Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Lord Peter Wimsey #6
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by The Five Red Herrings

The Blurb

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love.
As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.

The Verdict

This successfully introduced some elements that would benefit later stories. Unfortunately the case feels padded, unremarkable and overrated.

My Thoughts

Revisiting the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in order has been quite instructive for me as I have come to appreciate the evolution of the character. In my review of his first adventure, Whose Body?, I noted that while the affectations and core personality traits were all basically there, the character often read as flippant and tiresome. Those traits were gradually toned down in the subsequent stories as it was made clearer that this personality has been, at least to some extent, cultivated to make him appear less threatening.

The previous story in the series, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, had presented readers with a more sharply defined and sympathetic version of the character. While he was still capable of flippant witticisms, there we saw him act out of care for another, fighting on their behalf rather than just engaging in criminology as a hobby. This book takes that idea one step further, seeing him become involved to save a young woman he has fallen in love with from the gallows.

That character is, of course, the mystery novelist Harriet Vane who will go on in subsequent novels to become his partner in detection. This change significantly alters the tone and themes of the series in those books but that of course will be a discussion for later reviews. Here she plays only a limited role, briefly appearing in just a couple of chapters and to provide inspiration for Lord Peter’s efforts to uncover the truth.

The reason for this is that at the start of the novel Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of having poisoned her former lover, the novelist Philip Boyes, using arsenic. Her supposed motive is that she had agreed to live with him without being married having been convinced of his opposition to the institution, only for him to subsequently offer her marriage after all. She clearly felt angry and betrayed, leaving him.

The problem for Harriet is that she had been identified buying arsenic, apparently to test to see how easily it could be procured for a future novel and no one else seems to have a clear motive. Lord Peter refuses to believe her guilty, not based on any evidence but based on his instinct and strength of feeling about her and tells her that he will work on her behalf to find evidence to acquit her, telling her that he wants to marry her when it is all over.

This initial point of attraction is, for me, the weakest part of the story as I think Peter’s attraction to her has to be quite superficial. I think it could be fairly categorized as an example of the love at first sight trope as he wants to marry her before he has ever spoken with her himself. Sayers even seems to draw a parallel between Peter and other men, noting that Harriet has already received a number of other offers of marriage since being arrested. Still, I think the reader can infer reasons for that attraction based on his perception of her character and smartly the author does not give us the gratification of a quick acceptance of his affections.

While the initial attraction may be superficial, I love the way these characters verbally tease and play with each other. Some of those moments are quite sharp and witty – a favorite exchange comes when Harriet suggests that he is overlooking that she has had a lover to which he replies that he has had several himself and can ‘produce quite good testimonials’. These moments have a charm and energy to them that lifts the piece and I enjoy any moments the pair are together.

Which helps make up a little for the rest of the book. As appealing as Lord Peter’s flirtations with Harriet are, I find the mystery plotline here to be rather underwhelming.

Part of the problem I have with this is that the killer’s identity is quite clear from early on in the novel. This is not because there is much reason for the investigation to settle on him but rather because there is simply no other suspect. Now, I’m the last person to complain about knowing the killer’s identity but if you are going to make their identity clear then you might as well commit to the inverted form properly as in Unnatural Death and either give us greater access to their thoughts or more directly establish a relationship between them and the sleuth.

A game of cat and mouse is only really fun if both parties are aware that they are playing. While there are a couple of moments where criminal and sleuth interact, there is not much back and forth or manipulation to be had here. Instead a lot of time is spent in what I consider filler material, with characters working to secretly obtain information. Those sequences are often quite memorable and entertaining such as a very clever seance sequence or the visit to a rather unorthodox Christian fellowship meeting but these passages move very slowly and little of what we learn will surprise.

In addition to learning the killer’s identity, the reader will also need to detect a motive and understand how they did it. The killer’s motive is, once again, relatively straightforward though I appreciate it does convincingly explain why the killer needs to act at that precise moment. A problem is that, as with proving the killer’s identity, the process by which we learn the killer’s motive feels strung out. Another is that surely almost everything that gets found would be inadmissable because of the way in which the information is gained (though perhaps the law on that point was very different in Britain in the early 30s).

Which brings me, finally, to the means by which it is managed. This is perhaps the book’s most creative idea, though it probably wouldn’t work in reality. While I think some parts are basically not guessable because they rely on prior knoweldge, the reader should be able to work out the significance of some key bits of information and start to piece those ideas together to at least give a general idea of how the poison must have been delivered. Those ideas are clever and exciting. I can certainly understand how it might work for others.

So overall then I found this to be rather a mixed bag (and that’s not even touching on the rather uncomfortable paragraphs where characters discuss Jewish bankers). The good bits of the story are both successful and interesting but I struggled with how bland the novel’s villain felt and had problems with the general pacing of the tale. Sayers was certainly capable of better and I think, were Harriet not introduced in this story, it would not be remembered anywhere near so fondly.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Curious whether the method used here would work? Several years ago The Guardian published a story discussing it, basically saying that while the science was credible in 1930s understanding, it doesn’t stand up today. Be warned that the article does give the solution away so read at your own risk.

Nick at the Grandest Game in the World considers this one of Sayers’ best, appreciating the witty writing and the inclusion of Miss Climpson who, yes, is ‘as splendid as ever’.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Hercule Poirot #12
Preceded by Three Act Tragedy
Followed by The A.B.C. Murders

Also titled Death in the Air

The Blurb

Hercule Poirot must solve a perplexing case of midair murder in Death in the Clouds when he discovers that the woman in seat two of the airborne aeroplane he’s traveling on is quite unexpectedly—and unnaturally—deceased.

From seat No. 9, Hercule Poirot was ideally placed to observe his fellow air passengers on the short flight from Paris to London. Over to his right sat a pretty young woman, clearly infatuated with the man opposite; ahead, in seat No. 13, sat a countess with a poorly concealed cocaine habit; across the gangway in seat No. 8, a writer of detective fiction was being troubled by an aggressive wasp. 

Yes, Poirot is almost ideally placed to take it all in, except what he did not yet realize was that behind him, in seat No. 2, sat the slumped, lifeless body of a woman. Murdered, and likely by someone in Poirot’s immediate proximity. 

The Verdict

This boasts a memorable setting and method of murder but I was unconvinced by the solution.

My Thoughts

As its title suggests, Death on the Clouds concerns a murder that takes place during a plane flight from Paris to Croydon. Poirot is aboard the flight though dozing to combat his airsickness but he is woken by a steward asking if he might be a doctor. The steward is concerned about the health of another passenger, Madame Giselle, who seems unresponsive. Another passenger volunteers his services only to reveal that she has died during the flight which based upon the medical evidence and the crew’s interactions with her must have occurred during a very narrow window.

A mark is noticed on the woman’s neck and at first this it is supposed that she must have been stung by the wasp that bothered several passengers within the cabin but when Poirot notices a small yellow and black object on the floor he discovers it is a poisoned dart. This, coupled with the discovery of a blowpipe behind Poirot’s chair, suggests murder yet it seems impossible that anyone could have carried out such a murder without drawing attention to themselves.

One of the most appealing elements of the book for me is Christie’s use of the aeroplane to create one of her most extreme examples of a closed circle. With the murder taking place and being discovered during the flight there is clearly no way that anyone could leave or enter meaning we can be certain that the murderer is either among the passengers or the crew (narrowing that to just the people who were present inside the first class compartment during the flight).

I also appreciate that this story gives us yet another variation on the idea that Poirot is a poor traveller, placing him in the vicinity of the crime but incapacitating him for the crucial lead up to the discovery of the crime. As with many of his stories from this decade, this is a case where a murder is commited under his very nose – a situation I love because it always leads to him feeling obliged to investigate. Christie however manages to give him an even more personal reason at the end of the coroner’s inquest that stands for me as the highlight of the book.

Much is made of the idea that Poirot has identified the killer early in the book merely from an inventory that he has made of the passengers’ belongings. This certainly adds a lot of intrigue to the story and at the end of the novel the evidence is explained logically, showing exactly why Poirot has reached that correct conclusion. Of course he does not share his suspicions with either the reader or Inspector Japp though and some feel that he behaves recklessly by keeping those suspicions to himself. Personally I accept Poirot’s reason that he could not begin to prove his case at that point however.

On the subject of Japp, I think that this is easily the character’s best outing to this point in the series. I think a large part of the reason for this is that Hastings does not appear in this novel, allowing him to work more closely with Poirot than he does elsewhere. In doing so I feel we get a stronger sense of his general competence at running down leads as well as the limitations of his imagination in theorizing about the case.

Christie provides us with quite a large cast of characters we can suspect though inevitably some can be discarded quite quickly. Most are colorfully drawn and distinctive and while I do not intend to go through the whole list, not least because I don’t want to inadvertantly draw your attention to their importance to the case, there are a few who are worthy of comment for other reasons.

Daniel Clancy, the mystery writer who excitedly identifies the blowpipe and describes its use, is a rather wonderful comedic creation. Much like Ariadne Oliver in Christie’s later novels, Clancy is used to lampoon some of the practices and poor taste of other crime writers though while Oliver feels more of a self-parody, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some other figure she had in mind with him.

I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of his own series detective, Wilbraham Rice, whose defining character trait appears to be his love of eating bananas. With a television detective series now in the offing for Ariadne Oliver’s Sven Hjerson perhaps we can hope for a similar effort to bring Wilbraham to our screens in the future. We can but hope.

The other two characters I should mention are dentist Norman Gale and Jane Grey. These two characters are quickly established to be attracted to one another and remain close throughout the novel, working together at points to assist Poirot. This idea that Poirot will recruit assistance from within the circle of suspects is used by Christie in several novels of this period and I think that it is used well here, allowing them to not only help advance the investigation but to explore how the events have affected them both personally and professionally.

There is however an aspect of their characterization that I have to comment on because it will stand out as pretty appalling to modern readers. I had been quite enjoying the interactions between the pair until we get a short passage in which the pair talk over dinner and compare their opinions, finding themselves to be compatible. Many of their preferences are quite innocuous and so shallow as to be potentially comedic until we read that ‘[t]hey disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes’.

Clearly Christie intends that remark to be comedic and yet it sits really badly because it seems to suggest that racism is a whimsical personal preference rather than something more serious and insidious. While it is an isolated remark in the book, I found that I had little enthusiasm for either character after that point and did not feel invested in their finding happiness.

In addition to my problems with the romance, I also had some problems with the novel’s solution. To be clear, those problems do not relate to the killer’s motives which I feel are excellent and explained very well. Instead the problems lie with the practicality of the plan. In short, I feel that the killer takes on a very high level of risk to execute an extremely complicated murder plan. For a more spoilery explanation of what I mean see the end of this post.

There are some aspects of Death in the Clouds I really enjoy. I think the setting for the crime is pretty novel and the circumstances surrounding the murder are intriguing, not least the killer’s motive. I also think Poirot is quite clever and charming here, particularly appreciating the way he works with Japp in this story.

Unfortunately I was unable to look past some of the issues I had with it, not least the killer’s needlessly risky plan. For that reason I see this as a decidedly lesser effort, particularly when compared with the stories on either side of it.

This counts towards the Scene of the Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.

My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.

Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

Book Details

Originally published in 1948
Gervase Fen #5
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by Buried for Pleasure

The Blurb

Castrevenford school invites English professor and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to present the prizes at Speech Day. However the night before, strange events leave two staff members dead. The Headmaster calls on Professor Fen to investigate.

The Verdict

Often quite amusing with a fun motive, though I think the steam runs out shortly after its discovery.

My Thoughts

In the days running up to the annual Speech Day at Castrevenford School its Headmaster is dealing with a variety of crises. First there is the report that a student from the neighboring girl’s school who was taking part in his school’s student production of Henry V returned home from rehearsals looking quite distressed, prompting an investigation into whether any of his boys had behaved in an untoward fashion. Then he has to deal with an upset science master whose chemicals cabinet has been broken into, though it is unclear whether anything was stolen. But worse is to come when on the eve of the festivities two of the masters are found shot dead in the night.

Fortunately for the Headmaster and the Castrevenford School community they happen to have invited English professor and experienced amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to give out the prizes that year…

This is my second attempt to review a Crispin novel since starting this blog though it is the first to actually appear on the site. Last year I had read The Moving Toyshop but the timing proved unfortunate as I read it right before an unplanned hiatus and by the time I was able to write again I found the details had slipped from my mind. Ask me what I think of the book and you will probably get a response along the lines of “I think I liked it”.

Unfortunately I am not entirely confident that this review will do him justice either. After all, I read this book on January 5th and 6th. While I was grateful for the distraction and moments of amusement, I am not sure that I did Crispin justice by reading it while keeping one eye on the news. He deserves a little better from me and so I will do my best to afford him my full critical attention with my next read.

Let’s start by discussing the aspect of the book that worked best for me: its setting. I enjoy mysteries set in British public schools, in part because it is such a familiar setting to me. I have shared before how I attended one such institution myself and while my own experience was hardly a joyous one, I find that school communities are fascinating and quirky places filled with fascinating and quirky people. In other words they make a perfect environment for a murder story.

Crispin had himself been both a student at a public school and, for a couple of years, worked as a schoolmaster at one so he had a good handle both on the physical environments of a school and the attitudes and culture of its faculty, rendering both convincingly. It is not just the details of school life which are well observed but also the fussy independence of the teachers, interference from parents and the sense of tradition and occassion. Castrevenford felt like a real location to me.

The first couple of chapters are quite entertaining as we watch the headmaster go about his business in preparation for speech day – an event I loathed and did my best to sneak away from each year. The general tone of these early interactions is comical though I was a little surprised that there was a suggestion that a female student may have been raped by a male student that seemed to go a little against the general tone of that chapter. It does, of course, transpire that no such event took place so that darker turn is averted.

I particularly enjoyed the appearance of a character who I think rather steals the book. That is the aging and cantankerous bloodhound, Mr. Merrythought, whose ‘homicidal fits’ make him impossible for the headmaster to control and make Fen quite uncomfortable. Crispin milks Fen’s discomfort and the headmaster’s acquiescence to his life being ruled by the animal for all it is worth, gifting the character a memorable introduction and adding to the sense of comedic chaos prior to the discovery of the murders.

Though the two murders take place almost at the same time they occur at opposite ends of the campus meaning that each is examined independently, being given their own chapters. I must say that there is little whimsical or of note about either murder, save for the strange feature of an electric fire being left running on an already hot night at one location and a note left at the other. What makes them interesting is that they occurred so close to each other and both victims seem to have been killed by the same gun.

I don’t think I can go much further with describing the crimes without risking spoiling them. There is, of course, a link and Fen will have to figure out what that connection could be. This does not involve a lot of evidence – just a couple of small details he is able to build his deductions around – but things do seem to come into focus with the discovery of a third murder. That introduces some clearer evidence and gives a stronger sense of the themes and of the direction that the investigation will take, introducing its most entertaining idea which relates to the motive for the crimes.

That motive is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the crimes. It is not exactly original – in fact I have read another work published in the same year by Elizabeth Daly that explores a similar idea. I do think that it is done well though and that Crispin explains it in a way that is quite clear, even if the policeman is a little slow to pick up on what had happened.

Unfortunately the motive is uncovered quite early in the novel which leaves a lot of narrative space to fill at the end and I didn’t feel that the investigation had enough remaining points of interest to sustain it. Once you uncover the motive, it becomes quite easy to connect the dots and recognize how each of the three murders relate to one another. There simply isn’t much left to detect and so the final chapters adopt more of an adventure story style, albeit a rather gentle one, before Fen explains it all. I enjoyed those chapters because they once again made use of Mr. Merrythought but if the descriptions of the activities of a misanthropic hound don’t amuse you then you may find them slow and feel like they are padding.

While I think there are some pacing issues with this novel I should emphasize that I found it very enjoyable anyway, in very large part because of the comical elements of the story. This material largely landed for me and kept me engaged even when the crime plot seemed to drag. It is those elements of the novel that I am sure will be what I remember most about it.

I am not sure which Gervase Fen story I will try next. I own Holy Disorders and Swan Song but may circle back to The Moving Toyshop and give that another go. If anyone has any strong opinions (or weak ones that they feel like stating forcefully) feel free to share. I promise next time I will give him my full attention!

This counts towards the Murder is Academic category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book though felt it was unbalanced, particularly in relation to the disappearance of Brenda.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #11
Preceded by Murder on the Orient Express
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Also known as Murder in Three Acts (original US title) though there are apparently some plot differences between the original UK and US editions outlined on the All About Agatha podcast. Beware it will spoil both versions though!

The Blurb

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead – choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison. 

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

The Verdict

Very cleverly plotted with some great characterization.

My Thoughts

For the past few years I have maintained on this blog that I have read all of the original Poirot novels. When I started to read Three Act Tragedy however it quickly became apparent to me that might not actually be the case as I remembered next to nothing about the case. Could it be another case of faulty memory? Perhaps. I certainly have heard a radio adaptation of it so I ought to have been able to recall more than I did. Not that it really matters because whether I have read it before or not, it felt entirely new to me and that was a very exciting feeling!

The story begins with the retired actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, about to entertain a group of guests for dinner. There are thirteen in the party so his secretary suggests that she should join the party to prevent any worry from the more superstitious members of the gathering. In the end however tragedy still strikes when the mild-mannered Reverend Babbington drops dead from nicotine poisoning moments after drinking a cocktail. There is no trace of poison in the glass, nor any in the food served at dinner. Adding to the confusion, it is hard to imagine any motive why someone might want the elderly clergyman dead.

There is lots to love about the circumstances surrounding the opening murder. For example, this is a case where Poirot is present from the beginning and while his role elsewhere is rather limited, it does mean that he is not relying on third party observations. He has met all of the players involved and so when he fails to even detect that it might be murder, which of course it is because Agatha Christie didn’t write novels about people dying from heavy smoking (Tuberculosis in Three Acts?), it demonstrates just how clever this puzzle is and how challenging it will be for Poirot to solve it.

One knock that people will often make against Christie’s writing relates to her characterizations. Three Act Tragedy is the perfect evidence to offer to refute that claim. Each of the characters present at Sir Charles’ party, who will either serve as surrogate sleuths for Poirot or make up our circle of suspects, feel dimensional and well-observed. There is certainly little sense that anyone is present just to make up the numbers and flesh out the circle a bit.

Several characters are related to the world of entertainment, which allows Christie a little opportunity to comment on aspects of that profession, and there is also some discussion of life in the Cornish countryside. For instance, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a woman living in difficult financial circumstances, reflects on how she is not able to take her daughter (who is nicknamed Egg) to the city where she would meet a variety of different men. Instead she likely has two options – either the young mechanic Oliver who is regarded as a communist or the much older Sir Charles.

What struck me most about the attention to characterization here is that it also applies to Poirot himself. While he appears relatively little, we are actually given something of a description of Poirot’s life and career as well as an explanation for some of his quirks as an investigator. Quite why this was the book that did that, I am not sure, but it is interesting and helps to make him seem a little more human and sympathetic than he often appears.

As I suggested earlier, the death of Babbington is simply the opening murder – the first of our three “acts”. I do not intend to identify the victims of the subsequent murders except to say that I think the choice of victims are surprising and that only adds to the sense that this is a particularly baffling crime. Were I less familiar with some of the elements and ideas that recur frequently in Christie’s work I am sure I would have been completely stumped by this one and in understanding the relationships between the three murders.

I previously referred to Poirot’s limited role in this story and the presence of some surrogate sleuths so let’s discuss the manner of the investigation here. In this story Poirot learns of the second death after the fact and at a point where several other characters have decided to undertake their own investigation. One of these, Mr. Satterthwaite, had previously appeared in The Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories a few years earlier. He is not unintelligent but he does have some qualities that mark him as being quite Hastings-like, such as the way he reads the evidence in front of him. Poirot describes him as being like an audience member at the theater and that is not inaccurate – he is highly perceptive and notices details but also rather credulous. I rather liked him by the end of the story, particularly when paired with Sir Charles, and would have liked to have seen him appear again alongside Poirot.

Also investigating the case is Egg who has used it as a pretext to spend time with Sir Charles. The pair conduct interviews with witnesses and while clearly nowhere near as sharp as Poirot, they are quite entertaining to follow. I particularly enjoy a sequence in which Egg uses deception to try and get some answers out of a witness. Did I really expect them to get to the solution themselves? Perhaps not, but I did like the setup with those two characters working together and how it allowed their romance subplot to feel not just entertaining but important to the central mystery plot.

Of course, while Poirot stays in the background content for these other sleuths to divide the work up between them that situation cannot stay forever. Inevitably Poirot eventually takes control of the proceedings and he will be the one to provide the explanation of what happened. The downside of this approach is that we do not spend much time with him but I think the time we do get feels all the more significant as a result, helped by some of the actions he takes once he gets involved (my favorite being the sequence in which he throws a small sherry party).

I have already described the puzzle here as challenging and it remains so right up to the end. While I may have been able to identify the guilty party and even something of their motives, the how of the matter is really quite clever and uses an idea that is used again later in one of my favorite Christie novels, albeit in a slightly different way. Its use here is just as good though and there are some other clever elements that are unique to this novel.

Do I buy everything about that solution? Well, I think that the motive will be problematic for some readers. This resulted in some changes being made for the American edition. I have not read that version of the text myself so I can’t speak to the details other than to say that based on the description it takes something admittedly quite far-fetched and substitutes for it something that seems like it would be quite an unsatisfying ending.

Personally I quite like the explanation we get. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite novels (as well as possessing some similarities to another Christie novel I adore – can’t say which ones without spoiling) and I appreciated how clever and original the method used feels. It is smart, fair and as far as this reader is concerned one of her best puzzles in terms of how it is worked mechanically.

Overall then I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the last paragraph which is for my money one of the best and most in character endings to any Poirot novel.

This counts towards the Murder by the Numbers category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Cries in the Night by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

Originally published 1933
Inspector Jacks #4
Preceded by The Servant of Death
Followed by The Mystery of Vaucluse

Book Summary

In the early hours of the morning a man is woken by a woman’s scream coming from one of the boats off the shore of Port Washington. Investigating, he finds a man who claims that his boat was stolen and that his wife, the actress Daphne Eden, was taken or murdered by a pair of pirates.

Connecting Eden’s disappearance with those of four other actresses, whose bodies were never found, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case. He will have to discover the reason why these particular women were targetted and identify the criminals before they can strike again…

The Verdict

The blend of thriller elements and fair play detection works well and makes this one of his most successful efforts.

My Thoughts

If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with the work of James Harold Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his eight novels having been out of print for decades and little-reviewed on the internet. When he is remembered it is usually in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his final novels (which reminds me that I really should write about that film on this blog at some point).

Since first discovering Wallis’ novels about two years ago, I have worked to track them down and have now reviewed almost all of them. This novel was the only Inspector Jacks story I had not read which means that after this I will only The Woman He Chose, a legal thriller, left to read. It’s a strange feeling given how much time I invested in this project to be nearly at its end. Happily I can say that I feel that time was well-spent as I have enjoyed all of the books and the only disappointment I feel about the project is that the obscurity of these titles means that I have little opportunity to hear what others make of them.

Cries in the Night begins with a man being woken in the early hours of the morning by a woman’s scream. He recognizes that the sound came from the water and, upon investigating, discovers a man, Whitney Sinclair, who claims that his boat was stolen by pirates and that they either kidnapped or murdered his wife, the actress Daphne Eden. Sinclair is taken back to his rescuer’s home but before calling the Police he places a call in which he is overheard saying that he can’t have something uncovered.

The New York City police connect Eden’s disappearance with several previous cases also involving actresses, though they were much less publicized. No ransom demands were ever received, nor were any bodies discovered in those cases. Fearing more disappearances may follow, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case and to test the theory that there may be some connection between these different cases.

Of all of the scenarios Wallis creates in his Inspector Jacks novels, I think that this is one of his most grabbing. Part of the reason for this is that this is his only case where we begin the book at a point at which the crime has already taken place, throwing us directly into the story. Not only that but because we join the story with the fifth crime, it means that a considerable amount of information has already been gathered, allowing Jacks to quickly focus on the most interesting aspects of the case.

I also think that the lack of information we have about exactly what has happened to those women helps to elevate the sense of mystery and tension. We may wonder whether the women are still alive and whether Jacks stands any chance of possibly recovering them all of which ties into the book’s most crucial question – why were these women kidnapped in the first place?

While the wide scope of this mystery may seem to suggest that anyone might have done the crime, the reader will likely find themselves focusing on a small group of suspects. These characters each have quite strong and distinct personalities that make enough of an impression that they can be easily distinguished from each other.

One of the things that struck me most while reading this was the way Wallis acknowledges the role race plays in how characters have been treated. This is most directly addressed in the way that the disappearances of four actresses, though each were talented and quite successful, were met with little attention. Daphne Eden, it is suggested, received more attention and media coverage as she was the first white victim. Similarly Wallis recognizes further inequalities in discussions about the victims’ careers and the opportunities they have been given. He would return to this theme much more forcefully a decade later in his final novel The Niece of Abraham Pein which discussed antisemitism.

In a passage later in the novel Wallis takes us to Harlem and describes the community and life there. I should say that while it seemed clear to me that Wallis intended to celebrate Harlem, there are a couple of descriptive phrases that do evoke some stereotypical ideas (principally that all Black people are happy and carefree). On the whole though I think these passages evoke a sense of respect for the community and the characters we encounter feel as dimensional as their white counterparts which is not always the case in Golden Age works…

As much as I appreciate the social context of this story, which also includes some reflection about the damage that the Great Depression has done to some personal fortunes and businesses in New York, the primary draw here for most will be the mystery and I am pleased to report that I think this one of the author’s most successful efforts.

Wallis’ approach here is to blend elements of the thriller and the fair play detective story which I feel is highly effective. While there are a few sensational developments, particularly in the final few chapters, Wallis does provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary deductions before they reach the Challenge to the Reader page. I will not claim that I think that every aspect of the solution here is likely or realistic, but I did find it to be entertaining and largely satisfying.

Overall then I found this to be one of the best examples of Wallis’ mystery writing I have encountered. The scenario he creates is intriguing and raises some interesting questions for the reader to solve. Unlike some of his other mysteries, this moves at a pretty slick speed, helped by the crime having already been committed at the start of the novel, and the inclusion of some thriller elements work well to raise the stakes and ensures that the book builds to an exciting conclusion.

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.

The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

The Blurb

The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

The Verdict

As much as I liked the premise of this mystery, I found the investigation and its sleuth to be rather unengaging. The solution to the puzzle is rather good though.

My Thoughts

The Shop Window Murders opens as a crowd gathers outside a department store’s windows to await the unveiling of a new display featuring fancy dress costumes. When the blinds are raised at nine the crowd are initially appreciative but it doesn’t take long for someone to notice the figure out of place in the scene – a man dressed in mechanic overalls – and that he doesn’t seem to be made of wax like the other figures.

The police are summoned and investigate, finding that the masked mechanic is the store’s owner and that he has been shot. Meanwhile another figure is spotted within the window – a woman who has been stabbed. She has a gun and yet close examination will prove that her weapon was not the one that killed Tobias Mander, only making the scene in the window more puzzling.

I selected to read The Shop Window Murders as part of my Festive Reads series this year but I should probably start by saying that there is absolutely nothing seasonal about this work. While the story is set in Novemeber, there is no mention within the text of the window display being related to the holiday and given that these window displays are changed weekly there is nothing to suggest that this was a particularly significant event in the store’s calendar. I will not hold that against the book itself but feel I ought to clarify that rather misleading blurb.

The best thing about this book is its initial premise which is delightfully puzzling. In just a couple of pages Loder lays out a crime that appears neat and tidy but that actually is far more complex than it seems as the reader realizes that the story the crime scene appears to tell simply does not make sense. There are too many gaps for the easy explanations to make sense.

The chapters that follow introduce us to our handful of suspects, some with clear motives while others’ are less obvious. I appreciated that there are efforts made to have those characters drawn from different spheres within Mander’s life and I respected the role they played within the context of the puzzle. I was less impressed however with the depth of their characterizations.

With the expection of the department store manager, Mr. Kephim, I never really had much sense of the various suspects or their personalities beyond a sense of their occupation. I did not find their voices to be strong or distinctive and, once again with the exception of Mr. Kephim who has an emotional reaction to the discovery of the bodies, I struggled to feel engaged with their stories.

It was not just the characterization of the suspects that disappointed me however but I similarly felt unengaged with Inspector Devenish, the detective Loder creates. In his excellent introduction to the edition reissued a few years ago, crime historian Nigel Moss quite rightly points out some of the similarities and differences between this work and Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. What strikes me most as I think about book is that I think this sort of story needed a character like Ellery to inject a little more life into the investigation and, in particular, the various questioning sessions he conducts.

Inspector Devenish is, for want of a better description, a bore. He is hardly the first detective I have encountered who feels a little lacking in any strong characteristics but he does differ from the likes of Crofts’ Inspector French in that I never found his process or the way he intellectually approaches solving the crime to be particularly compelling. In short, I simply didn’t enjoy his company and that didn’t help with my overall engagement with this story which I found to be rather dry once we get beyond the first few chapters of the book.

This is unfortunate because the actual explanation of what happened is really interesting and I do acknowledge that the essential points are properly clued (though I think Devenish does guess a few points). Similarly I have to acknowledge that the explanation is quite clever and, as far as I can tell, fairly novel at the time. Perhaps most importantly though, I feel like it is fairly comprehensive and avoids leaving any loose plot ends.

There were clearly some parts of The Shop Window Murders that did hold some appeal for me. I think the core premise and the multiple contradictions within it are cleverly introduced and I think the explanation given feels compelling and sensible. The problem for me was that the path to reach that explanation felt dry and seems to move quite slowly. Others may feel differently though, particularly those who focus most strongly on the puzzle elements of a mystery.

Reprint of the Year: My First Pick

Reprints are really important and I have a story that I think illustrates my point well.

Two years ago I read Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison which I found to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is one of two impossible crime novels he wrote and, having enjoyed it so much, I was keen to track down a copy of the other – Sudden Death.

I began by trying to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan but no institution would lend their copy. That left buying a copy but unfortunately where I live there is no possibility of stumbling onto a copy in the wild. Atlanta may be a big city but my efforts to scour second-hand and antiquarian bookstores rarely produce any mysteries from the silver age, let alone the golden age of crime. Reluctantly I realized I would need to try and source a copy online.

Immediately I realized that I was priced out of the market. The cheapest copies at that time seemed to be priced in the region of $400 to $500 which was simply out of reach for me. For a while I just hung in, checking various sites every few days and hoping that one would just turn up. With no sign of any Crofts reprints on the horizon and no affordable copies appearing I had given up hope until suddenly a copy turned up on Amazon marketplace for just $200. Now, that’s a lot of money but having watched these sites for eighteen months I knew that was less than half the previous best price I had seen. Keen to avoid getting beaten to it, I purchased the copy.

For the first few days after it arrived I was thrilled but then came the news I really should have anticipated. The Collins Crime Club would be reprinting six Croft titles for less than a tenth of what I had paid.

I should have been upset. Okay, I kind of was though more at myself for not considering the possiblity that someone had cashed in to sell before the news broke, but I was also happy because it meant that when I did get to read it I was more likely going to be able to discuss it with other people that have read the book or might feasibly go on to read it. That is after all why I do this whole book blogging thing.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am not nominating Sudden Death. That doesn’t reflect on its quality as a book – rather I find myself incredibly anxious any time I touch it that it’s going to fall apart or get stained or destroyed. Inevitably I have had to get myself a second “reading copy” and it arrived too late for me to consider for this nomination. Instead I decided to nominate another of the reprints that I actually have read: Mystery on Southampton Water (reprinted as Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water).

Mystery on Southampton Water is not my favorite of Crofts’ inverted mystery stories but I think it is one of his most interesting. A big part of the reason for that is the unusual structure he adopts which seeks to blend the inverted mystery and traditional detective story formats.

The book introduces us to a pair of men whose business is in trouble. A rival has invented a process that allows them to undercut their competitors, cornering the market. Desperate the men hatch a plot to engage in a little corporate espionage and steal some trade secrets.

The first section of the book covers the background to this scheme and the pair working out the details of what they need to do. This also helps us get to know our two criminals and get a sense of their personalities and behaviors prior to the scheme backfiring badly causing a death.

The next section we follow Inspector French as he arrives on the scene and tries to piece together a picture of what took place. French is, as always, a diligent detective and while this particular investigation certainly can be quite detail-driven, I found it pretty engaging. The book’s third section is much quicker paced, focusing on the actions of our criminals as they are placed under stronger pressure while the last one returns to French and sees him taking on a different but possibly related case.

One of the reasons this book works and is able to channel a little ambiguity is that Crofts omits to describe the details of exactly how the young men’s plans end up going so disastrously wrong. This is the mechanism that allows the book to shift into a more traditional whodunit structure towards the end, marrying these two styles together quite effectively, and it allows the reader to have the psychological focus of the inverted style while still enjoying the traditional puzzle mystery form.

Similarly I appreciate how much sense the plot makes. It is one of his most credible crime stories, based on an understanding of human nature and the idea that sometimes things just don’t go to a well-laid plan. It’s a good idea, executed well and I think it speaks to Crofts’ willingness to experiment as a writer. As I have remarked often, Crofts’ inverted stories each feel quite distinct in style meaning there is never a sense that the writer is repeating himself.

Even if this particular Crofts title is not for you however, I would suggest that a vote for it is really a vote for any (or all) of the six titles reissued this year. Several of those six books have been relatively rare in recent years and so in republishing them, the Collins Crime Club has not only done a wonderful job of honoring the legacy of one of the Golden Age’s most important crime writers, it has also performed a service for fans of vintage crime fiction. Thanks to their efforts, there are now six more titles that have been made accessible to readers once again. And that, I feel, is something worthy of celebration.

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.