Last week I shared my first nomination for this year’s Reprint of the Year award, Mystery on Southampton Water, suggesting that it was a strong example of how reprints can make unaffordable classic crime novels accessible once again. My second nomination is representative of the other reason I think reprints are so important – they can shine a light on otherwise obscure writers or titles.
Dean Street Press are one of a number of publishers who have done splendid work bringing the works of writers of the Golden and Silver ages of crime fiction back onto our bookshelves. Whether you collect the handsome paperbacks or the highly affordable ebook copies, they have brought readers into contact with the works of writers like Moray Dalton, E. R. Punshon, Molly Thynne and yes, Brian Flynn.
The Heel of Achilles was a particularly joyous find for me because it is another example of an inverted mystery novel. The Radfords clearly drew inspiration from the work of R. Austin Freeman both in terms of the structure of the story but also in the manner of their sleuths. Manson, much like Thorndyke, carries a mobile laboratory with him.
The case itself is an interesting one, beginning with the account of what leads Jack, a young mechanic, to commit murder. As is typically in many of these stories, we understand Jack’s motivations and see why he feels trapped, particularly given how he was caught up in events he never wished to be involved in.
I equally enjoyed the remaining two-thirds of the novel in which we follow Manson as he attempts to make sense of the crime scene. Here the reader often has prior knowledge of the explanation of a particularly confusing aspect of the case and enjoys watching to see if the detective is able to piece it together without that knowledge.
What makes this story particularly entertaining to me however is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. Yes, he gets to the right solution in the end but he makes a number of incorrect, if logically reasoned, guesses along the way. Each of those mistakes is carefully footnoted in a sort of reverse cluefinder section at the end of the novel. It is a really charming feature of the story and one that I wish other writers had emulated.
It all makes for an entertaining and charming read that I am thoroughly glad was made available again for me to enjoy. It is certainly hard to imagine that even as an enthusiast of inverted mysteries I would ever have crossed paths with it without the efforts of Dean Street Press. Knowing that there are other Manson stories awaiting me only adds to my excitement!
For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime. The post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.
Anthony Bathurst #4 Preceded by The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye Followed by The Five Red Fingers
Christmas Eve at Vernon House is in full swing. Sir Eustace’s nearest and dearest, and the great and the good of Mapleton, are all there. But the season of comfort and joy doesn’t run true to form. Before the night is out, Sir Eustace has disappeared and his butler, Purvis, lies dead, poisoned, with a threatening message in his pocket. Or is it her pocket?
That same evening, Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble and investigator Anthony Bathurst are out for a drive. They come across an abandoned car at a railway crossing, and find a body – Sir Eustace Vernon, plus two extraordinary additions. One, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two, a red bon-bon in his pocket with a threatening message attached.
An enjoyable puzzler which offers up a number of interesting questions for the reader to solve.
I really enjoyed my first taste of Brian Flynn’s work when I read and reviewed Tread Softly earlier this year and ever since then I have been keen to get back to him. When I remembered that he had written a mystery that begins at a Christmas Eve dinner party I thought that it might be a good candidate for my festive reads series and decided I would give it a try.
Sir Eustace Vernon hosts a gathering at his home which is attended by his friends and neighbors. After giving a short speech he opens a red bonbon, which the excellent introduction to the reprint explains is another term for cracker, and reads the message inside. Moments later he hurriedly excuses himself from the party, explaining that he has received ‘some very bad news’. The event continues for some time but eventually his absence is noticed. A note is found suggesting that Sir Eustace intends to take what some may consider ‘the coward’s way out’ prompting a search. Instead of Sir Eustace however they find the butler dead with a red bonbon in their pocket containing a threat that they have just one hour to live and will pay their debt that very night.
Coincidentally Sir Austin Kemble, the Police Commissioner, and Anthony Bathurst are in the vicinity when they notice an abandoned car near a railroad crossing. Stopping to investigate, they notice Sir Eustace’s body on the tracks. While the first thought is suicide, the discovery of an identicle threatening note in the bonbon in his pocket leads Bathurst to suspect murder – an idea borne out when the investigation reveals he was shot in the back of the head.
The opening chapters of the book are excellent with Flynn doing an excellent job of introducing the reader to the characters and establishing the chain of events leading to the disappearance, often in quite some detail. One example would be the careful descriptions of who was sat in which spots around the dinner table and how they were positioned in relation to the each. On occasions information that will be relevant later is almost buried in description or conversation, making it feel all the more satisfying whenever the reader does catch an important point.
Let’s dispense with the weakest part of the novel first: the murder of the butler. This is not weak because the concepts are poor but simply because there is so little time given to this story thread. In short, we are never given enough time with the character to feel truly invested in them and so their story can feel like a bit of an afterthought, particularly given the way it is suddenly resurrected in the final chapters and explained away.
In contrast, the main storyline feels rather more compelling. I think that this is partly because we get to know Sir Eustace before his vanishing and the subsequent discovery of his body, building the reader’s attachment, but it is also that the knowledge that he has a niece humanizes him, as does the story of his bravery in saving children from a huge fire. It helps too that the situation around the disappearance and murder raises so many interesting questions about the victim and the circumstances of his murder.
Bathurst once again makes for a fun and engaging investigator in the Great Detective style. He focuses in on small details of the crime scene and declares at several points that a piece of evidence or information is vital to the understanding of what happened. There are a few occasions where those declarations feel a little hasty, yet given they are there for the reader’s benefit it didn’t trouble me too much.
While I think the ultimate explanation of the crime is clever, if a little sensational, there is an aspect of the solution that I felt was insufficiently clued. I could guess at the idea based on other aspects of the scenario but it seemed that there were few if any positive clues for the reader or Bathurst to reach that conclusion. To be clear, I still appreciated and was entertained by the solution but some may feel that Bathurst doesn’t quite have enough evidence to back up every point in the case he will make.
Overall however I found The Murders at Mapleton to be a very enjoyable read and one that delivered exactly what I hoped for – a puzzling scenario with some unique points of interest. It makes solid use of its seasonal elements yet it can be easily appreciated at any time of year. In short, another positive experience with Flynn’s work that leaves me excited to delve more deeply in the new year.
Originally published 1937 Anthony Bathurst #20 Preceded by Fear and Trembling Followed by Cold Evil
Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.
Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?
Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.
I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.
While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.
This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.
It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?
One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.
I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.
A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.
I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.
I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.
Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.
Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!
TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.
Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.
A Cataloguing Note
For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.
Originally published 1929 Inspector Collier #1 Followed by The Night of Fear
Elbert J. Pakenham of New York City is among just nine survivors of the sinking of the Coptic – not counting his black cat Jehosaphat. The benevolent Mr. Pakenham has made his fellow survivors joint beneficiaries in his will, his nephew having recently passed away. But it seems that someone is unwilling to share the fortune, as the heirs start to die under mysterious circumstances . . .
Then Mr. Pakenham himself disappears, and Inspector Collier of Scotland Yard suspects dirty work. When a trap is laid that seriously wounds his best friend at the Yard, Superintendent Trask, Collier is certain his suspicions are correct. Into his net are drawn a charming young woman, Corinna Lacy, and her cousin and trustee, Wilfred Stark; a landed gentleman of dubious reputation, Gilbert Freyne, and his sister-in-law, Gladys; an Italian nobleman of ancient lineage and depleted estate, Count Olivieri; and a Bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. But Collier will need some unexpected feline assistance before the case is solved.
A lively tontine tale with some entertaining but rather far-fetched plot developments. While this was the first Collier novel published, I would start with a later title and come back to this.
There are some elements of golden age mysteries that just seem to excite me. At the top of that list would be any mention of curare, that mysterious and rare poison that every English aristocrat seemed to possess a jar of. Right behind that though would be the tontine will.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term or idea, a tontine will designates a certain group of individuals as the beneficiaries. At the moment of death the surviving members would be paid an equal share of the bequest. This is, of course, mystery fiction gold because you instantly create a situation in which the characters all share an equally powerful motive to remove the other members to increase the size of their portion.
One by One They Disappeared involves just such a will. Elbert Pakenham, a wealthy American, had a narrow escape with death when he and eight other passengers survive the sinking of the Coptic during a transatlantic voyage. Each year he had thrown a dinner for his fellow survivors in England, bestowing them with small gifts. Then, realizing he is aging and that he has no one else to leave the money to, he announces that he has made all of his fellow survivors joint heirs in his will.
This story begins with the dinner the year after this announcement has been made. Pakenham is dismayed to find that only a couple of the survivors show up to that year’s dinner. When one of the survivors dies in a suspicious fall in a place he had no reason to be, Collier suspects foul play and soon discovers that several of the other beneficiaries had also disappeared.
As setups for this sort of story go, I think this gets things off to a promising start. For one thing, I appreciated that we come into this murder plot after it is already well underway. For one thing, it does mean that our sleuth can see a pattern emerging and allows for the suspect pool to be whittled down to a more manageable number.
The sort of informal role that Inspector Collier has at the beginning is a little awkward as he really has no standing to investigate the case at that point. On the other hand, I think Dalton does provide us with some convincing reasons for him to become interested in the case and by the time things get more serious he does have a more formal part to play.
This is, of course, Collier’s first outing as a detective and I was a little surprised that Dalton does not seem to spend much time establishing his character. Instead she really just throws us straight into the case and introduces him as we learn about and follow his efforts to investigate the crime. Still, I think the essential qualities of his character are communicated to the reader in the way we see him deal with the other characters and the consideration he shows throughout the investigation. He is not necessarily a strong character but I think he is a thoroughly likeable one.
The other characters were, for me, a little more inconsistent. Pakenham is certainly an interesting figure and I appreciated the way he is shown to respond to the situation that develops. He ends up playing an important and active role in the story which I did not expect and I think his involvement did lend an extra level of interest to the situation.
The suspects however are a largely different matter. Their personalities and characters are displayed to the reader from their first appearances, making spotting the culprit frustratingly easy. The shadier figures instantly stand out while others can be immediately dismissed because of their involvement in a secondary, romantic plotline.
As with the other Dalton novels I have read, this does have a certain direct quality that helps make it a page-turning read. There is a sense that Collier is constantly edging nearer to catching the killer and while the action in the plot is fairly limited, I did appreciate that there are a few moments of excitement as we near the conclusion.
As for that conclusion, well – I think that the story shares some stylistic elements with the thrillers Christie was writing in this period. That sort of storytelling is not a particular favorite for me and I think there are a few aspects of the explanation that seemed a little confusing but here I cannot go into any more detail without spoiling which, of course, I have no wish to do.
So, where does that leave One by One They Disappeared? I think it is clear that this is an early work and there are a few rougher edges. For instance, the suspects feel a little flat and the decision to pull the story to a conclusion seemed rather arbitrary.
It isn’t bad – I would certainly reach for it ahead of most of those Christie thrillers. What keeps me from a more enthusiastic recommendation is that I have already come across other Dalton novels I liked more. I would far more readily recommend either The Art School Murders and The Condamine Case, both of which feel more refined works. Still, this is a fun and quick read and while I would suggest getting to know Collier through other stories first, this is a good, solid read worth circling back to.
Originally published 1947 Inspector Collier #12 Preceded by The Longbridge Murders Followed by The Case of the Dark Stranger
In London, rising young movie director Stephen Latimer learns of a gentrified family in Somerset with an old history of witchcraft and haunting. Scenting an excellent subject for his next film, he visits their ancestral manor.
Pleased with his discoveries, Stephen returns to London, planning to spice up the family legend still further for the film. But he is soon to learn that after his departure Death came to Little Baring.
Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard arrives on the scene, facing a case that concerns not one murder, but two. Whodunit? Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring? Or someone farther afield? And is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?
The mix of vintage film and a mysterious haunting worked for me.
Having enjoyed myself so much reading Dalton’s The Art School Murders last month I have been keen to explore more of her work. Rather than trying to go through these in a particular order I decided to go for the book that had the most elements that grabbed me. This one won out with its mix of a story of an ancient witchcraft trial, ghosts and the workings of the film industry.
Stephen Latimer is a young British director who has had great success with his first two projects and is now set to develop a third. He receives a proposal to make a film based on historical events that took place in a village in Somerset where a woman conspired to have a rival accused of witchcraft and drowned only to find herself haunted by her.
Latimer travels down to Somerset with his assistant director Evan to research the story and determine how they would film it. They meet with Mr. Condamine and his wife to learn more about the legend and to scout out locations. Things seem to be going well until Condamine suddenly dies after going out on a picnic with his wife and it is found that he had been poisoned.
Dalton’s story takes a while to get to this first murder with much of the opening chapters dedicated to exploring and building up our understanding of the dynamics at play in the Condamine household as well as some of the history of the witch trial and subsequent hauntings. These chapters are suitably atmospheric and I was interested in the story of that earlier crime although its prominence in these early chapters does make those details seem more important than they perhaps are.
While it may have a slow start, Dalton does a fine job of creating an intriguing set of circumstances around this first murder. Some of the questions Inspector Collier will have to contend with include figuring out exactly when the poison was administered as well as whether Condamine was the intended target. The answers to both questions are interesting and I think the situation only becomes more intriguing with the discovery of a second murder.
Dalton’s characters can be broadly split into two categories – the locals and those associated with the film. Most are quite colorfully drawn and make enough of an impression that it is easy to follow who everyone is.
Latimer, the film’s director, struck me as the most interesting of the bunch – in part because of his somewhat caustic manner and relationship with his assistant, Evan. Their relationship is pleasingly complex, at moments affectionate yet at others quite exploitative. Evan recognizes that the director is brilliant but it is clear he does not always enjoy spending time with him.
I think it is fair to criticise the prominence of the film development elements of the story for slowing down its early chapters but I must say that I found its presentation of the film industry in this period to be interesting and handled well. Dalton does a good job of balancing the idea of Hollywood and movie making as being glamorous with the practicalities of standing around waiting for filming or the strong egos involved in creating art.
Inspector Collier makes his introduction to the story relatively late. We are well beyond forty per cent of the way into the novel before he appears to take charge of the investigation. Happily once he does we see him quickly exert his influence and perspective onto the case.
I continue to like Collier a lot as a detective, appreciating those moments in which he shows his consideration or humanity. He is shown to be diligent and attentive, asking perceptive questions and making some critical logical connections from the answers given. He remains a detective who interests me and I hope to read more of his adventures soon.
So, what doesn’t work about this novel? Not much – it is a pretty quick and entertaining read. I think Dalton structures her story very well and I enjoyed seeing how she spun the plot points together, creating a pretty exciting and dramatic build up to its conclusion. Happily that conclusion is built upon some solid deductive reasoning!
Were I to stretch for a problem it would be that the novel’s opening does seem to lack some focus, though I do think it highly entertaining in places. On the whole though, I feel that the various elements are crafted well and the story built to a conclusion I found both clever and satisfying.
It is definitely worth a try if you are curious about Dalton’s work but I might suggest that because of Collier’s late entry in the story it might make sense to pick and try one of his other adventures first if learning about the sleuth is your primary focus in reading mysteries. I certainly enjoyed it enough that I plan further reads in this series. If anyone has read the Collier series I would appreciate any suggestions you can make concerning which to read next.
Curtis Evans shares his thoughts on this story in an essay on his blog, The Passing Tramp.
Doctor Manson #8 Preceded by John Kyleing Died Followed by Look in at Murder
The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.
A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.
This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.
The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.
As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.
Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.
I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.
I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?
The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.
Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.
One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.
The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.
It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.
I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.
Originally published in 1943 Inspector Hugh Collier #10 The publication order of the Collier stories seems a little confusing to me – in his excellent introduction to the book, Curtis says it is the tenth by his reckoning so we’ll go with that.
Artists’ model Althea Greville was, in life, known as something of a femme fatale. But the phrase becomes only too literal. What initially appears to be red paint leads instead to Althea’s dead body, murdered in Morosini’s renowned school of art. Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard is called in, but two more murder victims follow, one of them a female student at the school, stabbed to death at a cinema. After many a twist, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle to identify a murderer operating under cover of England’s World War Two black-out.
A quick-paced and entertaining detective story.
I am always excited to see when Dean Street Press announce a new set of titles, particularly when they feature an author that is entirely new to me. Recently they have started releasing some works by Moray Dalton (a pen name for Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) and, of course, I jumped right on them – picking up several titles.
The one that grabbed my attention most was this title, in large part because of its setting. For one thing the case is set during wartime – more on that in a moment – but also because of the art school setting. One of the ways I have spent my enforced confinement to the home over the past month is filming and editing art instructional videos for my wife’s students so I find myself in an arty mood at the moment.
The novel is set at an art school located about forty minutes outside London in the small market town of Scanbridge. The school is owned by an Italian artist whose interest in the institution has waned over the years as he makes only infrequent visits, preferring the more vibrant cultural and social life found in the capital. As a consequence the school is facing a bleak future thanks to the effect of the war and the ‘absurdly high’ fees.
It opens with the wife of the building’s caretaker unlocking and opening up the school building in an early November morning only to discover a woman lying dead on the classroom floor. One of the masters identifies her as the life model he had engaged from London and the local police, recognizing (and perhaps hoping) that the crime may have roots outside their jurisdiction, decides to send for Scotland Yard to investigate.
While the prospect of the locked school building may sound like the starting point for a locked room mystery, I should stress that it is acknowledged early in the book that there are several individuals who possess keys to the building. Those questions of access do factor into the mystery but are by no means a key focus of the story.
Instead Inspector Collier’s focus falls on exploring the history of the murdered woman and that of the individuals who make up the school’s teaching staff and student body. While the student body is a reasonably large group of characters, our attention is narrowed to just a couple of witnesses (the mechanism for that is a little contrived but I will take a little streamlining over the prospect of dozens of identical interactions).
This is not the sort of mystery that presents the reader with much in the way of physical clues – most of the information gained comes in conversation. Being so interview-driven works to the book’s advantage as Dalton’s detective, Collier, is charming and highly personable, using his interpersonal skills to ease people into revealing information to him.
The second murder, when it comes, added an additional layer of interest for me and leads to some of the book’s strongest exchanges. For instance, it is following that incident that Collier finally manages to meet with Mr. Morosini who proves a rather highly strung interviewee and who is easily the book’s most colorful character.
The aspect of the book that intrigued me most however was its setting and Dalton’s presentation of how wartime conditions affect both the fortunes of the school and the investigation. The latter is particularly well done in moments such as when Collier acknowledging that some usual approaches to crime solving, such as discreetly tailing a suspect, are just impossible in the blackout.
This brings me, a little reluctantly, to discuss the book’s conclusion which I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The reveal of the killer struck me as a little anticlimactic, in part because I think there is an argument to be made that Collier really doesn’t do much to bring that about. He certainly connects the dots at the right time but I was not entirely convinced that the character could have known for sure without that. That being said, other aspects of the conclusion make it quite an exciting and dramatic read.
The motive, when revealed, is powerful and a secondary plot is wrapped up in a way that I felt was quite pleasing and gave some characters an appropriately happy ending. It made for a nice closure to the story and I appreciated the way Dalton gives us a glimpse into how some characters’ lives have changed since they were caught up in The Art School Murders.
Overall, I found this to be a quick, engaging and entertaining read. I have, of course, indulged my Dean Street Press habit and purchased all of the other Moray Dalton titles currently available. Based on this experience I am very confident that I will be reading more from this author in the next few months.
This superb essay from Curtis Evans, the writer of the introduction to the Dean Street Press edition, touches on both blackouts in crime fiction and this book specifically.
One of my goals for my second year of blogging has been to seek out authors whose work I have never tried before. Annie Haynes is one such author. I have stockpiled eBook copies of her work during sales and promotions from Dean Street Press but had never got around to trying any of the novels before now.
The Bungalow Mystery was the first of her novels to be published, coming out in 1923 – the same year as her first Inspector Furnival novel, The Abbey Court Murder.
The story’s protagonist is Doctor Lavington, a recent arrival in the village of Sutton Boldon. He is summoned by his neighbor’s housekeeper who tells him that her master is dying. Upon arriving he discovers that the man, a reclusive and wealthy artist, is already dead and has been shot through the head. There is no sign of any pistol in the room and the position of the entry wound shows that it could not be self-inflicted. He decides it must be murder and sends the distressed housekeeper to summon the Police.
During the period in which he is alone in the room he discovers that a young woman is hiding, crouched against the wall. She tells him that she is desperate not to be found there and begs for his assistance in escaping undetected. Ignoring the suspicious circumstances in which he finds her, he tells her to hurry along to his home where she will pretend to be his actress cousin who has arrived to take part in a theatrical skit. This would be a fairly rash decision even if he believed her to be innocent but we later learn that he thinks she did the deed which I think elevates it to downright reckless.
This is our starting point for a story that I think falls somewhere between the detective and sensation fiction styles of mystery. For most of the novel we follow Lavington and his perception of these events but given he already believes he knows this woman was guilty, he is not actively gathering evidence of the crime. At several points however we see the police at work, getting a sense of their thoughts on the case and this allows us to put the information we gain from Lavington into perspective and to make our own deductions on what happened.
The blending between these two styles is effectively done and I think Haynes balances the elements of each quite well, though some elements were not to my own taste. I did not particularly care for the romance subplot, finding it not particularly romantic as it is based on physical attraction and a sense of chivalry rather than any emotional connection between the characters. Others may feel differently.
On the other hand, I enjoyed learning what had happened at The Bungalow and more about the various suspects involved in the case. While the details of the case are relatively simple, Haynes is able to use misdirection very effectively to make it appear much more complex than it is. As Kate at CrossExaminingCrime points out in her review, questions of identity play a significant role in the story and Haynes is adept at finding different and interesting ways to play with this idea.
Haynes writes in an entertaining and engaging style and while I may not have been swept up in the romance, I found most of the characters interesting and enjoyed learning more about their backstories and relationships to each other. These characters seem pleasingly three-dimensional, particularly Lavington’s friend and employer Sir James Courtenay who is struggling to adjust to life after losing both his legs in a railway accident.
This railway accident serves as a transitional point in the story for a few reasons, most of which are too spoilery to discuss but after it takes place Haynes chooses to advance her story forward two years. Following this we learn that the Police have received some new information that has caused them to reopen the case bringing fresh scrutiny to Lavington’s account of what happened that day.
In some respects this time jump works quite nicely as it emphasizes the problems the police have cracking the case and it also enables Haynes to present several of the characters in different circumstances. Unfortunately I found the reason why it took two years for this new information to be revealed highly suspect and I was even less convinced when Haynes comes up with a similarly unlikely rationale to explain another delay in someone coming forward.
Once you get past this particular piece of contrivance, I think Haynes does a very good job of providing the clues the reader will need to solve the case. I was pleasantly surprised when I worked out who the killer must be and satisfied by the explanation of what had happened and why. It makes for a strong conclusion to the novel and Haynes is able to tie up the various characters’ stories nicely at the end.
Not every aspect of The Bungalow Mystery was to my taste but I did appreciate that Haynes tells an interesting and engaging story that should have appeal for fans of puzzle and sensation mystery fiction alike. I will look forward to trying another one of the Haynes novels I own at some point soon.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In the medical field (Who)
The Case of Sir Adam Braid is the third Molly Thynne mystery I have read and I must confess that having enjoyed my previous two experiences I am surprised it has taken me so long to return to her. This novel was written earlier than either of those novels and is the last of her standalone mysteries.
The case concerns the murder of an artist, Sir Adam Braid, in his flat one night. His servant had left him listening to the wireless while he went out for a drink. When he returns he discovers Sir Adam in his chair with a deep knife wound in the back of his neck.
The puzzle is logistically quite complex with the key questions being the time of death and how could someone gain access to a supposedly locked flat. Sir Adam’s manservant claims that he left his master alone with the door locked yet several witnesses claim to have heard Sir Adam talking with a man and a woman during the time he was gone. As the investigation progresses the reader acquires information about characters’ movements and has to piece them together to work out who had opportunity.
Thynne provides us with several suspects, many of whom reside in the building. Their motivations are often quite weak however and the reader will quickly whittle down their suspects list to just a few names.
One name that we are repeated told won’t be on it is Sir Adam’s niece Jill, though the evidence against her seems quite compelling. For one thing, while she was supposed to inherit his fortune, Sir Adam had taken offence at her request for an advance on that inheritance and planned to cut her out of his will completely. He dies before he can carry out his intentions and so the fortune would still go to her in its entirety, significantly easing her money difficulties.
The reason that Jill is not to be seriously considered will be quite familiar to Golden Age readers – she is initially presented to us as sweet and incapable of murder by our two detective characters, clearly establishing her to be one of the novel’s romantic leads. Both characters are certain of her innocence in spite of the facts and so proving that she did not do it will become their priority. This device is quite charming and yet I was struck by the feeling that while it adds some tension to the story they are assuming a lot based on appearances and demeanor.
Kate at CrossExaminingCrime puts this really well in her review where she talks about the role prejudices play in this narrative. Jill cannot be guilty because she is attractive and, even when things look bleak for her, the two detective characters are predisposed to believe her or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Other characters are immediately identified as being sketchy or not to be trusted and the two detectives’ hunches usually prove to be correct.
Though it can be a little frustrating to find that the characters do not exhibit much in the way of hidden depths or facets, I enjoyed discovering their roles in the mystery and how they responded to coming under suspicion. While I felt fairly confident of the guilty party based on their personality, working out the mechanics of how they committed it took me longer.
While Fenn cuts quite a bland figure conveying competency but not a lot of personality, Thynne does invest some time in building up the character of Dr. Gilroy, establishing him as likeable and energetic in his pursuit of the truth as well as a keen advocate for Jill. At a few points Thynne has her two investigators adopt different approaches to the case and I appreciated that Gilroy is able to take some actions that Fenn cannot because of his need to adhere to Police rules and protocol.
Unfortunately while I found the investigation entertaining, the revelation of the motive behind the crime disappoints. I think part of the reason that it was so easy to narrow down the suspects is that only a handful have clear motives for committing the crime. Add in that we are repeatedly assured that we should not suspect Jill and really only two figures remain. I do think it is a little disappointing to identify the killer through process of elimination based on motive rather than by piecing other clues together and so I think this is the weakest aspect of the novel.
Happily I felt the logistical puzzle element of the novel was much more effective. While I think one aspect of the solution will likely be easily identified by seasoned detective fiction readers long before Chief-Inspector Fenn thinks of it, it is still enjoyable to see how he is able to piece the various facts together. Fans of the plodding, diligent style of detective will likely appreciate the attention paid to the serial numbers of banknotes, the faintness of carpet impressions and the reconciliation of alibis.
Although I do not think this mystery is as entertaining as The Crime at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, which remains my favorite of the Thynnes I have read so far, I do think this book’s plot is very cleverly and tidily constructed. In the end though that tidiness keeps it from ever truly surprising the reader. Perhaps if the killer’s motivations had been a little more complex or unexpected it might have given the conclusion a little extra lift or added excitement. Still, for those in search of a solid and entertaining puzzle mystery I think this does deliver enough to make it worth seeking out.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In a Locked Room (Where)
As I noted in my review of another E R Punshon novel, Diabolic Candelabra, I have been guilty of taking advantage of introductory pricing and sales from Dean Street Press, amassing a large digital library I have barely started to read. While it has taken me nearly half a year to get around to giving another book in the series a try, I came to It Might Lead Anywhere feeling quite intrigued by its premise.
Policeman Bobby Owen hears word of a religious riot taking place in a nearby village and, though it is not in his jurisdiction, he heads over to try to break it up. He discovers that among the villagers is Duke Dell, a former boxer who now passionately preaches what he calls The Vision. His views frustrate many within the community but one of the villagers, Alfred Brown, seems to have been drawn to him. In the course of the riot that Bobby witnesses Dell thrown Brown into the river with such force that his head begins to bleed.
The next day Brown is discovered dead in his cottage by a police officer who happens to be passing the home and notices the wireless playing and the door ajar. Entering the home he sees that Brown has been brutally beaten to death with a poker. Though he has no authority in the area, Bobby decides he will consult the area’s Chief Constable and share the information he has. In the course of that conversation he manages to manipulate the Chief into asking Bobby to assist in their investigations.
The sequence in which Bobby subtly convinces Chief Constable Spencer to invite him onto the case is one of my favorites in the whole novel, in part because it brilliantly captures the fragile egos and concern for status that exists in many forms of local government. The tentative negotiations that take place are superbly observed and I liked the working relationship that is established between the two men in the first part of the book.
One of my biggest complaints about Diabolic Candelabra was that I felt I hardly knew Bobby Owen by the end of the novel. While It Might Lead Anywhere still places its focus on the mystery and adventure, I think the novel takes more time to develop the character and showcase his personality. Here we see his method at work, particularly in the way he interacts with the various suspects. Though he is not a large personality here, I think his methodical approach works well and his actions seem logical and clear even if he seems to be making little progress with his investigation for much of the novel.
I continue to enjoy his interactions with his wife, Olive, though she only features in a few short sections of the novel. Their interactions do feel like those of a couple who know each other well and I appreciate that Olive does have some input into the investigation, although there is no decisive contribution here. I did find Bobby’s apparent lack of awareness of why his wife was not thrilled to hear that an attractive young woman had flirted with him to be quite entertaining and I do hope that the next Punshon I read features her more prominently.
I have been quite sparing with my description of the plot because this is not a story with a lot of incident or development and so I do not want to reveal too many of this book’s secrets. In spite of the simplicity of this case, I did enjoy the way the story unfolded and I think the case is certainly intriguing, if not particularly dynamic. I would agree with TomCat’s assessment in his excellent review that the plotting is ‘slender’ and just focused on a single problem.
I would add that the cast of suspects is relatively thin and one character can be quickly identified as the likely party. While questions of motive and means remain, this does mean that those approaching this in the hope of a good puzzle may feel a little disappointed in what they find.
In spite of the quite simple plot, I still found that there was plenty to interest me here. While this was published a year after World War Two ended, it is set during the final months of the conflict and it reads like a wartime novel. Having followed PuzzleDoctor’s Do Mention The War series of blog posts about novels written during the conflict I found myself paying more attention than I would normally do to details relating to blackout regulations (lifted in the later days of the war), petrol rationing, fears of invasion as well as a very spam-heavy dinner menu (spam jardiniere, omlette au spam and spam pie all feature – yum!).
Another aspect of the book that pleased me was the characterization which I felt was pretty strong. While one character did stand out to me as the likely murderer, the other suspects were each interesting in their own way and I enjoyed discovering their stories and seeing how they interacted with each other.
While It Might Lead Anywhere is not a classic mystery novel, I did find it to be an enjoyable read and a more satisfying and coherent experience than Diabolic Candelabra. My hope is that when I next return to Punshon I will find a slightly more complex and satisfying mystery along with the atmosphere and the characterization.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a small village (Where)