There were a few options for this post this week, but in the end I’ve settled on a really good locked room mystery, because those are so satisfying when done right – and this is really done right!
Dick Markham is in love (again). The object of the crime writer’s affection is Lesley Grant, a new arrival in his village. But when she accidentally shoots and injures a fortune teller at the village fete, he is told a story about her that is very different from the one that she tells about herself. Cast into confusion, he is asked to take part in a scheme to expose her as a serial poisoner – only for the person accusing her to be found murdered in exactly the way that he was told Lesley kills her victims: in an impossible locked room set up. Then Gideon Fell arrives on the scene to try and untangle the mystery.
It’s been a while since I read a locked room mystery, and this one is so clever. It is the first Gideon Fell mystery that I have read – although I read another of John Dickson Carr’s novels earlier in the year, and gave another Fell lined up already. But I can see why this one in particular has such an impressive reputation. It’s really pacy and makes you feel completely off balance as a reader because it twists and turns around so much you’re never really sure what you think – or what you’re meant to think. And I can’t really say any more about it than that because it gives too much away – even writing the plot summary was tricky! Anyway, give it a look for yourself.
My copy of Til Death Do Us Part came via my Kindle Unlimited subscription, but it’s a British Library Crime Classic, so when it cycles out of KU it should be available on all the major ebook platforms. And of course you can buy it in paperback direct from the British Library Bookshop online.
As mentioned yesterday, not a lot of options this week for Book of the Week, but luckily I read a really interesting British Library Crime Classics book so all’s serene, even if slightly later in the day than recently!
Prudence Pinsent is the unmarried daughter of the Master of a (fictional) Cambridge college. On her way to visit her cousin in Suffolk, she meets an old friend who is investigating a drug smuggling gang and has connected it with both Prudence’s cousin’s estate and the colleges of Cambridge itself. Prudence is sure her cousin can’t be involved, so she decides she must investigate and find out who is.
I’ve written (at length!) about my love of Gaudy Night which is also set in a fictional college (at Oxford though, not Cambridge) and so the premise of this appealed to me a lot. And it’s funny and entertaining – and the mystery is good as well. Suffolk makes such an atmospheric setting for mysteries – like Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – with eerie flats, fogs, water ways etc and then you have college life and academic personalities.
Lois Austen-Leigh is a relative of Jane Austen (several greats niece) and it is very tempting to say that the witty style must be a family trait. I haven’t read anything of hers before – as well as telling me about her famous relative, the forward said they have been very very rare until the British Library Crime Classics got hold of this, so I hope they publish some of the others too.
My copy came as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription, which means it’s only available as an ebook on Kindle at the moment, but you can buy the paperback direct from the British Library shop should you so wish.
Following on from the mostly Twentieth Century Crime shelf, here we have… even more mostly twentieth century crime! The Inspector Alleyn built up over time as I read them so they did used to share a shelf with Lord Peter. And as mentioned before, the Margery Allinghams did too. You can also see a couple of actual Josephine Teys (not the Nicola Upson ones!), some Edmund Crispin and a few more bits of classic crime. Then it gets a bit random… Glitter and the Gold as mentioned in the Vanderbilt recommendsday, and a few bits and bobs of non fiction – including Peter Crouch, which is Him Indoors’s not mine, but I have to give him some shelf space somewhere right?
When a member of a family of writers dies, it is initially thought to be a suicide – until her brother receives a letter from the deceased, which had got delayed in the post. He calls in Superintendent Macdonald to find out the truth behind his sister’s death. I’ve reviewed a couple of Lorax’s books here before (These Names Make Clues, Murder by Matchlight and Murder in the Mill Race as well as Crossed Skis under one of her other pen names ), and this one is right up there. It has plenty of twists and turns as Macdonald tries to prove whether it was murder or suicide.
The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude
Fancy a murder carried out with a bow and arrow? Read this! There’s no shortage of suspects either as several residents of the titular square are keen archers and the murdered man is very unpopular. Solving this is Superintendent Meredith (last seen on this blog in The Lake District Murder) helping out a friend while on holiday. The setting is part of the charm of this – you can really picture the houses clustered around the square and their residents and their resentments and jealousies.
Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards
This is one of the BLCC’s themed collections – all of the stories here have a nautical theme. There are a bunch of names in this who I have read full length novels from, but by a miracle not any of the other three authors in this post! There is also a huge range of styles of mystery – the authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher St John Sprigg, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and more. They also tend towards the shorter end so if you don’t like one it’s over quickly!
Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr
A blazing body is seen running around in the battlement of Castle Skull near Koblenz – but who did it. The castle is a maze of passages and awash with legends and stories of magic and ghosts. There is a small pool of suspects, and two detectives competing to solve figure it all out. This is the least Verity of all of these – but I include it because although it’s not precisely my thing, it is a good creepy, chillery, thrillery mystery. Atmospheric is probably the word.
All of these were in Kindle Unlimited when I read them, so if you keep a list of books to borrow from that, otherwise the British Library shop is doing Three for Two on the paperback versions.
Inspired by the latest Veronica Speedwell, today’s Recommendsday is books featuring lost heirs. They’re a staple of the mystery and romance genres, which as you know are two of my favourites, so I’m splitting the recommendations up and I’ve still had to restrain myself!
And this week we’re starting with mystery novels – where lost heir plots tend to revolve around whether a mysterious or reappeared person is who they say they are or if they are a fake. It’s a think that actually happened in history – Perkin Warbeck for example – but I’m mystery novels it’s usually an inheritance rather than a crown that the possible pretender is about to come into. It’s not a plot you can really do in the age of DNA, or at least it requires some creativity. So let’s start with a Golden Age Classic – Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. In it a man called Brat Farrar appears and claims to be Patrick Ashby, the eldest son of the Ashby family who disappeared when he was 13 and thought to have drowned. He knows Patrick’s mannerisms and the story of his early life and it seems like he may pull it off, until secrets start to emerge…
Sweet Danger is my favourite of all the Albert Campion books (I think), and I listen to the audiobook or read it at least once a the year. In it Albert is trying to find the lost heir to a tiny Balkan principality and meets the family who claim they’re the rightful heirs. There’s also a ruthless crime Lord, witchcraft and the start of a romantic strand in the series – which I promise is not the main reason I like it! It’s actually a really good adventure caper as well as a mystery – and there’s no actual murder. You could also probably make a case that Agatha Christie’s Nemesis is a lost heir book in a way as well – as the mystery that Miss Marple is trying to solve is whether a a deceased millionaire’s son murdered a young woman or not – the son in question having disappeared.
Most historical mystery series will do a lost heir – or variation thereon at some point. In thePhryne Fisherseries it happens fairly early on in the series – within the first half dozen in fact – and as the blurb is a little bit cryptic about it I shall be too, but you can probably work it out. The Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series has one relatively early on too – Justice Hall – the sixth in the series but really to appreciate it you need to have read the previous book O Jerusalem too, and they work really well back to back. In the Daisy Dalrymple books it happens much later in the series – Heirs of the Body is the 21st mystery (out of 23) and the whole plot revolves around finding which of four options is the heir to the viscountcy in Daisy’s family.
I’m fairly sure there are more of them that I’ve forgotten about – I’ve been mulling it over before I fall asleep at night and I’m fairly sure I haven’t remembered all the options I came up with, but that’s always the way with things that come to you as you drop off to sleep! But as I said, I have another post planned, and even if it’s meant to be all romances, I can always throw a mystery in if I remember something amazing…
Amid the flurry of end of year posts, here is something completely different and that has been months in the making. It’s taken me a while to get this down in writing in a way that I’m anywhere near happy with and I’m still not sure I’m quite there. So why am I finally posting it now? Well, I was writing my end of 2021 post and it was starting to touch on some similar ground, so I thought I ought to get this out there first.
One of my very earliest posts on this site was about my love of Peter Wimsey. And over the years since then I have reread and relistened to the series over and over. But until the summer it had been years since I had Gaudy Night – in full at least and not as a radio play. But then I treated myself to the audiobook in August and listened to it. And I was enjoying it so much that I got the book off the shelf too. And then I realised that I was behind on my podcasts because I wanted to carry on listening to Gaudy Night rather than listening to them. And when I got to the end, I started all over again. And now I have a lot to say about it and Spoilers ahoy, not just for Gaudy Night but for most of the rest of the Wimsey books. Be warned.
A reminder, if you need it, that Gaudy Night is the third of four books featuring Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. It is the book where Harriet’s relationship with Peter moves towards a resolution. The final book of the quartet sees the pair get married and Gaudy Night is the bridge that explains how they got from the tetchiness of the murder at Wilvercombe (which was already a step on from her mistrust and confusion in Strong Poison) to a point where Harriet has realised that she is in love with him and that taking a chance on another relationship might be the right thing to do.
She fell a victim to an inferiority complex, and tripped over her partner’s feet. ‘Sorry,’ said Wimsey, accepting responsibility like a gentleman. ‘It’s my fault,’ said Harriet. ‘I’m a rotten dancer. Don’t bother about me. Let’s stop. You haven’t got to be polite to me, you know.’
Worse and worse. She was being peevish and egotistical. Wimsey glanced down at her in surprise and then suddenly smiled.
‘Darling, if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock.’
‘Idiot’ said Harriet.
Have His Carcase
I have had the audiobooks of a lot of the other books in the series for years. In fact Busman’s Honeymoon was one of my earliest picks on Audible and I soon picked up as many of the others as I could that were read by Ian Carmichael. But he didn’t read all of them, so I filled in the gaps using radio adaptations of the series – again starring Ian Carmichael as Peter. I had Murder Must Advertise read by someone else, and Five Red Herrings read by Patrick Malahide (in a delightful crossover with my love of the Inspector Alleyn TV adaptations) but until thus summer I didn’t have either Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night in full on audio. But as I was working through audiobooks at some pace, I decided to take a chance on the Have His Carcase that Audible were offering. Now I have reread Have His Carcase a few times – because I think it’s a particularly well worked mystery – but I’d stuck to the radio play version because of my attachment to Ian Carmichael narrating. But actually after a little bit I got used to Jane McDowell, and although the code breaking section makes no sense to me as audio (it’s hard enough on paper), because it was told from more Harriet’s side than Peter’s the female narrator grew on me. So I bought Gaudy Night.
The thing it is easy to forget reading now is that Sayers spaced out the Peter and Harriet with other novels with just Peter and the poor readers at the time had no idea what was going to happen – if anything – between them. So when you realise Strong Poison (1930) was followed by Five Red Herrings (1931), it adds the context that perhaps the reason Peter has gone off to Scotland is perhaps to clear his head after Harriet’s trial. Have His Carcase is next (1932), when Harriet finds a body on the beach and Peter comes down to solve the crime (as she thinks) but also as the reader knows, try and make her situation better. Then it’s Murder Must Advertise, which focuses on Peter in his advertising alter ego but with a blink and you’ll miss it nod to what is going on with Harriet.
Wimsey put down the receiver. ‘I hope,’ he thought, ‘she isn’t going to make an awkwardness. You cannot trust these young women. No fixity of purpose. Except, of course, when you particularly want them to be yielding.’
He grinned with a wry mouth, and went out to keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him, and what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story.
Murder Must Advertise
Then the following year was the Nine Tailors before (at last) Gaudy Night in 1935. And early in Chapter 4 of Gaudy Night, Sayers sets out for you what has been going on in the background all along. I’m struggling to think of another series with a moment quite like it – where an author says “by the way, while these mysteries were going on, there was also something I didn’t tell you about”.
Was it too late to achieve wholly the clear eye and the untroubled mind? And what, in that case, was she to do with one powerful fetter which still tied her ineluctably to the bitter past? What about Peter Wimsey?
And then across the course of 500 pages, Harriet tries to solve a poison pen mystery at her old college, but decide exactly what about Peter Wimsey. She works her way through her hang ups after her disastrous relationship with Philip Boyes and starts to come to a better understanding of who she is and what it is about her that has caused Wimsey to propose to her once a quarter for years on end. And the reader understands him better for it too.
I have listened to the radio play version of Gaudy Night more times than I care to count, because even though Ian Carmichael is really quite old by that point, he doesn’t sound it and it is such a clever mystery as well has having a great setting in Oxford. But as I listened to it unabridged, I realised both how cleverly that radio adaptation had been done and how much had been taken out from the original novel. Reggie Pomfret’s whole plot strand is neatly snipped out and part of the evolution of Harriet’s feelings goes with it. And because it is a radio play you also lose the internal side of Harriet’s world and of course the glorious set up explaining what had been going on in the background with Harriet and Peter was missing too – because how on earth do you jump through a time line like that in a radio play?
After I finished Gaudy Night, I bought the Jane McDowell Busman’s Honeymoon and listened to that as well for the contrast with the Carmichael that I have listened to so many times. And it was interesting, but then I went back to Gaudy Night again. And again.
And so here we are, several months on. And I’ve probably listened to it in full half a dozen times. And my edited highlights half a dozen more: that chapter four description of the three years between Wilvercombe and Harriet’s return to her old college for the Gaudy. Her first encounter with St George and her subsequent discoveries about Peter’s relationships with his family – and then Peter’s reaction to that. His arrival in Oxford and their afternoon on the river. The chess set. The resolution of the mystery. The resolution. What it is about Gaudy Night that means it is what my brain needs at the moment I don’t know. But it is.
I’ve written bits and bobs here about the pandemic, but it’s been a rotten nearly two years for everyone. And it turns out that my brain had decided that the best way to get away from what’s happening in the real world and to help it relax, is to listen to the same audiobooks over and over again. Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon. Sylvester. These Old Shades. Artists in Crime. Death in a White Tie. And that’s ok by me, even if it does mean I’m months behind on podcasts I previously listened to religiously. But hey. These aren’t normal times. As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve just written the longest thing I’ve ever put on this blog to dissect my obsession with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Now if you’ll excuse me, Harriet is trying to write a letter to Peter about St George…
Another week, another British Library Crime Classic pick. I’m not going to apologise though because they’ve got seem to have changed their Kindle Unlimited selection and you have to take advantage of that while you can!
Murder in the Basement opens with a newly married couple moving into their first house together and promptly discovering a corpse being in the cellar. It has been there for some time and Chief Inspector Moresby’s first task is to figure out who it is. The first section of the book deals with the routine police work necessary to try and identify a body in pre-DNA times. When Moresby discover it, the reader is still left in the dark – you know it is a woman who worked at a school – but not which one. The next section of the story is a book within a book as you read the novel that Moresby’s friend Roger Sheringham wrote while working at the school and try to figure out who the victim is. And then the final section features the attempt to prove a case against the Very Obvious Suspect.
Now if I’ve made that sound complicated, I apologise but do go with me – it makes much more sense when you read it and it really is very cleverly put together and out of the ordinary for Golden Age crime novels. This is only my second Anthony Berkeley and from what I can deduce from my review of the other one I didn’t like that anywhere near as much as this one. I can’t quite work out whether part of my delight in this is because I love a boarding school story so much that seeing the seething rivalries between the teachers in the book within a book really really works for me, but it may well have something to do with it. Moresby and Sheringham are both interesting characters and the resolution is somewhat unexpected. Definitely worth a look – especially if you’re a Kindle Unlimited member.
And if you aren’t a Kindle unlimited person, the kindle edition isn’t too much to buy or you could just get the paperback. I assume the Kobo edition will reappear when it rotates out of KU.
I mean I would say that this is slightly cheating but you know that already because I told you yesterday that I hadn’t quite finished this because I went to see Jools Holland, so you already know that I finished this on Monday. But I did read most of it last week and it is my favourite thing I (mostly) read last week so it’s fair game for this.
These Names Makes Clues is a classic closed group mystery. Detective Inspector MacDonald is invited to a treasure hunt at the house of a well-known publisher. Along the other guests are writers of mysteries, romances and other books all with pseudonyms to hide their identities as part of the game. But before the night is over, one of the guests has been found dead in the telephone room and MacDonald is suddenly involved in an investigation filled with fake names and complicated alibis.
I really enjoyed this. I’ve recommended some books by E C R Lorac before and this is right up there. There are plenty of mysteries among the cast of suspects, even though some of them are revealed quite late on which is verging on cheating for the rules of Golden Age mystery writing but I forgave it because it’s a proper thrill ride towards the end as it all unravels. If you have kindle unlimited this is definitely worth a look as it’s currently in the rotation of BritishLibraryCrimeClassics included in your membership in the UK.
My copy of These Names Make Clues came from the British Library bookshop during my book buying spree on my London trip in mid-October, but as mentioned above it’s available on Kindle Unlimited at the moment – which means I can’t find it on other ebook vendors, but when the unlimited period ends it may well pop up on Kobo again.
Back with another murder mystery again this week. It’s another British Crime Classic, but it’s a new to me author so that makes variety right?!
Scotland Yard are called in to investigate the murder of the landlord of a pub in an East Anglian village known for its insular nature and hostility to outsiders. Samuel Whitehead was a stranger to the neighbourhood, but somehow he seemed to be making a reasonable go of it – right up until the point that someone stabbed him in is own bar around closing time one night. Detective Inspector Young is struggling to make inroads in the case, so he calls on a friend and amateur sleuth, Desmond Merrion, to help him solve the murder.
This is the first book by Miles Burton that I’ve read, but it has a number of recognisable Golden Age crime tropes – east Anglia and it’s villages being a bit strange (see also: a fair few Margery Allinghams, but particularly Sweet Danger, Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, the Inspector Littlejohn I read the other week) and of course the gentleman amateur detective. Burton’s Merrion has a military background – but this time it’s the navy, which is useful because there is a lot of sailing in this plot. It’s a bit uneven in places – the focus of the narrative switches abruptly to Merrion from Young, Mavis the love interest is a little bit of a one dimensional Not Like Other Girls character and the secret is, well. But if you’ve read a lot these sort of classic murder mysteries it’s worth a look – to see how someone different tackles all these things. I would read some more of these – partly just to find out what Merrion turns into and see if he evolves the way that some of the other similar characters did (but particularly Campion). The British Crime Library have republished at least one other of these so I’ll keep an eye out.
Another week, another classic crime Book of the Week pick. And this time it’s a Margery Allingham that’s *not* an Albert Campion. On to that in a second, but first a reminder that there will be Mini Reviews tomorrow, and that if you missed the July Stats you can find them here.
Black Plumes starts with the slashing of a painting at a prestigious art gallery. Then the owner’s son-in-law is murdered. At the centre of the mystery is 90-year-old Gabrielle Ivory, formerly a society beauty, now side-lined by the younger generation who think she’s past it. But as the mystery develops it becomes clear that she may know more than they think she does – and she’s not going to let them ignore the threat to the gallery and chalk it up as a practical joker – even if there is a risk that the person behind them may be rather close to home.
This is a clever and atmospheric murder mystery. There are a lot of unlikeable characters in this, but also a lot of suspects – not all of whom are the unlikeable ones! You see this story mostly by following Frances, youngest of the Ivorys. At the start of the book her brother-in-law is pressuring her to marry the unpleasant co-owner of the gallery and artist and family friend, David Field, proposed a fake engagement to her as a way of getting out of it. Frances is convinced that something is wrong at the gallery but her concerns are dismissed by other members of the family – even after the murder has happened. David – whose painting is the one that is slashed at the start of the novel – is one of the only people who listens to her, but he is a bit of a rogue and some of the clues seem to point at him. I really enjoyed it – and if you haven’t read any Allingham before, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – especially as the Campion series takes a while to settle in, which can make it tricky for people who like to start series at the beginning.
My copy came from Kindle Unlimited but it’s also available to buy on Kindle where they also have a modern paperback edition, which Foyles also has available to order but not in store pickup. This was originally published in 1940 so there are likely to be second hand copies around – but I can see from some reviews mention of racially offensive language, which as I didn’t notice it in my Kindle edition has presumably been edited out in the newer versions but which will be in old editions