“Bats In The Belfry” by E. C. R. Lorac (1937)

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“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort!”

My re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue is almost upon us, and I’ll be kicking off with it as soon as 2019 rolls around. For now though, I turn to another writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a woman who has almost entirely been forgotten until the British Library dug her up again for reissue – E. C. R. Lorac.

At the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s cousin, talk naturally turns macabre between some of the guests. Young Elizabeth Leigh comments that there’s a game she’s played at her club – they take turns to suggest the best way to hide a dead body. Everyone seems content to join in, not taking it very seriously, but apparently all keen to share their theories. A short time later, Bruce is called away to France on urgent business, it seems that that’s the last anybody sees of him.

But then his suitcase and passport show up in a crumbling Notting Hill artist’s studio. There’s still no sign of Bruce himself, but there are many secrets that seem to be surrounding him. His friend Neil Rockingham was meant to see him in France, but he never turned up. Bruce was once a respected novelist, but has fallen on hard times, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his actress wife Sybilla. His young charge, Elizabeth, would love to be married to Robert Grenville, but it’s yet to be allowed. And then there’s the difficult issue of the strange artist Debrette, who might just have been blackmailing our missing man. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is put on the case and begins to learn more about the Belfry and quite who had the most cause to see Bruce Attleton disappear…

This novel, like apparently all of Lorac’s work (her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) slipped through the cracks of literary history but it’s no sad thing that she’s been rediscovered for the modern era. While her characters don’t particularly stand out as greats of the genre, they’re distinct from one another, and Inspector Macdonald is a very fine policeman and a man I would trust wholeheartedly. Other characterisation is still quite clever though, making use of tropes and ideas that perhaps a lesser author would have done something obvious with. Debrette, for example, has an enormous and distinctive beard, which would be quite useful as a disguise should someone be pretending to be him. But are they?

Actually, it’s London itself that sticks out most of all. It’s a very real version of the city in the thirties, with thick fog and people hidden round every corner. Not much has changed in eighty years in fact, as best indicated when Macdonald makes a comment that it’s quicker to walk through London than take a bus during rush hour.

A fairly good example of the genre, with the clues neatly seeded and all there for you if you’re paying attention – the early conversation about how best to dispose of a body becomes particularly prescient – and one that I’m pleased the British Library has dug up from the archives. Long may they continue to do so.

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“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

“Portrait Of A Murderer” by Anne Meredith (1933)

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“Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death though violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.”

One of the key features of many Christmas celebrations is surrounding yourself suddenly with people that you perhaps don’t really want to be spending time with, namely: your family. When families come together, often arguments follow soon after, as we’ve seen in numerous books. When the Gray family return to the nest for their festive party, things are perhaps a little more extreme than we could imagine.

Adrian Gray has never particularly got on with the six children, nor their partners, so when the whole family must gather at King’s Poplar, fireworks are sure to fly. Things go from bad to worse, however, when on Christmas morning Adrian is found dead at his library desk, head bludgeoned in with a paperweight. It’s enough to put a dampener on anyone’s celebrations.

But this isn’t a murder mystery. We know who killed him, and the novel instead explains what the killer did in the immediate aftermath to frame another member of the household, and we are left seeing if the truth will out. Will the wrong person be sentenced? Can a maid’s private midnight celebration unravel the carefully executed fraud? Can the police catch up to the real killer? It’s only a matter of time.

The British Library Crime Collection, I don’t think, has let me down so far and I’ve been captivated with most everything they’ve dug up from the archives and republished. This, however, was something of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s engaging in it’s own way, and an interesting and unusual take on the murder mystery conceit – but I could at no point get too invested in any of the characters, all of whom are unpleasant and selfish. The act of knowing who the killer is and instead watching how they escape the clutches of justice was much better portrayed in Antidote to Venom, although I admit I like the twist on the usual tale by letting us be aware of the murderer.

Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more at a different time of year, or in a different mood – it’s been a weird week – and I found the style to be needlessly wordy. The cast of characters is pretty substantial, and while they all get an introduction at the novel’s opening, a lot of them become irrelevant quickly, and I found myself confusing who was married and what everyone’s motives were. A larger cast may work in a situation where the killer is unknown, but here, there’s little need for them all, except as to act as an instant jury.

An interesting take on the murder mystery genre, but not a stand out example from the Golden Age.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Listerdale Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Mrs St Vincent was adding up figures.”

My journey through Christie is almost at an end, and I find myself back at an earlier book, The Listerdale Mystery. Published in the thirties, there is little in the way of murder here, and none of her recurring detectives put in an appearance. The stories instead focus primarily on theft (usually of jewels), deception, liars, mistaken identities, almost all with issues of class buried within. Class isn’t something I’ve focused on especially in my reviews of Christie I don’t think, but it’s always there. You wouldn’t be able to write a book set in these times without touching on the fact that servants are still common and neither the upper or lower classes respect each other.

But back to it, here are twelve tiny little stories that have been packed into a single collection. When faced with a short story collection, I find it’s sometimes hard to find something to say about them all, so I’ve just picked out some of the best, as there are a couple of duds here that don’t sparkle quite so brightly.

The titular story, “The Listerdale Mystery” is one of the collection’s best, and also notably one of the very few Christie puzzles I have solved before the answer was revealed. (About time too!) In it, Mrs St Vincent and her children move into a charming Westminster house and are asked to pay only a “nominal rent” as the mysterious owner, Lord Listerdale, would rather have someone in the house who loved it than the money. Aided only by the perfect butler Quentin, the family set about making a home for themselves and have to wonder if Mr Listerdale is even still alive, or is he boarded up in the walls? It’s quick and clever.

In “Philomel Cottage” we meet Alix Martin, who is starting to become fearful of her husband when she finds cuttings relating to a serial wife murderer in his desk. Is she about to become the next victim? Alix, however, is no slouch when it comes to secrecy herself, and soon it’s hard to tell who might be hunting whom. The story is fine, but my favourite part has to be the gardener who has such a wonderfully funny written accent that you just have to read his lines out loud.

“The Manhood of Edward Robinson” and “Mr Eastwood’s Adventure” both feature a man caught up in an adventure that is not his own after he’s mistaken for another person. In the first case, Edward Robinson longs to be like the heroes in the romantic adventure novels that he reads, which happens to him when he accidentally gets in the wrong car and ends up part of a diamond theft. In the latter, Mr Eastwood is an author struggling with his new plot, when the universe provides him one all thanks to a simple word – cucumber. Although he gets more than he bargains for. It might be my favourite story in the collection.

In “Accident”, Inspector Evans finds himself on the trail of a woman who has killed a couple of husbands, although the deaths are always played off as purely accidental. The woman, however, knows that someone is on her trail, so Evans must try and stop her before she strikes again. It’s actually a very clever story, and I hadn’t quite known what was coming until it did.

Almost identically to another story in the collection, “The Girl in the Train”, “The Golden Ball” features young George Dundas who has just been fired from his uncle’s company. He meets a girl who picks him up in her car and immediately asks him to marry her. Keeping up with the joke, they set out into the country to look at potential houses for their future, but danger is in the air and the people who own the house don’t seem so keen on snoopers. It’s a silly story, but I enjoyed it for that, and it’s fancifulness is what makes it so charming. It’s one of the wackier stories of Christie’s canon.

Finally here, “The Rajah’s Emerald” features a man called James Bond who, unlike his more famous namesake, is wetter than a weekend in Wrexham. While making use of a private beach hut, he accidentally puts on the wrong trousers and finds a stolen jewel in the pocket. Should he use it to impress the higher class lady that he loves, or should he try and return it? More than any, this story is particularly about the class war and how money and breeding doesn’t necessarily make you a decent person.

And so I leave here with a mixed bag of stories and find myself in a position where I only have one of Christie’s mysteries left to read. That’s going to be a momentous occasion, I feel, so until then, let’s savour some other stories. On we go.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Brighton Rock” by Graham Greene (1938)

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brighton-rock“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Ah, the classics. I like to keep my hand in and, maybe it’s my age, but I’m becoming convinced that I should read more of them. With this one down now too, it means I’ve already read two of them since the year began, which is pretty good going as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed The Diary of a Nobody, I wasn’t so keen on Brighton Rock.

Journalist Charles Hale is on a job in Brighton, mingling with the crowds as part of a newspaper treasure hunt. If someone finds him and says the magic words, they’ll win a cash prize. He is found, however, by Pinkie Brown, a seventeen-year-old gangster who has a bone to pick with Hale and isn’t content with a bit of a moan. After trying to seek company all afternoon with the buxom, brash Ida, Hale eventually finds himself alone again and Pinkie and his cronies strike.

With Hale dead, Ida is convinced that the police have been wrong in their assessment that the death was natural causes, and sets about playing detective to prove that Pinkie had a hand in the nice man’s murder. Pinkie, meanwhile, is trying to erase any evidence that Hale was even in Brighton, and soon realises that his alibi could be blown by a waitress who knows too much. Despite both being too young, Pinkie decides that he needs to marry Rose, as a wife can’t testify against her own husband, and that could be the only thing that’s going to save him…

This is one of those books that I could actually, happily, have cast aside quite early on, but I don’t like giving up on books unless absolutely necessary, so I pressed on solely for Ida Arnold. A colourful, brilliantly moral and unafraid character, Ida is the real hero of the story as far as I’m concerned, she displays no fear in going after Pinkie and his gang, simply because she believes in the right thing being done. I know that Pinkie has entered the canon of great antiheroes of English literature, but I found him ridiculous and unbelievable.

At only seventeen, he’s leading a gang of much older men who seem to hang on his every word, and he’s a sociopath, apparently unable to experience emotions the way other people do. Again, maybe this comes down to my age. I’m nearly twenty-nine, and I look at seventeen-year-old’s now and see how they think they know everything. I’m not saying that I’m much wiser, but I’m old enough to know that at seventeen you know nothing. He plays the big man, but I find him pathetic, nonthreatening and stupid. He is obsessed with sex, but also apparently phobic of it, and is cruel to his wife, Rose, who he marries merely for convenience. Caught up in girlish desires to be married, she remains convinced that he loves her, when in reality he is disgusted by her and is thinking of himself the whole time. Rose is but a child, only sixteen, and I feel a great deal of pity for her. She is easily duped and almost ends up committing suicide over Pinkie’s selfishness.

Primarily, the themes are those of good and evil, with Pinkie and Rose both being Catholic, they are preoccupied with the notion of sin, with the murder and their marriage both being wrong in the eyes of God. The only character with any real sense of morality though seems to be Ida. She does what is right, while everyone else seems to be trying to save themselves. It’s rather a tiresome book, and I never totally felt gripped, although most of that is Pinkie and the rest is my current need to check Twitter every five minutes to make sure a war hasn’t started.

Anyway, I’m off to embark on another classic; one I’ve read before and one that seems terrifyingly appropriate…

“The Santa Klaus Murder” by Mavis Doriel Hay (1936)

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santa-murder“I have known the Melbury family since the time when Jennifer, the youngest daughter, and I climbed trees and built wigwams together in the Flaxmere garden.”

‘Tis the season for turkey, stuffing, crackers, ribbons, snow and trying to ask tactfully if Aunt Olive kept the receipt. Of course, this being Britain and, more specifically, my blog, it isn’t quite Christmas until someone’s been murdered in a big country house. Well, one doesn’t like to mess with tradition…

At the grand country pile of Flaxmere, seat of Sir Osmond Melbury, the family are descending with various levels of enthusiasm and excitement for Christmas. With the house full of Melbury his son and four daughters (as well as their partners and children), a couple of family friends and the ever-present staff, tensions are high but Sir Osmond has come up with the idea of convincing one of the guests to dress up as Santa Klaus and distribute presents to the children. However, tragedy strikes on Christmas Day when Sir Osmond is found dead, a bullet hole in his head.

Suspicions immediately falls on the man who found the body, but he’s the only person in the house who doesn’t seem to have a motive. Everyone else would do well with the old man’s death. Jennifer would finally be allowed to marry Philip; Carol may inherit enough money so she can jump-start her dream career; the former chauffeur Ashmore potentially resented the way he’d been treated; and everyone else would probably do alright from the will. Local detective and old family friend, Colonel Halstock is called in to find out who the killer was, but in a house where everyone is keeping a secret, this is easier said than done. And things get even more confusing when it turns out there was more than one Santa Klaus sneaking around the house that Christmas…

The book is mostly narrated by Colonel Halstock, but seven chapters are told from the perspective of another character to tell us things that Halstock isn’t present for. Indeed, the first five chapters each come from the point of view of someone different in the house, and this becomes relevant later in the story when it transpires that these are reports written by the characters are the request of the police after the incident to better understand what happened in the run up to the murder. Like the best Christie novels (although this is one of her contemporaries), the riddle is thorough, and while the answers are there, the sheer number of red herrings and blatant lies burst out by the characters makes it difficult to solve. There are also a vast number of characters – seventeen adults all of whom could have had a hand in it – so keeping track of all possible motives is quite a challenge.

Nonetheless, it’s a very smart, gripping read. The characters of any importance are all fleshed out well, and the tension of having the family altogether again is palpable and very familiar, as it’s something I’m sure many people can relate to, even if most of those gatherings, thankfully, don’t end in a murder (unless the Christmas Day game of Monopoly gets way too out of hand). The plot device of having multiple narrators works well and feels really different in a book like this, allowing us, if we so wish, to consolidate the information and make an educated guess at the murderer long before Halstock has come to his conclusions. The British Library, once again, has rediscovered a forgotten gem.

So, with little more to add, may I wish all my readers a wonderful Christmas! Eat, drink and be merry! We deserve it after this year.

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