The Orange Axe

A review of The Orange Axe by Brian Flynn

What I particularly enjoy about a Brian Flynn novel is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get. Rather than follow a tried and tested format, Flynn is happy to experiment and change things around. This, the ninth outing of his amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst, originally published in 1931 and rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press, could be viewed as a more conventional crime novel, with the emphasis on investigating a rather complex set of events. In Flynn’s hands, though, there is always a little more beneath the surface.

The set up of the crimes relies on two scenarios which were to become standard tropes of crime fiction, a murder conspiracy, and a masked ball. However, at the time Flynn wrote his book, they were both relatively fresh concepts and his idea of combining the two into one plot adds a further dimension to the plotting devices. To employ two separate conspiracies to kill the same victim is a sign of a malevolent genius at work.

For those who have been following the series, we learn a little more about Bathurst, who, hitherto, has been a rather chameleon-like figure. His investigatory genius, we are told, are due to his complete indifference to women whom he regards with “tolerant cynicism [rather] than intellectual arrogance”. For reading matter, he chooses the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, not everybody’s cup of tea even in more religious times. He is also, bizarrely, the Police Commissioner’s go-to detective. When Sir Austin Kemble says he will employ the best detective brains to solve the puzzle, it is not one of his paid employees he turns to but Bathurst.

Psychologists, sociologists, and feminists would have a field day with these snippets of both Bathurst’s character and the attitudes of the time, but they do add a bit of colour to a character who had seemed to be somewhat ill-defined.

The book opens with a group of conspirators laying plans to murder André de Ravanac who is blackmailing Lady Pelham. There are also suspicions that he is Le Loup de Poignard, an assassin who, having eluded capture in Paris, had gone to ground. The plan is to commit the murder at Lady Pelham’s forthcoming masked ball, to which de Ravanac has been invited, and where, conveniently all the attendees will be in disguise. The conspirators draw lots to assign each their role, the idea being that while the deed will be accomplished, none of the conspirators will know enough to be a threat to the others, a plot device Agatha Christie used three years later in Murder on the Orient Express.

The murder takes place, a dagger to the heart, incidentally the calling card of Le Loup de Poignard, and seems to have been the most impossible of impossible murders with the culprit neither seen entering nor leaving the scene of the crime. Bathurst, called in to investigate, discovers a gun hidden in a claret jug in the room where the murder took place and wonders why it was there. Add to the mix, the fact that the room was reserved for the ball’s guest of honour, the President of San Jonquilo. Was there a conspiracy to murder him too? But why was de Ravanac’s erstwhile mistress subsequently murdered? And just who was Le Loup and why were the colours of San Jonquilo, orange and black with an emblem of an orange axe, found at the scene of both murders?

Bathurst soon realises that the affair is more complicated than it seemed. The book ends with an exciting showdown between the sleuth and the culprit, whose identity is a little surprising. I am not sure that Flynn plays entirely fairly with his readers, but that does not mar what is an original and very entertaining story.

Fowey Valley Foy Gin

The last two years have seen a significant curtailment in my travels but one of my few remaining joys has been my semi-annual pilgrimage to Cornwall, partly to enjoy the beautiful scenery and partly to visit the headquarters of Drinkfinder UK and stock up on some more goodies spawned by the ginaissance. It seems rather churlish not to sample some of the gins distilled in the county and a bottle of Fowey Valley Foy Gin seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

I hummed and hawed over buying a bottle as paying over £30 for a bottle containing just 50cl almost brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps I was overcome by that devil-may-care attitude that befalls many a holidaymaker and took the plunge.  

Based in Golant on the banks of the river Fowey, Fowey Valley is better known as a cider maker and has been producing quality ciders since 2012. Having cracked that, it seemed a logical step to use their apples to make an alcohol spirit and from that to use it as the base for their own gin. The idea of Foy Gin was born.

They distil the spirit five times using a traditional copper pot still in batches of 200 litres, initially at an ABV of up to 96% on the column but reducing the ferocity of the spirit with each pass through. The botanicals, of which there are six although, sadly, unnamed, are introduced on the pot still during the last run. The resultant gin has a fighting weight of 40% ABV.

The bottle is a no-nonsense affair, made of clear glass and a squat square with a flat shoulder and a relatively short neck leading to a wooden stopper with an artificial cork. The background of the square label that takes up most of the front of the bottle is black with white lettering, although gold script is used to proclaim that it is made with six botanicals. A sticker tells me that it was awarded Gold in 2020 by Taste of the West. The slightly smaller label at the rear of the bottle follows the same colour scheme. It states that it is “a classic, velvety, aromatic gin. Juniper led, floral notes with a round body and a hint of fragrant spice”.     

On opening the stopper, the immediate sensation is one of citrus with fresh juniper in the background and an intriguing hint of earthiness. It is a crystal-clear spirit in the glass with a crispness that makes it a delight to drink. The juniper is prominent to begin with before the citrus elements and a pleasant spiciness come to the fore. It has a long aftertaste which is dry, slightly spicy with a hint of salt and sweetness.

I found it a delightful gin, firmly in the London Dry tradition, but with its own distinctive twist. It worked well with a good quality tonic, and it took all of my iron will to stop me from having a second glass immediately afterwards. If you can swallow the price, then it is an impressive gin that would enhance any collection.

Until the next time, cheers!

The Elusive Bowman

A review of The Elusive Bowman by Francis Vivian

In this, the seventh outing of Inspector Knollis, originally published in 1951 and reissued by Dean Street Press, I learned more about archery from reading this book than I could possibly shake an arrow at. You do not need to be a toxophilite to get into this book, Vivian, the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, wears his love and knowledge of the sport lightly but the nub of the case revolves around the intricacies of toxophily.

The book does have its drawbacks. The tightness of the plot means that, to be charitable, there are no more than five possible suspects, but Vivian does a fine job in maintaining the tension, shifting the focus on one and then another, leaving the reader as uncertain as the police as to who really did it.

Each of the principal suspects seem to have rock solid alibis and Inspector Knollis is twice on the verge of admitting defeat, once as a tactical ploy to see whether a relaxation of the pressure will provoke a change in behaviour and lead to one of the suspects giving themselves away, and once when he cannot see his way through the impasse. Much of the plot’s development is reliant upon a witness turning up out of the blue with a crucial piece of evidence or a conversation overheard rather than good old-fashioned police work. There is the sense that Vivian has constructed such a perfect crime that he too is struggling to provide Knollis with the keys with which to unlock it.

The finale is dramatic, possibly verging on the melodramatic, and seems quite rushed in comparison to the more languid investigation. On reflection I wonder whether this impression is deliberate, and that the construction of the book is a literary reconstruction of how you fire a bow. There is the careful selection of the arrow, pushing the nock of the arrow on to the string, drawing the bow, taking aim and then releasing the string. All of a sudden, the arrow flies through the air and, if you are lucky, hits the target. If so, it adds a further impressive dimension to a fine and entertaining book, which in my estimation ranks alongside The Singing Masons as one of Vivian’s best.

We meet Michael Maddison at the start of the story, landlord of the Fox Inn in Teverby-On-The-Hills. He lives there with his sister, Rhoda, and his orphaned niece, Gillian. Maddison turns out to be a nasty piece of work and is intent on thwarting the two women’s plans to marry. They both have eyes on Captain Harry Saunders who runs the local archery club. Both the women are keen archers and when Maddison is found in the cellar killed by an arrow through the chest, both women have the motive and skills to have committed murder.

Inevitably, the case is not as simple as that and during the course of his investigations, Knollis discovers blackmail, fraud, a secret marriage, an insomniac Colonel, and a set of rock-solid alibis. Vivian vividly portrays his principal characters, and the reader can readily get a sense of their frustrations, jealousies and reasons for wanting Maddison out of their lives.

If not exactly quivering with excitement the reader who picks up this fine book has a treat in store.    

Murder In The Mill-Race

A review of Murder in the Mill-Race by E C R Lorac

What is it you look for in a murder mystery story and what is it that tips it from being good to a classic? I was musing on this after I had finished Murder in the Mill-Race by E C R Lorac, initially published in 1952 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series. I look for something that is cleverly and, ideally, fairly plotted, entertaining, well-written and one that leaves very few, if any, loose ends behind. The quality of the writing is also important, an engaging story, a deft touch, an ability to conjure up a scene or a character with a few strokes of the pen. A splash of humour does not go amiss.

Edith Caroline Rivett was a prolific writer who used two pseudonyms, E C R Lorac and Carol Carnac, was a prolific writer who sadly fell out of favour but is now beginning to attract the attention that she deserved. I am becoming one of her fans and what sets her out from the crowd, at least in the books that I have read, is her ability to conjure up a scene and her love of the British countryside which comes through loud and clear in her pages. She understands and conveys the distinctive features of the area in which her tale is set, in this book Milham in the Moor up in the Devon moors, and the claustrophobic nature of village life.

This more than makes up for the story lines which are not as complex as those of her contemporaries. Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead, Murder in the Mill-Race is a rather simple story, involving a woman who is found dead, drowned at the Mill-Race, in exactly the same spot as a woman in her charge died a year earlier. The latest victim has also received a blow to the back of the head which would have been anatomically impossible to have received if she had thrown herself off the bridge in a suicide bid. It is murder most foul, but who is the culprit?

In truth, it is fairly easy to work out whodunit although the why is a little more taxing. The victim is the self-styled Sister Monica, a rather austere, forbidding, malevolent woman who runs the local children’s home with a rod of iron and with a staff of compliant servants. Doctor Ferens and his wife are newcomers to the village and take an immediate dislike to Sister Monica and her methods, which these days would be termed as a form of child abuse. The old doctor, whose practice Ferens has taken over, will not relinquish responsibilities for the children’s home.

The village seem to be in awe and fear of Sister Monica. Where Lorac is really fascinating is in her portrayal of the villagers, determined to keep their secrets to themselves and not to open up to strangers. The local constabulary are frustrated in their efforts to find out what has happened and Scotland Yard in the form of Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives on the scene.  

Like the Ferens, Macdonald has an outsider’s eye and can see the strange hold that Sister Monica had on the village. He patiently digs into the murder and quickly realises that Sister Monica was not the paragon of virtue that she and the villagers portrayed. As more evidence is revealed, the village almost en masse change their story, determined to keep what belongs to the village in the village. It takes Macdonald’s patient perseverance and an impromptu demonstration of what happened at the Mill-Race for the truth to come out.

The Ferens are an interesting couple and by the standards of the time, quite liberated. Raymond involves his wife in all their major decisions, a refreshing change. They strike up a good relationship with Macdonald and conclude the book by discussing the merits of intuition as opposed to hard evidence. I suppose it was this quasi-philosophical discussion that set me musing about the nature of a classic crime novel.

On this basis, this enjoyable read is good but not quite a classic.

What Is A Weed?

For the first two decades of my adult life, I neither rented nor owned a single sod of earth that was not covered either by concrete or bricks and mortar. Gardening was an abstract concept, affording me, as a Classicist, the glimpse of a world in which peppering my speech with the odd word or two of Latin would not be deemed to be too pretentious. Eventually swapping a metropolitan lifestyle for suburbia, I found, like many, considerable solace in searching for any vestige of green on the ends of my mud-stained digits.

What I found was that I had cultivated the happy knack of persuading certain types of plant to take root which more experienced gardeners derided as weeds. As I set about removing them, I wondered what is it that characterised a weed. Was it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson defined in his essay, The Fortune of the Republic, in 1878 “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” or just a case, as the Oxford English Dictionary rather dismissively defines it, of “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted, especially among crops or garden plants”, the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Characteristics which define a weed include their ability to establish themselves quickly, popping up almost in the blink of an eye. They are prolific and adept at spreading, either reproducing vegetatively without the need to form seeds or, where they are reliant upon seeds, by producing so many that some are bound to survive and root. Weeds can grow in the more inhospitable areas that those plants we deem to be desirable would struggle to get a foothold in. Even if you think you have eradicated them, some produce seeds that lie dormant for a long time until conditions are conducive for them. Simply scratching the surface of the soil can cause them to leap into life.

Clearly, until Homo sapiens started cultivating plants in earnest in a systemised fashion, the distinction between a plant that was potentially useful and one that was to be actively discouraged was otiose. However, there is archaeological evidence to suggest that once the earth was first broken by a primitive hoe it provided an open invitation to weeds to take root, particularly those adapted to thriving in naturally disturbed habitats. Even today agricultural weeds are a leading cause of crop loss, accounting for upwards of a 10% reduction in global crop production.

Atlit-Yam, now submerged under the Mediterranean off the coast of modern Israel, was a thriving coastal settlement nine thousand years ago. Plant material from that time has been preserved by the seawater. Alongside the remains of seeds for cultivated crops, such as durum wheat, figs, chickpeas, and herbs, thirty-five weed species were found, five of which, known as obligatory weeds, could only grow in cultivated fields. Within a couple of millennia of man first sowing seeds, agricultural weeds had evolved to exploit these unique conditions, an example of what is known as fast adaptive evolution.

Even more sneakily, some obligatory weeds evolved to mimic the appearance of crop plants, thus more easily evading detection and eradication. Darnel, one of the five obligatory weeds found at Atlit-Yam, is known as “false wheat”, because of its remarkable similarity to the staple crop. Perhaps, as Kenneth Olsen noted in his paper, The Red Queen in the Corn, (Heredity, November 2012)[1], the weed’s greatest virtue is its ability to adapt.    

For millennia, the farmer’s only weapon against the incursion of weeds was the back breaking task of weeding by hand, something often delegated to children and women. Although the arrival of iron tools such as hoes made the work slightly easier, distinguishing between seedlings and weeds was problematic. Seeds were hand-scattered over the newly ploughed fields and any discernible sowing pattern was often hard to detect.

It was not until the 18th century that a solution to this problem became widely available, thanks to Jethro Tull’s grain drill, which planted the seeds in rows. Use in conjunction with a harrow which loosened the soil between the drill rows meant that anything outside the rows were weeds.

Weeds were not just an agricultural phenomenon. Their presence became increasingly unwelcome as the fashion for growing plants for pleasure took root, a pastime upon which Britons now spend over £7.5 billion a year. Gardeners would spend as much time waging war against them as tending the plants they wanted.

The urban sprawl created a new battleline. By the Louvre in Paris’ First Arrondissement, the rue des Orties-du-Louvre and the rue des Orties-Saint-Honoré bear testament to the fact that they were built on land where patches of nettles once stood. Weeding paved and open spaces by hand became a common sight in towns, as George Boughton’s painting from 1882, Weeding the Pavement, shows.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

Once the weeds were uprooted, they acquired an economic value. Henry Mayhew’s survey, London Labour and the London Poor (1851), tells of street vendors who sold nettles, chickweed, plantain, dandelions, and groundsel, gathered from the gardens of the rich or from parks or fields, as fodder for caged birds.

Although it is infra-dig to think of using chemical preparations as a quick fix to the weed problem nowadays, they have been around for almost two centuries. The Journal of usual and practical knowledge, a French monthly magazine, provided its readers in 1831 with a recipe for a mixture designed “to kill grass that grows in garden alleys and between cobblestones in courtyards”. All that was needed to “purge the soil of rebel herbs for several years” was to mix twelve pounds of lime and a couple of pounds of sulphur to 60 litres of boiling water. The recipe crossed the Channel and was promoted as a way of removing “very injurious as well as unsightly” plant growth from between pavement stones.

Readers of detective fiction will know that by the turn of the 20th century many garden sheds held a stock of arsenic-based compounds, such as Eureka weed killer, to be used to eradicate weeds and the occasional relative. The world’s most widely used herbicide, 2, 4-D, was first made available commercially in 1946, although it had been developed by W G Templeman of Imperial Chemical Industries at the start of the Second World War. Glyphosate was introduced in 1974 and soon established itself as a widely used, cheap, and popular non-selective form of weed killer. 

Environmental and sustainability concerns have led to significant resistance to the indiscriminate use of chemically based weedkillers. There is a growing recognition that weeds are not just pests but play their part in stabilising the soil, drawing up nutrients from deep in the ground, attracting pollinators and insects and, when they die, decomposing into humus, adding to the richness of the soil. In a further step towards their rehabilitation, Sandra Nock’s garden full of weeds, Weed Thriller, has just been awarded a Gold Medal at this year’s RHS Tatton Flower Show. However, if they are in the right place and valued, are they really weeds? It is a puzzle.


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