Book of the Week, mystery

Book of the Week: A Presumption of Death

Before we start, another quick reminder of last week’s World Cup avoidance books – which includes Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games, which would totally have been a candidate for BotW if I hadn’t given that accolade to Clean last month.  And I did deliberate for a while about what to pick this week.  I read some really good stuff, but quite a lot of it is already earmarked for other posts and I didn’t want to give up my other plans.  But it does seem in keeping with my long-professed love of Peter Wimsey that I should pick A Presumption of Death, even if I’m a little conflicted about it and it’s a much more qualified review than a whole hearted recommendation.

A slightly battered paperback copy of A Presumption of Death

This is the second novel in the Jill Paton Walsh Wimsey continuations.  I’ve totally read them out of order, so I’ve already read the two that follow it.  This is set just after the start of the Second World War and sees Harriet ensconced at Tallboys with her children and the Parker children and Peter is away on some mysterious war work abroad.  The village is adapting to the new rules of war time – evacuees have arrived in the village, there are land girls working on the farms and people are leaving for factory jobs or the services all over the place.  When one of the land girls is found dead in the street as the village emerges from an air raid drill, Superintendent Kirk asks for Harriets help with the murder investigation.  At first, she finds it a helpful distraction from worrying about what Peter is doing abroad, but soon she’s missing his help as she digs into the possible motivations for the crime.

This feels more like a “proper” Wimsey mystery than the two that follow it, but it’s still Not Quite Right.  I’ve only read Thrones, Dominations (the first continuation) once and it was six years ago, but I’m listening to it on Audible at the moment and I think that is more Sayers than this – but that’s probably unsurprising considering that with that first one Paton Walsh was finishing an unfinished Sayers manuscript, whereas with this just has extracts from The Wimsey Papers (a series of letters, written by Sayers from various of the Wimsey characters, that were published in the Spectator during the war) in it.  In fact I think most of the best bits of the plot come from ideas and information in the Wimsey Papers and most of the bits that I don’t like are the bits that Paton Walsh has done herself.  In fact the more I think about the book to write this, the more problems I have with it.

I did like the mystery and its solution, but I did have some parts of it figured out much earlier on than Harriet did – which is unusual for me in a Wimsey book and reminded me that it wasn’t a “proper” Sayers.  It was nice to see a lot of the characters from Busman’s Honeymoon again, but perhaps because of my extreme familiarity* with the audiobook of that, there were some bits that didn’t ring true to me, although that same extreme familiarity with the Ian Carmichael Wimsey meant that I could practically hear his voice saying some of the Peter lines!  There are some nice Harriet and Peter moments in here too – but the more I analysed them, the more I realised that the best ones were rehashes of earlier interactions from the other Harriet and Peter books.  I think there were probably a few anachronisms of language in here as well – there were a few bits that didn’t seem quite right to me, although I’m not enough of an expert to tell.

I suppose what I’ve worked out in writing this is how much I wish there were more Wimsey books, and how much I want to like the Paton Walsh continuations (even as I find issues with them) because I want there to be more stories about Peter and Harriet for me to read.  I’ve kept hold of my copy of this one for now – and I suspect I’ll come back and reread it after I’ve done another reread of the Peter and Harriet books to see how it holds up when they’re fresh in my mind.  I picked up my copy from the charity shop (as you can probably tell from the photo!), but the Kindle and Kobo editions is 99p at the moment, which is a much better price than it usually is – and so if you’re a mystery fan – and you’re not the sort of reader who is going to have your love for the series proper messed up if you don’t like this – then go for it. The next book in the series – The Attenbury Emeralds – is also 99p at the moment, but be warned, I really didn’t like the direction that that took the series in, so approach with caution.  I’m off to finish listening to Thrones, Dominations and then I’ll go back to Strong Poison and start Peter and Harriet’s story all over again. Again.

Happy Reading!

*As in I listen to it at least once a month – it’s one of my regular late night listens when I’m away from home, as are the other Wimsey audiobooks and some of the BBC Radio full cast adaptations.

Book of the Week, crime, new releases

Book of the Week: The White Cottage Mystery

We’re back in classic crime territory for the week’s BotW – although it’s a bit of a cheat as this is a reissue of whole book – Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery – but it is excellent and it gives me a great chance to talk about an author who I think is a bit neglected.

This is a tricksy and intriguing standalone mystery which sees a policeman and his son trying to solve the murder of a particularly nasty neighbour. Jerry happens upon the scene of the crime and soon has his Scotland Yard detective father involved.  This was originally a serialised book (just like some of Harriet Vane’s novels in my beloved Peter Wimsey) and you can really tell from the pacing and multiple cliffhangers. There is a clever drip feed of clues which method you turning the pages, and although I had suspicions about the culprit, it wasn’t until quite late on that I worked it all out.

This was my first non-Campion Allingham and it didn’t disappoint. I usually prefer my detective books to be part of a series (I prefer Miss Marple and Poirot to Christie’s other books) but this was a pleasant surprise. But then it’s not that different in style to the Campion series, you could almost swap the leads for Albert and his son and it would nearly work (except that Albert is not a cop) and that totally works for me! In case you haven’t met Allingham’s most famous creation,  Albert Campion is the younger scion of a noble family, who uses an assumed name and solves mysteries with the help of his faithful manservant and police officer friend. Sound familiar? Well that’s because it supposedly started as a Lord Peter Wimsey parody, but developed into much, much more (an BBC ran for much longer). Albert’s Bunter equivalent is a reformed (ish) criminal and Campion end up being much older than Peter.  They’re also more adventure stories than detective, most of the time you don’t have a chance of working out the solution to Campion’s cases but they’re such great fun you don’t care.

I discovered Margery Allingham when I was living in Essex – where she still had a large presence in their libraries as a local author, even though she’d been dead 40 years at that point. I devoured as many of them as I could lay my hands on, and although the series has its ups and downs, I defy you not to like them if you’re a fan of Wimsey, Marple and Poirot or even adventure stories like Amelia Peabody or Vicky Bliss. It’s not the first one, but start with Sweet Danger and I defy you not to get hooked.

My copy of The White Cottage Mystery can via NetGalley, but you can buy it in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones  or on Kindle. You should also be able to find new or secondhand copies of Albert Campion too.   Don’t blame me for the spending spree that will ensue though…

Classics, detective, Series I love

Series I love: Lord Peter Wimsey

I have a rather complicated history with detective stories.  When I was 11, I scared myself silly by forgetting I’d put a pillow in my bed to confuse my sister while I was downstairs watching Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple with my parents.  Once I’d seen Miss Marple on the TV, I promptly read all the Agatha Christie books that my mum owned, bought more with my pocket money and then in a fit of angst over death (in particular my own), gave all my purchases to the jumble sale and hid mum’s copies out of sight.  I know.  I was a strange child.

After that, I left detective stories alone for probably about five years.  Then a friendly librarian, who found out that I was a bellringer, pointed me in the direction of The Nine Tailors, which I duly read, enjoyed and then forgot about – although by this point I had started reading Agatha Christie again.

Fast forward nearly 10 years and I’m living in Essex, working the early shift at a radio station, a bit lonely and hitting the library hard.  I don’t know if I started reading them because I was reading Margery Allingham (who had lived locally) and seen comments that Albert Campion had started as a take-off of Peter Wimsey, or because I’d seen a recommendation, or because I happened across them in the stacks at the library and remembered I’d enjoyed The Nine Tailors, but I did rediscover them and boy did I love them.

My little local library didn’t have many books in the series – and once I’ve found something I like, I want to read them all, as quickly as possible.  So I started buying them in the local book shop.  But it didn’t have many in stock.  So I picked up a few second hand paperbacks from my friendly book dealer who happens to do detective stories as well as classic school stories, then I started buying the ones that I’d read at the library (because I *had* to have the whole set) and so my rag tag collection was born.

Lord Peter Wimsey books
My Dorothy L Sayers collection

For those who have had the misfortune to have never come across Lord Peter Wimsey, he is the archetypal gentleman detective – much copied and never equalled.  The second son of the Duke of Denver, born in 1890, educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a bon vivant with a private income who solves mysteries because he can.  But Peter is troubled – he’s battle scarred after the First World War, with shell-shock and a fear of responsibility; which sits badly with sending men to the gallows.  He’s much more than just an idle rich man with a vaguely foolish face – which is the image he likes to project to the world.   Assistance comes principally from his faithful valet Bunter (who had been in his unit in France) and Chief Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard.  The books were published between 1923 and 1937 – and Peter ages in real time as the series progresses.


Four books
The four books that feature Lord Peter Wimsey and the mystery writer Harriet Vane

My favourite four books are what I call the Peter and Harriet Quartet – that is Strong Poison, Have His CarcaseGaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon – the novels that feature Harriet Vane, first encountered in the dock at the Old Bailey on trial for murder – who Peter falls in love with and pursues across the next three books.  As well as my paperback copies, I have all four as audiobooks or radio plays – and they run in high rotation on my generic mp3 device on my journeys on the train, on my lunchbreaks and late at night when I’m staying away from home and need something to listen to to get to sleep.  I didn’t read them in order – Have His Carcase came first, then Busman’s Honeymoon, Strong Poison and finally Gaudy Night.

I’m firmly convinced that Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the most romantic detective novel in existence.  In the dedication at the start Sayers writes:

It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.

And to me, that pretty much sums it up perfectly.  Busman’s Honeymoon is a perfectly formed detective novel (I didn’t figure out who did it until the reveal) but also is a beautifully romantic story about the start of a couple’s married life.  And if you’ve read the three books that lead up to it, it’s the perfect end to a long and sometimes painful courtship, which must have felt tortuous to readers when the books were first published – because Strong Poison was appeared in 1931 – and Busman’s Honeymoon came out six books later in 1937.

Gaudy Night is the weakest of the four when it comes to the detective plot – it’s not an actual murder but a poison pen mystery and actually has very little Peter to a lot of Harriet.  But it’s still a very good book and you learn a lot more about Harriet, her life, her side of the courtship and what she was doing while Peter was solving the mysteries in the two novels of that part of the series that she doesn’t feature in.  Strong Poison and Have His Carcase have two of Sayers’ best puzzles – they’re utterly ingenious and perfectly plotted.

Among the other novels, my favourite is Murder Must Advertise, where Peter – under the psedonym of Death Bredon – goes to work at an advertising agency where one of the copywriters has fallen to his death, leaving a letter hinting at scandalous goings on in the firm.  Sayers was herself a copywriter for a decade – and the book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of advertising in the early ’30s as well as a really very clever murder mystery.

Peter Wimsey
My collection (unusually for me) has several different styles of cover

I could write at even greater length about the wonders of these novels, but this post is already massively long.  I hope that if you’ve read this far and you haven’t ever read any of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, you might be tempted to go and try one.  My recommendation as a starting point would be Strong Poison or Murder Must Advertise, although equally Nine Tailors or even the very first book Whose Body? would be a good introduction. Don’t start with Busman’s Honeymoon (I’m not even linking to it to deter you further) as you’ll regret it if you don’t read Peter and Harriet for the first time in the order in which they were intended – I know I do and as soon as I had finished Gaudy Night for the first time I went back and read all four again in the right order!

As usual, my links are to Foyles –  because I love them, their Foyalty points, their order in the morning and pick it up from a store in the afternoon feature (which even gives you discount) and I’ve found that for this sort of book (ie not a mass-market new release) they are often cheaper than the alternatives – but equally you can find Lord Peter in your high street bookshop, at major online booksellers and often in charity shops.  They’re also widely held by libraries because they are, after all, classics of the genre.

Go – discover Peter – and enjoy.