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.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

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

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

murderunderground
Murder Underground
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Murder Underground is the first of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s. All three were reissued a few years ago by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics range, sporting introductions from crime writer Stephen Booth.

I have owned this one and Death on the Cherwell for some time but never really gave them a try. I suspect it was because some of the reviews I read, such as this one from Curtis, were not warm and when I did try Cherwell I found I couldn’t really get into it. Still, I recently decided that I wanted to fill in some gaps in my coverage of the Crime Classics range on this blog and having them to hand I figured I would give them a go.

Murder Underground begins in the aftermath of the murder of an elderly woman, Euphemia Pongleton (what a name!), who was strangled with her dog’s leash on a staircase at Belsize Park station. The dog was not with her at the time so someone who had access to the house must have been responsible, causing some concern for her family and the other boarders at the Frampton Hotel.

At first the investigation focuses on Bob Thurlow, a young man who has been walking out with her maid. We learn that she confiscated a brooch from him a few days before her death, claiming that it was stolen property and that she would decide what to do about the situation. The suspicion was that he killed her to keep her from talking to the Police yet it is pointed out that if he had killed her he would almost certainly have taken the brooch from her pockets.

Suspicion instead would seem to fall on her nephew Basil, a writer, who is expected to inherit the bulk of the estate. He seeks out legal advice from one of his aunt’s friends, confiding in him that he came across the body before it was found but fled the scene and constructed a false alibi. The story mostly follows his perspective on the case as he reacts to the police investigation and tries to shore up his alibi.

The result is a story that has a rather unusual focus. Most mystery stories tend to play out from the perspective of someone who is trying to solve the case or prove their innocence yet Basil is in a very different situation. His problems are almost entirely of his own making and borne out of his own choices, flippant attitude and careless thinking.

Some reviews comment on how he is a pretty unsympathetic figure and I can certainly see why he would irritate readers. His attitude towards his aunt’s estate seems entitled and there are points during the story where he comes off as snobbish and selfish in his interactions with others. Still, I will admit to finding him rather entertaining if you approach this story as a somewhat comedic cautionary tale rather than as a detective story.

The comedic conceit is that you have a character treating life as if he were in a light comedy when he is actually in a dark murder tale. All of his instincts are to dig himself in deeper, to further complicate his alibi and construct further layers of inadequate stories to try to cover up the uncomfortable but not criminal situation he found himself in on that staircase. He will not be responsible for his own rescue and instead we can see that he is fortunate that there are others around him who are far more aware of just how perilous his situation could be.

One of the things Curtis mentions in his review of Murder Underground is the contradiction in the tone of the material, finding the brutal murder at odds with the otherwise quite frothy and lightly comedic business around it. I think that argument reflects two ideas – firstly that Ms Euphremia Pongleton is not a ‘deserving corpse’. I can say that I probably wouldn’t like her if I met her but while she tries to exert pressure over Basil with the threat of altering her will, I think she is proud of him and wants the best for him.

The second argument is more specifically about the vicious nature of the murder method which while not described in detail is still quite disturbing to imagine. I will concede that this is a problem when you look at the book as an example of a mystery or detective novel but I think it works better if your focus is on the way Basil makes himself look guiltier and guiltier with his responses and the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in.

While this is not a detective story, there is still a mystery here for the reader to solve by the end of the book. Hay does drop clues for the reader about the case and while I am not convinced that it plays fair with the reader, I found the ending to be quite entertaining and I think the conclusion just about makes sense. I would also say that I found the cast of characters to be quite distinct and entertaining.

In spite of some of these positives, I do think that there are also several missteps and irritations. One that always irritates me is the choice to try to depict accents in the text. This is a difficult thing to do and almost never done well.

The other is that the active characters really have very little to do with establishing the outcome for the novel’s conclusion making them seem a little passive. Now, as I indicated earlier, I do think that fits the themes I believe Hay is developing but I don’t think it works dramatically, nor are the laughs quite big enough to say it really works comically either.

To me Murder Underground is ultimately a rather awkward read. At its best there are great positives such as the lively characterization and effective communications of ideas are certainly there and to be appreciated but I think if it wanted to be a comedy it should have pushed those elements a little more. Instead it feels like a messy jumble, mixing the dramatic and the comedic but never quite successfully marinating them together. The British Library have reissued some other lighthearted mysteries that I think are altogether more effective and I would suggest that you start with those before tackling this story.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

The Dead Shall Be Raised by George Bellairs

DeadShall
The Dead Shall Be Raised
aka. Murder Must Speak
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #4
Preceded by Death of a Busybody
Followed by Murder of a Quack

When I was making my plans for my week of festive reads I had not noticed that my 200th fiction review would be falling right in the middle of it. I only noticed a few days before and when I found that I wasn’t enjoying the book I had planned to review in this slot I decided to change things up and find something else that would not only fit the festive theme (as I happily learned from a review at Gaslight Crime) but also feel appropriate for a milestone post.

Over the past year I have returned time and again to the mystery novels of George Bellairs. Looking at the list of authors I have previously reviewed he comes second only to Freeman Wills Crofts which is remarkable given I was never really bowled over by any of his books. I always believed that, with patience, I would come across one of his books that would really hit the mark for me. I am very pleased to be able to report that The Dead Shall Be Raised proved I was right to keep that faith.

This novel was one of the earliest Bellairs wrote, being published in 1942 and it was recently reissued by the British Library in a double-bill with The Murder of a Quack. It is notable for several reasons but the one that interests me most is that it is essentially a cold case story. Littlejohn happens to be in the area visiting his wife for Christmas when a body is discovered of a man who disappeared over twenty years earlier having been believed to have murdered one of his colleagues in a dispute over a woman’s affections. Many of the original figures from that case have died or moved away leaving the Inspector with limited leads to follow.

Bellairs presents us with a situation that feels much more complex and mysterious than any I have encountered in his other stories to date. The crime scene itself is inherently confusing as it is hard to understand why the two bodies, apparently linked in death, were treated differently with just one being buried. As Littlejohn interviews the surviving witnesses and family members he learns more about the two victims and their relationship, identifying several suspects into the bargain.

I have written before about how well Bellairs conjures up a sense of the countryside in his work and I can only reiterate that opinion here. He not only gives a strong impression of the rugged landscape but the people who inhabit the town of Hatterworth feel real and well-observed. They respond to Littlejohn’s presence quite differently, some being excited or drawn to him because of the idea of an important detective taking an interest in their lives, others feeling he is an outsider whose efforts are likely to cause more trouble than good. They feel like a real community and while we only get to know a few characters very well, it adds credibility to the setting and situation.

It turns out that Bellairs is not only good at giving a sense of place, his writing conveys a sense of the time in which this book is written. This book is set in 1941, a year before publication, and there are parts of this story that strongly give a sense of the wartime experience. For instance, the book opens with a wonderful sequence in which we see Littlejohn having to travel by night which means trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with so little light that you cannot see the person sat next to you in a car. Bellairs not only tells you what they had to do, he gives you a sense of how it felt and I found it to be a really compelling opening to the novel.

Littlejohn is a practical, methodical detective whose approach to a case focuses on establishing and corroborating simple details. This means that many of the key points of the story seem to be slowly teased out or come into focus rather than being revealed in a sudden twist or development. Where this story differs from some of the later Bellairs novels I have read is that the reader also has to consider the mechanics of the crime much more than usual, only serving to complicate the eventual solution.

One other aspect of this book that stood out for me was that Bellairs reveals the killer’s identity far earlier than is usual in his work. Heading into the final chapters we are aware of who was responsible for carrying out the crime but we have not seen how it was done or exactly why and so these questions, rather than that of the killer’s identity, come to dominate the book’s conclusion. It makes for a nice change and I am really happy to be able to say the clues are fairly placed throughout the story and the solution fits the facts well.

The only disappointments for me were that Littlejohn’s wife who is supposedly his reason for visiting really doesn’t feature much in the story making you wonder if her inclusion was necessary at all while that the ending feels a little too easy for Littlejohn and certainly too tidy. Given the quality of the puzzle up to that point, the resolution feels like an afterthought and not quite earned by the investigator’s efforts up until that point.

Happily I found the journey to that point to be both interesting and entertaining. This book is not just a good character study or travelogue but a fascinating case with some solid complications, interesting investigative techniques and a very clever solution. It is easily the best Bellairs I have read so far and falls into that category of mysteries set at Christmas you can really read the whole year round. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Recognized Holiday (When)

The Dead Shall Be Raised was reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in a double-bill omnibus edition with The Murder of a Quack. It was published in the United States as Murder Will Speak (both titles are excellent).