Authors I love, detective, mystery, Series I love

Series I love: Roderick Alleyn

Now I’ve written about Albert Campion as well as Peter Wimsey, it would be remiss of me not to write about Ngaio Marsh’s brilliant creation, not least because I spend as much time re-reading or re-listening to the Roderick Alleyn mysteries and watching the BBC TV versions while I iron as I do revisiting Wimsey or watching Miss Marple.  And as I have now finished reading the series, having treated myself to the last omnibus in the January sales, this is an even better time to write about them!

Shelf of Ngaio Marsh omnibuses
Omnibus two is on loan to my dad. I think. I hope.

In some ways, Roderick Alleyn is another of the gentlemen detectives so popular in Golden Age detective fiction – he’s a well-educated younger son of a baronet, born in the 1890s and who served in the First World War – but with one major difference: Alleyn is actually a police officer.  At the start of the series, in A Man Lay Dead he’s a Detective Chief Inspector, by the end he is a Chief Superintendent.  A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934, the final novel came out in 1982 and the setting of the series moves with the time period – although Alleyn’s age… doesn’t really.  At the start of the series Alleyn is single, but later marries artist Agatha Troy, who he first met during the course of the case in the sixth book.  Troy, and later their son Ricky, pop up in several more cases, but by no means all of them -his regular companions are Inspector Fox and xxx Bailey.

Most of the books are set in and around London and the south of England, but there are several novels set in Marsh’s native New Zealand.  Marsh was passionate about the theatre and the arts and several of the novels are feature actors as well as the Unicorn Theatre in London and artists and artistic circles.  This means there’s a really nice variety of settings, and combined with the fact that Alleyn is a police detective, helps avoid the series seeming repetitive of like bodies are following Roderick around.  Alleyn is also a more peripheral figure in some of the novels than many of the other Golden Age detectives are.  In A Man Lay Dead, most of the story is mostly told from the perspective of Nigel Bathgate, friend of Alleyn and a guest at the party where a man has been really killed during a game of Murder, A Surfeit of Lampreys is seen through the eyes of Roberta Grey, visiting a family of penniless and eccentric aristocrats when their uncle is killed in a lift and there are more.

As I mentioned at the start, I’ve read all the books now, but I’ve watched the early 90s TV adaptation so many times that I’ve had to go back and do some actual re-reading of the novels as the TV versions are colouring my memories of the novels slightly.  There are eight TV Alleyns – and there are a few differences from the book.  The most obvious is probably that Troy is in almost all of them, with the relationship between the two their relationship builds over the course of the series.  The second is the condensing and moving of the timeline – while the series starts before the Second World War and continues in the post-war period, the TV series specifically sets the first case in 1948 and moves on from there.

There are also fairly major alterations to the plots – some have less victims than their book equivalent, others have characters removed and replaced, others have extra subplots added in and others taken out. The other obvious difference for the viewer is that two different actors play Alleyn – Simon Williams in Artists in Crime, the pilot episode and the story where Alleyn meets Troy, and Patrick Malahide in all the others.  Williams’ Alleyn is also a slightly different character – he’s said to have had a difficult war and is seen having some emotional difficulty with the resonpsibilty of the job – generally more Wimsey-ish than when Malahide plays him in the subsequent episodes.  I have reminder set on my TiVo box to record The Alleyn Mysteries and generally have two or three saved at a time for watching while ironing.  My favourites are – bizarrely – the aforementioned pilot and Dead Water  In fact if you fancy it, Alibi are showing two Alleyn’s this weekend and another two the week after.  They all have the added bonus that if you’ve watched any other murder mysteries (or costume dramas to be honest) of the same sort of vintage, you can spot the same people popping up all over the place – particularly the Joan Hickson Miss Marples: Emily Pride in Dead Water is played by Margaret Tyzack who plays Clotilde Bradbury Scott in Nemesis; in Artists in Crime, Rory’s mother Lady Alleyn is played by Ursula Howells who is Miss Blacklock in A Murder Is Announced.  They are not the only ones, but they’re probably the most obvious*.  There’s also cross over with Campion and Poirot as well as the BBC TV Narnia adaptations…

Audible screengrab showing Ngaio Marsh novels

Several of the Alleyn mysteries are on fairly heavy rotation in my audiobook library.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I am Very Bad With Silence and often listen to audiobooks to go to sleep to while I’m away from home.  And the audiobook fan is particularly lucky with this series – there’s abridged and unabridged versions of many of the novels with a variety of different narrators.  Benedict Cumberbatch has done shortened versions of three of them – Artists in Crime, Scales of Justice and Death in a White Tie – but I also like Anton Lesser (who is particularly good at accents).  And if you want something even shorter there are also a few radio plays available on Audible.  My favourites on audiobook are probably the Cumberbatch Scales of Justice and then Lesser’s  Opening Night and James Saxon’s unabridged Final Curtain.

If you fancy trying some Inspector Alleyn, you should be able to get hold of them fairly easily – they are available as ebooks, or as the three novel omnibuses that I have and they’re often in secondhand bookshops (although not usually charity shops, the most recent editions are a bit too old).  I started at the beginning and worked my way through (over the course of just under five years) but I don’t think you need to read them in order to enjoy them.  There is also an unfinished Alleyn, recently finished by Stella Duffy, which is out in paperback next month and which I have on my to read pile to get to sooner rather than later now that I’ve finished the series proper.  If you’re an Alleyn fan, let me know which your favourites are in the comments – and if you’ve read the “new” one let me know what you thought!

Happy Reading!

*Keen Marple readers/viewers will spot what those two characters have in common, which is why they sprung to mind!

Cover of Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy

Authors I love, Series I love

Series I love: Albert Campion

When I added the Campion Christmas stories to the festive reading blog, I realised that I hadn’t ever written a Series I love post about Margery Allingham’s detective and so one was really somewhat overdue.  So, to start off the new year, I’m putting that omission to rights.

Old Penguin copy of The Beckoning Lady

Albert Campion – not his real name – is a detective and problem solver.  He’s got an aristocratic background that is hinted and and has to be pieced together* – and many sources say he started as a parody of my beloved Lord Peter Wimsey.  Indeed as well as their family history, their physical description is fairly similar – Campion is thin, blond, wears glasses and has a face that is described as bland and inoffensive and as having a deceptively blank expression.  Wimsey by contrast is describes as being fair, average height, with a monocle and with a vaguely foolish face.  You see what I mean?  But as the books go on Albert is definitely his own man and a character in his own right.  He’s more of an adventurer and a man of action than many of his Golden Age Counterparts – and more often on the edge of the law.  Where Wimsey has Bunter – a gentleman’s gentleman with a flare for photography and chemistry – Albert has Lugg, an ex-con with a passion for trying to better himself but constantly being reminded of his past as he and Albert encounter his former criminal associates.  Albert’s friend in the police is the detective Stanislas Oates, who over the course of the series rises through the ranks of The Yard to become its chief.

The Campion stories tend more towards the adventure than straight up detective fiction – for example, my particular favourite is Sweet Danger which sees Albert posing as minor royalty at a foreign watering home and then attempting to outwit a criminal mastermind in the hunt for documents to prove who the ruler of a tiny but oil rich principality is.  There are chases, and a treasure hunt, and evil machinations and attempted witchcraft and it all builds to a very satisfactory conclusion.  The one in the series which gets most attention is The Tiger in the Smoke – which is a thriller not a detective novel – as Albert tries to track down a psychopath in foggy, smoggy London.  I also really like The Fashion in Shrouds, in which Albert’s fashion designer sister (also estranged from the aristocratic family) falls under suspicion after two deaths that are rather convenient for her best friend.

Copies of The Fashion in Shrouds and Flowers for the Judge

The series started in the 1930s and ran through until the 1960s, so I need to add my usual caveat about there being some dated attitudes and language in some of these – particularly the Fashion in Shrouds if I recall correctly – which means that the modern reader needs to approach with slight caution, but I don’t think there’s anything worse here than there is in Christie or Sayers.

There are 19 Campion novels written by Margery Allingham, two more written by her husband (who completed the final Allingham novel after her death) and then another five modern continuations by Mike Ripley.  I’ve read most of the Allingham written stories – although interestingly I think Campion’s first appearance, as a side character in The Crime at Black Dudley, is one of the ones in the series that I haven’t read.  I can almost see your puzzled face at this – but I have an explanation: I discovered Campion when I was living in Essex and on a very tight budget.  I was reading my way through the local library’s detective selection and they had a whole shelf of Campions – because Margery Allingham was a local author.  I promptly read my way through as many as I could lay my hands on – but it was pre-goodreads and I wasn’t keeping track.  I still don’t own many of them – a fact which has hampered me not inconsiderably in putting this post together!

There were also two series of TV adaptations in the early 1990s, starring Peter Davison as Campion, which do occasionally pop up on TV (usually on Alibi or Drama) which are fun if not entirely faithful to the plot and a bit clunking in places.  They’re definitely not as well put together as the Joan Hickson Miss Marples for example, the David Suchet Poirots or the Inspector Alleyn adaptations, but if you like the books then they’re worth a look as a curiosity if nothing else.

I’ve got a couple of Campions as audiobooks too which has actually been a really nice way to revisit the series.  Once I get my audiobook and podcast backlogs back down and under control, I’m planning to get a few more – and fill in some of the gaps in the series.

If you’ve read any Campion books – or have a favourite – let me know in the comments!

Happy Reading!

*And I can’t remember all the pieces at the moment!

detective, Forgotten books, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: The Inspector Richardson series

If you follow my Week in Books posts, you ma have noticed me tearing a streak through Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series earlier in the summer, and I’ve been planning to write about them for a while.  As this is my first week away in the USA, I though now might be a good time to post this – as I’ve no idea how busy I’m going to be – and whether I’ll be able to keep normal service going on here!

The eight books in the Inspector Richardson series follow the titular policeman as he rises through the ranks, from police constable in the first book, into the detective branch and all the way up to the giddy heights of Chief Constable.  They were originally published between 1933 and 1937 – which makes rather a rapid rise for Richardson – and fit nicely into the Golden Age of murder mysteries that I love so much.

These aren’t as complicated in plot terms as some of their contemporaries, but they are fast-paced and very readable.  The first book sees an estranged couple murdered on the same day, later stories feature diplomatic intrigue, the drug trade, a suspicious suicide and smuggling.  As he rises through the ranks, Richardson becomes more of a supervisory figure, but there are some themes that run through the series – and which get pulled together nicely in the final book in the series, A Murder Is Arranged, which I think might be my favourite of all.

What makes these a little bit different from most of the other mysteries of the time that featured a police officer as the detective is that the author, Basil Thomson was a former Assistant Chief Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police and a former head of their CID department.  So the police procedural detail in this is drawn more from real experience from many of its contemporaries.  Martin Edwards has written an introduction for this latest batch of reissues that tells you a little bit about the author and the context of the books at the time – although it doesn’t mention some of the more dubious aspects of his life that are in Thomson’s Wikipedia entry. However as Thomson’s been dead since 1939 I felt ok buying the books because its not as if I’m lining his pockets!

I wouldn’t suggest making these your starting point if you want to dip your toe into the world of inter-war crime novels – but then i find it hard to see beyond Peter Wimsey for that –  but if you’ve exhausted Sayers and Christie, these are easier to get hold of than Margery Allingham can be and are worth a look – along with more well known authors like Josephine Tey and Patricia Wentworth and are more affordable than some of the other more forgotten authors that British Library Crime Classics have been republishing*.

The first book in the series, Richardson’s First Case is available for 99p at time of writing on Kindle and Kobo and the rest of the series are at a similar price point so if you like it, it’s a fairly cheap way of passing a few hours!

Happy Reading

*See BotW posts on The Cornish Coast Murder and The Sussex Downs Murder (both by John Bude), Christopher St John Spriggs’ Death of an Airman and Christmas compilation Silent Nights if you want more on some of these.

Book of the Week, crime, mystery

Book of the Week: The Cornish Coast Murder

A short and sweet BotW post this week.  I didn’t finish as much as I wanted last week – and some of what I finished was never going to be a contender for a slot here.  But the Cornish Coast Murder perked me up at the end of the week and snuck in under the wire.

Copy of The Cornish Coast Murder

The Cornish Coast Murder sees an armchair murder mystery novel enthusiast with an actual real life crime on his doorstep.  Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill meet up once a week to talk detective fiction and open their latest delivery from the library. But one night during their chat, a panicked phone call comes through from a neighbour, Ruth Tregarthen saying that her uncle has been shot.  There are no obvious clues and the police seem baffled so Reverend Dodd starts to help investigate the crime using his knowledge of crime fiction to help him.

This is the first in the Inspector Bigswell series – and the second John Bude* that I’ve read.  This is a nice fun read – but it’s not as complex or ingenious as some of the authors that Reverend Dodd reads with his friend.  I had a fair idea where it was going – and although I wasn’t entirely right it meant that I wasn’t as entirely gripped as I am with some similar books.  But this was Bude’s fist book so perhaps that’s not surprising that it’s not perfect – and certainly the other Bude I’ve read (the Sussex Downs Murder)* was more complex – although the solution to that is rather cliched now.  Anyway – it’s an enjoyable read and a if you’ve got an interest in Golden Age crime novels it’s well worth a look.

My copy of the Cornish Coast Murder was the rather pretty British Library Crime Classics edition – so you may well be able to find it in your local bookshop.  I’ve certainly seen them in various Waterstones.  The Kindle edition is free if you’re in Kindle Unlimited or it’s £2.99 to buy.

Happy Reading!

*Editors note:  I realised after I posted this that Sussex Downs was also a BotW – back in June last year.  I am nothing if not predictable!

Book of the Week, detective, mystery, Series I love

Book of the Week: The Mystery of Three Quarters

This week’s BotW is the new Poirot continuation by Sophie Hannah – which happened to come out last week too so for once my review is actually timely!  Regular readers will know that I love Golden Age mystery novels (witness last week’s reading list which included the complete short stories of my beloved Peter Wimsey and a Patricia Wentworth novel) and also that I have a mixed record with continuations of beloved series, so the fact that this is popping up here today is Good News.

Cover of The Mystery of Three Quarters

As he returns home from lunch one day Hercule Poirot is accosted by an irate woman who threatens him with a lawsuit because she has received a letter from him accusing her of murder.  Poirot has written no such letter but is unable to convince her.  Soon after a young man appears who has received a similar letter.  The next day two more strangers proclaim their innocence to him after receiving letters.  So who is writing the letters in Poirot’s name – and why are they so determined to accuse people of the murder of Barnabas Pandy?This has got an intriguing premise and a solution that I didn’t see coming. I read this across the course of 24 hours and was annoyed that it was over so fast. This is the third Poirot novel from Hannah and I have read the first (The Monogram Murders) but not the second (The Closed Casket) and reading my review of the first one back, I had some concerns about whether it felt enough like a Poirot story – and this one pretty much did to me. I think making the narrator not Poirot is a very good decision – as is not falling back on Poirot clichés like “leetle grey cells”. And as the narrator is a Hannah invention rather than Captain Hastings that also means that there’s freedom to analyse Poirot’s quirks and processes in a different way rather than trying to continue in someone else’s voice.

And maybe that’s why this works for me more than most of the Wimsey continuations do. I’m yet to read an Albert Campion continuation so I’ll see how one of those falls between these two continuations to work out whether that is what makes continuations work better for me. And after this I’ll definitely be looking out for The Closed Casket to read when I get a chance.

My copy of The Mystery of Three Quarters came via NetGalley, but you should be able to find it in hardback in all good bookshops and on Amazon as well as in Kindle and on Kobo. The paperback isn’t out until next year – although I suspect this will have an airport paperback edition if you’re yet to go on your holidays.

Happy reading!

Adventure, Book of the Week, detective, Forgotten books

Book of the Week: The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith

There were a few options for this week’s BotW pick, but I have plans for some of them, but also this was my favourite book that I read last week and makes a nice companion or compliment to last week’s choice. Last week I picked A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia, which was a book set in the interwar period but written now, this week it’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, which is a genuine forgotten Golden Age mystery. It was also another book from the massive unread pile on my Kindle and I’m so pleased I impulse bought it at some point in the distant past.

The cover of The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith

Patrica Wentworth’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith was originally published in 1923 and tells the story of a young woman who is swept into an adventure after a chance meeting when she’s down on her luck, with nowhere to stay and be t to no money. In one of those astonishing coincidences that you find in some books, it transpires that a Jane has a cousin who is practically her double and who is being held hostage by her father and a shadowy group that he is associated with. The cousin has a fiancé who is desperate to elope with her and run off to foreign climes and Jane ends up switching places with Renata and taking over her identity. What follows is a breathless espionage adventure thriller with a dash of romance and a dollop of murder.

It rattles along at a breathless pace that doesn’t really give you a chance to notice the bonkersness until you’ve finished and stop to think. I raced through it once I actually sat down properly to read it and then went off to trawl Kindle for more books by Patricia Wentworth in my budget. A certain amount of suspension of belief is necessary – there are anarchists and secret passages and shadowy forces at work as well as the lookalike cousins – but you liked The 39 Steps, or the more adventure-y Albert Campion novels, then you need to read this.

The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith is included in Kindle Unlimited if you’re part of that scheme, or you can buy it on Kindle or as a paperback. At time of writing it’s £1.99 on Kindle, but I’m fairly sure I picked it up for free, so it might be worth adding to your watch list to see if the price drops.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, mystery, romance, women's fiction

Veritys in fiction

Today is my birthday, so it seemed like a perfect time to talk about Veritys in fiction. I’ve always really liked my name, but it seems to give some people problems. Back in my reporting days, people used to mishear it all the time – I’d get messages to Sarah T, or Dorothy or a variety of V-names – and you should see the mess Starbucks make of it. There aren’t many of us, but here are five notable ones from my reading back catalogue.

Verity-Ann Carey – The Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent Dyer

I think Verity-Ann was the first time I encountered my name in a book – and I didn’t really count it at the time because of the Ann! Verity-Ann is one of what I think of as the second generation of Chalet girls: she joins the school during the Second World War year’s in Armiford and becomes Mary-Lou’s sister-by-marriage. Verity-Ann is always described as silvery and fairy-like and has a beautiful singing voice. Even when I was a child I had nothing in common with her: my sister has banned me from singing in public and I’m a tall brunette. Never mind. The school stories are great though – even if Verity-Ann was never one of Brent Dyer’s pet characters and had very little to do except be dreamy and sing solos in school plays.

Verity Hunt – Nemesis by Agatha Christie

I saw this on television before I read the book and it creeped me out no end. I was eleven at the time and hadn’t met another Verity and one of the first ones I encountered was the murder victim in a Miss Marple! But once I got past the fact that the dead girl had the same name as me, it’s a cracker of a story – darker in the novel than the Joan Hickson TV version (don’t get me started on the Marple version – which had added nuns!). It’s not my favourite Miss Marple, but it’s right up there.

Verity Kindle – To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

A new discovery last year, Verity Kindle is the female lead in Willis’s time-travel romp. She’s also much more my style: for a start she’s a historian and a Cat fan. Well, sort of. To Say Nothing of the Dog was one of my favourite books of last year: a screwball comedy full of literary in jokes, Peter Wimsey references and all the worst bits of Victoriana. I’d been lent it by a friend and really didn’t want to give him his book back. Which reminds me, I must buy myself a copy so I can reread it and then lend it out….

Verity Browne in the Lord Edward Corinth series by David Roberts

Like me, Verity Browne is a journalist, however that’s pretty much where the similarities end. This Verity is abrasive and has communist sympathies – which don’t help her in the 1930s. I read this whole series nearly four years ago in my ongoing quest for good historical mystery series. This is very much Wimsey crossed with spies and Verity can be quite hard to like. But if you like mismatched detecting duos, they’re worth a look.

Verity Love – True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop books by Annie Darling

Verity Love is a bookseller at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop in Annie Darling’s first book, but in the sequel she gets her own happily ever after. This Verity is a huge Jane Austen fan who has invented herself a boyfriend to stop her friends’ attempts at matchmaking and to give herself an excuse not to do things she doesn’t want to. Of course this plan goes awry and she finds herself with a real pretend boyfriend. Lots and lots of fun and I had a lot of sympathy with this Verity! Also I can’t wait for book three in this series to come out next month.

So there you have it: five fictional Veritys to celebrate my birthday. I think there’s one for most reading tastes here, if you only read one, make it Verity Kindle. She’s smart, plucky, loyal and fun – a set of character traits most people would be happy with I think. And if you can think of any more Veritys I ought to read about, let me know in the comments.

Happy Reading!