Dictator’s Way by E. R. Punshon

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
Bobby Owen #10
Preceded by The Dusky Hour
Followed by Comes a Stranger

Also known as Death of a Tyrant – a title I think is more interesting but that doesn’t exactly fit the story.

The Blurb

When an old acquaintance of Bobby Owen’s from Oxford days turns up out of the blue, he needs help. Bobby little suspects that investigating the sinister enclave of ‘Dictator’s Way’ will quickly set in train a series of momentous events, involving Bobby in a fistfight with an ex-professional boxer, kidnap, peril at sea and international intrigue – not to mention encounters with the mysterious and attractive Olive Farrar in whom Bobby might just have met his match.

My Thoughts

This is more adventure than mystery but it is a highly entertaining and often quite exciting read.

It needed only a glance to tell the man was dead, had been dead some time. There is that about a body whence life has fled that once seen is not easily mistaken.

My Thoughts

It had been a while since I last read something by E. R. Punshon in spite of owning ebook copies of a large quantity of the Bobby Owen mysteries. Perhaps it might have been even longer had I not found myself in need of reading a book written in 1938 and found that my first couple of selections didn’t really grab my attention. This one did however, thanks to the rather intriguing circumstances in which a murdered body is discovered.

Bobby Owen has been contacted by the Honorable Charles Waveny, a man he met playing rugby at University. He is initially quite looking forward to the meeting but soon realizes that he has been looked up in a professional capacity by a man who expects him to do something for him. The favor is that he wants Bobby to pay a visit with him to an unoccupied house near Epping Forest the next evening. The house is quite infamous in the area for hosting high stakes card games, films that had not passed the censors and visits from the owner’s lady friends.

Waveny explains that there is a man who has been bothering a young woman and he wants the attention stopped without damage to her reputation. Bobby is unsympathetic, suggesting that he will refer the matter to the local police, but before he does he decides to make some brief enquiries in the area where he learns a little more about the parties and takes a quick look at the house. When he ventures inside in search of a telephone he discovers bloody finger prints on the telephone receiver and the dead body of an unknown man.

The discovery of an unidentified body in a place that it has no business being is always an appealing hook for a story and I think the odd details and circumstances that precede it, not to mention an entertaining action sequence, only make the crime seem more peculiar and intriguing. I should perhaps say at this point that while this is a detective story, it is written more like an adventure than a puzzle mystery. There is plenty of action, including a fistfight and a dramatic sequence that takes place at sea, giving this a real page-turning quality.

One of the other aspects of the novel that lends it that adventure feel is its political backdrop. Punshon’s story incorporates characters who come from the fictional European state of Etruria which is ruled over by a dictator who is known as The Redeemer. It is not hard to see parallels to some of the real political figures of the era (many of whom are directly name-checked in the novel) and the book does contain some thoughtful discussion about the rise of fascism and why industry and the financial centers of the world often end up accepting those regimes. Similarly Punshon also discusses the fear of revolution and the resentments that build up towards the privileged classes.

In addition to the political commentary, Punshon also laces his novel with plenty of amusing social commentary. One of my favorite passages of the book introduces us to a restaurant and explains exactly why it, and others of its kind, are in vogue with the fashionable types in London. I hadn’t been expecting this sort of comedic material and I felt that it was well observed and, in a few cases, surprisingly applicable even today. While I wouldn’t suggest reading this book for that, it certainly helped enrich the experience for me.

Perhaps the biggest hook for me though was that this is the book that introduces us to a character who will be important in the series from this point forward – Olive. In his excellent introduction to the novel, Curtis Evans notes that this was one of several examples from this year of an established series detective finding themselves with a love interest. While I had somewhat mixed feelings towards my previous Bobby Owen reads (Diabolic Candelabra and It Might Lead Anywhere), Olive was a favorite element in each so it was nice to go back and see how she was initially introduced.

The situation in which he first encounters her, as a suspect in a murder case, is not unique to this novel but the character is not presented as one in distress or in need of rescue. She is tough, principled and acts pretty decisively at points in the story (traits I can see in those subsequent stories I have read, although she has a much smaller role in each). Instead it is Bobby who is the more affected by their meeting, finding himself drawn to her in spite of the possibility that she is seriously mixed up in the whole affair. Punshon presents this situation and their interactions well, avoiding overly sentimental prose and concentrating on the question of how those budding feelings might be influencing the way Bobby pursues this case. This novel reminded me how much I liked this character and if anyone reading this knows of any other Olive-heavy stories, please let me know in the comments below!

While Dictator’s Way may not be a good fit for those seeking a puzzle mystery, I did find it to be a pretty engaging read. The action scenes are described well and help keep things moving, building nicely to an exciting conclusion that tied things up pretty well. It certainly has been my best experience with Punshon to date and leaves me hopeful that I will find more to my taste in the future.

Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

Book Details

Originally published in 1942

The Blurb

The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he – schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she – chronic malcontent – and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.

Blue Murder was the last of Harriet Rutland’s mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

Blue Murder is a clever and well-told story that bridges the gap between the detective and the crime novel.

That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!

My Thoughts

Author Arnold Smith arrives in the village of Nether Naughton in search of inspiration for his latest work, a detective story. He has arranged to take a room in the home of the Hardstaffe family and soon discovers plenty of inspiration within those walls, eventually basing characters within his manuscript on them.

Mr. Hardstaffe, the elderly Headmaster of the school, has a vicious temper and a roving eye that has landed on Miss Charity Fuller, the ‘youngest and prettiest of his staff’. He has apparently pressed his attentions on her for some time but she has rebuffed him with the dangerous statement that she cannot consider him ‘as long as she is alive’. The she is his wife, a hypochondriac who he married purely for her wealth. She has her own reasons for hating her husband who bullies and belittles her.

It is clear from the very start of the book that there are murderous tensions present within the house but one of the most appealing aspects of this novel for me was that the reader will not know which character will be the victim. Rutland is even able to extend this beyond the point at which the murder takes place, at least for a few tension-building pages, as we learn that a murder has taken place and is being investigated but we are not sure exactly who died.

That is one example of a technique Rutland uses throughout the novel of encouraging the reader to expect a development without being clear exactly what that development will be. Take for instance the opening line of chapter thirty-three in which a character ponders with hindsight whether the solution to the murder would have ever been discovered were it not for an event that we are about to read about. This is a variation of the Had I But Known device which plants a seed in the mind of the reader, emphasizing to them that you really want to be paying attention to what will be about to happen. And it works – I was absolutely gripped by the events that followed, knowing that they would be significant but not sure exactly why.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was how much Rutland is willing to give to the reader right from the start. Typically in a detective novel we would expect that we would discover much of the crucial information about the suspects following a murder taking place. Here however we begin the story with a pretty full knowledge of the state of the various relationships between the different characters and the things that they desire that they may want to kill for. In fact within the first few chapters nearly every major character has appeared and expressed some compelling motive for murder.

Which brings us back to the idea that Rutland structures her story really well. She establishes the tensions, creates a situation and then we see what will happen and how those characters will respond. The result is a book that marries elements of the detective story and the crime story very effectively. Our focus is not really on the details of where characters were – almost anyone could have done it – but rather on evaluating the characters psychologically and deciding whether we think they really would have done it. A question that becomes all the more interesting as we see how the characters respond to the questioning and new developments. It also may prompt the reader to wonder what will they do next.

While the plotting may be less of a focus than the characterizations and development of themes it does not mean that it lacks points of interest. There are a number of revelations, both big and small, that may surprise readers and change the direction of the story. I particularly appreciated a moment during the inquest, for example, which I did not see coming and which altered my understanding of what happened, taking the story in an interesting new direction.

Now at this point I should acknowledge that while this book is not inverted, I doubt that the identity of the killer will come as a surprise to many of the readers. Rutland never confirms that person’s role until the final few pages of the novel but I think there are enough structural and thematic clues laid that many readers will anticipate that reveal long before it happens. Often that can be disappointing – a strange feature of the detective story is that while many of us read them to match our wits with the author, few of us want to identify the criminal early. Here however an early identification of the killer is not a fault but a feature because it only increases that sense of tension as we are led to wonder how this story might possibly be resolved.

One of the reasons for this is that Rutland’s story touches on some really dark and realistic subject matter and so a happy ending is far from a certainty. Blue Murder was a novel written during wartime and apparently, according to Curtis Evans’ superb introduction, at a period of personal difficulty for the author. Little surprise then that this book incorporates some really powerful and difficult themes and elements including domestic abuse and the depiction and discussion of antisemitism.

Rutland writes powerfully and effectively on these and many other serious themes, depicting them (and other typically taboo topics for the period such as sexual desire and activity) with a surprising level of frankness for a book published in 1942. This is particularly true of the book’s depiction of antisemitism which we observe in many of the characters. The passages in which Rutland has Leida, a refugee and the target of those comments, responds and explains her experiences are highly effective, communicating the nature of the horror that the character had experienced.

As you might expect from the above, readers should be prepared to not like any of the characters much as people. I think that they are interesting and well-observed but all have significant flaws that render them far from likable. Once again, for me this is a feature rather than a flaw in the novel but if you are a reader who will want someone to root for then this book probably isn’t for you.

As the book nears its conclusion Rutland gives us several moments that I found to be really quite chilling. There are some great ideas here, some of which seem to anticipate the development of the crime novel that would happen throughout the following decade. It leads to a memorable and striking conclusion that, while a little rushed, neatly pulled together many of the themes and ideas that had been developed throughout the book.

Blue Murder will not be for everyone as I can see how some readers might struggle to appreciate its difficult characters and dark worldview. Taken as a book that seems to be a bridge between the detective and crime novel styles, I found it to be masterful and suspect that it will stay with me for quite a while.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event penned an enthusiastic review late last year that I clearly missed (otherwise I would doubtless have got to this much sooner as reading the post makes it clear that this is exactly my type of book). He addresses the acidic wit of the novel which I completely agree with – it is often very well deployed and while I agree not all of it lands as strongly as it might, it is often incredibly sharp and based on clever observation.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime suggests that the book has an Ilesian flavor which I think is a fair comparison and shares some interesting observations about its discussions of antisemitism, gender and changing societal values.

Brad @ AhSweetMystery offers up a thoughtful analysis of the book, including reflections on how it compares to Christie’s The Blue Train which was written at a similarly difficult period in an author’s life, and finishes with a sentiment I share that it’s a shame that there was no subsequent novel published.

Death in the Grand Manor by Anne Morice

Book Details

Originally published in 1970
Tessa Crichton #1
Followed by Murder in Married Life

The Blurb

The narrator of this classic mystery is fashionable young actress, Tessa Crichton—obliged to turn private detective when murder strikes in the rural stronghold of Roakes Common. Leading hate-figures in the community are Mr. and Mrs. Cornford – the nouveaux riches of the local Manor House – suspected by some of malicious dog killing.

Tessa however has other things on her mind when she goes to stay with her cousin Toby and his wife Matilda. There’s her blossoming career, for one thing, not to mention coping with her eccentric cousins. Also the favourable impression made by a young man she meets under odd circumstances in the local pub. If it wasn’t for that dead body turning up in a ditch . . .

The murder mystery will lead Tessa to perilous danger, but she solves it herself, witty, blithe and soignée to the last. The story is distinguished by memorable characterisation and a sharp ear for dialogue, adding to the satisfaction of a traditional cunningly-clued detective story.

The Verdict

An entertaining story with lively characters and a memorable sleuth. I look forward to reading others in this series.

“You needn’t bother to smooth it over for me, Tess. I’ve stopped crying about it now, but, whatever you say, the Cornfords did kill Oscar. They did it on purpose and that makes them murderers.”

My Thoughts

Death in the Grand Manor introduces readers to the character of Tessa Crichton, an actress though not a hugely successful one. At the start of the novel Tessa has just finished a job and has no other on the horizon though her agent assures her that her prospects are excellent. When her cousin Toby, a playwright, gets in touch to ask if she can stay with him to look after his daughter for a while as his wife Matilda, also an actress, is away on tour, Tessa agrees.

When she arrives in Roakes Common she soon discovers that resentment has built within the community toward the Cornfords, a nouveau riche family who have big plans to redevelop the area if they can persuade their neighbors to sell up. Some resent the pair’s attitude toward the other villagers while others fear that they plan to force them out by destroying the aspects of life in the village that they love. As for young Ellen, Toby’s daughter – she holds them responsible for the death of her dog.

It will come as little surprise to the reader that one of this pair, either Mr. or Mrs Cornford, will be the victim in this story but as that does not happen until over halfway into the novel I will not share any specific details concerning the murder. Instead I will try to keep my comments as general as possible.

What I am happy to say is that Tessa is not directly involved in the murder, nor is she ever suspected of commiting it, but has good reasons to want to see the investigation quickly and successfully concluded. This case will touch quite close to home for her with both Toby and Matilda coming under suspicion, giving her additional reasons to get involved.

Not that Tessa’s investigative style is particularly active. Tessa is neither snoopy nor meddlesome. She does not possess any unusual levels of deductive reasoning or intuition. One striking feature of Morice’s novel is that because the murder itself occurs so late, much of the evidence that Tessa accumulates happens before the crime itself. This is often a strong technique as it gives the reader possible answers before knowing what the question will be, helping to obscure or downplay important information while still fairly presenting it to the reader. Instead of searching for clues then, Tessa’s main activities are to talk out the case with another character and to try and think through the cast of characters to find motives, opportunities and psychological factors supporting the idea that they may be the murderer.

While Tessa may not be as brilliant as some other sleuths in terms of pure deduction (at least on the basis of this first outing), I found her to be a thoroughly likeable character and enjoyed her often wry style of narration which is peppered with observations and witty asides. She reminded me a little of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in her habit of being quite flippant and also in a pretty charming romance she finds herself involved in.

That romance is worth highlighting as it is one of the book’s strongest subplots. This begins a short while before the murder and runs throughout the whole novel, developing alongside the mystery itself. Morice writes these scenes with a great deal of charm and the same lightly comical touch found elsewhere in the novel. While it’s not deep, the quick and easy attraction reminded me of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and others may well find themselves with similarly feelings.

Morice is also quite successful in her depictions of the lives and personalities of the other villagers who make up quite a colorful assortment of characters. While we do not spend a huge amount of time in most of their lives, I was impressed by the hooks she created for each character that helped me get a reasonably strong handle on each of them from early on in the novel. Of course I liked Ellen, who from time-to-time behaves in quite a precocious way, but I also felt that Matilda and Toby made particularly strong impressions.

Which brings me, I suppose, back to the solution to the mystery. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, much of which reflects that the murder is introduced quite late in the novel. As entertaining and enjoyable as this mystery was, the case is not particularly complex. There are not many twists or big revelations, rather we just watch the situation play out. Thankfully even if the case is not particularly mystifying, these moments are handled pretty well and I remained engaged until the end.

Add in the striking photographic cover with its seventies fashion (I am a fan though they seem pretty divisive based on Twitter responses), some 70s dinner party glamor and a solid enough murder scheme and you have an entertaining and engaging read. I certainly intend to keep going with the series and will look forward to seeing where her adventures take her next.

A digital copy of the book was provided by the publisher for early review.

Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1929

The Blurb

News travels quickly and mysteriously on board ship. By the time lunch was over, the rumour began to spread that Mr. Smith’s death had not been due to natural causes.

The bibulous Mr Smith was no pillar of virtue. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Enriqueta, he met someone he knew on board at midnight – and was strangled. Chief Inspector Shand of the Yard, a fellow traveller on the luxury liner, takes on the case, ably assisted by his friend Jasper Mellish. At first the only clue is what the steward saw: a bandaged face above a set of green pyjamas. But surely the crime can be connected to Mr Smith’s former – and decidedly shady – compatriots in Buenos Aires?

The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929: originally called The Strangler in the US) is a thrilling whodunit, including an heiress in peril and a jazz age nightclub among its other puzzle pieces. This new edition, the first in many decades, includes an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

This standalone work, focused on sensation rather than detection, relied too heavily on the foolishness of its protagonist for my taste.

…the murder was obviously unpremeditated, and, it would seem, the work of a man with an unusually exotic taste in undergarments.

My Thoughts

Molly Thynne was an author who wrote six novels of mystery and detection in the late 1920s and early 1930s all of which were reprinted a few years ago by Dean Street Press. In my first couple of years of blogging I read and wrote about half of her novels. I found each of those stories entertaining though I had a clear favorite, The Crime at the Noah’s Ark. I don’t think I will be getting too far ahead of myself if I say right now that there is no risk of The Murder on the Enriqueta dislodging it from that spot.

The book opens with a murder that takes place on the Enriqueta, a luxury liner making an Atlantic crossing. One of the passengers, a Mr. Smith, is travelling to England from Argentina in the hopes of persuading his sister to support him financially. During the crossing however he has lost almost all of the limited funds he brought with him at the gambling tables and having exhausted the goodwill of his fellow passengers, he proceeds to get thoroughly drunk. Stumbling around he accidentally bursts into a cabin only to find himself face-to-face with someone he knows but that he wasn’t aware was on board. We never find out that person’s name but a short while later Smith’s body is found having been dumped in a corridor by a figure wearing some rather distinctive sleeping attire.

It happens that one of the other passengers aboard the Enriqueta is Chief Inspector Shand of Scotland Yard who was on board in the hopes of catching a criminal but was thwarted when they appear to have booked an earlier crossing. Learning of the murder he offers the captain his services and learns that Smith carried money forged by the man he was looking for but he is unable to find either the killer or their distinctive clothing.

Among the figures Shand interviews is Lady Dalberry who is travelling to England in mourning after the death of her husband, Adrian Culver, who had died in a tragic car accident shortly after ascending to the title of Lord Dalberry and inheriting one of the richest estates in England. She is met at the dock by members of the family including Carol Summers, a young woman who is set to become one of the richest young women in the country on her twenty-first birthday. Dalberry, a newcomer to the country, offers Carol rooms with her which are gratefully accepted but Carol soon becomes suspicious of a foreign man who appears to exert a strange hold over Lady Dalberry…

That rather complicated description of the setup for this novel reflects that the scenario feels somewhat disconnected and disjointed. While there is a murder to investigate that really is only the focus of a couple of chapters at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book is structured and plotted far more like a thriller in the mold of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? There is a detective at work in the background looking into some criminal matters but our focus is on the danger that a young heiress finds herself in with the dots only being connected at the very end of the novel.

One of my biggest problems with the book is its heroine, Carol Summers, who commits that cardinal sin of being perfectly aware of a source of danger yet apparently discounting it for no good reason whatsoever. Even late in the novel when she gets clear evidence of the danger to herself she opts to remain in a perilous situation in spite of the protestations of her guardians. I found this to be quite ridiculous and felt that it shifted my perception of her from naïve to reckless and foolish, significantly reducing my sympathy for her.

There is little doubt from the moment we first encounter Carol what the villain or villains’ purpose will be. We are frequently reminded that on her twenty-first birthday she will become one of the richest women in England and so the motive is a rather clear one, as is the intended means. The villains are similarly clear from the start and so there are really only two points of mystery in the novel: who killed Mr. Smith and what is the nature of the relationship between Lady Dalberry and Juan de Silva?

As I indicated earlier the questions related to the death of Mr. Smith sit entirely in the background until the end of the case so the focus of the story is almost entirely on the second of these questions. While I don’t love that these two characters’ most distinctive traits are their foreignness, I think Thynne does use them pretty cleverly and manages to sustain that mystery longer than I might have expected knowing its solution. While there are quite a few sensational developments by the end of the novel, I think Thynne had a solid idea and executed it pretty well though I think it would have worked better in a shorter form of fiction.

Thynne’s secondary characters are all fine and pretty well drawn with my favorite being Mr. Mellish, Carol’s legal guardian. He is the sharpest of the various characters concerned in this story and while Carol never follows his advice, he does his best to try and protect her. He even gets a few rare comedic moments related to his unwillingness to dance or exercise. I found myself looking forward to each of his appearances which I feel provide a little relief from the sometimes quite sensational and melodramatic tone of the rest of the story.

Still, as much as I enjoyed Mellish I sadly cannot recommend The Murder on the Enriqueta. I appreciate Thynne’s skill as a writer but the plot of this one held little appeal for me. Instead I would suggest The Crime at the Noah’s Ark or The Case of Sir Adam Braid as better starting points for exploring her work.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1947
Doctor Manson #6
Preceded by It’s Murder to Live!
Followed by John Klyeing Died

The Blurb

Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?

Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.

The Verdict

An excellent fair-play puzzle mystery, enhanced by its colorful theatrical setting.

“What? Well, if that ain’t the cat’s whiskers. What are we playing tonight? Whittington or Sweeney Todd?”

My Thoughts

Last year I read and reviewed The Heel of Achilles, an inverted mystery written by the Radfords and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact I even ended up selecting it as one of my nominations for the Reprint of the Year Awards. There was no doubt in my mind then that I’d be back for more. The only question was which book I’d select.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? is set against the backdrop of a British festive institution – the Christmas pantomime – though this is not really a seasonal read. As the title of the novel suggests, the pantomime in question is an adaptation of the story of Dick Whittington in which a boy travels to London to seek his fortune and ends up becoming Mayor of London. The production is doing steady business in spite of lacking a star name, helped by a lack of competition. That is not to say however that there isn’t a difficult lead actor – nobody in the company seems to have anything positive to say of Norma de Grey, the young actress playing the role.

Little surprise then when she ends up dead, though the circumstances are somewhat odd. In the scene before the interval Dick and his cat, played by an actor in a fur suit, lie down for a nap while the fairies perform a ballet. When the time comes for Dick to wake and deliver the final line in the act it never comes. The curtain falls and when the crew investigate they find her unconscious. The first-aid man quickly examines her and tells the gathered crowd that he thinks she is dead.

Examination reveals that Norma was poisoned and that it must have taken place during on stage as the poison, prussic acid, would have worked in seconds. The only person who went near her was the actor playing the Cat – the problem is that both that actor and his understudy have pretty solid alibis…

This book is listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders (an invaluable reference guide for locked room and impossible crime stories) but I cannot really understand the reason for its inclusion. After all, it seems pretty clear from early in the case exactly how the poison had been administered – the mystery really lies in the who and the reasons why. I’d suggest setting aside any expectations of an impossibility and instead enjoy what is a rather beautifully crafted piece of fair-play forensic detection.

According to Nigel Moss’ excellent introduction, which can be found in the recent Dean Street Press reprint, both Radfords had some prior professional engagement with the theater – Mona had acted and written for the stage while Edwin had been an Arts journalist. The authors clearly drew upon that experience to create a representation of a theatrical company that feels both detailed and credible. Whether it is describing the contents of a dressing room, backstage movements or capturing the professional jealousies within the company, it is easy to be drawn into the theatrical setting presented here.

In addition to this main investigation, the Radfords also provide a secondary investigation that is already underway at the start of the novel. This case, which involves trying to prove whether a series of fires at commercial properties were accidents or arson, is less colorful and lacks the color found in the theatrical setting but it is interesting enough, particularly once we learn how these two cases are connected (though it is perhaps unbelievably fortunate that Manson is assigned to both).

For those unfamiliar with Doctor Manson, he is a scientist in the manner of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke. Guided entirely by evidence rather than psychology, he is observant, methodical and detailed in the way he approaches picking apart a crime. He is perhaps a shade warmer than Thorndyke, possessing a sense of humor, though he can also be quite fussy and sharp in conversation with colleagues. Crucially for us as readers, he takes the time to explain any relevant piece of science in such a way as to make it approachable and easy to understand, meaning that the reader can expect a fair challenge.

Which is exactly what we get here. In fact we get three of them as, prior to the final challenge to the reader, there are two previous challenges where the authors pose questions about the relevance of some point Doctor Manson has asked. Each of these were quite specific in the information sought and I agree with the authors that in each case the reader ought to be able to guess the relevance of each point, making for a particularly rewarding reading experience for armchair sleuths.

In addition to these logical games, the book contains a significant amount of forensic analysis explained in pretty straightforward, if occasionally somewhat dry, English. The science is easy to follow and I was surprised at how exciting I found a few of the tests that get described. Of particular interest for me was an experiment that involved weighing some ash (I will let you discover the reasons Manson engages in this activity for yourself).

While the forensics are important to the book in terms of discovering evidence, I think that it is important to stress that the solution is found through the application of logic. Each thread is connected at the end with the links between each piece of evidence clearly explained in a newspaper account of a trial.

I was not particularly surprised by the solutions – the Radfords clue the mystery well enough that I felt confident long before the final challenge was issued that I knew who had done the crimes and even why. The greater challenge for me was in figuring out exactly how Dr. Manson would prove his case. At least one aspect of the solution completed eluded me in spite of how incredibly obvious it was which is pretty much all I want from a detective story. I want to be fooled by something that is so simple I really ought to have seen it coming. As I wrote in my Kindle notes (it’s in all caps because I was clearly quite excited):

For the curious, this note is at location 3126 in the Kindle edition. Be sure not to look at it before you read the whole book as this is critically important to a solution.

Which I think speaks to why I ended up enjoying this so much. It is a clever, well clued mystery that plays fair with its readers. Though the writing style can be a little dry and awkward in a few of the technical forensic passages, I found the science fascinating and I loved following along as Manson pieced it all together and trying to beat the challenges. Highly recommended.

Reprint of the Year: My Second Pick

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, CrossExaminingCrimeThe post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.

The Murders Near Mapleton by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

Anthony Bathurst #4
Preceded by The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye
Followed by The Five Red Fingers

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

An enjoyable puzzler which offers up a number of interesting questions for the reader to solve.


My Thoughts

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.

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil

The Blurb

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?

The Verdict

Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

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.


Second Opinions

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.

One by One They Disappeared by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1929
Inspector Collier #1
Followed by The Night of Fear

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

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.


My Thoughts

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.

The Condamine Case by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1947
Inspector Collier #12
Preceded by The Longbridge Murders
Followed by The Case of the Dark Stranger

The Blurb

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 Verdict

The mix of vintage film and a mysterious haunting worked for me.


My Thoughts

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.

Second Opinions

Curtis Evans shares his thoughts on this story in an essay on his blog, The Passing Tramp.