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 Big Four by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published 1927
Hercule Poirot #5
Preceded by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd *
Followed by The Mystery of the Blue Train

* Based on publication order. The events of this story may be taken to suggest that it is placed before that one.

The Blurb

Framed in the doorway of Hercule Poirot’s bedroom stands an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man stares for a moment, then he sways and falls. Who is he? Is he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what is the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper?

Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life—and that of his “twin brother”—to uncover the truth.

The Verdict

A tedious attempt at a espionage thriller. Largely dull, this suffers from poorly defining the aims and motivations of its villains.


My Thoughts

Having thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I approached The Big Four with a little less enthusiasm. While it has probably been fifteen years since I last read it, my memories of it were of being a pretty underwhelming experience. Still, I tried to approach it in the hope that the memory may have cheated or that perhaps I might enjoy it more as an adult.

The book opens with Captain Hastings returning to London from his new home in Argentina. He looks forward to catching up with his old friend Poirot during his trip but arrives to find the detective will shortly head to Argentina on a case that he had accepted, in part, because of his hopes of seeing Hastings. His imminent departure means that their conversation is brief but Poirot expresses some regret about how he is having to put another investigation to one side – a look into the activities of a worldwide crime syndicate called The Big Four.

This book is composed of a series of cases, each of which work Poirot a little closer to discovering the identities of the four crime bosses who make up this shadowy organization. Typically Poirot finds himself engaged in solving a smaller problem, only to find there are links to that wider case.

The reason for this unusual, more episodic storytelling style was that Christie reworked a number of previously published short stories into this novel, altering the openings to tie them into a wider thriller narrative. This does seem to be a creative approach to generating a novel from previously existing material and I feel on balance that Christie manages to wrangle her material into enough of a coherent form that it feels purposeful.

The problem is that while the stories are linked, the narrative still feels somewhat disjointed. In this sort of story I think there should be a sense of progressing deeper into the mystery yet each case seems to be pretty much in line with the others in terms of the dangers and the information to be gained. As a consequence, Christie’s storytelling seems flat to me.

I believe that the problems start with the way that Christie introduces us to the idea of the Big Four. At the start of the book we learn that Poirot is already basically aware of what they are and the extent of their power. This is not dissimilar to the way that Moriarty is introduced in The Adventure of the Final Problem which I think works in the context of a short story but I feel it is unsatisfactory in a novel-length work.

Christie could have shown us Poirot slowly becoming aware of the group but by jumping into the middle of the investigation there is no sense of discovery of the scale or scope of their operation. The only question for Poirot and the reader to solve is who the four individuals at the top of the organization are.

Once again, this is not in itself a bad question to focus on. After all, The Man in the Brown Suit had charmed me with its hidden villain – wouldn’t four such villains be four times the fun?

Well, no. Where that novel had fun with its game of finding the villain, The Big Four makes no attempt to play the game with the reader at all. We are never invited to find spot the villains among the seemingly innocuous supporting characters – it is all done for us (the exception to this is a reveal so obvious that it is hard to fathom how it takes Poirot so long to think of it).

Nor are the characters that make up this group particularly interesting. There is no real sense of an ideology or character to this group or their activities. We get no real sense of the scale or meaning behind their ambitions. Christie certainly hints at a significant threat to world order but the nature of that threat never seems to be spelled out, nor is there a clear time limit imposed. If it is a race against time, we lack the context to understand how near we are to destruction.

Contributing to the problem is the presentation of the mastermind of the group, Li Chang Yen. This characterization evokes ideas of the Yellow Peril with its suggestion of secretive Chinese societies controlled by a mandarin-style figure. Yes, it evokes the Fu Manchu stories but it neither offers a counterpoint, nor does it do anything particularly new or inventive with the trope. This idea was tired in 1927 and time has only rendered it more uncomfortable and offensive.

The one thing that I think Christie does achieve with her four crime bosses is a sense of a global organization. We are frequently reminded that our focus is on just one aspect of their operations and that stopping Poirot is critical to them because they regard him as the greatest threat to their own rise. I do have big questions about how they came to join forces that Christie never really answers but the scale of operations certainly impresses and makes them appear a more formidable group of opponents for Poirot.

While I am striking a positive note (don’t blink – this won’t last long), I should also say that I enjoy the treatment of Hastings here. Not only does Christie have Poirot show some real warmth and affection for his old friend, she also allows Hastings to make some smart and strong choices under enormous pressure. Sure, he is sometimes wanting in the application of methodical, logical thinking but it is nice to see him looking quite competent for long stretches of this novel.

Having dispensed with the compliments, I do need to comment on the adventures our heroes have in this book. With the exception of the section involving a chess match, the stories here are drab and slight. Several feel quite trivial and almost all lack the sort of imaginative elements that usually pull me into Christie’s story. I think there is some truth to the idea that Christie worked much better in longer form fiction and this seems to me to be pretty clear evidence of that.

With no detection to speak of, this work is best compared with Christie’s other thrillers but even if we look at it through that lens I think it is pretty lacking. Sure, it makes more sense than Passenger to Frankfurt but at least that seemed to be about something.

In contrast The Big Four is simply dull and not a patch on the stories that preceded it. For that reason, I would certainly not suggest this as an early stop if you are getting to know the author or Poirot – this is a distinctly lesser work and can be easily skipped.

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.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Book Details

Originally published 2017.

The Blurb

This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction—from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age—in an accessible, informative and engaging style.

Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar—as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.

The Verdict

An entertaining thematic overview of crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. Just be aware that you will probably come away from this with a long list of obscure (and sometimes expensive) books to track down!


My Thoughts

Last week Jim at The Invisible Event released the third installment in his In GAD We Trust podcast. In that installment he interviewed Martin Edwards, touching upon his work with the British Library Crime Classics range and his two nonfiction titles – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

That conversation reminded me that I wanted to purchase my own physical copy of the latter. This is one of my (many) peculiarities as a reader – I am equally happy to read physical or ebook fiction titles but I find non-fiction, particularly reference books, much easier to navigate and absorb in hard copy.

In his introduction to the book, Edwards describes how he wrote the book to serve as a companion piece to the British Library Crime Classics range. That is not to say that it is about the books they have published – only a fraction of the titles highlighted are from that collection – but rather it provides a context for those releases and suggests further reading.

He also stresses in that introduction that the book has neither been developed to serve as an encyclopedia, nor is it an attempt to pick the 100 greatest works. There are certainly several works discussed that you might expect with multiple entries for Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox, but the titles chosen are selected for how well they correspond to the theme Edwards is discussing in that chapter.

Edwards begins each chapter with an introductory essay that introduces a theme. Some are more developmental – focusing on aspects of plot construction – but most relate to an aspect of setting, style or theme. An example of this would be the sixth chapter, Serpents in Eden, which discusses examples of rural or village mysteries. Incidentally this and several other chapters share the names of short story collections that Edwards edited for the range, making these ideal reference points for readers curious how novelists approached those same themes and ideas.

The introductory essay discusses those themes in quite general terms, name-dropping plenty of authors and titles beyond the highlighted ones for curious readers to explore. This is followed by a number of shorter pieces – each of which is typically two to three pages long – that describe a particular work and how it addresses that theme.

Some of the titles Edwards selects will be familiar to many while others merit the label he applies to them of being ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’. In a few cases I was surprised at one title by an author being selected ahead of another work I view as superior but I typically understood why by the end of the piece (an example would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but my assumption is that was avoided in favor of The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it is so hard to discuss without spoiling it).

The best thing about the book for me though was the number of titles Edwards mentions that I have yet to read and, in several cases, that I knew nothing about. For every The Hollow Man, there is a Death at Broadcasting House – particularly in the later, more thematic chapters.

I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that the chapter on inverted mysteries opens with the Coles’ End of an Ancient Mariner – a book I am now really excited to go read. And which I now bought… As I did Anthony Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments along with four or five other books.

It is possible that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books may be the most expensive book I have ever bought. This is not because it is outrageously priced – it is a standard softcover – but in the way it entices you to chase after books that are often long out-of-print. For those keen to delve a little deeper into the world of classic crime, this can be an entertaining and enlightening starting point, showcasing the diversity of the genre and in guiding you to some lesser-known or obscure works.

The Mystery of Vaucluse by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

Originally published 1933
Inspector Jacks #5
Preceded by Cries in the Night
Followed by Murder Mansion

Book Summary

Students at Vaucluse College learn that Professor Dart is on the verge of making a discovery of a process to turn sugar into fuel. The next day he is found stabbed through the back with two bloody fingerprints on his collar and a puddle of water near him.

As the police are able to determine that no one entered or left the building after he was last seen alive, the killer must be one of those ten students. Searches of the students and the rooms reveal no weapons so who killed Professor Dart and how did they manage it?

The Verdict

An interesting setting and colorful characters but unfortunately one part of the solution is all too easily guessed.


My Thoughts

I was introduced to the works of J. H. Wallis a few years ago when Kate at CrossExaminingCrime suggested I might be interested in one of his novels based on one of Todd Downing’s reviews collected in Clues and Corpses. I really enjoyed that book – The Servant of Death – and so slowly over the past couple of years I have worked to acquire affordable copies of each of his other novels. Finally this week I was able to track down the only one I was missing, completing my collection!

The Mystery of Vaucluse is part of Wallis’ Inspector Jacks series although readers should be aware that he is not the novel’s primary detective. Instead most of our time is spent following Devaney, a detective from New Haven, as he tries to make sense of this crime. While the series can be read in any order, I would suggest that this would be best enjoyed after reading some of Jacks’ earlier cases as I think that enhances a key moment late in the story.

This story is set at a college that has been set up as part of Yale University for adult students looking to spend time away from the world in academic pursuits. All students are required to be over forty years old and they are seeking personal enrichment or a chance to spend time with other prominent individuals rather than career qualifications.

One of the key figures at the college is Professor Dart, an internationally renowned scholar who has several significant academic projects on the go. During a dinner being held for the new intake of students, the Dean mentions two such projects that he considers tremendously exciting. One is a pesticide. The other, which he begins to describe, involves the refinement of sugar into a fuel that will replace oil.

Dart is uncomfortable talking about this and instead deflects their attention by talking about the history of the building they are in. We learn it is an exact copy of the Abbey Margawse on the Orkney Islands and was built from its original stones. Dart tells the story of a strange murder that took place six hundred years earlier in the room that is now his study in which a monk was found murdered with a stab wound in his back and a pool of water next to the body. The monks never learned which of their number did the crime or how it was committed.

After the speech Dart meets with the Dean in his study and shares his misgivings about his discovery. He wonders if it would be right to develop this process given that it will almost certainly cause enormous economic turmoil in the short term. The Dean presses him to ignore these misgivings and focus on the good it will do. He refuses however to learn where Dart is keeping the secret to the process – a fact known only to him – and leaves him in his study. As he departs though he has a sense of a figure lurking in the darkness. A short while later he is stabbed to death in the exact same location and way as the monk centuries earlier with the same mysterious pool of water near the body.

Quite by chance the police are summoned to the college at about the time the dean leaves as a student has reported a theft. Thanks to this coincidence, they are able to establish that no one had entered or left the building after the Dean which limits our suspects to just the ten individuals staying in the Abbey. Devaney, a detective from New Haven, is assigned the case and examines each room and person in turn but cannot find any sign of the murder weapon.

Devaney is shown to be a diligent detective, if not a hugely imaginative one. Throughout the case he takes actions that are designed to increase the pressure on those ten students, forcing them to spend time with each other and eat their meals in the room where the murder took place. Tempers inevitably flare between some members of the group, allowing Devaney and the reader a greater sense of each of their personalities.

This attention to characterization is one of the book’s strengths as Wallis clearly provides us with some biographical information about each of the ten students staying in the Abbey. He even produces a table at an early point in the novel summarizing their relationships, backgrounds, reasons for attending Vaucluse and the types of investments they hold.

Each character has some distinctive personality traits and in several cases we are aware of some mystery surrounding them. For instance, a married couple have accompanied their wealthy neighbor to the college but Devaney is unsure about the nature of their relationship and whether they are pests or welcome companions.

Some are more interesting and entertaining than others. Dentzer, a 112 year old who bores many in the party with his insistence on talking about centenarians at length, overstayed his welcome with me. The rest however each have their moments and were mysterious enough to leave me in some doubt about the killer until close to the end.

Let’s turn to focus more specifically on the plotting itself. Wallis’ invention of the historical crime is fun although it is perhaps not used to its full potential. I had expected some question about whether the room itself might kill but this is never really considered by Devaney. Still, it added to the atmosphere and it is used to unsettle the students before they even hear of Dart’s murder.

The decision to provide us with a pretty clear motivation for the murder is an interesting and fairly effective one. Dart’s discovery is so clearly the cause, the question is not why but whether it actually applies to the suspect and whether they had the means and opportunity.

One specific element of the crime will likely be quickly solved by most readers as it has been used frequently over the years. This is unfortunate but as that element of the mystery is not the primary focus, I think the experience isn’t spoiled if you immediately guess it.

Another however would be almost impossible to predict, particularly given that the circumstances of the murder seem to suggest it was a suddenly conceived plan. This unfortunately has the effect of making that part of the murder seem highly contrived (and it really, really is), but I think some observations can be inferred prior to the reveal that at least clue the reader in as to the nature of that element.

As to the killer’s identity – I think there are reasonable clues given that point to their identity. One piece of evidence is held back from the reader but I did not feel cheated – their identity can be reasonably inferred without that by the point you reach the challenge to the reader. I felt the reveal was strong and enjoyed the sequence in which they were caught.

Overall I found The Mystery of Vaucluse to be an interesting read and enjoyed the challenge of identifying the killer. It is not the author’s best work – I prefer his next book Murder Mansion or his early inverted mystery The Servant of Death – and one part of the solution feels well-worn, but the setting is interesting and Wallis’ stakeout sequences are tense and thrilling.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac

Book Details

Originally published 1946
Robert MacDonald #27
Preceded by Murder by Matchlight
Followed by Murderer’s Mistake

The Blurb

The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

The Verdict

Lorac’s depiction of life in Devon during the later stages of World War 2 adds interest to an otherwise solid mystery.


My Thoughts

I have been meaning to return to the works of E. C. R. Lorac ever since I read Murder in the Mill-Race last Summer. In my review of that title I noted that I had made several previous attempts to start her books but I never seemed to be able to get into them. Still, I had enjoyed that novel and, in particular, its depiction of country life so of the other reprints I owned, this had the greatest attraction for me.

The novel is set in Devon and takes place in the later stages of the war. Colonel St Cyres owns a vacant property, Little Thatch, on his land and is approached by several interested parties looking to lease it. One, a rich city type, is supported by his daughter-in-law but he regards the man as distasteful and opts instead to lease it to a man who had served in the Navy before being injured and who is keen to work the land.

That man, Nicholas Vaughan, works hard over the following months to make improvements to the aging structure, impressing many of the locals with his work ethic. Sadly however a fire breaks out at Little Thatch late one night and he is burned to death in what appears to be a tragic accident.

These opening chapters unfold at a rather leisurely pace, giving lots of detail both about the relationships between the various figures in the community surrounding Little Thatch and also about farming in that period. Much of this is necessary to establish the key points of the mystery but I cannot say I was particularly engaged with the characters or the scenario at that point.

That changed significantly for me with the introduction of Chief Inspector MacDonald into the story. He is brought into the case when one of Vaughan’s friends from the Navy questions the coroner’s verdict. Several of his arguments amount to little more than hunches but he does enough to sow some seeds of doubt for MacDonald and so he travels to Devon to investigate for himself.

This plot setup in which a detective has to prove there was a case to investigate at all can be rather effective and Lorac handles it well. Smartly the author does not attempt to make the reader question this – after all, were there not to be a murder then this book would be rather pointless – but instead the focus is on how he will prove it.

That investigation is, much like the opening chapters, fairly leisurely paced. This is not the sort of case where the reader is presented with shocking new information but rather one in which our understanding of a situation is fleshed out with new details, painting a fuller picture.

Similarly I cannot claim that the solution to this mystery is hugely shocking but I think Lorac builds up to the reveal of their guilt pretty well, giving us a much richer understanding of their character. There are a couple of clever pieces of reasoning involved in MacDonald’s accusation. For instance, I was quite impressed by the account he gives of the killer’s movements although I am not certain that the reader could really work everything out for themselves. It makes for a solid, if not especially flashy, case.

There were several aspects of the novel that elevated it for me. I was appreciative of the details Lorac includes that give us a sense of the place and time. The war mostly exists in the background but there are some striking moments where it comes into focus such as when MacDonald compares the burnt out cottage to those buildings in London that had been hit by bombs.

There is also some interesting discussion of the tensions between city and country dwellers. That is most evident in the way Gressingham is portrayed as lacking in moral character and also in how he is talked about by the other characters but he is by no means the only example.

Lorac’s sympathies do seem to fall more heavily towards the country folk and, in particular, towards Colonel St Cyres. I might suggest that he is cut from the same sort of cloth as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham – a sort of idealized, paternalistic landlord. Still, the contrast between the two types is done quite well and I found both characters interesting in the way they respond to MacDonald’s questioning.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this novel I loved – the character of Chief Inspector MacDonald.

Lorac’s sleuth is presented as being a man of sound judgment, compassion and great humanity. On several occasions in the novel he shows awareness of how the investigation is affecting others and approaches the evidence in a reasonable, measured way that fits the overall tone and pacing of the novel. I certainly liked him far more here than I did in Mill-Race and I would be interested to get to know him better.

As a mystery Fire in the Thatch is solid enough but I think it was those elements that kept me reading. For me it was these elements of the setting and the personality of the sleuth that drew me in and make me most interested to read more from Lorac.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

Book Details

Originally published 1935
Perry Mason #6
Preceded by The Case of the Curious Bride
Followed by The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat

The Blurb

Wealthy businessman Hartley Bassett has killed himself. There’s a typewritten suicide note and three guns lying near his body. But for Perry Mason, that’s evidence overkill. He knows there has been trouble in Bassett’s life. His wife wants out, his stepson hates him, an embezzler can’t pay him back – and there’s the man with a glass eye who hired Perry Mason even before his glass eye went missing and was found in the hands of the deceased.

There are too many suspects and too many lies. But leave it to Mason, his resourceful secretary, Della Street, and clever detective Paul Drake to their wits about them and their wiles tucked away, as they piece together the missing parts of this fatal family puzzle.

The Verdict

An absolutely crazy ride. Always entertaining, even if there is a little too much coincidence at points.


My Thoughts

The release of a first full trailer for the upcoming HBO Perry Mason series last week was a helpful nudge for me to get back to my plan to read all the novels in order. Rather unfortunately I spectacularly failed to remember the book I read last (The Case of the Howling Dog) meaning I skipped over The Case of the Curious Bride.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that I already owned a copy of that one. Fortunately the series is not particularly continuity-driven and I am sure I will play catchup soon.

This novel opens with Mason being consulted by a man named Brunold who is concerned that one of his glass eyes has been stolen and replaced with a cheap imitation. He tells Mason he is worried that the eye will be planted to tie him to some sort of crime as the eye stolen would be of a rare enough type to be quite identifiable.

Immediately after that meeting he is called on by a young woman and her brother. He was working for the businessman Hartley Bassett and was caught embezzling funds. Bassett is demanding the money back and as the brother has lost the sum, the woman begs Mason to intercede on their behalf to persuade him to accept payments by installment.

When Mason calls on Bassett he finds the latter unwilling to countenance any sort of a deal. As he leaves he gains yet another client when Bassett’s wife approaches him, asking for legal advice about how to run off with another man without committing bigamy. Unfortunately more clients just equals more problems for Mason when Bassett is discovered dead in his home clutching a glass eye…

This description of the events of the book sounds pretty wild but I think it actually understates some of the craziness you will encounter in this story. Compared to the previous Mason books I’ve read these characters are even more colorful and their stories are thoroughly wrapped around each other. The pleasure here is in unpicking those story threads and understanding just how each aspect of the plot is linked together.

Now I will say that, for me, the hardest bit of the story to swallow is that first consultation from Brunold. Everyone else who consults Mason has a very clear legal issue to resolve whereas his is much harder to define and so struck me as a little unfocused. Fortunately the other two clients each have much clearer reasons to want Mason’s help and, in the case of Mrs. Bassett, some interesting ways of forcing him to assist her.

Surprisingly Gardner is able to sustain the same crazy energy throughout the rest of the story, both in terms of the things that happen to Mason and also some of his own actions. I commented in some of my previous Perry Mason posts about his willingness to bend or subvert the law and Gardner gives us plenty of examples of that here. He even writes an entertaining exchange where another character provides a little meta commentary about Mason’s willingness to twist the law.

This side of Perry Mason’s character is, for me, the most entertaining part of the character. I enjoy seeing him put tricks in place, particularly when it is not always clear to the reader what the exact purpose of the trick is or how it will be worked. We get several really great examples of that here.

The novel also introduces a character who apparently becomes an important recurring figure in the series – District Attorney Burger. These stories are all new to me so I can’t compare him here with the character he becomes but I enjoyed him and, in particular, the way Mason works to establish his relationship with that character. I appreciated that while they are presented as antagonists in terms of the legal proceedings, Burger is not personally antagonistic towards Mason and understands that the lawyer is seeking to find the truth, even if his methods are sometimes sneaky.

The novel builds towards a substantial and dramatic courtroom scene which sees Mason working a variety of tricks and angles. We are not in on all of his schemes, even though we have seen the preparations he has made, so I enjoyed seeing just what he was playing at. There is a certain audacity to some of the moves he makes during this chapter and I felt the character was taking too many chances but the explanation given afterwards convinced me both as to what he was up to and why he thought it worth the risk.

Perhaps the least interesting part of the book is the solution to who killed Bassett. In his excellent (and much more detailed) post about the novel, Brad suggests that the killer stands out. I certainly guessed at it almost immediately, recognizing the setup even if I didn’t understand every aspect of the crime. For that reason I would suggest that those looking primarily for a whodunnit may want to skip over this one.

For those more interested in being amused and entertained, I can recommend this as an often audacious and thoroughly enjoyable read. While the whodunnit aspects of the story may be a little predictable, the real excitement for me was seeing just what Perry Mason would do next and waiting for an explanation to be given as to just what he was up to. Happily in that respect this story definitely delivered and reminded me why I was enjoying this series so much. I am sure I will be making a special effort to return to the series soon for another case.

Murder First Class by Leonard Gribble

Book Details

Originally published 1946
Superintendent Slade #13
Preceded by Tragedy in E Flat
Followed by Atomic Murder

The Blurb

A vintage English murder mystery set onboard a moving train.

The Verdict

An enjoyable, if sometimes rather corny, thriller-style read.


My Thoughts

Leonard Gribble was an amazingly prolific writer of mystery and suspense fiction, churning out dozens of works under multiple noms de plume. I first encountered his work when I read and reviewed the British Library Crime Classics reprint of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. That was several years ago now and I have to say that the memories have become a little hazy but I do remember finding it to be an enjoyable, page-turning read.

I was excited to note that there are now several Gribble novels available as ebooks, giving me an opportunity to dig a little deeper into his output. The reason I opted for this one was the short blurb, reproduced above, which clearly suggests the mystery is set on a moving train.

As it happens this blurb is a terrible indication of what the book is about and I was left puzzled whether they had even read it. For one thing, in just ten words they manage to make a factual error – at the end of the first chapter we are told:

Two minutes before it was scheduled to depart on its journey to London a man pulled open the door of a first-class compartment, and found the only occupant lolling across a seat.

Nor is the murder of that man, a blackmailer who has been killed with a hat pin dipped in curare, really much of the focus of the novel. Inspector Slade’s interest in the death is mostly in relation to another case he is already investigating of a drugs smuggling operation as it turns out that the dead man was someone they had been looking to interview.

This is just a fraction of the information that is conveyed to the reader in the first twelve pages of the novel which I think gives us a sense of the pace and the sensational style in which this story will be told. The plot is continually driven forwards and Gribble’s focus is on providing thrills for his reader rather than rational developments. There is, for instance, never much explanation where the curare was sourced from.

For this reason I would suggest that this book would have the strongest appeal for those who favor thriller-style stories over the fair-play mystery. There are certainly a few questions that the reader might solve for themselves but this is not a heavily-clued story.

Slade begins this story having just been promoted to the rank of Superintendent at Scotland Yard, being given the role of coordinating the Yard’s activities with local constabularies. This is quite a clever move on Gribble’s part as it gives him a higher status while not tying him to a specific region.

Slade is nowhere near as colorful as the case he is called on to solve though he does exude a certain calm competence which I appreciated. Certainly it is always easy to understand his actions and what he is thinking which is appreciated given how quickly this case unfolds.

The other characters are, as you might expect from a work of this length, written quite functionally. Certainly no one stands out as being particularly memorable or interesting beyond their immediate role in the case. I might be less forgiving of that in a longer work but it does fit the general approach Gribble takes here.

My biggest issues with the story relate to the way Gribble concludes it. While Slade does work to catch the culprit, much of the background to the case is supplied by the criminal in a lengthy exchange. The information given is certainly necessary to understand the story but this seems such a clumsy way to impart it and it left me with the unsatisfying feeling that Slade hadn’t really solved everything himself. This is fine if read as a thriller but obviously less satisfying if approached as a fair-play detective story.

As it happened I was more than okay with the former. The story is often quite corny and some of the plotting can feel a little silly but it is a lively and engaging read. That happened to be the sort of read I am finding myself in the mood for lately given how easily distracted (or tired) I am. Gribble’s punchy turns of phrase certainly kept my attention as did that sharp pacing.

I might suggest however that if you are entirely new to the author and open to sporting stories you would be better served reading a copy of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. That has many of the same positive qualities as this but is much more satisfying as a mystery.

The Heel of Achilles by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

Doctor Manson #8
Preceded by John Kyleing Died
Followed by Look in at Murder

The Blurb

The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.

The Verdict

A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.


My Thoughts

This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.

The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.

As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.

Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.

I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.

I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?

The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.

Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.

One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.

The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.

It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.

I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.

The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published in 1943
Inspector Hugh Collier #10
The publication order of the Collier stories seems a little confusing to me – in his excellent introduction to the book, Curtis says it is the tenth by his reckoning so we’ll go with that.

The Blurb

Artists’ model Althea Greville was, in life, known as something of a femme fatale. But the phrase becomes only too literal. What initially appears to be red paint leads instead to Althea’s dead body, murdered in Morosini’s renowned school of art. Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard is called in, but two more murder victims follow, one of them a female student at the school, stabbed to death at a cinema. After many a twist, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle to identify a murderer operating under cover of England’s World War Two black-out.

The Verdict

A quick-paced and entertaining detective story.


My Thoughts

I am always excited to see when Dean Street Press announce a new set of titles, particularly when they feature an author that is entirely new to me. Recently they have started releasing some works by Moray Dalton (a pen name for Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) and, of course, I jumped right on them – picking up several titles.

The one that grabbed my attention most was this title, in large part because of its setting. For one thing the case is set during wartime – more on that in a moment – but also because of the art school setting. One of the ways I have spent my enforced confinement to the home over the past month is filming and editing art instructional videos for my wife’s students so I find myself in an arty mood at the moment.

The novel is set at an art school located about forty minutes outside London in the small market town of Scanbridge. The school is owned by an Italian artist whose interest in the institution has waned over the years as he makes only infrequent visits, preferring the more vibrant cultural and social life found in the capital. As a consequence the school is facing a bleak future thanks to the effect of the war and the ‘absurdly high’ fees.

It opens with the wife of the building’s caretaker unlocking and opening up the school building in an early November morning only to discover a woman lying dead on the classroom floor. One of the masters identifies her as the life model he had engaged from London and the local police, recognizing (and perhaps hoping) that the crime may have roots outside their jurisdiction, decides to send for Scotland Yard to investigate.

While the prospect of the locked school building may sound like the starting point for a locked room mystery, I should stress that it is acknowledged early in the book that there are several individuals who possess keys to the building. Those questions of access do factor into the mystery but are by no means a key focus of the story.

Instead Inspector Collier’s focus falls on exploring the history of the murdered woman and that of the individuals who make up the school’s teaching staff and student body. While the student body is a reasonably large group of characters, our attention is narrowed to just a couple of witnesses (the mechanism for that is a little contrived but I will take a little streamlining over the prospect of dozens of identical interactions).

This is not the sort of mystery that presents the reader with much in the way of physical clues – most of the information gained comes in conversation. Being so interview-driven works to the book’s advantage as Dalton’s detective, Collier, is charming and highly personable, using his interpersonal skills to ease people into revealing information to him.

The second murder, when it comes, added an additional layer of interest for me and leads to some of the book’s strongest exchanges. For instance, it is following that incident that Collier finally manages to meet with Mr. Morosini who proves a rather highly strung interviewee and who is easily the book’s most colorful character.

The aspect of the book that intrigued me most however was its setting and Dalton’s presentation of how wartime conditions affect both the fortunes of the school and the investigation. The latter is particularly well done in moments such as when Collier acknowledging that some usual approaches to crime solving, such as discreetly tailing a suspect, are just impossible in the blackout.

This brings me, a little reluctantly, to discuss the book’s conclusion which I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The reveal of the killer struck me as a little anticlimactic, in part because I think there is an argument to be made that Collier really doesn’t do much to bring that about. He certainly connects the dots at the right time but I was not entirely convinced that the character could have known for sure without that. That being said, other aspects of the conclusion make it quite an exciting and dramatic read.

The motive, when revealed, is powerful and a secondary plot is wrapped up in a way that I felt was quite pleasing and gave some characters an appropriately happy ending. It made for a nice closure to the story and I appreciated the way Dalton gives us a glimpse into how some characters’ lives have changed since they were caught up in The Art School Murders.

Overall, I found this to be a quick, engaging and entertaining read. I have, of course, indulged my Dean Street Press habit and purchased all of the other Moray Dalton titles currently available. Based on this experience I am very confident that I will be reading more from this author in the next few months.

Further Reading

This superb essay from Curtis Evans, the writer of the introduction to the Dean Street Press edition, touches on both blackouts in crime fiction and this book specifically.