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).

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

CCC
The Christmas Card Crime and 
Other Stories
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.

Whoops.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.

There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!

Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.

The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.

Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.

Continue reading “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards”

The Pocket Detective compiled by Kate Jackson

the-pocket-detective
The Pocket Detective
Compiled by Kate Jackson
Originally Published 2018

The holiday season is still several months away but knowing my readers are a canny bunch I am sure many of you are already giving thought to gifts or are perhaps tentatively putting together your lists for Santa. The Pocket Detective is pretty much the perfect stocking-stuffer for fans of Golden Age-era mysteries and, in particular, the British Library Crime Classics range.

It has taken me a week or so to get around to writing about this book because I wanted to have done (or at least attempted) every single puzzle. Being a genuinely pocket-sized book, I have been able to carry this with me wherever I have been and reach for it in quiet moments or during breaks at work. I appreciated the sturdy yet flexible binding and can happily report that after a week of heavy use it still looks very attractive.

While I didn’t manage to work out all of the answers – I am terrible at working out anagrams – I had a good time working through these and found the experience to be simultaneously quite calming and stimulating. It is a great book to reach for in a quiet moment and in most cases you can dip in and out of the puzzles at your leisure.

The book contains a nice variety of puzzle types from simple word searches and crosswords to odd one outs and letter jumble puzzles. Most of these are themed after titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but there are a few puzzles here that deal with Christie and Sayers too which came as a nice surprise for me.

One of my favorite puzzle types involves titles of mystery novels being broken up and jumbled around the page. The reader then has to reassemble the titles using each word only once. I hadn’t encountered that type of puzzle before but I felt it worked really well.

If, like me, you have only read a portion of the British Library’s output you have no need to worry. For one thing there is a handy list of titles at the back of the book that can be invaluable with some of the crosswords. More importantly though, very few puzzles require specific knowledge about the plots of stories – really only the Odd One Out puzzles and even those can usually be worked out by referring to their blurbs on Amazon. This makes it quite approachable, even for those puzzlers who are not avid crime fiction readers, while staying true to the theme of the book.

Pretty much my only (minor) complaints are that I wish that the puzzle types had been grouped together and that I think the color print in the Spot the Differences section was a little dark making spotting a couple of differences in The Notting Hill Mystery and Quick Curtain puzzles a little more challenging than I suspect they were meant to be. Neither issue seriously affected my enjoyment however and I think some of the differences are really quite cleverly achieved!

Overall I had a very good time with this and will no doubt continue to attempt to solve those last few remaining crossword clues in my spare moments in the weeks to come. I may even go back to try to work out some of the anagrams that had me stumped earlier in the week as I found my skills with them have noticeably improved!

Chimney Meddler Hog

Review copy provided by the publisher for early review though I have a copy on order. It is being released in the UK on October 18. This book is being published in the US as Golden Age of Detection Puzzle Book on November 6.

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Manor
Murder at the Manor
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Division
The Division Bell Mystery
Ellen Wilkinson
Originally Published 1932

As I noted yesterday, the past couple of weeks have seen me hit a bit of a reading slump and I have found myself struggling to engage with anything I read. When I find myself in this sort of mood I inevitably end up turning to my stack of unread British Library Crime Classics novels for inspiration.

The title I grabbed from the pile is one I have been looking forward to reading for a while, The Division Bell Mystery. My reason for being interested in this is that it was written by a Member of Parliament, Ellen Wilkinson, and having a background in British politics I was interested to see how that world would be represented and used to inspire a mystery plot.

The novel takes place in a period of financial uncertainty for Britain as the nation faces a currency crisis and is looking to borrow a sizeable sum from a reclusive American financier, Georges Oissel, to prevent disaster. The Home Secretary has arranged a private dinner with him in a small room within the House of Commons, Room J, where they can hash out some of the details but during the meal he has to leave for a short period to attend a vote.

Robert West, the Home Secretary’s Personal Private Secretary is having dinner with a friend and passing the room when the Division Bell rings and a gunshot is heard. They see no one leave the room and when they open the door they find Oissel dead with his gun lying near the body giving the impression of suicide. What makes the death even more suspicious is that the rooms in which he was staying in are burgled that same evening and the Home Secretary’s batman is found killed. And then there’s the billionaire’s niece who insists that it would make no sense for him to have committed suicide when he believed a medical breakthrough for his condition was just around the corner.

The sudden death of one of the world’s wealthiest men within the House of Commons threatens to become a source of scandal for the Government and so West is tasked with trying to understand what has happened to quell the rumors and minimize embarrassment. This means he is cast in the role of sleuth and while others will contribute to discovering the solution, he is presented as a sympathetic and trustworthy figure.

Both of the introductions to the novel within this British Library Crime Classics edition comment on how fair the portrayal of this Conservative politician is given it is written by a Labour politician who was given the nickname “Red Ellen”. Certainly I think Bob is portrayed as someone who cares about discovering the truth of what happened and is doing their best to understand what is going on. At times he is portrayed as being a little naive, particularly about women, but it is clear that Wilkinson has affection for her protagonist.

I do not want to suggest that this is an apolitical novel however as there are some issues on which the author’s views are conveyed, albeit in quite a gentle and restrained tone. These passages are not the focus of the novel however being quite short and limited in number making them easy to quickly gloss over.

Where Wilkinson is at her best is in bringing to life the little details of life in Parliament and she peppers her story with lots of witty and wry remarks and observations about the lifestyles of those in government and the anachronisms and traditions of Parliament. She creates some striking and believable characters, not least the senior civil servant who clearly resents having to be responsible to any minister – I suspect many readers may be reminded of Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister although he is presented as a more serious character who might be a help or a hindrance to Robert in his investigations so expect wry amusement rather than hearty guffaws of laughter.

Turning to the murder at the heart of the mystery, the location and circumstances of the crime certainly grabbed my attention and appealed to my imagination. I do have to agree with Kate (from CrossExaminingCrime) in saying that while there is a crime that appears to be a locked room murder, readers should lower their expectations on that front. Robert pays little attention to the question of how the crime was achieved and when we discover the answer it is handed to him rather than solved by his own efforts, arguably reducing its impact on the reader.

After amusing and intriguing in its first two-thirds, the final chapters of the novel feel anticlimactic. Part of the reason is that I am not sure I can say the mechanics of the explanation to the mystery are entirely fair. When the crime scene is first described Wilkinson appears to give a definitive piece of information that rules out an explanation that ought to remain on the table. I could still enjoy the story on its many other merits but should you come to this expecting to be dazzled by how it was done I fear you will be disappointed.

While the howdunit aspects of the novel disappoint, the book is much stronger as a whodunit. Wilkinson establishes several strong candidates and though I think one comes to stand out by the time we reach that final third of the novel, I did enjoy seeing how it would play out. These aspects of the story are much more strongly clued than how the crime was done and I think they are very successful.

Sadly The Division Bell Mystery is not a perfect work though I do think it is very impressive, particularly with regards its portrayal of life within the House of Commons. It is those extra little details that help bring this setting and these characters to life and make it enjoyable to spend time in their company.

Unfortunately Robert West would turn out to only appear in this one novel. This seems a shame as he is quite an appealing lead character but before long Wilkinson would be elected as Member of Parliament for Jarrow and there would be little time for writing.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Excellent
Excellent Intentions
Richard Hull
Originally Published 1938

Excellent Intentions is a Golden Age crime novel that tells the story of the trial of a person accused of killing Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate, a highly disagreeable landowner. This is not a legal thriller but rather a fairly conventional mystery as the accused’s identity is held back from the reader and they will have to deduce it from the court proceedings.

On the day of his murder, Cargate was set to make a journey by train. After complaining to the station master about a small delay and the conduct of his staff, Cargate enters the compartment and is observed appearing to take snuff from his pocket and putting it to his nostril before violently collapsing. Upon examination of the snuff case the police discover that the contents had been laced with poison.

The bulk of Hull’s story establishes the case for the prosecution, building up a timetable and establishing the personalities of the suspects and their possible reasons for wanting Cargate dead. Once this information is provided a handful of chapters at the end detail the remainder of the trial, the jury discussions and final outcome.

I have to say that I am undecided about whether I feel this structure worked. On the one hand, I think Hull does manage to hide the accused’s identity well while still providing enough clues that it can be fairly worked out. I also think that there is something inherently interesting in exploring the power of the jury and the personalities that make one up although I think it misses the opportunity to consider that in even greater detail. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by how little we hear from the defence although, like Kate, I understand its necessity to preserve the surprise of the suspect’s identity.

The other issue I had was with the character of the victim, Cargate, who seems cartoonishly horrible from the start of the novel. While I do not require a rigidly realistic approach in my crime reading, this presentation of the character verges on being inadvertently comical and comes close to rendering the opening of the novel ridiculous.

Cargate is presented as being underhand in his dealings with his staff and others while also possessing an argumentative and vindictive streak. Moments before his death he is threatening to report staff at the train station for accidentally bumping into him and for the train being a couple of minutes late. Couple that with his refusal to consider employing anyone local, preferring to acquire much more expensive servants in London.

Inspector Fenby is tasked with investigating the death and starts interviewing suspects, compiling a short list of three or four credible killers. This section of the novel is, as a consequence, quite slow and I would not disagree with PuzzleDoctor’s description of it as being a ‘bit time-tabley’. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work out who was where and when!

Fenby does not have an awful lot of personality and there are no attempts to build him up as a character. He largely exists to fulfil a role that drives the story forward while being credible as a witness and investigating officer. I think he does that reasonably well but it does make the middle of the novel seem a little dry.

The suspect pool is thankfully a little more entertaining and imaginative than the sleuth and it contains several colorful characters. I was entertained by the stories told of meetings held on the day of Cargate’s murder and think that the puzzle of who was responsible was interesting, if not enthralling.

Though not a perfect read, I do think that this is a solid and intriguing one. For those keen to try Hull’s work, I would certainly suggest looking at The Murder of My Aunt first.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Changes to the final two paragraphs of this review were made within moments of publication – I had accidentally tapped post while writing. Whoops!