The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Man Who Loved Clouds by Paul Halter

CloudsI recently had an excellent time with The Seventh Hypothesis, naming it my Book of the Month for July, so I was excited to learn that Locked Room International would be releasing a translation of another Twist and Hurst mystery.

The novel concerns events in the coastal village of Pickering and the mystery surrounding a young woman who lives there.

The book begins with Twist relating a story he has been told by a young journalist who had visited the village on a whim, following a group of clouds. During that visit he had a brief encounter with that young woman in which she made a big impression on him, leading him to make enquiries about her with some of the locals.

Her name is Stella Deverell and she is reputed to have fairy-like powers including the ability to predict the future and to disappear into thin air. On a number of occasions she had been observed walking into a small wooded area only to disappear and though several people have attempted to catch her and find her secret, including the local police force, none had managed it.

She claims to have been clairvoyant since she was a young child and locals can point to several predictions she made that had come true as proof of her abilities. One of those predictions concerned the death of her father, made several days before he was discovered dead at the foot of a cliff having apparently committed suicide. Shortly after the journalist arrives she makes further predictions of deaths and in each case they come true, the victims appearing to be hurled to their deaths by strong gusts of wind.

Unlike the other Halter novels I have read and reviewed, it is noticeable that this is not structured around an obvious case of murder. We are aware of several strange deaths from the beginning of the book but at the point the investigation begins it is from the perspective of trying to understand a seemingly inexplicable set of events and to prevent further deaths rather than to solve an event already established to be a crime.

Stella is an intriguing character and wisely Halter avoids giving us too much time with her, having her discussed more than she is shown. We hear several accounts of incidents involving her and her powers, each making her powers seem simultaneously more convincing and puzzling. We may think of individual explanations for each of the incidents but it is harder to understand the bigger picture of how and why she is accomplishing these feats.

Some of the explanations can feel a little anticlimactic if viewed in isolation and only in terms of the mechanics of the puzzle but I was impressed by the way they tie together. In the past I have sometimes questioned the psychological consistency of Halter’s stories but here I think each small puzzle contributes to our understanding of the wider dynamics within the village and helps us get closer to identifying a killer and their motive.

While I would always caution readers not to expect too much in terms of the characterizations in a Halter novel, I do think this is one of his richer and more rewarding works in that respect. Certainly there are a number of characters who exist to impart information or to flesh out the population of the village but the characters at the heart of the narrative are given back stories, clear motivations and time is spent establishing their relationships.

In addition to resolving the puzzle elements of the plot, the ending also manages to include a whopping great revelation that I think is executed superbly. There is no trickery involved, nor does it feel like an afterthought but rather that element of the story was clearly planned from the beginning and hinted at throughout the novel. It ties in strongly with the themes Halter develops throughout the book and I think it makes for a surprisingly powerful conclusion.

I was less impressed with the mechanical explanations of how the wind had killed several villagers though I think it would be hard to imagine any explanation that could live up to the strangeness of that idea. I was a little more confused about why Twist does not seem to more actively attempt to disprove that could be the case and I do agree with Nick Fuller that it does seem odd that the sleuths spend more time reacting to events than actively pursuing leads or trying to disprove what a supernatural explanation for those deaths.

Neither of those issues substantially affected my enjoyment of the book and while I need a little time to reflect, I certainly think it is in the conversation to be one of my favorite Halter stories (The Seventh Hypothesis probably still has the edge but it is close). It is intricately plotted and I became even more impressed once I could see how each of the elements fitted together so neatly in the conclusion. Very highly recommended.

A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

GraveyardtoLetFrederick Manning is a successful and respectable businessman but his children have become concerned that he is acting erratically and may be keeping a mistress. There are even rumors circulating that he may be embezzling money from his charitable foundation. When they confront him about it he says he will reveal a secret at a dinner to which he has invited Sir Henry Merrivale with the promise that he will perform ‘a miracle’.

At dinner he upsets them by talking about how little he wanted children though he says he will make some provision for them and implies he will be disappearing soon. Then the next morning as the Police sirens approach he calmly dives into the swimming pool fully clothed and when the party look for him in the pool they find he has vanished leaving all of his clothes behind.

Up until now I have stuck tightly to those novels that John Dickson Carr published under his own name because of how much I have enjoyed the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. I never doubted I would get around to trying some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories but there was always some book I wanted to get to first.

The reason I have deviated from this approach comes down to the premise of this story that grabbed my imagination from the moment I heard Dan describe it on an episode of the impossible crimes mystery podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles. The idea of a disappearance from within a swimming pool seemed an entirely novel take on the idea of someone vanishing from inside an observed room and I was really curious how Dickson would manage it.

Since learning about this novel I have, as it happens, encountered a short story by Ed Hoch with a similar premise albeit that has someone appearing out of a swimming pool. Both stories are excellent and make good use of this concept to create striking moments that appeal to the imagination. I did have a moment’s worry that the solutions might be similar too but I was very happy to discover that they take create distinctly different answers to these challenges.

I really admired the way Carr sets a mood and builds up a sense of anticipation in the novel’s early chapters. By opening the novel in a moment of conflict we are thrown right into the story and have to make judgments about the characters involved. I certainly was curious what could be driving Manning to be so blunt and cruel to his children and wanted to know more about their relationships with him.

The moment in which he disappears is wonderfully theatrical right down to the detail of his underpants bobbing up to the surface. It is perhaps not one of Carr’s trickier puzzles – the method used is quite simple and may occur to some readers pretty quickly – but it is logically worked through and clearly explained at the end.

Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

I also found the novel to be really quite funny, though I do acknowledge that humor is highly subjective. Not every joke hits and a few of them, such as his reason for visiting Washington, may be predicted but there are amusing moments spread throughout the narrative.

One of my favorite sequences comes near the start of the novel where Sir Henry messes with a police officer near the turnstiles in a subway station by suggesting that he can use a voodoo incantation to walk through turnstyles without paying the fare. It is not only amusingly written, there is a puzzle there that readers may ponder about how a trick was pulled off. That method wouldn’t work today but I could still appreciate the cleverness of the idea and the grudge the officer holds is referred to at several later points in the story with amusing effect.

While I can understand why this story isn’t more highly rated, given its simpler solution, I found the case to be thoroughly enjoyable. The scenario is bold and imaginative and I enjoyed my time spent with these characters. It is certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I have had reading Carr and I would happily recommend this to anyone who comes across an affordable copy.

The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

AndrewHarrisonFreeman Wills Crofts is perhaps not the first name that will spring to mind if you are asked to list Locked Room mystery novelists and with some good reason. Out of the dozens of novels he wrote, just two are locked room mysteries and neither of these are currently available in print.

It seems strange though that he did not write more widely in the subgenre because based on this and my previous experiences reading his work it seems like a natural fit for his methodical, reasoned approach to detective fiction. Certainly the locked room devised here is of a high quality and I thoroughly enjoyed following how it was solved.

The prominent financier Andrew Harrison disappears after arriving back in England following a business trip to Paris. This prompts speculation in the papers that his company was in financial trouble and he has absconded. After waiting in the hope that he would send a message, the family contact Scotland Yard who task French to the case.

Everyone is surprised when Harrison suddenly sends word a few days later that he is fine and that a message he sent had failed to arrive. A short while later however Harrison throws a small party on his houseboat and when he cannot be roused in the morning he is discovered dead in his locked cabin of an apparent suicide. French is back on the case and suspects foul play!

The locked room element of the story is very cleverly conceived and explained with superb clarity. The murder takes place in Harrison’s cabin which is deadbolted from the inside. Testing demonstrates that there is no way to pull the deadbolt closed from outside the room. The only other physical entrance to the room would be the porthole but this presents its own difficulties as it has been tightly closed. The porthole which only opens inwardly is designed to prevent it being swung shut and has to be pushed securely into place with force as there is no handle on the outside of the glass.

The physical boundaries to this room are clearly established and I will admit that I was thoroughly stumped as to how Crofts would explain this murder. I was curious how Inspector French would handle a locked room mystery but I should not have been surprised that it would be with methodical, careful experimentation and testing of different theories. In just forty pages the detective is able to work through this puzzle with impressive reasoning to reach a very neat explanation that proves both that it was murder and also how the crime was worked.

Once French knows how the crime was done he proceeds to focus his efforts on understanding who could have carried out the crime. Certainly there are plenty of suspects on hand as Harrison, while not monstrous, is a cold, hard man who has fractious relationships with all of his family. On top of those suspects we must also consider business rivals and disgruntled investors.

The question of whodunit is far from an afterthought and I would suggest it is just as cleverly devised as the locked room itself. French believes that there must be some link between Harrison’s strange disappearance and the financier’s subsequent murder yet the timeline makes the nature of that connection are hard to understand.

Here Crofts’ plotting is quite sublime and, much like I found with The Sea Mystery, the case steadily evolves throughout the novel to become something quite different from  what seemed likely at the outset. If you are not a fan of the author’s style then this is not likely to convert you to the cause but those who appreciate his incremental, detail-driven approach will find a lot to enjoy here.

Sometimes I have been frustrated by the pacing of a French investigation, feeling that the logical path he follows means that the alert reader may be far ahead of the detective but here I feel Crofts sets his pace perfectly. There are regular discoveries of information as French tests new theories and once Crofts provides the reader with all they need to solve the case he moves quickly to the conclusion. Against expectations based on those previous experiences, this is one of the most tightly plotted Crofts novels I have read to date.

That is not to say that every aspect of this works perfectly. One problem I have with the novel is that a character who is introduced to us as a character we are meant to relate to at the start of the story is essentially dropped at about the halfway point, apparently being forgotten.

In one sense this is understandable as the character has little else to contribute but does serve a role as the outsider who is needed to start things in motion by reporting the disappearance to the Yard. The frustration for me is that the character is one of the more interesting and likable in the book and having been encouraged to care about him, we are left wondering what would have become of him. It did strike me that, if this were a Carr novel, he would almost certainly be ending the novel married off and while I can grumble about that happy-couple finish, it does at least provide some closure.

The other significant complaint would be that French is given rather a large piece of help from a character as we enter the concluding portion of the novel that helps him identify the killer. Some may feel that this in some way suggests that the detective doesn’t really solve the case himself. I would argue that he works out all of the most important features of what happened and he is responsible for figuring out what had happened, even if he needs a little help in identifying the culprit.

Overall I found The End of Andrew Harrison to be a thoroughly engaging read, both as a detective story and also, more specifically, as an example of a locked room. Crofts engineers his problem well, coming up with a striking and credible solution, and working a strong mystery around it. I came away feeling impressed by Crofts’ approach to the subgenre and wishing that he had returned to it more frequently. Sadly he wrote just one other locked room novel, Sudden Death, and given the prices of that one and the lack of library copies available I doubt I will be getting around to it any time soon. Maybe some day, though..

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On a mode of transportation (Where)

This book was released in the United States as The Futile Alibi.

The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry

DoubleAlibiOver the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch

StoryvilleLast month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.

Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.

The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.

Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.

My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.

Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.

Continue reading “The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch”

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter

SeventhHypoIn preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

 

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…