Long term readers will be aware of my love of Golden Age detective fiction, so it may not be a surprise that this is my choice this week.
Yes, I’ve finally managed to read the first Albert Campion book. And no, I didn’t realise when I was reading it that I had read it before and just not made a note of it. I’ve written about the series before – and you can definitley see why those Wimsey parody conclusions were drawn. In this Albert is a side-character who you never really get to know (but want to know more about) as he helps unravel what is happening. The main characters here are George Abbershaw and Meggie Oliphant, who find themselves caught up in the mysterious death of the host of a house party that they’re attending, and then imprisoned at the house by forces who believe they have stolen something valuable. Like many of the later novels in the series, it’s more of an adventure-thriller than a murder mystery and there are mentions of things that crop up again in later stories.
If you like this sort of caper, it’s a good example of its type. If you have an interest in the era and the genre, it’s definitely a good one to have read. I enjoyed reading it for more than just the thrill of filling in part of of the Campion story that I was missing. But, like so many first in serieses, it’s not the best of the character – I think I would still tell people to start with Sweet Danger or the Tiger in the Smoke. But if it comes your way, do not turn your nose up at it!
My copy came from the library, but you should be able to get hold of any of the Campion books fairly easily – the ebooks have been published by Vintage in the UK relatively recently and the series is still in print in paperback. On top of that you can often find them secondhand in the book section of the charity shops
Before I go, I should give an honourable mention to Christmas Secrets by the Sea though – a late entry into the festive reading stakes. As you may have seen in the comments from last week’s Week in Books, I quite liked this and wanted to like it more. I didn’t think you understood the heroine well enough until quite late on and I also I didn’t didn’t think the resolution did everything it needed to. But it was still better than a lot of the Christmas books I read this year…
Happy reading – and as it’s Christmas Eve – Happy Christmas. I hope Santa brings you all the books you asked for!
This week’s pick is the Inspector Alleyn continuation that I mentioned in my Alleyn series post. It’s a bit a of cheat because I finished it on Monday, but it was my favourite of the books I read last week that I hadn’t already written about!
World War Two is raging in Europe and Roderick Alleyn is in New Zealand undercover, staying at a hospital as the threat from Japan moves closer. On a dark and stormy night, the official bringing the wages to the hospitals on the plains gets stuck there for the night when his car breaks down. Also at the hospital are stir crazy soldiers, employees trapped in a love triangle and a dying elderly man and his grandson. Then the money goes missing from the safe and the body count goes up and Alleyn has to reveal himself (at least partially) to try and solve the crime.
I have a mixed track record with continuations of classic series in general and detective stories in particular. I like a couple of the Wimsey ones but have serious reservations about the later ones, the first Sophie Hannah Poirot is quite good and I’ve got a few Campion ones yet to read. And this is definitely on the positive end of the spectrum – hence why it’s a BotW pick – although I didn’t think it always read entirely like the rest of the series. I think it helps that this is based around opening chapters written by Marsh herself. The best Wimsey continuation is the first one – based on a Sayers plot outline – and they go downhill from there.
But in the case of The Money in the Morgue, the mystery is good, the New Zealand setting is atmospheric and in that response fits in with previous New Zealand installments in the series. And it’s also nice to be back in a period that really suits Alleyn. I read the series in strict order and in the last ones it’s just not quite the same as it was in the early half of the series – he should be too old to be doing what he’s doing and it’s just too much. The ones I revist are pretty much always the earlier ones in the series. I did miss the regular side kicks like Inspector Fox, but on the whole the new secondary characters mostly made up for it.
The Money in the Morgue is out now in paperback, and I’d hope you’d be able to find it fairly easily in bookshops – it’s certainly available on Book Depository. It’s also on Kindle and Kobo.
So as I said in yesterday’s Week in Books, I was on holiday last week and spent a good proportion of my time in the very sunny south of France working my way down my to-read pile. There was a lot of good stuff and you’ll be hearing more about some of the books on the list later, but I really wanted to highlight The Adventures of Maud West Lady Detective as my BotW because it was such tremendous fun, it dovetails so well with my favourite things to read and it came out last week – so I’m timely (for once).
You’ve probably never heard of her, but Maud West ran a detective agency in London for more than thirty years, starting in 1905. No, seriously. This isn’t fiction, this is biography. In her first book, Susannah Stapleton tries to separate the truth from invention about a real-life lady detective, who was working in London while the golden age of Crime fiction was happening. And it’s very hard to work out what the truth is. Maud was a mistress of self promotion, but some of her stories read exactly like the detective stories of the era. Stapleton takes you through her research and her quest to find out the truth about Maud’s life and her cases.
This has got a Jill Paton Walsh quote attached to the blurb:
If you are susceptible to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane you must read The Adventures of Maud West. You will never know the difference between fact and fiction again.
Anyway, this totally lives up to that quote – Maud’s life is fascinating, Stapleton is an engaging writer – and you get to see behind the scenes of the process – of how she tracked down the traces Maud has left behind in the historical record. And that latter bit is almost as fascinating to me as the actual story. As a history grad who did her dissertation research in an undigitised archive in the middle of France it was awesome to see Stapleton using the full power of digital archives to find a life that could otherwise have been lost to history. It was almost enough to make me miss historical research. Although as I’m still getting dissertation anxiety dreams more than a decade on, it was quite a fleeting feeling!
I raced through this – starting it on the plane out on Sunday and finished it off in the Riviera sun. I even rationed my self to read it slower to make it last. That’s how good it was. There’s all sorts of period details in here too – I know I’ll be walking down New Oxford Street looking for the spot where her offices used to be. And if that’s not enough to convince you – the research in this book is so fresh, that Maud has only had a Wikipedia page since Sunday – three days after the book was published. I look forward to seeing what Stapleton does next – and I can only hope that this book does really well and persuades publishers that we need more books like this. And historians and writers out there – please go and write them. And if you’ve got any suggestions for books like this that I should read, put them in the comments please. Pretty please.
I got my copy from NetGalley, but The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is out now in hardback and should be available in bookstores near you. I went to look for it in Waterstones in Milton Keynes yesterday* – and one branch had *just* sold their copy and the other was sold out too which is lovely because it means its selling, but means I still haven’t see it in the wild and couldn’t have a closer gander at the pictures. It’s also on Kindle and Kobo. I’m off to be annoyed that I’m on a late shift tomorrow so can’t go and hear Susanna Stapleton speak at the Kibworth book festival which is only 25 miles from where I live and thus totally doable if only I wasn’t working.** Anyway, I’m off to listen to her interview on Woman’s Hour instead.
*And no, I didn’t manage to leave Waterstones without buying something – I took home a shiny signed copy of Rukmini Iyer’s new cookbook, the Quick Roasting Tin.
**Irritatingly Ben Aaronovitch is there tonight (as this publishes, not as I write) and I won’t be able to get home from work in time to get to that either. Gah. I’m not having much luck with author readings at the moment. These are not the first two that have been in my area that I haven’t managed to get to in the last month or two
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!
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…
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!
*Keen Marple readers/viewers will spot what those two characters have in common, which is why they sprung to mind!
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.
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.
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!
*And I can’t remember all the pieces at the moment!
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!
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.
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.
*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!