A short BotW post today, and another week, another crime pick… I just can’t help myself. Crime is also most of what I’ve been reading in the last week.
It’s pouring with rain when a spiv bursts into a pub to say that there is a dead man in a local factory. The body in question is that of one of the administrators at the factory and Inspector Littlejohn is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate when the local detective fails to make headway. What Littlejohn discovers in the small town is a tangle of divided loyalties and dark secrets.
I’m on a run of forgotten detective novels and this one is a good one. The town is cleverly drawn, with economical but incisive portraits of its residents. The mystery is well set out and even if the finale gets a little overblown, you sort of forgive it for the swashbuckling flare it shows. This is my second George Bellairs – I read Death Stops the Frolic at the start of March and I liked that a lot. My only quibble with that was that I wasn’t sure if the resolution of that one was a clever twist or a bit of a cheat. This is equally clever, but with a solution that feels fairer to the reader and detective that I prefer – which is probably unsurprising given that this is the 14th in a long series featuring Littlejohn and I think that Death stops the Frolic was the only story featuring Superintendent Nankivell.
My copy came via the publisher’s mailing list, but it’s available now for free if you’re in Kindle Unlimited or to buy on Kindle. I can’t find it on Kobo – but they do have other books in the series available.
Such a weird month. As I’ve already said, so much has changed in such a short period of time. And yet March seems to have gone on forever at the same time. Long, like January was long, except it didn’t come to an end and we’re still living in the new world. And my reading has gone a bit to pot. Urgh. Also I wrote about quite a lot already. Anyway. There was enough left that I hadn’t already wittered on about that I can carry on my series of minireviews from March, even if it’s not a #recommendsday post this time!. Voila:
Open Book by Jessica Simpson
OK so one of my main takeaways from this was that Jessica Simpson has terrible taste in men – but this is a ride and a half. If you’re of an age with me, then there’s some serious blast from the past inside early 00s pop music here as well as some seriously ditzy and Valley Girl behaviour. I watched some Newly Weds back in the day and either she was doing a very good act or her ghost writer has done a really good job on this. There’s also a lot of God and religion along with a lot of evidence of those really awful men in her life – her dad is terrible and her boyfriend choices were also not great. I really hope her second husband is everything she thinks he is. Trigger warning though – this deals with alcoholism.
Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge by Ovidia Yu
I’ve written about Ovidia Yu‘s Singaporean-set murder mystery series before, but it continues to delight me, even if I had the murderer figured out quite early on. This sees Aunty Lee hobbled by a twisted ankle and fending off attempts from her daughter-in-law to take over the restaurant at the same time as investigating the death of a British expat who had caused problems for Aunty Lee’s assistant Cherril in the past. This has got a message about the perils of internet witch hunts and social media pile-ons as well.
Love and Other Scandals by Caroline Linden
Not a lot of historical romance recommendations here recently, so I wanted to drop one in here. This is a brother’s disreputable friend and Society Wallflower story and it’s a lot of fun. The relationship is a nice animosity to friends to lovers with a slowish burn and there is no unnecessary drama to keep them apart by doing stupid things. I enjoyed it. It would be a good read for those seeking to avoid high angst at the moment!
The world keeps changing – and as the uncertain times continue, I’m still all about resolutions. And as I mentioned briefly last week; along with romances, murder mysteries give you resolutions and at the moment I really need it to turn out alright in the end. Murder by Matchlight was my second E R C Lorac in about a week and I liked it as much as I liked the first – and I nearly wrote about Murder in the Mill Race last week, but I was trying to mix it up a little bit from the stream of mysteries, so today you get two reviews in one. A quick note: I started writing this ahead of time, and we’ve now moved into a lockdown situation in the UK – where bookshops are shut and people should not be going outside unless absolutely necessary. I’m making an adjustment to how I link out to books – I’m providing ebook links where available, and telling you what the likelihood that your local indie would be able to source it if they’re still open. Please support small booksellers where you can.
Murder by Matchlight is set in 1945, when Bruce Mallaig witnesses a murder while walking after the blackout in Regents Park. He is sitting on a bench when he sees two men acting suspiciously on a footbridge – and then one of them is murdered. His only glimpse of the killer as a flash of a ghastly face by matchlight just before the crime. CID detective Inspector MacDonald is called in to investigate and needs to try and work out how the murderer managed to appear and disappear in silence.
It is not often in a murder mystery when there is actually a witness to the killing who sees the murderer – Agatha Christie’s The 4.50 from Paddington is one and beyond that I’m struggling. There are more where there are witnesses to the actual death – but not many who see the murderer. This is clever and atmospheric, with a really interesting cast of characters and suspects. I was reading this early last week though and the wartime setting – including air raids and it was ever so nearly tense for me – even though we were pre-lockdown at that point. It was still the best thing I read last week – but the tension is worth bearing in mind if you’re feeling anxious at the moment.
But if you are feeling anxious, I can thoroughly recommend Murder in the Mill-Race – also by Lorac, which I read the previous week and got beaten to Book of the Week by Love Hard, in part because of my recent reliance on British Library Crime Classics. This also features MacDonald – now a chief inspector – but is set in Devon. Raymond Ferrens and his wife have moved to a picturesque hilltop village where he is taking over as the local doctor. At first it seems perfect – but as is often the case they soon find out that there are currents and tensions below the surface. Most of them an be traced back to the influence of Sister Monica, who runs the local children’s home. Although almost no-one will say a word against her, a few months after their arrival, she’s found dead in the mill-race. MacDonald is called in to try and find out what happens – but finds a wall of silence from the close knit villagers. This has all the best bits of Murder by Matchlight – but seems less applicable to current life so may be more enjoyable for the anxious. I certainly really liked it.
It seems there are a lot of books featuring Inspector MacDonald, these two are numbers 26 and 37 in the series. There are a few of them available – but it’s a bit of a lottery – they’re across several different publishers and some have been retitled – Goodreads tells me that Murder in the Mill-Race was originally Speak Justly of the Dead. I will be looking for more. Murder by Matchlight is available on Kindle for £2.99 and also in paperback. The same applies to Murder in the Mill-Race – which is currently £2.99 on Kindle, but this one is included in Kindle Unlimited if that’s something you’re a a part of. They don’t seem to be available on Kobo. British Library Crime Classics are stocked by a lot of booksellers and this one seems to be still in print – Heffers had lots of Murder by when I bought this – so if your local indie is taking phone orders, then they may be able to help you. I’ve also just picked up Death Came Softly from the series for 99p – I’ll try and keep you posted on what I think.
Another week, another crime pick. I know. Sue me. At least I read this in March so that makes it one crime recommendation a month which is not quite so bad. Or am I grasping at straws? It wasn’t even the only classic crime book I read last week – I also read Seven Dead by J Jefferson Farjeon, which is another in the BritishLibraryCrimeClassicsseries, which I have recommended a lot. This one however is from Agora books, who are also have a lot of more forgotten mid-century crime on their lists, including the Inspector Appleby series, which I have read a couple of, and some of the lesser known Margery Allinghams. Anyway, I stumbled across this little gem last week and I’m unreasonably annoyed that none of the author’s other books seem to be available anywhere.
Answer in the Negative is a 1950s-set murder mystery, featuring a crime solving couple. It’s not the first in the series as it turns out, so I’m not quite sure how they came to be a thing, but Johnny is an ex-Commando and Sally is his wife. His family have a shop that sells books and he works there when he’s not solving mysteries. This particular mystery is a poison pen set in the National Press Archives on Fleet Street. Toby Lorn, a friend of the couple, asks them to investigate letters that are being sent to one of the archive assistants. Frank Morningside is not popular in the office, so the pool of suspects is fairly large. As well as increasingly nasty letters, there have been schoolboy-style pranks. Johnny and Sally start investigating at the archives, posing as researchers, but just days into the investigation, things take a sinister turn.
This is a well put together mystery, which a good and varied cast of characters. I really like office-set mysteries – Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourite of the Peter Wimsey series. You get to find out what working life was like in the period and I like that there’s a cast of characters to draw from a bit like a country house mystery. But unlike country house mysteries the cast tends to be a bit more varied – less toffs with a grudge, more people from across the social spectrum. This is no exception – you’ve got office boys, young women on the lookout for a husband, stuffy spinsters, ex-soldiers and more. It makes for an intriguing mystery and although I developed suspicions about the culprit it has plenty of twists to keep you guessing. My only real problem with it was that it felt like it was set in the interwar period – whereas actually it was set in the 1950s. If it wasn’t for mentions of bombsites and the fact that Johnny was a Commando (who were only created in World War II) it could have been in an office two doors down from Pym’s Publicity.
This edition Answer is in the Negative came out towards the end of February, and I read it via Kindle Unlimited, but it’s also available to buy on Kindle. I can’t seen any other editions (except for super-pricey secondhand/collectible ones) and I can’t find it on Kobo either sadly. But if you’re a Kindle reader – especially one with unlimited – it’s worth it. I’m hoping that the recent release date means that more of the series will appear at some point too.
Another week, another crime pick, and another British Library Crime pick, so what if it’s been less than a month since I last picked one – I couldn’t help myself because this was so clever and so readable.
The Colour of Murder is told in two parts. The first, Before, is a psychiatric report on John Wilkins. Told in his own words, it sets out his life, his unhappiness in his marriage and his job, his mysterious blackouts when he drinks, and his flirtation with a local woman. The second part, After, is the story of Wilkins’ trial for murder. It’s really unusual for a murder mystery in that for half of the book you don’t know who the victim is and you also don’t see any detection at all. And that is beauty of it – it lets you draw your own conclusions – or perhaps more accurately make your own assumptions – all the while adding more details and information.
It’s quite hard to talk about this book because it would be easy to say too much, but I don’t think it’s giving away a lot to say that John is a massively unlikeable man. He’s unhappy in almost every part of his life, but you don’t really feel much sympathy for his because he’s so awful even in his own words. His wife isn’t much more likeable according to him, but she has all the disadvantages of being viewed through his self-obsessed eyes – as well as suffering from the lack of opportunity and independence that a stay at home wife had in the 1950s.
I absolutely raced through this, it’s not long but it’s also a massive page-turner. The writing is so clever that I kept changing my mind about what was happening. I read it via Kindle Unlimited but it’s also available to buy from all the usual sources.
It was a bit of a post-holiday come down week in reading, in fact I only bought The Division Bell Mystery in Cambridgeon Sunday, but I read it on Sunday afternoon and evening and it was so good. And also, in case you missed it, it’s an important week for the British Parliament this week, so it seemed an apt pick.
When a wealthy American businessman dies while having dinner inside Parliament, at first it looks like suicide, while he was alone in the room as voting was taking place but the evidence doesn’t add up. Soon a young parliamentary private secretary plays amateur sleuth to try and work out what happened. This is a classic locked room myster, although I think you might need a bit of knowledge of how the House of Commons work for this to make sense. The Division Bell of the title is the bell that rings across the Palace of Westminster (and in some nearby drinking establishments) when MPs are called to go and vote (which is called a division because they divide into two lobbies, the Ayes and the noes) but for the most part Ellen Wilkinson has explained everything you might need to know. In fact Wilkinson, was one of the first female MPs and so the book is filled with insider details about what Westminster was like in the 1930s – and more than a few digs at the male-centric nature of it all.
I love a Golden Age crime novel as you know, and locked room mysteries are always fun. This is quite traditional/of its time in terms of structure – friendly cop, amateur detective with some skin in the game, tame reporter, but that’s probably to be expected! I basically read this in one sitting, which tells you a lot as well. Wilkinson is a fascinating person even before you add writing a Murder mystery into the mix (go google her) and on the basis of this, I wish she’d written more. The Division Bell Mystery is part of the British Library Crime Classics series – which is a fairly reliable source of forgotten mystery stories – I’ve featured several others as BotW before* – some are great, sometimes you can see why they might have been forgotten! Heffers had a whole load of them on Sunday and they were on 3 for 2, so of course I got three.
If you’re not going to Heffers, then you should be able to find a copy from all of the usual sources as well as on Kindle (£2.99 at time of writing). Most bookshops will have a selection of the British Library Crime Classics too if they don’t have this one. I also recommend Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Haye – which seems to be one of the more commonly stocked books in the line.
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!