Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Detective stories read 2017

I read too many detective stories.


The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit (I’m on a short break from War And Peace, taking advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my boots with Golden Age classics). Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle, his workers’ lives will be ruined.

One thing the book does very well is show, without laying it on with a trowel, how irreparably and inevitably the act of murder separates a person from their fellow humans, and how the demands of conscience are inescapable even for a man who thinks he is beyond the mere bourgeois morality that values each life equally above and beyond utilitarian concerns (I think we might infer Crofts’ low view of utilitarianism from this book). I was reminded when reading of this of how much the spectre of the gallows mattered in creating the dramatic and moral force of the Golden Age mystery. The stakes are very high, and take on a near-religious dimension, when the price of detection for a murderer might very well be an appointment with Pierrepoint – to be followed, perhaps, by an encounter with another Judge, even more fearsome than those found on the bench of the Old Bailey. 

Mystery In The Channel
Freeman Wills Crofts
Another enjoyable FWC book. Very well put together, a solidly engrossing if not especially intricate mystery following Inspector French’s painstakingly thorough hunt for the perpetrator, or perpetrators, of a gruesome multiple murder committed on board a yacht in the Channel. The final reveal is perhaps a little heavily signposted if you’re familiar with the genre – and the author – but as a Golden Age police procedural this is a palpable hit, despite Crofts’ occasionally plodding style.

The Cheltenham Square Murder
John Bude
Diverting and colourful but frustrating crime novel from Bude. It’s written with a certain amount of style and humour, and the setting is good, but the plot stumbles and shudders. The investigators are aided by at least one very convenient accident of fate.

Supt. Meredith makes rather heavy weather of the case: not really investigating the business of the sheep used for target practice; ignoring the obvious (and correct) candidate for perpetrator of the second killing; taking a very long time to work out how the fake alibi worked. I thought the method of murder stretched credibility – a forty foot shot to the head with a bow and arrow, anyone? – but that was less of a problem than the egregious crimes against the genre. A major clue, the fact that Miss Boon left her door ajar while walking her dogs, was simply not mentioned to the reader until almost literally the last page, and yet was apparently known to Meredith. Similarly, one of the murders is committed with a very unusual device whose nature is barely explained, whose origin remains mysterious, and whose very existence is entirely unclued, though I suppose it might be inferred. Someone is identified through that creaky old device, finding the butts of their preferred cigarette brand. And my old adversary, phonetically rendered colloquial speech, puts in a lot of appearances, mostly in the mouth of the datedly comical figure of Inspector Long, who of course has a nagging and difficult wife etc. etc.

Still though, there is entertainment to be had here.

Verdict Of Twelve
Raymond Postgate
Not really a whodunit as such but a tense, clever and well-written courtroom drama, of sorts, with a rather cynical edge and a blackly comic ending which I suspect was rather daring for its time – it was written, and is set, in the late Thirties. The book has three parts: a series of pen portraits of the jury, a narrative of the events around the alleged murder (this section is deliberately ambiguous about what exactly happened), and an account of the trial itself.

Postgate’s main idea, it seems to me, is exploring how the idiosyncrasies of individuals feed into their assessment of facts and how vulnerable the jury system is to the accumulated prejudices, experiences and preoccupations of individual jurors. The woman who has literally got away with murder knows how easy it is to kill. The widow of a murder victim is desperate for the law to assert itself against wrongdoers. The religious fanatic convinces himself that the defendant is of the Elect and being persecuted by the Devil.

Postgate would probably have stated the problem in a political way, if the quote from Marx with which the book opens is any guide: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but [that] on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness”. In other words, the political systems under which we live constrict the kind of thoughts and feelings and relationships we can have. Which is true, I suppose, up to a point, but I see no reason to think that Marxism would resolve this problem, if problem it be, or that the kind of social relations which would exist under Marxism would be any more authentic, any less hampered by “false consciousness”, than those that exist in liberal economies.

But that is politics; and this is not a political tract – it’s actually quite humanist in its way, with all kinds of human frailty drawn with sympathy and understanding. Ambiguities and tensions swirl throughout, notably the question of just what we are meant to make of Rosalia van Beer. Her post-acquittal confession, which marks the end of the book, is delivered in a naïve, stupid, roundabout way; are we meant to take this at face value? Does she really not understand that she is morally guilty of murder? Or is she a scheming, unrepentant, ruthless killer taunting her legal team now that she is safe from the gallows?

The Secret of High Eldersham
Miles Burton
After a pretty good run of British Crime Classics I hit a dud, with this muddled attempt to straddle the genres of Golden Age murder mystery and crime thriller. It starts brightly with a country innkeeper found stabbed to death in the public bar, and then gets bogged down in an almost entirely different plot that is by turns melodramatic, incoherent and boringly predictable. The narrative focus drifts away from the original murder, which is never investigated properly and eventually solved most perfunctorily, into a rather overdone story about a drug smuggling ring restarting a coven of witches and wizards to cover up their activities. No, really. It’s never satisfactorily explained how the ringleader, whose identity is fairly obvious from an early stage, persuaded lots of people to join him in fake witchcraft in England in the 1930s. It’s also very obvious where the author is going with the witchcraft thing, since the “seemingly occult activities as a cover for entirely mundane crime” device is a very common trope in fiction of the era.

No-one’s motivations are really explored properly. Characters are under-developed. The love story is tedious and has the usual faults of the time – ripe dialogue, implausible speed at falling in love, a poorly realised female character, and annoyingly stupid assumptions about her ability to handle difficult truths.

The Lake District Murder
John Bude
I don’t think anyone would ever have occurred Bude of being all style and no substance. To use a footballing metaphor, he is very much a hardworking midfielder who keeps the ball and tackles back, rather than a pacy winger who whips the ball into the box or a dazzling striker with a crowd-pleasing box of tricks.

This is an intermittently intriguing but rather leaden mystery. As with Bude’s other works it can feel like Meredith makes rather heavy weather of solving the central murder – there are a couple of really honking clues that pass him by completely. It seems wildly implausible that he should have taken so long to tumble to the fake alibi established by impersonation. I can’t work out whether it’s a sign of Bude’s clumsiness as an author or my over-exposure to the genre that the part where someone mentioned in passing that a suspect was a brilliant mimic was a veritable foghorn to me.

In Bude’s defence it might be said that his books reflect how the police really work, with lots of boring, painstaking routine work and repetitive discussion of who might have done what with whom and when, and few moments of individual intellectual brilliance. There’s something to that, and perhaps as usual I’m being a little unfair in judging a police procedural by the standards of a conventional murder mystery. The Lake District Murder does not really qualify as the latter in my view, as the motive is not really “personal” in the classic sense (it’s basically a falling-out among thieves).

But his storytelling art is underdeveloped. Villainous characters are not drawn with any great subtlety, they always look shifty or ugly or have their eyes too close together or drink too much. Several interesting and rather important plot strands are oddly neglected, notably the solution to an earlier murder in the case, the character of the main villain (whom we never actually meet), and how the criminal scheme at the heart of the book was actually set up and organised. What was Clayton like? Why did he get involved in the scheme? We never find out. Bude attempts to tie up a lot of loose ends in a final chapter summary describing the fates of the characters, but this feels perfunctory, rushed and unimaginative. He can be a great one for telling rather than showing, and for making his characters fail to see the obvious for reasons of plot. The usual difficulties with female characters arise.

But the tale is well situated and a strong sense is conveyed of place and community.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Anthony Berkeley
With tongue pressed firmly in cheek, Berkeley (who under the name Francis Iles wrote the very good Malice Aforethought) has some fun with the conventions of the amateur detective story. Six members of the Crimes Circle offer a possible solution to a recent murder that has, to use the traditional expression, “baffled Scotland Yard”. Each has the sort of intuitive brilliance and appeal that often characterises the big reveal of a Golden Age mystery, but just as we are nodding along saying to ourselves “of course that’s how it must have been done” Berkeley whips the carpet out from under our feet. The other characters pull the proposed solution to pieces, by pointing out that it is far from definitive; that most evidence can be made to fit any number of theories, that real facts are few and far between, that clever “psychological” explanations often ignore how odd and unpredictable people are. Anyone who’s ever thought “hang on a minute…” while reading the denouement of a mystery will recognise what Berkeley is satirising here. It’s fascinating that as early as 1929 the tropes of the Golden Age were becoming so hackneyed as to be satirised in this way (see the discussion of locked room problems in Dickson Carr’s 1935 work The Hollow Man). 
Despite the talky and arch style, it works pretty well as a straight mystery. The central case is an intriguing one, though with a high level of artifice befitting the book’s satire on the sometimes wildly implausible and baroque plots of classic detective fiction. The two newer attempts to provide an account of the crime, one from a US magazine in the 1970s and one by Martin Edwards, the BLCC editor, add to the fun.

The Dead Shall Be Raised
George Bellairs
Another of the humdrum school. A good start, with a Scotland Yard man arriving by train in a small town in the Dales on a freezing Christmas Eve in 1940, but it runs out of steam plot-wise despite some entertaining episodes and a good evocation of place and time. There is no real detection as such and not much mystery. Some of the narration is rather plodding and many of the era’s clichés are present. The “Whatever Happened To Them All?” section in the last few pages feels rather unimaginative and dull. And, as usual, the portrayal of women leaves much to be desired.

Death Of A Quack
George Bellairs
Middle-of-the-road village mystery – in many ways the archetype of the unremarkable village mystery. Competently written, some good local detail, even funny in parts, but nothing in the writing or the plot or the characters make it stand out from a dozen other books of the same kind. It has the same faults that you so often find in these novels: one-dimensional feckless yokels and nagging wives straight from central casting, obvious villains, and the reliance on criminal conspiracy as a motor for the plot rather than the properly personal motives that mark the best Golden Age books.

Death Of An Airman
Christopher St John Sprigg
This could have been so good. Once again we have a very sprightly opening and a unique setting. An Australian bishop learning to fly at a small flying club in rural England encounters a cunningly-disguised murder, and decides to do a little investigating. There is even some good if rather broad comic stuff, but it tails off into a generic plot about drug-smuggling and a criminal gang with a head called The Chief. Unsatisfying.

Miss Marple’s Final Cases
Agatha Christie
Posthumous short story collection with a handful of Miss Marple tales and a couple of spooky tales. The Miss Marple stories are good on the whole, with a couple that might have been expanded to novel-length – indeed The Case Of The Caretaker, though not one of my favourites in this collection, is clearly the ancestor of the very good and unsettling late Christie novel Endless Night. The supernatural yarns are oddities. I’m not sure Christie was really at home in that genre and other writers might have done her good ideas more justice.

Murder of a Lady: A Scottish Mystery
Anthony Wynne
Locked-room mystery that runs into the quicksands of implausibility, melodrama and silliness after a decent start. Wynne was apparently something of a specialist in the locked-room mystery subgenre; if this is so presumably some of his other efforts are a bit better than this. The resolution of the “impossible crime” elements is disappointing and feels perfunctory. The three murders subsequent to the original one feel excessive and it’s not entirely clear what their motives are. The setting is under-used and there is oddly little sense of tension or drama. However, the characters are well done, and there is a properly odd and creepy dynamic in the family around whom the mystery revolves. The character of Mary Gregor reminded me somewhat of the dreadful old sadist Mrs Boynton in Christie’s Appointment With Death, and plays a similar sort of role – the psychologically dominant matriarch whose relationships dominate and define the action.

The Documents In The Case
Dorothy L Sayers and Robert Eustace
Fairly successful attempt at an (almost entirely) epistolary whodunit. As fairly often with Sayers, the interest lies not so much in the simple question of who did the crime but of how they did it, and just as importantly, how it can be proved that they did it. There is never really any possibility that anyone except Lathom could have killed Harrison, so the central question of the later part of the book is how he managed to introduce the muscarine poison into Harrison’s food. I found Lathom a relatively dull character, certainly compared with Munting. Whereas the former is the archetypal immoral (amoral?) and arrogant modern artist, the latter seems to me to develop from a rather tiresome and facetious writer with fashionably dismissive views about “bourgeois” morality, to someone who gradually comes to acknowledge and accept the demands of morality and justice.
The characters are well-drawn, if not exactly innovative, but one clever thing about the novel is the way in which Sayers weaves ideas and ambiguities through the text. There are discussions about religion and free will and the questions being raised by then-contemporary discoveries in physics about randomness and order, but also lots of understated and unexplored hints about the real home life of the Harrisons. The different perspectives offered by the various letter-writers – Munting, Miss Milsom, the Harrisons themselves – leave some important questions hanging. Is Harrison as cruel, manipulative and insensitive a husband as Mrs Harrison’s letters make out? Or is he more sinned against than sinning, wrongfully accused by an unserious, flighty and ungrateful wife, as Miss Milsom suggests? Perhaps – probably – both are true. Sayers is very good at dissecting relationships and making murderers not sympathetic exactly, but real people with comprehensible feelings and motives.

Death Of A Busybody
George Bellairs
Nothing special, but an above-average village mystery from Bellairs (the nom de plume of a bank manager, Harold Blundell), featuring Littlejohn of the Yard. Better than Death Of A Quack and The Dead Shall Be Raised. The plot is well put-together – a man running a fake religious charity kills an old woman whom he has been scamming, to prevent exposure and get his hands on the rest of her money – and the locations and characters are good. There is humour and a certain amount of psychological insight, and an understanding of human failure and weakness. I suspect Blundell was a tolerant, humane sort of man; there is a brief nod towards Littlejohn’s tolerance of gays, even though the book is nominally set during the Second World War, decades before decriminalisation (I say nominally because although the war is mentioned it doesn’t really intrude or matter – like most Golden Age mysteries this could plausibly be set in almost any year between 1918 and 1960).
                On the down side, this is well towards the police procedural end of things – there is not a great deal of clueing and it is very much the story of an investigation rather than the presentation of a puzzle susceptible to ratiocination. There are rather a lot of oo-ah comedy yokels with phonetically rendered speech, and the portrayal of non-middle class characters in general is rather ham-handed. The ending is also dreadfully clunky, with a long “What happened to them all?” recital (cf. The Dead Shall Be Raised) which may have been normal at the time but has not aged well.

Death In The Tunnel
Miles Burton
A significant improvement on the first Burton book I read, the weak and uninspired The Secret Of High Eldersham. A prominent and wealthy businessman, Wilfred Saxonby, is shot dead on a train. The murder is contrived, to say the least, perhaps even preposterous. Even in the 1930s, were ventilation shafts for railway tunnels just big easily accessible open holes with no grates or covers? And we’re not quite in traditional puzzle whodunit territory – despite some fair clueing (e.g. the matter of who could have known enough to work the business with the wallet), we essentially follow an unfolding inquiry, rather than being presented with a problem which we might plausibly be able to solve ourselves through clear thinking, as in say the best Christies or Marshes. However, the investigation keeps the attention and tantalises effectively.
The resolution felt a little rushed, with a hint of villain ex machina given that one of the perpetrators is a character to whom we have not previously been introduced, though the double reveal is not unearned given what has gone before. There are also parts where the narrative drags, as Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion explain the plot to each other and swap theories at length. And there is at least one loose end left hanging, viz. how was the train compartment unlocked? Presumably the villain ex machina master forger was also a master lockpicker, but it might at least have been mentioned given that the “locked-room” element of the murder is such a key part of the set-up. I could also have done without the last few paragraphs detailing in rather flat and documentary prose the trial and eventual hanging of the murderers.
Nevertheless a sprightly and entertaining read overall, and a very solid entry in the canon of train-based mysteries.

Anthony Rolls
A funny one, this. Although some of the conventions of the more old-fashioned kind of Golden Age story are in place – mysterious goings-on in a remote location, Holmesian detective with slow Watsonesque narrator, educated upper middle-class men to the fore – it’s not really a whodunit at all, more of a thriller or psychodrama with an intermittent blackly comic edge. It feels like the kind of novel that Hitchcock in his pomp might have filmed. The plot concerns the disappearance of a young man, Eric Tallard Foster, during his stay with the mercurial, brilliant, elemental Professor Tolgen Reisby, and the subsequent events. The investigators are Ellingham, Cambridge chemist, and Farringdale, the narrator and a barrister. I enjoyed a lot of the book. The setting is well-done, and Professor Reisby is a memorable creation. The stuff about the arcane squabbles among archaeologists is entertaining – Rolls (the pen-name of CE Vuillamy) was an amateur in the field himself. The gradual unfolding of horror is well worked.

However, I had a few problems. Ellingham feels colourless and derivative of other scientific sleuths, e.g. Holmes and Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke. More fundamentally, there’s just not a lot of mystery about what has happened. The resolution seemed clear to me from a pretty early stage; so much so that I thought for a while that surely it can’t be that simple, he’s going to whip the carpet out from under our feet and do something unexpected – but he doesn’t. There is nothing in the denouement that has not been heavily telegraphed earlier in the book, and the climactic events feel decidedly hammy. Hilda Reisby is underwritten and ends up merely as a matrimonial prize for Farringdale, whose rather implausible failure to ever work out what happened to his cousin Foster, for reasons of plot, is a source of irritation (Ellingham does get there eventually, but this supposedly brilliant man takes his sweet time – a decade and a half!). The revelations about Prof. Reisby’s sidelines seem tacked on and superfluous, and the hushing up of the whole business at the end makes very little sense.

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
Gil North
An outlier in the BLCC series, published in 1960 and not really in the Golden Age tradition at all.  Rather, it is an early attempt at a dark, gritty, atmospheric police drama – not, I suspect, a bad one if you like that sort of thing, but I basically don’t. 

The introduction mentioned Maigret as an influence and I can absolutely see that. Like Maigret, Cluff is an early prototype of the Maverick Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules But Gets Results Despite Those Idiots At HQ. He is a melancholic loner who lives alone in a cottage outside “Gunnarshaw”, apparently a fictionalised Skipton, with his cat and his dog. The murders are sordid, ill-planned, pointless. There is no artifice here, no clever plotting, no puzzle, minimal satisfaction in the resolution, just violence and misery and resignation – though the ambiguity about the first death is neatly used. I actually found the grittiness a bit much after a while. North, who has an effective but overused staccato style, lays the gloom on with a trowel – it’s always raining or dark or cloudy, there is little humour or joy, none of the playfulness that the better Golden Age writers were able to employ. Again, that’s the genre, it is possibly unfair to criticise North for not writing a different kind of book. One wouldn’t criticise PG Wodehouse for not writing an investigation into the conditions of the urban poor. 
I don’t think I’ll bother with any more of the Cluff books, especially if North is going to continue obsessively mentioning his women character’s breasts – this is a short novel, but there must be well over a dozen references to breasts.

Death On The Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Back in the Golden Age mainstream with this rather lightweight Oxonian mystery. The bursar of the fictional Persephone College (in the story, a new women’s college) is found dead in a punt one gloomy January afternoon, and the Yard are called in. The central mystery is slight and not especially interesting – I guessed the main clue long before Braydon of the Yard – but there is some reasonable entertainment along the way, not least from trying to work out where exactly Persephone is meant to be. From the description given, it’s on a non-existent island in the Cherwell a little upstream of the rollers and Mesopotamia, and accessible from the bottom of Ferry Road. I wonder whether it’s meant to be on the quasi-island opposite Parson’s Pleasure.
A lot of the novel follows the detective efforts of a group of young woman undergraduates from Persephone. Unfortunately they are all a bit Fourth Form At Mallory Towers, with their self-conscious Oxford slang and jolly hockey sticks demeanour. Their Yugoslavian friend is a cartoonish stereotype from the same mould as the crudely drawn Mitzi from (the otherwise excellent) A Murder Is Announced. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of depth to any of the characters, and we have barely any glimpses of anyone’s real inner life – a persistent failing in the genre as a whole, admittedly.

The Case Of The Famished Parson
George Bellairs
The old, frustrating story: a promising set-up peters out into a dull and flatly told resolution involving a criminal gang, with hackneyed elements – a transparently fake Irish priest, a wildly unbelievable subplot about a faked alibi – and clunking exposition (for other examples of novels which suffer from the “criminal gang” problem, see Death Of A Quack by the same author, Marsh’s Clutch Of Constables, Sprigg’s Death Of An Airman, Bude’s The Lake District Murder, and Burton’s The Secret Of High Eldersham). The titular emaciation of the titular murdered bishop disappointingly turns out to be a complete red herring. Bellairs also had the unfortunate habit of giving characters who turn out to be wrong ‘uns an unpleasant or unflattering appearances, and his working class characters tend to be either comical or criminal.

His novels are really police stories rather than true whodunits, though they often have the mood of the latter. An essential element of the true classic murder mystery is that the murder be at heart a private affair. A killing to cover up a criminal gang’s activity doesn’t quite fit the bill, and it’s notable how little resort the true greats of the genre had to this device. 

Corpses in Enderby
George Bellairs
This is probably the best Bellairs mystery I’ve read to date, an entertaining read with plenty of vividly drawn characters. Some are ciphers and caricatures, but others are treated with sympathy and something approaching genuine depth. He does not flinch away from the grimness and tragedy of ordinary life. Once again the tensions and hypocrisies of small religious communities loom large, as in his Death Of A Busybody, although the stress on the unpleasantness of nearly everyone involved with the non-conformist chapel in this one does get a bit much. There is a good setting and some intriguing backstory, and even the odd bit of fair clueing.
The Bellairs weaknesses are here too: pedestrian plotting, melodrama, a dull detective, some rather forced comic scenes, and a certain an over-reliance on and overuse of hackneyed tropes – the shrewish nagging wife, the buxom barmaid, the comic yokel.

The Santa Klaus Murder
Mavis Doriel Hay
Having given up on Hay’s tiresome Murder Underground, I persisted with this one and for a long time was glad to have done so. There’s nothing very remarkable here – a wealthy family gather for Christmas at the ancestral home, paying uneasy court to a dictatorial patriarch with uncertain testamentary dispositions – but the tale is reasonably well told, at least initially. There’s a decent if not quite successful attempt to incorporate multiple perspectives, via the contrivance of various suspects being asked to write an account to help the investigating officer, the Chief Constable of the county.

Unfortunately the book loses its way in the middle section. It takes a remarkably long time for the police to cotton on to the possibility of a second Santa suit, something which occurred to me very early on, and I find it unlikely in the extreme that a police search of a house would ignore a big cupboard under the stairs. Characters conceal things from the police for frankly unbelievable reasons; there is far too much talking and clunky inquisition along rather Marshian lines, establishing when exactly various people crossed the hall and came through what door, and who met whom in the back passage; and the ending feels like the most almighty cop-out. Having spent so long establishing the various motives among the family, it turns out that the chauffeur did it, because he wanted to marry the dead man’s secretary. He thought was in line for a big payout if the man died, because being working-class he was too stupid to know that the notes for a new will made by Sir Osmond Melbury were not legally binding. There is a rather nasty streak in the snobbery with which the chauffeur is written about – the detective speculates that he hung on to some incriminating evidence so that he could feel superior, or some similar nonsense. As well as this, the mechanics of the crime stretch credulity.

Hay’s plot construction lacks verve and dash. I can’t help but wonder what Christie would have done with this set-up – although having said that we already know, sort of, as the setting is vaguely reminiscent of the excellent and well-clued Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Even one of the humdrummers might have given the investigation a bit more variety and interest.

Hamlet, Revenge!
Michael Innes
I’m coming to the end of my current classic detective story binge and I wonder if I should give the genre a rest for a while, or at least focus on some of the (supposed) locked room classics of Dickson Carr rather than the solid second division players whose books are as often frustrating or disappointing as they are enjoyable. Innes isn’t bad, and he certainly wrote with some wit and skill, but Appleby comes across as an oddly flat and rather sub-Wimsey character, and this story in particular is unsatisfying. It’s a great set-up, a murder during a production of Hamlet at a huge stately home, with some clever ideas kicking about and some well-drawn characters, but the explanation of the crime leaves a lot to be desired, in terms of both mechanics and motivation. The psychology of the trappings of the murder just doesn’t quite ring true in the way that Innes needs it to, despite a few bits of decentish clueing, and the motive is one that I always find annoying.

One other problem is the cast of characters; there are just too many people jostling for position in the story, with the result that we don’t really get to know anyone, and we certainly don’t get any real insights into their inner lives. The rather forced, faintly Wodehousian facetiousness of the aristocratic and Bright Young Thing-type characters gets stale rather quickly.
The Old Man In The Corner
Baroness Orczy
These short stories are interesting as a stage in the evolution of the English detective story from the Holmesian tradition to the Golden Age tradition, although they are closer perhaps to the former, in terms of their format, personnel, setting and narrative. Otherwise they are not especially remarkable, though fairly clued – and I suppose the short story form does not give writers a lot of room for a really twisty detective yarn.  

Somebody At The Door
Raymond Postgate
Like the same author’s Verdict Of Twelve, this isn’t a straight whodunit, but rather a novel that uses the circumstances of a murder to explore the backgrounds of a small group of people at a particular time and in a particular place, and how those backgrounds influence their actions. The actual plot is a bit thin – and it’s not, despite the beautiful cover on the BLCC reissue, a train mystery – but it’s enjoyable overall, and Postgate is very good at describing how the lives of even very ordinary people often contain extraordinary events. He comes across as a humanist here, writing about individual experiences with insight, tolerance and wit.

I wonder too if he is having a bit of fun with the reader’s expectations of how the kind of mystery he has set up will work out - the closed circle of suspects turns out to be not quite so closed. I must say I had guessed at the “twist” ending, which is hiding in plain sight through large chunks of the book. The refusal to tie up all loose ends is also a point in Postgate’s favour – no neat resolutions for him.

Calamity Town
Ellery Queen
My first experience with one of the classics of the American Golden Age, as recommended in Edwards’ book above. I enjoyed this. A well-crafted mystery with a decent and quite well-clued central twist, wittily told, not free of melodrama but not dominated by it. Closer in style and mood to the classic English detective story than the “hard-boiled” school with which I usually, and it seems wrongly, associate US crime stories. I’ll come back to Queen, I think; apparently the early works tend to be more the classic puzzle whodunits.   

The Singing Sands
Josephine Tey
Well-written and involving story following Inspector Grant’s investigation into the death of a young man on the London – Highlands sleeper. It would be a stretch to call this a conventional whodunit, given the lack of opportunities for the reader to solve the mystery, but Tey writes so beautifully and Grant is such a likeable, carefully crafted character that there is great pleasure to be had in the reading all the same. The ending relies a little too heavily on the old device of the written confession by the criminal to fill in certain ellipses in the plot, and the motive feels implausible (albeit not entirely unbelievable); nevertheless the conclusion is dramatically satisfying.  

Intruder In The Dark
George Bellairs
Solid and competent village mystery revolving around long-buried secrets, long lost illegitimate children, and a missing inheritance (I almost wrote “fortune” but I’m not sure whether £30,000 counted as such by the mid-1960s when this was written). Bellairs is firmly in the ranks of the journeymen of classic crime, and his usual weaknesses are present – the uninspired prose, the prim moralism, the equation of physical and moral ugliness, and the crudely drawn women characters, especially further down the class scale. However, this is one of the better books of his that I have read, with some fair clues and a diverting, even moving, plot. Once you have got used to Bellairs’ setting his books among the provinicial petit bourgeoisie and working class, and his treatment thereof, it can make for an interesting change of scene. He even finds room for one of his regular motifs (cf. Death Of A Busybody and Corpses In Enderby), an obscure non-conformist sect, in this case the fictional “Pentecostal Wrestlers”. 

The Case Of The Constant Suicides
John Dickson Carr
Reportedly one of the best books from the best writer of locked-room mysteries, so my expectations were high – and largely met, if you judge the book on its own terms, i.e. as essentially a vehicle for presenting a difficult (but solveable) puzzle. I’m not sure it’s a book I’d revisit as I would, say, Holmes or Poirot or Peter Wimsey, but it’s pure entertainment, sparkily written and set in a lovely part of the world.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I like Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts, if you want to try more.

  3. Interesting to read these reviews, like you I m a big fan of FWC, i would differ with you on the Christopher St John Brigg one - I found that entertaining, perhaps as you say because of the unique setting, and the well developed characters. depends what you re looking for from a detective story I suppose, I find I m nearly always disappointed by the denouement, so it's more the journey towards the unravelling that is key

    Would also recommend 'Fatal venture' by wills crofts.