up. Viewed as a bonus however this is worth the read but if, like me, it takes you eighteen months to get around to it you probably won’t end up beating up on yourself.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Book Details

Originally published in 1952
Inspector Rivers #8
Preceded by It’s Her Own Funeral
Followed by Murder as a Fine Art

Carol Carnac also wrote E. C. R. Lorac

The Blurb

In Bloomsbury, London, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. The victim of a ruthless murder lies burnt beyond recognition, his possessions and papers destroyed by fire. But there is one strange, yet promising, lead—a lead which suggests the involvement of a skier.

Meanwhile, piercing sunshine beams down on the sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps, where a merry group of holidaymakers are heading towards Lech am Arlberg. Eight men and eight women take to the slopes, but, as the C.I.D. scrambles to crack the perplexing case in Britain, the ski party are soon to become sixteen suspects.

The Verdict

The alpine setting is handled well and adds appeal to a solid but relatively straightforward case.


My Thoughts

It feels rather odd to be reading about snowy holidays with the summer sun beating down on me but I was inspired to push Crossed Skis to the top of the TBR pile after a brief Twitter exchange with another book blogger about Lorac. After sharing that I have found Lorac to be a little inconsistent based on my pretty small sample, I noted that I had been intrigued to read this recent reprint. I was asked to share my thoughts when I did and so I figured I might as well do that sooner rather than later…

The story begins with a group of eight men and eight women departing Britain to travel to Lech in Austria on a skiing holiday. Most of the party do not know each other already but there is a general sense of excitement at a break from the dismal British weather, work and post-war rationing.

As they are on their way, Inspectors Brooks and Rivers are investigating a fire in a boarding house in Bloomsbury and the burnt corpse they find inside. The blaze was devastating, destroying most of the papers and objects within the room and it also rendered the body unidentifiable. The investigators have to identify the body, work out how and why they died and also understand the relevance of the strange impression that has been left outside the window.

The most striking characteristic of the novel is the decision to develop story strands in two separate locations. With the investigation confined to London until near the end of the novel, our pool of suspects are able to interact and enjoy themselves without the knowledge of the crime or the progress that the detectives are making. There are no formal suspect interviews, no structured examinations of movements or alibis. We simply observe how each member of the travel party is acting and, with knowledge of some of the findings in London, draw our own conclusions from that.

It is surprising just how well this approach works. Lorac is able to reveal much of the same information that you might expect to find in a more traditional detective story structure quite organically, often providing us with information without specifically drawing the reader’s attention to it.

On the other hand, the case seemed to have less elements than some of the other Lorac mysteries I have read. That is not to say the solution is simplistic but rather there are less attempts to use misdirection or introduce secondary mysteries to sustain the story. By the end of the novel the reader will be able to solve the mystery using their observations and logical reasoning, even as the Police characters are only learning the critical information for the first time.

I enjoyed both the London and Lech settings and story strands but not equally. While London was the site of the crime, I found I was a little impatient to see those characters make the connections to the traveling party abroad, especially once the basic facts of the case were confirmed. This does not so much reflect any lack of interest in those characters as a preference for the more colorful cast of characters we encounter in that group and for the more unusual Austrian setting.

The traveling party is large but in practice readers will likely consider only a handful of the group as suspects. This is reinforced by the author giving us more time with some characters than others. While I think each of the characters are distinctive, in practice several do feel quite peripheral to the story. The important figures however are colorfully drawn and easily distinguished, each possessing quite distinct personalities.

While the group are generally amicable in their relationships with each other, there are some points of conflict during the trip that do expose their personalities and help us understand them better. In short, I think that the book strikes a good balance between giving us a manageable group of suspects while also reflecting the sense that they are travelling as part of a larger party.

The other aspect of the trip I appreciated was the sense of time and place that Lorac is able to inject into those passages. Some of it are observations about practical details, such as the currency restrictions or arrangements for meals at the hotels, but there are also sections where the characters reflect on the need to behave courteously towards their Austrian hosts and Austria’s desire to open itself back up as a holiday destination after the war. In short, this is a book that feels like a window into the time in which it was written.

While Crossed Skis did not cause me to significantly rethink my feelings about Lorac as a writer, I did find it to be an entertaining read. It boasts a solid, if relatively simple, mystery plot elevated by the unusual story structure and choice of setting.

I imagine that to readers in 1952 the depiction of a continental skiing holiday would likely have felt very exotic and glamorous. Strangely, reading this in lockdown, I cannot help but feel I could understand the appeal of this sort of armchair travel all the more. Certainly I appreciated a chance to be diverted and transported somewhere different – it was just what I needed.

A copy was provided by the publisher for review.

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer

Book Details

Originally published in 1951
Shaffer originally published this under the name Peter Anthony.

Mr Verity #1
Followed by How Doth The Little Crocodile

The Blurb

The little Sussex town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century. And certainly none more baffling— to all except Mr Verity. From the moment he appears this bearded giant— ruthless inquirer, devastating wit and enthusiastic collector of the best sculpture— has matters firmly (if fantastically) under control. Things are certainly complicated, but this is hardly enough to deter Mr Verity. As he himself observes: “when the number of suspects is continually increasing, and the number of corpses remains constant, you get a sort of inflation. The value of your individual suspect becomes hopelessly depreciated. That, for the real detective, is a state of paradise.”

The Verdict

More amusing than raucously funny, but the mystery is solid enough to please puzzle fans.


My Thoughts

It is always exciting when a new British Library Publishing catalog arrives and I get to look through to see what new releases are coming up. I love to look through and pick out the upcoming titles I am most excited about. Sometimes it is because the author is an old favorite but sometimes it is because there is a title you didn’t expect to see at all. That was the case with The Woman in the Wardrobe by playwright Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer is perhaps best remembered for his plays Equus and Amadeus but he also penned several mystery novels under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, sharing writing duties on later volumes with his brother Anthony Shaffer. This first volume however was apparently written by Peter Shaffer alone. These books have been out of print for a long time so it is exciting that the first has been made available again, complete with Nicolas Clerihew Bentley’s lovely illustrations.

The story begins with Mr. Verity observing a man climb into a bedroom window at the Charter Hotel. Thinking this odd, Verity decides to go inside the Hotel to alert the staff to the unusual behavior. Investigating, they discover the door to the room is locked. Once inside, they find a man shot dead, a woman tied up in the wardrobe and the window locked from the inside.

Mr. Verity, who is apparently already a seasoned amateur sleuth, is drafted in to help Inspector Jackson with his investigation. In practice however he quickly seems to take charge, identifying several suspects and leading the questioning. It is not hard to find people who wanted the victim dead – the problem though is understanding how they were able to lock the door and the window from the inside.

Before I get into talking about the plot itself, I should probably mention that this novel strikes a decidedly comedic tone. In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes how Verity is a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ type. I would agree that the character does call back to many of the amateur sleuths of the Golden Age but it is more pastiche than parody. Certainly we should take Verity more seriously than, say, Melville’s Inspector Minto.

Shaffer primarily uses two types of humor in this novel. Much of it is situational, such as the farcical movements of characters back and forth through the supposedly locked room. In his excellent review, Puzzle Doctor rightly suggests that there is something of the West End farce in those scenes and I would agree, although I found it more amusing than raucous.

Incidentally, I was struck when reading this just how well it would probably translate to being adapted into a theatrical production. Much of the action takes place in just a few spaces and most of the important points about the plot are conveyed in conversation rather than description. I never had any difficulty visualizing characters’ movements or actions which is invaluable in any locked room story.

The other strand of humor is more consciously zany, with an attempt to create a sense of the ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is a rather colorful suspect who speaks at length about his obsession with Verity and Jackson – I won’t say exactly what the subject of that obsession is but the passages in which they interact are the most overtly comedic in the novel. I found these pretty funny but I am conscious that they do feel somewhat tangential to the overall plot, particularly given how short the book is.

In addition to being a comical mystery story, The Woman in the Wardrobe is also a locked room mystery. Bob Adey is quoted in the introduction as describing this as ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution’. At this point let me say I agree with the second half of that statement – the solution is very clever indeed – but I disagree with the former.

My issues are largely presentational. Shaffer establishes from a very early point in the novel that while the victim’s room key is locked inside the room, there is a hotel master key unaccounted for. That key would enable anyone to lock the room from the outside, basically undermining the idea that the door is a barrier at all. While I trusted that this would not be the explanation because of Adey’s comment, that master key becomes a bit of a distraction.

My other issue with the locked room is impossible to describe in any details without giving a significant spoiler. The best I can offer is that there is a possible (and fairly obvious) explanation for how the locked door and window could have happened that is dismissed on logical grounds that are, I think, flawed and certainly I found them much less persuasive than Verity or Jackson did.

On the other hand, I do agree with Adey that the actual solution is brilliant (and I will trust him that it was new). Every aspect of that solution is carefully clued and Verity’s explanation given makes perfect sense of each part of the crime scene, overcoming my frustrations about each of the above points. While I do not think that Verity fully disproves the issues I mention above, I think his explanation of his own solution is clever and convincing that ends the novel on a very high note.

The Woman in the Window is a short but entertaining read. I was amused by the comedic elements of the investigation and appreciated the solution which felt clever and imaginative. I enjoyed this enough to hope that the other two Verity stories will follow in the future.