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.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Book Details

Originally published 2017.

The Blurb

This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction—from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age—in an accessible, informative and engaging style.

Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar—as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.

The Verdict

An entertaining thematic overview of crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. Just be aware that you will probably come away from this with a long list of obscure (and sometimes expensive) books to track down!


My Thoughts

Last week Jim at The Invisible Event released the third installment in his In GAD We Trust podcast. In that installment he interviewed Martin Edwards, touching upon his work with the British Library Crime Classics range and his two nonfiction titles – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

That conversation reminded me that I wanted to purchase my own physical copy of the latter. This is one of my (many) peculiarities as a reader – I am equally happy to read physical or ebook fiction titles but I find non-fiction, particularly reference books, much easier to navigate and absorb in hard copy.

In his introduction to the book, Edwards describes how he wrote the book to serve as a companion piece to the British Library Crime Classics range. That is not to say that it is about the books they have published – only a fraction of the titles highlighted are from that collection – but rather it provides a context for those releases and suggests further reading.

He also stresses in that introduction that the book has neither been developed to serve as an encyclopedia, nor is it an attempt to pick the 100 greatest works. There are certainly several works discussed that you might expect with multiple entries for Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox, but the titles chosen are selected for how well they correspond to the theme Edwards is discussing in that chapter.

Edwards begins each chapter with an introductory essay that introduces a theme. Some are more developmental – focusing on aspects of plot construction – but most relate to an aspect of setting, style or theme. An example of this would be the sixth chapter, Serpents in Eden, which discusses examples of rural or village mysteries. Incidentally this and several other chapters share the names of short story collections that Edwards edited for the range, making these ideal reference points for readers curious how novelists approached those same themes and ideas.

The introductory essay discusses those themes in quite general terms, name-dropping plenty of authors and titles beyond the highlighted ones for curious readers to explore. This is followed by a number of shorter pieces – each of which is typically two to three pages long – that describe a particular work and how it addresses that theme.

Some of the titles Edwards selects will be familiar to many while others merit the label he applies to them of being ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’. In a few cases I was surprised at one title by an author being selected ahead of another work I view as superior but I typically understood why by the end of the piece (an example would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but my assumption is that was avoided in favor of The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it is so hard to discuss without spoiling it).

The best thing about the book for me though was the number of titles Edwards mentions that I have yet to read and, in several cases, that I knew nothing about. For every The Hollow Man, there is a Death at Broadcasting House – particularly in the later, more thematic chapters.

I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that the chapter on inverted mysteries opens with the Coles’ End of an Ancient Mariner – a book I am now really excited to go read. And which I now bought… As I did Anthony Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments along with four or five other books.

It is possible that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books may be the most expensive book I have ever bought. This is not because it is outrageously priced – it is a standard softcover – but in the way it entices you to chase after books that are often long out-of-print. For those keen to delve a little deeper into the world of classic crime, this can be an entertaining and enlightening starting point, showcasing the diversity of the genre and in guiding you to some lesser-known or obscure works.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac

Book Details

Originally published 1946
Robert MacDonald #27
Preceded by Murder by Matchlight
Followed by Murderer’s Mistake

The Blurb

The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

The Verdict

Lorac’s depiction of life in Devon during the later stages of World War 2 adds interest to an otherwise solid mystery.


My Thoughts

I have been meaning to return to the works of E. C. R. Lorac ever since I read Murder in the Mill-Race last Summer. In my review of that title I noted that I had made several previous attempts to start her books but I never seemed to be able to get into them. Still, I had enjoyed that novel and, in particular, its depiction of country life so of the other reprints I owned, this had the greatest attraction for me.

The novel is set in Devon and takes place in the later stages of the war. Colonel St Cyres owns a vacant property, Little Thatch, on his land and is approached by several interested parties looking to lease it. One, a rich city type, is supported by his daughter-in-law but he regards the man as distasteful and opts instead to lease it to a man who had served in the Navy before being injured and who is keen to work the land.

That man, Nicholas Vaughan, works hard over the following months to make improvements to the aging structure, impressing many of the locals with his work ethic. Sadly however a fire breaks out at Little Thatch late one night and he is burned to death in what appears to be a tragic accident.

These opening chapters unfold at a rather leisurely pace, giving lots of detail both about the relationships between the various figures in the community surrounding Little Thatch and also about farming in that period. Much of this is necessary to establish the key points of the mystery but I cannot say I was particularly engaged with the characters or the scenario at that point.

That changed significantly for me with the introduction of Chief Inspector MacDonald into the story. He is brought into the case when one of Vaughan’s friends from the Navy questions the coroner’s verdict. Several of his arguments amount to little more than hunches but he does enough to sow some seeds of doubt for MacDonald and so he travels to Devon to investigate for himself.

This plot setup in which a detective has to prove there was a case to investigate at all can be rather effective and Lorac handles it well. Smartly the author does not attempt to make the reader question this – after all, were there not to be a murder then this book would be rather pointless – but instead the focus is on how he will prove it.

That investigation is, much like the opening chapters, fairly leisurely paced. This is not the sort of case where the reader is presented with shocking new information but rather one in which our understanding of a situation is fleshed out with new details, painting a fuller picture.

Similarly I cannot claim that the solution to this mystery is hugely shocking but I think Lorac builds up to the reveal of their guilt pretty well, giving us a much richer understanding of their character. There are a couple of clever pieces of reasoning involved in MacDonald’s accusation. For instance, I was quite impressed by the account he gives of the killer’s movements although I am not certain that the reader could really work everything out for themselves. It makes for a solid, if not especially flashy, case.

There were several aspects of the novel that elevated it for me. I was appreciative of the details Lorac includes that give us a sense of the place and time. The war mostly exists in the background but there are some striking moments where it comes into focus such as when MacDonald compares the burnt out cottage to those buildings in London that had been hit by bombs.

There is also some interesting discussion of the tensions between city and country dwellers. That is most evident in the way Gressingham is portrayed as lacking in moral character and also in how he is talked about by the other characters but he is by no means the only example.

Lorac’s sympathies do seem to fall more heavily towards the country folk and, in particular, towards Colonel St Cyres. I might suggest that he is cut from the same sort of cloth as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham – a sort of idealized, paternalistic landlord. Still, the contrast between the two types is done quite well and I found both characters interesting in the way they respond to MacDonald’s questioning.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this novel I loved – the character of Chief Inspector MacDonald.

Lorac’s sleuth is presented as being a man of sound judgment, compassion and great humanity. On several occasions in the novel he shows awareness of how the investigation is affecting others and approaches the evidence in a reasonable, measured way that fits the overall tone and pacing of the novel. I certainly liked him far more here than I did in Mill-Race and I would be interested to get to know him better.

As a mystery Fire in the Thatch is solid enough but I think it was those elements that kept me reading. For me it was these elements of the setting and the personality of the sleuth that drew me in and make me most interested to read more from Lorac.

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

Book Details

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

The Blurb

The offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company have been blown to smithereens; three of the company directors are found dead amongst the rubble, and the peace of a quiet town in Surrey lies in ruins. When the supposed cause of an ignited gas leak is dismissed and the presence of dynamite revealed, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to the scene.

But beneath the sleepy veneer of Evingden lies a hotbed of deep-rooted grievances. The new subject of the town’s talk, Littlejohn’s investigation is soon confounded by an impressive cast of suspicious persons, each concealing their own axe to grind.

The Verdict

Definitely a lesser work in the Littlejohn series but with a few points of interest that make it worth a look.


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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